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.