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“Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”The Matrix (1999)

Last autumn, I taught a workshop on the role of gender diversity in speculative fiction worldbuilding for Clarion West. I wasn’t there to impart my hard-won transsexual wisdom from on high; I dreamed up the class because I had been wrestling with how to build trans-inclusive secondary worlds in my own work for years, and I hoped the fruits of my struggles would be useful to others.

I had opened a can of worms with my work in progress, a neo-noir fantasy novel set in a world with three genders. The world had three well-established genders because I wanted it to, because I wanted my main character to use they/them pronouns and didn’t feel like making a big thing about it, and isn’t that what we’re supposed to be able to do as writers—just write more inclusive stories if we want to? I could hear echoes of the sort of demands people make of queer writers all the time: Just write worlds without homophobia and transphobia! Don’t we have enough of that?

Unfortunately, I had also given myself a different, contradictory goal: to explore the rigid, essentialist gender roles of 1930s America and Europe, which both fascinate and repulse me, and I had no intention of pretending those roles could exist without transphobia. It turns out it’s actually quite hard to imagine how a third gender would achieve broad social acceptance in a system where manhood and womanhood are defined in strict opposition to each other.

The thing about gender is that it has an internal logic, even if that logic is odious, and writing inclusive stories means reckoning with that. The logic of gender in the 1930s contained, at its core, a binary framework built on centuries of colonialist, white supremacist, “scientific” classification of human beings, which defined the acceptable forms of personhood according to the cultural values of white Christians. It’s baked into the language itself: “gender” has the same root as “genre,” while “sex” relates back to “section,” both being a means of carving up populations into easily understood, ostensibly universal categories. Pulling on the thread of the binary threatened to unravel the entire tapestry.

But it was exactly this grotesque logic that interested me, particularly where it intersected with the realities of queer life. After all, the Jazz Age also saw an incredible flourishing of queer culture, and the incongruity of trans life with the strict gender roles of the time was too juicy not to explore. I tend to believe that as valuable and healing as stories with little or no emphasis on queerphobia are for some readers, there is also tremendous merit to queer and trans people exploring the nature of the violence inflicted on us and our continued survival under oppression. These are our stories to tell, our tragedies and victories, and we get to decide what they mean.

So when I sat down to design my class for Clarion, I wanted to explore the concept of “trans-inclusive worldbuilding,” but I didn’t want to limit it to utopias. I wanted to talk about trans-inclusive worldbuilding as a project of interrogating the way the world is shaped by gender and how it intersects with institutions, cultural practices, faith, and history—questioning the foundations on which our stories about men and women are built and considering a perspective from the margins of gender. To do that, we need to look at what gender is and does.

The work of trans-inclusive worldbuilding, and worldbuilding that reckons with gender in general, is finding a way to shine a flashlight into all the grisly little functions of gender: its enforcers, its myths, its day-to-day effects on the people it regulates, and most of all what happens to the people who exist on its margins. The work is to draw back from something that, to most of us, is deeply personal and study it as an entity unto itself. Then we can begin to study worldbuilding as a form of activism related to contemporary political struggles over the rights of trans people and develop strategies for reckoning with the role of gender in speculative fiction and the world at large.

What’s the Point of Gender?

“You cannot be objective about this because you have been indoctrinated, sermonized, drenched, imbued, inculcated and policed on the matter since first you wore blue booties. You come from a time and place in which the maleness of the male, and the femaleness of the female, and the importance of their difference, were matters of almost total preoccupation.” Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon (1960)

venus plus x cover

I use the term “gender system” to describe the collective institutions, cultural beliefs, and power structures that regulate and enforce a certain set of gender roles. These systems are complex and sprawling; they vary from region to region, from demographic to demographic, and can be difficult to summarize. But I find “gender system” useful as a way to gesture at the larger context in which we live as individuals, the underlying principles that build our world, even if we aren’t consciously aware of them.

Gender has purpose. In our world, at least, it helps structure society: it defines roles, spheres of influence, allocation of resources, privilege, power. Accordingly, it is often rigid and inescapable, forming part of the backbone of social order, but it also masquerades as entirely natural, imposed by biology rather than human interpretation. It’s often, though not always, intertwined with other systems of hierarchy and oppression which propose other supposedly natural laws, like the superiority of white colonizers and their conceptions of gender over indigenous peoples and people of color, the inferiority of disabled people, and the unnaturalness of homosexuality.

The most insidious aspect of these systems is not that they exist at all, but that they often succeed in rendering themselves invisible. I would guess that the number of fantasy novels in which dragons exist is substantially greater than the number in which human gender has been fundamentally reimagined. Interestingly, there is a long legacy of speculative fiction using the idea of trans people—metaphorical or literal—to examine the nature of gender. Perhaps most famously, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) explores a planet called Gethen where the population, while human-like, has only one sex; a person’s identity remains static throughout life as their body occasionally changes to accommodate reproduction. The novel’s protagonist, an Earth man named Genly, is so fundamentally disturbed by the concept of a world without sex differences or gender hierarchy that he spends much of the book struggling to accept the friendship of Estraven, a Gethenian, because he cannot decide whether to see Estraven as male or female.

Published nearly a decade earlier in 1960, Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X is a dreamy, mournful meditation on homophobia and the violence and oppression inherent in the gender binary and paints a vision of a utopian society wherein humankind has evolved to have only one sex. Like The Left Hand of Darkness, much of the book is given over to the process of an Earth man being slowly swayed into understanding that a kinder, gentler future is possible in the absence of misogyny and anti-effeminacy. Both novels are still rooted in biological essentialism, both peddling the idea that human beings must physically evolve into a different, unified form to escape the oppressive power of sex differences. But both novels also explore the role of social dynamics in privileging certain people above others and critique the visceral, at times violent resistance of Earth men to allowing gender diversity to exist.

A more literal allusion to trans people crops up in John Varley’s “Options” (1979), in which the concept of a static personal identity is rapidly dissolving as the ability to effortlessly “change” (read: swap into a clone body with different sex characteristics) goes mainstream, taking traditional gender roles with it. The main character, who originally identifies as a happy wife and mother, suddenly finds the ability to break down the oppressive dynamics in her marriage with the power to change at will. She isn’t empowered by appropriating masculinity or by eliminating sex differences, but by the sudden fluidity of her life and relationships; she is empowered by the ability to be anything. She swaps freely between names and pronouns, has sex with people of all genders while inhabiting several different bodies, and even navigates her young child’s own interest in transitioning with a minimum of concern. After all, if the child can change their identity at will, who cares? There is no regulation, no fear. Rather than proposing a single-sex solution to gender equality, “Options” posits that the inflexibility of gender is what gives it such oppressive power.

Reading this trio of texts, as flawed and outdated as they are, still feels radical in 2023. While their use of gender diversity primarily as a vehicle to examine cis women’s oppression does little to explore trans lives, they still explore what transness means to those in power and for humanity in general. Whether humanity abandons the gender binary by unifying the entire population under a single gender or by allowing such expansive freedom of identity that the binary loses its oppressive power, all these texts identify the inherent purpose (or, at least, the effect) of gender as one which makes men and women strangers to each other, one which reacts with violent hostility to gender diversity. All of them find liberation in the abolition of gender as we know it, which is to say a system in which it has the power to shape people’s lives.

Worldbuilding as an Activist Project

“Yes, indeed the people in [The Left Hand of Darkness] are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

When I came out as trans, ensconced in the relative safety of Seattle, I was bewildered to discover how difficult, expensive, and time-consuming it was just to update my records. I lived in one of the easiest parts of the US to be trans, and yet the administrators at my school behaved as if they had never considered the possibility of a transgender student before. I knew they had, yet the feeling persisted everywhere: Of course we don’t have processes in place for you; you’re a one-off (a freak). Obviously the system isn’t built for you; there aren’t enough of you to matter. How can you expect us to know what to do with you? To this day, I still get letters from my alma mater addressed to my notably masculine name but prefixed with “Miss.”

Why was it that even here, in a liberal bastion, it felt as though the people who had the power to change my name and legal gender were holding that power out of arm’s reach, halfway hoping I’d give up, annoyed that I had the audacity to make them deal with something so petty and irrelevant? At the time, I think I chalked it up to the idea that institutions are slower to change than people’s hearts (although the human hearts involved weren’t much better).

But our institutions are slow to change because they are designed that way. They are built on the idea that it is right for them to police gender and personal identity, and that anybody asking for an exception deserves close scrutiny. The underlying principle of these institutions is that their rigidity is necessary to protect both the safety of the people within them and the institutions themselves. Outside of the few broadly acceptable reasons for changing one’s legal identity—a wife taking her husband’s name, or a witness fleeing the mob—a person reinventing themself is viewed with supposedly justifiable suspicion. The suspicion is usually framed as a matter of surveillance (how can the state keep track of you if it doesn’t know your name?) or criminality (how can the state be sure you’re not changing your name for fraudulent purposes if it doesn’t keep a close eye on you?).

Even the most benevolent of gender regulators believe they have an imperative to standardize and document and control. This is transphobia in action, in that it has an outsized impact on the people who are most marginalized by gender, but it is also a part of the broader gender system and how it regulates everyone. In this system, trans people represent an uncategorized, undefined element that must be identified and safely contained (or removed). The goal of inclusion in such a system is therefore not liberation or abolition, but to render trans people equally easy for the state to categorize and surveil. This generally takes more punitive and violent forms when it comes to conservative institutions, which seek to eliminate access to gender-affirming care entirely and prevent trans people from existing in public, but it’s also true of more liberal institutions where gender affirmation can only be awarded after a trans person has jumped through the right number of hoops in the right way, thus pressuring trans people to allow themselves to be surveilled and diagnosed and categorized if they want legal recognition and medical transition.

transgender warriors book coverWhy does the system function like this? It’s not just about trans people, but about the fault line that trans people expose—the specific changes and accommodations that trans people require to live their lives freely in such a system. In Transgender Warriors, Leslie Feinberg’s 1996 manifesto on the history of trans revolutionaries, zie argues that since Roman times, trans people have represented a fundamental threat to a gendered social order. Violent oppression became the norm because our inclusion would undermine the entire basis for patrilineal inheritance, gender segregation, and sexism in general; it would break the logic behind gendered divisions of labor and power, women’s disenfranchisement, and male superiority.

A gender system that wants to deny certain rights or freedoms to women and concentrate power in the hands of men cannot survive if it also adopts the notion that people can change sex at will. If its citizens can no longer be socially and legally categorized by sex, and given or denied rights accordingly, the patriarchy’s ability to wield gender as a weapon is gutted—indeed, the government’s ability to surveil and control its citizens at all is shaken. Is it any wonder that governments from ancient Rome to contemporary Florida have seen trans people as a roadblock in their quest for a misogynistic hierarchy? And is it any wonder that even liberal institutions balk at the idea of including those who undermine their ability to easily document and surveil their populations?

Released only a few years after Transgender Warriors, The Matrix (1999)—now widely understood as a metaphor for trans life—uses the speculative framework of a simulation to explore how a gender system like this functions and the suppressive violence it enacts against those who fail to conform. It also shows how those marginalized by the system form communities of their own, where the system cannot intrude into their lives and dictate how they relate to each other. The Matrix positions transness as a revolutionary element in an inherently hostile system. The Agents cannot allow Neo and the rest of the rebellion to exist because they threaten the continued existence of the Matrix, because as long as they live, their ideas—their consciousness—will continue to spread. Agent Smith cannot even allow Neo to use his chosen name, repeatedly trying to force him back into the box the Matrix created for him.

Rather than imagining the possibility of trans inclusion in this system, The Matrix argues that the system must destroy trans people or it will be destroyed. When Neo chooses to wake up, his choice isn’t driven by his personal identity alone, but by what he has realized about the nature of the world, the community he cherishes, and the fallibility of the system that has governed his entire life.

the matrix movie coverThe crystallized truth of my existence, and yours, is that we exist in a flawed, illogical, broken system that governs people’s lives so utterly that to imagine a way outside of it is much more difficult than looking for the truth within. But isn’t that always the case? We recycle our own bottles and cardboard while the world’s largest polluters continue to burn the planet regardless. We leave it up to individuals to protect themselves from infectious diseases while entire governments shirk their responsibility to promote public health. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with personal accountability; I think the urge to compost our kitchen scraps and mask voluntarily is a good one. But freedom and possibility lie beyond any of us as individuals, in the shattering of the system and the charting of a new world.

I’ve come to think of trans-inclusive worldbuilding as an activist project in itself, or at least analogous to the work of activists. When we imagine other worlds, we have to observe what rules we are creating to govern the characters, institutions, and internal logic in our stories. This means looking at gender from the top down, as a regulatory system, and from the bottom up, at the people on the margins whose bodies and lives stand in some kind of inherent opposition to the system itself.

When activists work to redefine, for example, the language around pregnancy and abortion, they are in essence trying to build a new world. A society in which transgender men are broadly understood as potential birthing parents and can access natal healthcare, contraception, and abortion services without discrimination is a society that has released itself from the idea that medical care can be denied on the basis of gender. Even more broadly, a world in which transgender women can safely navigate public life and are no longer forced to bear the combined brunt of transphobia and misogyny is a world in which people no longer need to fear violent consequences for gender nonconformity. A world in which nonbinary people are not constantly denied recognition, respect, and safety for their refusal to fit into one of two inaccurate identities is a world in which no one is punished for failing to mold themself to the demands of a restrictive binary. These are not just changes for trans people—they are changes to how we treat people in general.

On the flip side, when Republican lawmakers introduce bans on medical and social transition, on drag and/or the mere act of being trans in public, on the inclusion of trans children on sports teams, on the use of public facilities like bathrooms and changing rooms, they too are engaged in a worldbuilding project. The thousands of pages of legislation targeting trans people for discrimination introduced in 2023 alone are an effort to rewrite reality to serve a conservative agenda, to suppress freedom of expression, to draw stricter and stricter lines around what it means to be a man or a woman, to gut the rights of all people to deviate from a very particular vision of how society should be regulated.

We are already, as Le Guin writes, living in an androgynous world. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the concept of a pregnant king is jarring and bewildering to Genly, with his Earthly sensibilities, as it probably still is to many or most people on Earth. But we are already there, and we have always been. All that is left is for us to recognize, describe, and build the version of the world we want to live in.

Building the Worlds We Live In

“God blessed me by making me transsexual for the same reason he made wheat but not bread and fruit but not wine: because he wants humanity to share in the act of creation.” — Julian K. Jarboe

As speculative fiction writers and readers, we have work to do. The oppressive power of gender flows from its invisibility and ubiquity, its “naturalness,” which allows it to be used as a weapon against people it deems “unnatural.” Crafting stories that lay the workings of gender bare for our readers to see and constructing new possibilities is a way of fighting back; reading critically and seeking out works that include real gender diversity is another. Both are excellent ways to practice noticing how gender functions in the real world. I want to leave you with some of the strategies I’ve developed for analyzing gender systems and building trans-inclusive secondary worlds.

The best way I’ve found to develop a realistic gender system is the same way I’ve found to examine the systems that surround us in reality: to ask questions that break down assumptions about how gender works and dig at its foundations. Question how it intersects with other identities and marginalizations in your world, how it flows through institutions and cultural practices, through religion, through education and commerce, and technology and law. Question its history, its future, and its origin stories.

Thinking about gender as a system means examining the many forms it can take, from rituals to legal policies to expected behaviors and forms of dress. It also helps us think of these systems as flawed, malleable, and inconsistent even as they shape and transform individual lives. Finally, it helps us chart the edges of these systems and imagine the consequences of (and reasons for) defying them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but consider the following as a starting point:

  • What does this system value, and what specific benefits are granted to those who conform to its values? Do the same values apply to everyone within the system, or do they differ for different genders?
  • What are this system’s arguments for its own legitimacy? Does it claim a scientific basis, a religious one, a historical one—or all the above? What other, opposing claims could be made that might undermine this system’s authority over gender?
  • What threatens or undermines this system? Are these external or internal pressures?
  • What are the functions of gender in this system?
    • Divisions of labor and social realms (e.g., childrearing vs. breadwinning)
    • Divisions of power (e.g., lines of succession and inheritance)
    • Privileging of certain genders, gender expressions, or roles above others
    • Creating/enforcing standards of behavior, dress, decorum, sexuality, etc.
  • How has this gender system changed over time (e.g., evolving/devolving beliefs about gender equality, changes in which modes of gender expression are sanctioned or forbidden, loss or gain of legal rights/social acceptance, etc.)?
  • How is this gender system represented in the technologies, policies, and institutions in your setting? In education? In religion? In art? What is considered acceptable representation and what is considered controversial, abnormal, or obscene?
  • How does this gender system intersect with other systems of power and privilege in your setting, such as race, religion, nationality, sexuality, etc.?
    • Are gender roles considered distinct from these other social roles, or are they intertwined (e.g., gender roles specific to particular religious groups or ones that are considered inseparable from certain expressions of sexuality)?
  • Is it possible to move between gender roles? Is it normal to do so? What, if any, barriers exist to moving between roles? Who erects these barriers, and what are their motivations for doing so?
  • What are the consequences of transgressing gender norms? Are these consequences applied equally or unequally? What kinds of gendered expression, if any, are considered subversive, inappropriate, radical, or dangerous?

In my own work in progress, I wrestled for a long time with the logical inconsistency of a binary world with three recognized genders before realizing I didn’t want to resolve it—I actually wanted to write about the tensions that erupt when the logic of a gender system is threatened and begins to break down. My trans characters would have to navigate the impossibility of the space they inhabited, much as we are now, in a society teetering between autonomy and authoritarianism. They would live in the kind of world I am living in: where there isn’t room for us, no matter what we’ve been promised, and yet we exist. We are visible proof that the system is unnatural, proof of its failure to produce an orderly, easily categorizable population and regulate the rest of us out of existence.

There is both despair and joy in realizing that we are fighting for inclusion in a system that will always chafe at offering us the freedoms we need to live our lives fully. Despair because the system is so large, and so powerful, and it will take so much to transform it into something that can exist in harmony with the natural fluidity of human beings. Joy because the system cannot stamp us out, because we are real and it is not. Our legacy has already outlived every empire in history, and we are still here.

S. A. Chant (he/they) is a queer, trans writer and lifelong Seattleite currently at work on his second novel. He is the author of Peter Darling and Caroline’s Heart, and his recent projects include Speculation Post, a sci-fi/fantasy postcard club, and a gender-diverse worldbuilding workshop for Clarion West. Find him on Instagram at @s.a.chant and at his website.
Current Issue
22 Jul 2024

By: Mónika Rusvai
Translated by: Vivien Urban
Jadwiga is the city. Her body dissolves in the walls, her consciousness seeps into the cracks, her memory merges with the memories of buildings.
Jadwiga a város. Teste felszívódik a falakban, tudata behálózza a repedéseket, emlékezete összekeveredik az épületek emlékezetével.
By: H. Pueyo
Translated by: H. Pueyo
Here lies the queen, giant and still, each of her six arms sprawled, open, curved, twitching like she forgot she no longer breathed.
Aqui jaz a rainha, gigante e imóvel, cada um de seus seis braços caídos e abertos, curvados, tomados de leves espasmos, como se esquecesse de que não estava mais viva.
By: Sourav Roy
Translated by: Carol D'Souza
I said sky/ and with a stainless-steel plate covered/ the rotis going stale 
मैंने कहा आकाश/ और स्टेनलेस स्टील की थाली से ढक दिया/ बासी पड़ रही रोटियों को
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