Assumptions: Gender and Sex

Everyone has basic assumptions about the world around us. We have to; they’re a part of how we keep functioning.

When you’re writing, however, and especially if you’re writing speculative fiction of any sort (speculative fiction is an umbrella term for fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that doesn’t fit precisely into either but is nonetheless outside “normal reality”), it’s a good time to take a look at your own assumptions. Speculative fiction is, after all, about transgressing the normal rules. I’m not going to try to give specific instances of these, mainly because there are so many I’ve long since lost count and I’d rather not single out individual works from a long list.

A personal pet peeve is the assignment of gender to absolutely everything. Beings of kinds that have no sexual reproduction nonetheless are treated as intrinsically either males or females, no reason for this offered, and Western society being what it is, that tends to then colour everything else associated with that being.

Even in the real world and strictly within Homo sapiens, it isn’t that binary. Children are born, much more often than we as a society want to admit, with genitalia that are ambiguous. Without getting into the barbaric “treatment” that generally happens next, the simple fact is that it happens. A vast number of things can occur during fetal development that result in a fascinating range (for future research, the term is “intersex”). Beyond anatomical sex, there’s a layer of gender identity, which is normally expressed in ways that a society constructs. Some people who are anatomically entirely one sex can identify as the other gender or as somewhere between or as neither; there are infinite variations.

This one, I admit, is enormously complicated by language, specifically pronouns. “It” has some unpleasant connotations. Singular “they” works in some situations, but it’s distinctly awkward to write a substantial amount of fiction using it. Invented possible substitutes unfortunately are jarring because they’re unfamiliar. For a novel in the works that has, as a main character, a being that has literally neither sex nor gender, I finally gave up and switched to a first person perspective, but that has limited usefulness. There’s a very good website with an analysis of gender neutral pronouns; I have my own tentative proposed set to add to the chaos, though nothing yet in print. That there’s a problem, however, doesn’t mean we should dismiss it and just keep going with the same binary pronouns that force the world into male or female; it just means we need to work on it. Speculative fiction writers should be among those in the forefront of the search for a solution.

A related peeve is putting the story and/or characters through contortions to avoid any remote suggestion that a character might experience a sexual attraction to the same sex or might dress or identify even remotely and briefly as the opposite gender. The latter might turn up as a disguise concept, but generally it’ll be played for laughs if it’s a man dressed female or at the very least it will be heavily underscored how uncomfortable he is with this and that it’s only marginally better than the alternatives and it is absolutely unquestionably only this one time. Generally, someone ultra-macho will hit on him just to emphasize the discomfort. If it’s a woman dressed male, a man will generally end up attracted to her and there’ll be much emphasis on how unsettling he finds this and how relieved he is when he learns the truth. These may be realistic and depressingly common attitudes in modern Western culture, but they are not universal across all human experience in time and space or even within modern Western culture. If the concepts make you personally that uncomfortable to even consider, maybe it would be worth thinking about why that is.

Sir Terry Pratchett subverted both of these pet peeves, and I love him for that (among many other things). The golems are referred to with male pronouns; in Going Postal, when a complaint is made about the impropriety of them cleaning women’s restrooms, one is renamed Gladys and referred to from then on with female pronouns. Nobby Nobbs, when he dresses as a woman for the sake of disguise in Jingo, begins to enjoy himself and identify with the role, and while Nobby is no one’s beauty queen, the simple fact that it has a long-term positive effect on him is a wonderful change.

Other fantasy writers these days are starting to break down some of these assumptions in other ways. Mercedes Lackey and Tanya Huff come to mind, offhand – Mercedes Lackey’s wonderfully human Vanyel made it much easier for me, personally, to come to terms with being not-heterosexual, a great example of how fantasy can affect people’s real lives. Others, like Ursula K. LeGuin and Judith Tarr, confronted this even before them, decades ago. I have no doubt that there are others, some of them likely to make me think, “Right, how’d I forget that?” and others that I’ve never heard of. [Added note: It has been pointed out to me that Mercedes Lackey is perhaps not an ideal example, since her work is rather uneven – positive gay characters, but also some extremely negative trans content. Lackey’s own statement is here, about a quarter of the way down, and I do have some serious issues with it. So, one can be open to some ideas but not to others. Thank you, Tasha, for bringing this to my attention!]

Just to be clear, I don’t mean that every work of speculative fiction needs to have prominent alternative sexuality or gender portrayals. Forcing it into the story just for the sake of doing so is as bad as the opposite. Also, there are writers and readers out there, sadly, who genuinely believe in mixed-sex monogamy and binary sex and gender as the only natural reality, and I would personally rather see it left out than have another writer who shows all non-heterosexual characters as villains and pedophiles. What I do mean is that, in this day and age, and especially in fiction that’s about possibilities and alternatives, it needs to be acknowledged where appropriate to the story’s own internal consistency without flinching from it or twisting it into an automatic negative because of your own issues or fear of upsetting a reader. Otherwise, not only are you alienating other readers, but you’re ultimately only adding to the culture of prejudice and ignorance and hate we live in. And speculative fiction, at its best, has the potential to do exactly the opposite: to show the best in human nature and the way things could be if we can just reach it.