As I often like to point out, a major appeal of speculative fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy, and alternate history, is that it lets us imagine the world as something other than it is. That allows us to explore the frontiers of gender, and ask serious questions about why our society views gender the way it does. It also lets us imagine worlds in which a diversity of gender expression is accepted and normalized. I find that these correspond to trends in the way trans, intersex, and non-binary characters are represented in speculative fiction: as entry points into deep questions about gender, and as people with the same feelings and concerns as everyone else.
These two trends can contradict one another. The unique concerns of trans* people are interesting, too often ignored, and should be explored in fiction. On the other hand, it can be nice to have trans* characters who don’t lead into a Very Special Lesson about gender, but are just there, because trans* people exist, and lead lives that are mostly the same as anyone else’s.
A common trope for the portrayal of non-binary characters in sci fi is to invent a species in which gender is radically different from humans. At worst, this is used as a kind of shock value to impress upon the reader how different the species is from us. A pretty bad example of this are the Pierson’s Puppeteers from Larry Niven’s Ringworld. The Puppeteers have three genders, two male and one female, and only the male genders are sentient. This pretty much gives Niven an excuse to only write male characters of this species, and none of the social implications of this gender system are explored. I also have mixed feelings about the main character Sparrow in Bone Dance by Emma Bull, a member of a species that is entirely agender. The conceit of this novel is that it’s told in first person, so we don’t find out that Sparrow is agender until most of the way through the book. I think Emma Bull meant to make a point about the gendered assumptions we make about first person narrators, but I think the effect is that it trivializes Sparrow’s non-binary identity, as if it isn’t important.
However, there are also some amazing examples, as pictured above: Therem Harth rem ir Estaven is one of the two protagonists of The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin set on a world, Gethen, where everyone is physically sexless, except for two days a month when they can take on either male or female characteristics. LeGuin does this to explore what a society without gender might look like, but she avoids reducing the Gethenians to a plot gimmick by bringing Therem to life as a graceful and courageous character. Not only that, but the male narrator falls in love with Therem, and this deeply moving relationship remains for me the queerest romance ever put to paper.
Another author who pulls off the trope well is Octavia Butler in her Xenogenesis series (major trigger warnings here for genocide and rape used as a weapon of war; these books seriously scarred me for life). She invents a species called the Oankali, who have three genders, and a radically different family structure based around this gender trinary. Yet she avoids positioning the Oankali as a mysterious Other to be discovered by us normals, because in her series the Oankali are our species’ oppressors. This is not to demonize the Oankali for being different; rather, the series takes on all the complexities of the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, with all the myriad culture clashes that entails.
Alien and fantasy species with alternate gender systems can be very interesting. For my part, though, I prefer it when there’s at least one gender non-conforming human character, so it’s clear that alternative gender identities aren’t just for Those People, but part of our diversity, too. In other words, it’s great to make a point about gender through the lens of trans, intersex, and non-binary characters, but it has to be clear that these aren’t just special cases. We have to balance the aims of scrutinizing and normalizing alternative gender identity. Which brings me to a series that tries to do both, and only partly succeeds.
Meet Captain Bel Thorne (preferred gender pronoun: it) from the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. Bel is what we would call intersex, though it calls itself a hermaphrodite, as is standard in its society, which has a very high percentage of intersex people. What I really love about Bel is that it comes from a society where intersex people are commonplace, so it’s completely confident in its identity. It’s an officer in a mercenary company, and gets an interesting plot arc as it and the main character grow to trust one another. The representation of Bel goes a long way to normalize non-binary identity. One of my favorite Bel moments is when it stops in the middle of a political crisis to go off on a rant about people who don’t respect its gender pronouns. It’s a very funny monologue, and a complaint I’m sure a lot of trans people can identify with.
In the same series, the author tries to make a point about gender using another character, and in my opinion, it’s cringeworthy. Lady Donna Vorrutyer is a woman living in a highly patriarchal society. She leaves her planet to get sex realignment surgery, and comes back as Lord Dono Vorrutyer. The reason this makes me cringe is that the text makes it clear that Vorrutyer did this only because under the planet’s laws, only men can stand to inherit titles, and Vorrutyer’s father was on his deathbed. This plays into harmful myths about trans men, that they only transition so they can gain access to male privilege. The story does make a point about patriarchy, but I think the same point could have been made if the character got the surgery to actually treat gender dysphoria, or if Lady Donna challenged the law so she could inherit. Or, even better, if the character had been a trans woman, then she could have gotten sex realignment surgery and then demanded that she inherit anyway. Basically, authors need to do their research and make sure their trans characters don’t play into the same tired, hurtful narratives.
Another author who really tried to interrogate gender and failed is Lynn Flewelling in the Tamir Triad. Her protagonist is a girl who is raised as a boy, complete with a spell to disguise the anatomy they were born with. There are some great points made about the way masculinity is shaped and encouraged in boys, and the anxiety surrounding femininity that arises in boys as a result. But I felt the series was ultimately very gender essentialist, because when the protagonist’s birth anatomy is revealed by another spell, they resist at first, but everyone around them says that they have to “accept who she really is” because the spell “revealed the truth about her” and they just… meekly go along with this. I don’t have any problem with the protagonist identifying as female, but they showed no signs of identifying as female before this point, and if they were female, they should have said, “I am a woman, but because I say so, not because of your silly spell.” It’s great to make feminist arguments about gender, but it’s not truly intersectional feminism if you buy into the old lie that whatever you’re born with between your legs determines your gender for the rest of your life.
My hope for the future of fantasy and sci fi is that we’ll see more representations of trans, intersex, and non-binary characters, both as protagonists and supporting characters, not to make a particular point about gender, but because they’re part of the human experience. Women authors are at the forefront of these representations, as one might expect. Tamora Pierce, Alison Goodman, and Maria Snyder wrote trans characters into their books Bloodhound, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, and Poison Study, respectively. If authors also want to draw the reader’s attention to gender issues, a three-dimensional non-stereotypical character should always be the first priority, and the intended message second.
For more trans, intersex, non-binary, and genderbending characters in spec fic, read:
- Orlando by Virginia Woolf
- Glasshouse by Charles Stross
- Shadow Man by Melissa Scott
- Triton by Samuel Delany