I want to share an essay I wrote for one of my grad classes this year. I took a class that focused on the rhetorics of decline and collapse; basically, we looked at a lot of scholarship that took issue with the notion of enlightenment and progress. Now–I loved this class. Absolutely. But I felt at times that our ideas of dismantling the notion of progress often times got off-track in ways I probably should have expected.
Which means that instead of criticizing the patriarchal, capitalistic, heternormative, Eurocentric ways of framing progress on large and small scales, the majority of the class debated whether or not we could “live off the grid” or if humans were better at being extinct. Which frustrated me. We read virtually no women writers in this class (maybe 3 out of 10 readings were women, and they were mostly fiction authors, not critical theory). I don’t think we read a person of colour. I think one writer was openly queer. And that is disturbing to me. Because how can you dismantle any ideas of progress when you’re just talking about white people? Privileged people? You can’t. And this showed up in our discussions from class to class.
So for my final paper, I wanted to talk about LGBT futures and the nature of progress in speculative fiction surrounding transgender characters. In order to do that, I needed to unpack a lot of history and theory. I approached this from a creative nonfiction standpoint, folding in my own experience in the Canadian speculative scene (though I am still a very small fish in a very big pond). It shouldn’t really be surprising that I got called a “scold” in the professor’s comments, and that I received the worst grade in my PhD career so far (an 86! but that was still my worst!), because who really wants to hear that we still have a lot of work to do in terms of transgender futures? But hey, I’ve decided to own my “scold” label, and post this essay as it is. Because I liked it. And I still think it’s important.
Without anymore rambling justifications, here is my essay:
Beyond Monsters and Myths:
The Transgender Future and Progress Narrative in Speculative Fiction
By Evelyn Deshane
In February 2015 Topside Press issued a call for submissions for speculative fiction by transgender authors. As they define it, “Speculative fiction can include science fiction, horror, fantasy, alternate history or any fiction which envisions a world that is fundamentally different from our own.” Their goal for the anthology is to “showcase the talent of a diverse range of authors” and to “catalyze the next wave of meaningful, moving, and politically engaged speculative fiction.” Moments after the call went live, transgender writer and poet Ryka Aoki tweeted her definition of transgender speculative fiction as “a trans woman with a healthy dating life, charming, flawed, complicated, radiant–maybe even marriage material.” She quickly followed this up with a lament of, “but of course no reader would find that believable.”
Aoki zooms in on a depressing, but realistic fact. If within 2015 alone, there have already been 10 murders of transgender women of colour (Mey), then how can transgender writers imagine a future? At every point in a transgender person’s life, it seems as if they are murdered, medically sanctioned, or ignored, so that “envisioning a world that is fundamentally different from our own” becomes a process of imagining basic human dignity.
In this essay, I want to focus on when progress can be good, especially for minorities like transgender people, while also being critical about the ways in which their progress narrative is expressed. Because transgender rhetoric tends to focus on the identification of the “true” self inside the body, and transition works on bringing out that “true self” through confession and medical assistance, the fiction about (and sometimes by) transgender people tends to align with a narrative entangled with religious connotations that many authors (such as Adorno, Gray, and many we have studied in our course) criticize for its reliance on the concept of progress. The process of imagining a future, such as when writing speculative fiction, can thereby provide an interesting middle ground in how to express new ways of being-in-the-world for transgender people–ones that don’t necessarily rely on the identification or expression of this true self. But writing these new narratives without falling back on old transgender tropes of storytelling proves to be quite difficult–as I have found through my own navigation in this genre as both researcher and writer.
And if other authors can’t imagine a future, then I’m not quite sure I can too. This essay is one of many attempts at imagining that future.
I want to start with Clive Barker. He’s probably one of the most well known and respected horror writers. He’s also gay. Many of the characters in his Books of Blood series were gay, but it was incidental and not the main focus of the narrative (for instance–it was not a coming out story). “In the Hills, The Cities” contained a narrative where people had to fight with large giants; the couple on vacation was a gay couple, and their queerness wasn’t commented on. They could be easily swapped out for a straight couple, and the story wouldn’t have been affected.
The Books of Blood did quite well, King calling Barker one of the new names in Horror Fiction (King qtd. in Barker iv). Years later, however, when Barker tried to publish his novel Sacrament, containing a gay protagonist, he faced a lot of criticism from his editor. “Oh, no, no, we can’t do that. We’ll lose readers,” the Jack McEwen stated. “Why can’t you just change the pronoun?”
Barker refused, stating the main point of the story would be lost if his gay character was subbed out for a straight one. He won his battle–the editor being fired–and Sacrament was published without losing readers (Smith). Barker was right to refuse for many reasons, but the one I want to focus on is the actual plot of Sacrament. The simple swapping out a gay character for a straight one absolutely would not work in this scenario because the novel speaks about gay experience, without actually dwelling on gay identity in the form of coming out.
Sacrament, at its core, is about extinction. The main character, Will, is a wildlife photographer who takes photos of animals on the edge of extinction. He’s trying to have a relationship with the men around him, especially after his last love, Patrick, has contracted HIV and is slowly dying in a hospice. Most of the narrative–at least the non-supernatural parts of it–is spent dealing with the ramifications of HIV in the gay community. Patrick eventually dies, and Will is left wondering what his legacy will be. This tension with the future between Will and the other gay characters in the novel is expressed two ways. Firstly, Will can’t have a future because he’s gay and he won’t have children. Even if he utilized technology and a surrogate mother, even if he adopted, he still wouldn’t be carrying on a legacy he creates with someone he loves. Secondly, Will can’t have a future because of HIV. Sacrament is a plague narrative in many ways, almost more than it is about the supernatural or the hidden worlds Will discovers. Will wonders about his future, because he sees those around him dying or not carrying on with the species.
And so, he identifies with the animals he takes pictures of.
I bring up Sacrament because I like Clive Barker, but also because this narrative perfectly summarizes everything that the LGBT theory movement called “queer futurity” is supposed to address.
In the early 1990s, Leo Bersani wrote a paper called “Is the Rectum A Grave?” (yes, actual legitimate article title that was published in a real journal) where he posited that the imagination surrounding gay people was at an all time-low. Because of the HIV/AIDs epidemic, people could not imagine gay people as having families, children, or anything at all.
Bersani goes on to characterize anal sex as the potent symbol which creates this lack of imaginative future for queer people. Not only because this act does not produce children (even in heterosexual unions), but also because the act is now associated with HIV/AIDS. So for gay men, who are either categorized as a ‘top’ or a ‘bottom’, the cultural imagination which shapes their lives and their futures makes them both diseased and powerless. “AIDS offers a new sign for the symbolic machinery of repression, making the rectum a grave,” Bersani writes in his article, paraphrasing Linda Watley, then adding that “AIDS literalizes the potential for a biological death [and] reinforces the heterosexual association of anal sex with a self-annihilation” (222).
“Is The Rectum a Grave?” was one of the first papers that outlined why and how popular culture twists the ideas of queer people into having no future. At first, they were just sex fiends, hedonistic, and abject, but annoying because they were always around. Now–in the same way culture has twisted the Native American into a disappearing trope–the queers become pitiful. Sad. But seeing queers as people with “no future” basically means that they will cease to be threatening to the patriarchal structure of heterosexual life. It robs them of their subversive potential, and digs them into an early grave.
Lee Edelman’s book No Future discusses similar ideas to Bersani’s article. Edelman even takes this narrative–the queer as evil, the queer as dead man–and shows how it’s present in our Disney films. For Edelman, he sees the figure of the Child as the open emblem of hope, which is usually counterbalanced by that villain figure who is queer since “queerness is understood as bringing children and childhood to an end” (19). This may seem ridiculous, but when you break down a lot of Disney films, it actually works. Think of Scar and Simba in The Lion King. Peter Pan and Captain Hook. The villain in these films is usually queer-coded in some way, and pinned against the child-as-hero. Edelman’s reading may be a very basic analysis of films we view as innocuous, but he outlines a dynamic that’s already out there in our society: queers don’t have a future. If you want a future, you need to focus on the child.
If you don’t focus on the child, then like the dodo or the black African rhino, you go extinct.
Of course, queers can’t really be extinct. Since straight couplings produce gay kids all the time (the same as cisgender parents producing transgender kids), there is no real “worry” or cause for extinction in the same way we can worry for the white tiger or any other species teetering on the edge of oblivion. Instead, queers are meant to blend in. The end goal is to become “normal”–but normal through straight and cisgender standards.
In his book, The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam analyzes the LGBT milestones that have been outlined and endorsed for many political causes. Gay adoption, gay marriage, and transgender success stories reach the top of his list–not because they provide hope in this pit of failure, but because they provide hope for straight people. He writes,
Heteronormative common sense leads to the equation of success with advancement, capital accumulation, family, ethical conduct, and hope. Other subordinate, queer, or counterhegemonic modes of common sense lead to the association of failure with nonconformity, anticapitalist practices, nonreproductive life styles, negativity, and critique. (155).
The fight for gay marriage does not actually question anything to do with marriage; it merely allows queers to partake right alongside in the same patriarchal institution. Same with gay adoption and invitro fertilization, which takes the child as the wave of the future and puts them first.
The same goes for transgender success stories. A successful transgender person is someone like Caitlyn Jenner, for instance. She has had surgery which conforms her body to cis standards of what is “biologically a woman” (Serano 34). She passes as a woman, again elevating the cis (and white European) standards of beauty we default to when thinking of real womanhood. More than that, though, the rhetoric she uses around her transition echoes the very same narrative of progress.
First of all, she’s on reality TV, a medium that is designed to enable confession. So when she did her Diane Sawyer interview, she enacted the exact same “self-realization narrative” that Eva Illouz breaks down in her book Cold Intimacies. Illouz writes,
The therapeutic narrative [of self-realization] is written backwards; this is also how therapeutic culture paradoxically privileges suffering and trauma. The very therapeutic narrative of self-realization can function only by identifying the complication in a story–what prevents me from being happy, intimate, successful–and make sense of it in reference to an event in one’s past. It structurally takes one’s understanding one’s life as a generalized dysfunction, in order to precisely overcome it. This narrative foregrounds negative emotions like shame, guilt, fear, inadequacy, yet does not activate moral schemes or blames. (52).
Jenner’s constant use of “true” and “authentic” when referring to her new identity or self turns transgender identity into a stand-in for the soul, tingeing it with morality, and thereby making anyone who does not follow this trajectory and spill their feelings in a public forum become a liar and a sinner.
Transgender people have always been defined by their ability to stick to straight, cis narratives. When they fail, they fall back into the category of the pitying queer. What Halberstam suggests in his book is that we don’t look at failure as the problem, but use it to question the apparatuses of approval in the first place.
So, instead of praising transgender surgery as something monumental and amazing–part of the progress narrative sanctioned by science–we need to question why this surgery is valid. Dan Irving notes that, even if someone is diagnosed as transgender (and “diagnosis” is another issue within the medical system), they still may not be able to be approved for surgery if they will produce a non-normative body (16). Surgery is there for cis standards, not anything that deconstructs the idea of gender to begin with. For transgender people who identify outside the binary gender system, they are ignored and often categorized as something else all together.
When not called out as failures, transgender people who do not pass this standard are also called monsters–just like Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.
I’m not kidding when I bring up Buffalo Bill as a transgender example. In the film and book, Jame Gumb identifies as a woman. Gumb applies for surgery at John Hopkins and is denied for not being “a real transsexual”; it’s after this failure that Gumb goes out to make the skin suit of women, as if the skins are a stand in for the gender transition Gumb is denied. Some critics have argued (like Halberstam and Marjorie Garber) that Gumb became a parody of gender performance because of this (Garber 116). But Gumb is also emblematic of what happens to transgender people when they fail to pass within the cis-centric standards for medical, social, and personal relationships; they are turned into monsters right away.
If transgender people do pass these narratives, they are only accepted into cis-rhetoric by being turned into a success story–or as a mythic creature. A Casey Plett points out in her article for The Walrus, so much of the storytelling done about transgender protagonists likens them to mythology since these “the element[s] of myth lends these novels their synchronicity and broad appeal. It also makes [the real lives of transgender people] fantasies.”
Why do cis authors repeatedly created the same “non-person” (Plett) when they create transgender characters? I think, and Plett suggests, it’s because we have no real examples of trans people in our current media, so the closest examples we have are the stories we tell about people who don’t fit binaries. If transgender don’t pass, but are beautiful anyway, they are captivating like Tiresias. But if they don’t pass and they disrupt what we think about gender standards, then they become horrible monsters like Buffalo Bill.
There is no middle ground here. And there appears to be no way for trans people to get out of this loop. Either queer kids end up seeing themselves as monsters, or as people with an ethereal soul.
As I mentioned before, Jenner’s interview was tinged with words like “true” and “authentic” and musings on her “female soul.” She’s not the only one. Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, after coming out in 2012, went on to call one of her most recent songs “True Trans Soul Rebel”. Listen to any interview with transgender people, and they often default to the language of the soul and authenticity when speaking about themselves.
But what is the true self? No one really knows, since this truth-claim often falls back onto religious rhetoric and a narrative reconfiguration of trauma, as Eva Illouz points out. The true self never existed, because our identities don’t work that way. And like Gray states, “looking for your true self invites unending disappointment” (110).
This is not my way to delegitimize the transgender struggle. But I need to point out this true soul rhetoric because it goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of the monster. The way in which to get out of this endless feedback loop of bad representation isn’t to create perfect, mythic characters. It’s to create transgender characters with other problems, with a healthy dating life, who are charming and flawed, and complicated.
Or exactly what Ryka Aoki stated before. Maybe her tweet really was speculative–meaning a “world that is fundamentally different from our own” after all.
The transgender narrative often ends up being expressed via the autobiography for the exact same reasons that I pointed out with Jenner. It allows for confession and a reworking of the life trajectory with the ending now codified and understood. It acts the same ways a detective narrative does; it assigns certain events with meaning that will then lead towards a larger conclusion. Only instead of figuring out who killed whom, we suddenly understand why all these moments of depression had to happen in order for the “full self” of the transgender soul to emerge at the end.
And transgender people have written a lot of autobiographies. The first well known one was probably Christine Jorgenson’s A Personal Autobiography; and now we have the more recent 2010 Chaz Bono autobiography Transition: How I Became A Man. Even now, many young trans kids are going to YouTube to discuss their trials and tribulations while transitioning. I even wrote an article about this new form of autobiography for The Atlantic on the YouTuber Skylar Kergil. Now Kergil has a feature spot on the new PBS digital school called “First Person” about exploring the same success story of gender identity, over and over again.
Moving on from the autobiography, most transgender narratives are still cloaked in the contemporary. Even if we read Refuse by Elliott Deline, a narrative that rejects the “success story” of the typical transgender person, we’re still talking in contemporary terms. Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got A Time Bomb is another anti-success trans story, but it is set in the modern day world. Same with Imogene Binnie’s Nevada and Casey Plett’s A Safe Girl To Love. We’re always talking about the present or the past–never the future.
Until now. Topside Press’s anthology should yield a lot of interesting speculative stories about the transgender future. But I’m still weary and skeptical of what the central rhetoric of each story may look like. So far, I’ve only seen a handful of transgender stories set in speculative atmospheres, and most of them left me wanting more.
The first I remember reading is Lavi Tidhar’s “The Night Train.” It starts well enough, but right away, we are made known that “she wasn’t even a girl. Not really.” This story is set in a future where people can re-grow or reconfigure their bodies, not just if they’re trans. We spend a lot of time hearing about those implants, transplants, and surgeries, before moving on to hear about all the sex the transgender woman has and how different it is now that she’s had her own surgery. While the story is well-written by a sci-fi veteran, it falls under the most basic trope for transgender storytelling (Serano 69): show me your genitals and medical history, and then how do you have sex?
Amal Al Motar’s transgender story “The Hollow Play” is actually really good. About Emily, a trans woman who longs to be reunited with Paige, her friend from a long time ago, she spends most of the narrative writing to her friend and also interacting with Anna and Anna’s partners: Lynette and Kel, who are both half-human and half-creature. Kel is also trans, taking the pronoun they/them. The story ends with Emily letting go of her friend Paige, and instead, falling for Anna. This story is good, but I’m wondering if it’s really speculative. It doesn’t really talk about the future so much as it talks about a hidden world within our own, where these creatures exist and blend right in with our current contemporary times. It reminds me too much of the “trapped in the wrong body” rhetoric that is all over most transgender contemporary stories, especially since Kel and Lynette look normal on the outside, but we soon find out they’re these half-creatures. So although we become aware of Emily as a trans person without being associated with a mythological being, “The Hollow Play” still hinges upon the idea that there is something hidden underneath the surface–just like that true trans soul.
In a recent issue of Lightspeed Magazine, “Nothing is Pixels Here” by K.M. Spzara was published, which is about an artificial video avatar system and the two men who fall in love inside of it. When Asher wonders what the “real world” is like, both of them decide to unplug. Only Asher soon realizes that his name is actually Ashley and he’s been a girl all this time. The avatars represent their idealized forms–so he has been a guy even though his body is “female”. After realizing Ash is transgender, and what that means for the real world, they both decide to go back into the machine and live there as men.
While I like this story, because it has a happy ending that is so often deprived in LGBT narratives, I do see its unfortunate downfall: technology as the fix. Instead of relying on surgery to fix the transgender body, that technology is replaced with avatars. While I don’t like the real/fake dichotomy this gets us into (because many LGBT people do find solace inside avatars, books, fantasy spaces, etc), I have an issue with the fact that even when we imagine a future, we’re still assigning negative attributes to being transgender. Spzara even uses the transgender identity in a “big reveal” moment, similar to the way in which Neil Jordan does in The Crying Game (Connelly 76).
It seems that no matter how we envision this figure, the cis-centric ideals are still in place. The transgender body becomes something that is feared and coveted, fetishized, and othered in the same breath.
Now, I’m biased. Of course I’m biased. But the other story I want to mention in this is my own called “The Plague” where a transgender boy finds himself in the middle of a dystopia landscape. Published in July 2014, the story starts like this:
No one ever really remembers a plague. It’s not like a war, where the planning, battles, and deaths are all categorized at once. Each step is made with the conscious fact that this will be history one day. In the present everyday life of war and destruction, an archivist is happy. There is always something to do. But a plague is pieced together like a puzzle, always after the fact. […] when one death tips into many deaths does it become history. When it is worth remembering and learning from, it is given a name.
What I wanted to achieve with an introduction like that is to set aside two different narratives of progress, history, and discovery. One is intentional from the very beginning, documenting the idea of progress–like a war. But then there are plagues, which are always written backwards, after the ending is known, because then they become safe. These two narratives start/end differently, but they are both progress narratives.
Later in the story, I isolate John Snow, the man who discovered how/why cholera was spreading, and use him as an icon the main character identifies with. The story opens with a twelve year old protagonist who we assume is a girl because the name used is Abigail. As people around the protagonist become sick, the protagonist keeps reading books about plagues and understands that what is happening with his disease is similar to what he’s figuring out about his own identity. A plague, then, is similar to the process of finding out gender identity.
As the plague gets worse, the protagonist’s mother dies and there is no one to call him Abigail anymore. I write,
I cut my hair first. I thought it may have had something to do with the illness, the same way arsenic and other poisons linger in follicles. But I scanned its roots and saw nothing, so I began to learn to start again. I wanted to be like John Snow so badly; I thought I had to be him in order to find the answers. After I read his books, I’d then stand in the mirror, my chest flattened across my skin from binding, and will myself to figure it out. I needed to know where it came from and its origins, how it could start so small and then explode out.
This was the major hint that the protagonist identifies as a boy. He starts to dress and think himself as John Snow, because like the discovery narrative attached to most diseases, it means he’s important. He’s special–because he figured out this plague, and also his gender identity. Later on, when he meets another group of survivors, he takes the name Max and goes off to live with them. The story ends like this,
This has all just happened, almost by accident, and it will keep going until someone like John Snow has a need to track it down. But I am not John Snow anymore. I am Max. As the man beside me calls me by my name again, more people on stilts join us. We walk into the night.
My main goal was to complicate the discovery narrative of identity by contrasting these two big ideas of wars and plagues–because our identities are not something we discover under a rock, or even solve after years of study. Instead, our identities are based on context. That’s why the protagonist’s name only becomes important when he meets other people. Around his mother, he was Abigail, by himself he thought he was John Snow, but with the men he’s Max. It doesn’t matter, not really, because we can change and become new people. There is no discovery, only context.
Maybe I did a good job getting that across. I feel like I did. Ranylt Richildis and Sean Moreland, both professors at the University of Ottawa and run Postscript to Darkness, clearly thought so too. But most of my other attempts at transgender people in the future, or in speculative environments, have been rejected.
Maybe they’ll be accepted one day. But I’m starting to think, like Aoki stated earlier, that lot of people aren’t ready to accept the kind of future where trans people aren’t monsters or myths. Those stories are easier to handle than a trans person having normal, everyday issues, even in a fantasy setting where they’re fighting a dragon. Because if we can imagine a future where transgender people are just people, then we’ll have to start believing it in the present, too.
After reading Far North, and being utterly devastated by its content, I went online in search of something about the future but with a happier bent. I stumbled onto something called solarpunk. In a short blog written for the LGBT magazine Vitality, Claudie Arsenault explains that “solarpunk is all about envisioning a positive future, deeply rooted in sustainability, community, and acceptance.” She adds,
Unlike post-apocalyptic and dystopian, it believes humanity can and will overcome its current struggle to build a better world. One where capitalism lays in shambles, and community and solidarity finally prevail over productivity. […]One thing that falls naturally from solarpunk’s premise is diversity.
From here, I found Adam Flynn from Eco-Fiction.com’s thoughts on the genre. He writes, that
Solarpunk [as] a sub-genre of science fiction is becoming one of the most well-defined and thought-out genres, and it’s being churned by a grassroots movements of visionaries. Bigger than just a literary or art movement […], solarpunk is an aesthetic that both builds and mirrors a hopeful sustainable future world, and in some cases a “present weird” world that exists already.
As I see it, solarpunk is a group of people no longer using fear, shame, or guilt as the motivator for action. It’s not wallowing and writing tomes about dismantling civilization (sorry, Jensen), it’s taking the damaged earth and trying to live sustainability. If like Jensen says, “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency” then these characters do have control over what future they try to preserve. They are forced to think beyond themselves and their own ideologies because they have witnessed a damaged world. And instead of wandering alone, they are planting flowers and starting relationships.
Maybe I’m lamenting the flowers for Ping I never really got to see in Far North. Maybe I’m being just as deluded, but the thing is, I don’t like denial–or despair. I don’t think guilt is a good motivator, because I think people need to be motivated by something good, even if it’s not quite “hope” as Jensen calls it. If reading solarpunk, about a dismal future that acknowledges climate change as a negative thing but is also trying to pick up the pieces from that, then I’m into it.
That night, I went out and found Claudie Arsenault’s book The White Renegade about an albino bisexual protagonist. Halfway through, he gets a love interest in the form of Alex, a nonbinary trans character who does something other than become a myth or a monster.
And you know what? I think things are looking up.
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