What We Talk About When We Talk About Gender: Lessons from a Recent Incident in Secular Storytelling

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gender: Lessons from a Recent Incident in Secular Storytelling January 15, 2020

Gabriel Raskov, Pixabay.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. When I was a kid the major sex columnist, the one that all we curious Toronto teens clamoured to read reprints of in the local free press, was Dan Savage. Dan had his share of controversies over the years, spam-can-related and otherwise, but he especially seemed to lose currency with the LGBTQ+ community, in later years, over his use of “tranny” once the community at large no longer tolerated its use. (There was a whole discourse at the time about gay-male intersections with transphobia, and struggles between the drag and trans communities to boot.) At the same time, other words for personal identity would also change, and I’d struggle to adapt to some of them–a common experience, I think, for most readers here.

I’ve already talked here about what gender means to me, and how I regard myself as a gendered person because I have no inner gender identity, but the fact that I have a very traditional-female body means that I’m read as a woman–often for the worse–when I move through the world. That’s not an apolitical decision, of course, and I’ve talked here, too, about how early attempts to articulate those views online, a decade back, introduced me to both mean-spirited feminists and mean-spirited trans activists.

Even today, though, regarding myself as gendered is political within my immediate spheres. That’s partly to do with the fact that the trans community on whole, conversely, worked hard to move from being seen as transgendered to transgender, to help reassert in the public consciousness an understanding that trans persons Know Who They Are and Know Exactly What Their Gender Is,* so Stop Trying To Tell Them How To Live and Oppressing/Killing Them For Living Their Truths.

*We’ll get back to that notion by the end of this essay, I promise!

But Savage’s column taught me something super important about labels, back as a teen: something I’ve taken with me through my understanding of all labels since. He used to have women who identify as lesbians writing in–and I mean multiple, over the years–agonizing over whether they were still allowed to “keep” the label of “lesbian” if they occasionally liked a quickie involving a penis but never, ever wanted to date the man to which it was attached. Now, as a bisexual person myself, this was a great lesson, too, in how incredibly high the stigma against being bi remained… but it also made me wonder at how much ridiculous power we were giving to words over the people who use them, and over life’s brilliant, surprising, routinely destabilizing fluidity.

I learned from Savage, in other words, that as much as words can be powerful and rewarding tools for self-expression, to say nothing of often vital aspects of political activism… they can also be prisons we live within.

And this past weekend, something happened in my writing community–something in the SF&F community–that both illustrated how the secular world aspires to tell stories people can more effectively live within, and how that aspiration sometimes runs afoul of the actual living that people still need to do.

Some Writing-Industry Context

I love reading Clarkesworld, an SF&F magazine that I consider myself very fortunate to have been published in five times as a fiction-writer (sixth forthcoming this year), and once as an essayist. I love it because I think the editor does a brilliant job when curating stories, such that each issue (for me, at least) reads as something more than the sum of its science-fictional and fantastical parts.

I also love the magazine because the editor’s selections manage to prioritize a great many new voices, including a great many authors whose works in the publication also happen to be their very first pro-market sales. As such, I’m rarely reading stories there as part of any great Cult of Personality for a given author of great repute. Rather, I’m reading with confidence in well-curated stories that stand on their own.

(And I can attest to that on a personal level, too, because after I sold “A Tower for the Coming World” to Neil Clarke in 2016, it took me until last summer to then submit something else to him that he liked enough to accept. The quality of the story comes first, and I love that so much. There are older SF&F magazines I adore, too, but some have had more difficulty with this, because they grew through ages where a relationship between editor and longstanding writer often came before publishing only top-quality prose, from a wide range of cultural contexts. We’re easing now out of that, as a community, but there have been significant growing pains!)

So when the January 2020 issue landed, I saw at once that I was looking at another issue with some names unknown to me–and one particularly provocative title to start the issue off–but I knew the publication, and its quality, and I was thrilled to read the works of these new-to-me writers.

But as I was reading the first story for my monthly informal summary on Twitter (the social medium of choice for many SF&F writers), I realized that I wasn’t the only person who hadn’t resonated with the piece. Worse, though, what I was reading from other writers on the Twittersphere sounded unsettlingly less like criticism of just the story, and more like a group of people starting to think the story itself was a Trojan Horse.

A great many personally distressed people, that is, seemed to be making a hugely distressing shift into assuming bad faith on the author’s part; and demanding to know more about who this person was, who had written such incendiary things.

What We Write About When We Write About Gender

When I reviewed the issue, then, I added in a thread about How We Read, which you can read here, if you like. In it, I talked about how we read more often to be affirmed than to be unsettled, which can make us ill-prepared for response when a work unsettles us. I advocated for not turning a story’s jagged edges into a blade–that is, for not leaping to the treatment of uneven or poor metaphors as something that can only be read one way, the dangerous way–because that tends to weaponize stories, and weaponizing stories is very rarely the most effective way to dissent and move on from a story’s poor messaging.

I also contextualized the story within SF&F’s broader culture of stories that can tweak readers because of their gender discourse and still go on to great success; and I pointed out that there were many ways of reading just this one story–some of which resonate with people’s experiences of gender, just as much as the story did not resonate with others’. I pointed out that this has everything to do with the fact that an author’s personal identity (and we knew little about this author at the time–something I didn’t care about, but many did) does not intrinsically make them a superior storyteller… because gender is a tough subject. If it were easy to talk about, we wouldn’t be in the throes of so much messy politicized discourse about one and the same!

More than anything, though, I appealed to the SF&F community to recognize that this story was a site of gender discourse like many others, in an ongoing conversation, and that we retained the agency to discuss the piece constructively.

To which you readers here on Patheos, probably fresh to this SF&F issue entirely, are probably going to say: “Gosh, that sounds reasonable–so how incredibly unreasonable is everyone else going to be?!” But I want to be clear here: I understand where even the most destructive aspects of what happened next are coming from. Moreover, I’m writing about this issue today because I feel that it’s vitally important for humanists to try to understand other people’s points of view, if we’re to become better about our secular storytelling.

The Case of the Deeply Hurt Reader

So, let’s switch now to the POV of someone deeply hurt by the existence of this story (a story now taken down, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit, & why I’m not linking it here).

Let’s try not to act in bad faith ourselves, and let’s imagine the experience of being hurt by a story, even if you can’t remember the last time that a story deeply hurt you.

From what I saw, although the story was loved/a mixed-bag/disliked by people across the gender spectrum (trans/cis/non-binary [also known as NB or enby]), the people most likely to be hurt by it were trans-identified persons.

These were folks who saw an awful meme as the story’s title, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” and knew full well the hostile online rhetoric associated with it in other forums, where it’s used to dismiss the legitimacy of trans persons entirely. These were folks who then read the rest of the story and saw in it a transition from woman to helicopter (N.B.: Yes, SF&F stories go to zany places! Read more SF!) that was being used as what they saw as poor analogy for actual trans experience.

These were folks who especially did not resonate with how trans terminology was being used within the story, such as when “gender dysphoria” was used almost glibly, in relation to a man’s hesitation in following orders (which also deeply upset a few cis women, from what I can tell); and when “When I was a woman” was used as a common narrative refrain (i.e. in contrast to a common trans experience of never being a woman so much as being a trans person trapped within a feminized body).

These were folks who, deeply troubled by what they had read, then looked at the author’s bio, which only listed the person’s name and birth-year, and were filled with fear that this unknown person who had posted a story with an incendiary title and very disorienting uses of trans terminology was in fact a transphobic author who had succeeding in publishing a transphobic story in a highly prominent SF&F magazine, guaranteeing widespread dissemination of a highly transphobic message.

That fear went to some… pretty wild places, with the author’s birth-year becoming the site of speculation about Nazi coding, and the author’s name associated with an obscure character in some right-wing writing of yesteryear. But SF&F outsiders need to remember that only a few years ago we did have rampant xenophobic, transphobic, racist, and sexist writers who bullied fellow writers and attempted to dominate our industry awards circuits. The memory of this is still very fresh, and raw.

Most of all, though, those deeply hurt readers? They were deeply hurt by what they were seeing as other people’s reactions to their misgivings, and their pain. Whether or not the story was actually written in bad faith, the subsequent discourse online was illustrating to them that their writing community was not a place that seemed to value their safety. That their writing community would be okay with the existence of a highly transphobic piece (in their eyes) having prominence in a major SF&F publication, and from that pedestal advancing, essentially, hate speech.

They were feeling, in part, a deep sense of betrayal, and the trauma that comes with being a trans person who does not feel safe when simply trying to exist in the world.

I should mention, too, that within the trans community are some who argue that the vast majority of the Twitter criticism was in fact coming from non-trans persons virtue-signalling… but I am trying right now to focus expressly on the articulated experience of those trans persons who said that this story hurt them.

The Fall-Out

Very quickly, though, a far more devastating reality for the story’s origin emerged. It appears, from an intermediary who posted on the author’s behalf to the Clarkesworld comment thread (I wrote about it in a thread here, with a screencap and a description in the following tweet), that the author is a trans woman who was trying to subvert anti-trans rhetoric by reclaiming the vicious meme that served as her title (a common marginalized-community practice, going back to Yankee and further!), and this person was just gutted to see that her story had hurt members of her own community so deeply.

She asked for the story to be taken down (it was), and she’s apparently also asked for her payment to be donated to charity, and has also withdrawn other stories from submissions queues. Her intermediary last noted that she has asked for privacy and was not doing well–and I don’t blame her. As a published writer myself, I am routinely haunted by the fear of something I write affecting real people in a negative way. I can only imagine the devastating effect of having those fears become reality. I really hope she’s okay. I really hope she comes back. I really hope she writes and is published again.

This is not to say, though, that being devastated automatically redeems the story itself. It’s 100% possible for a story to wound others and for the author to be wounded by having wounded others.

In the wake of this news, then, some persons have been angered to hear that the author was hurt, too… and not all for the same reasons. Some are angry in a “well, what did you expect, when you wrote a provocative piece that I firmly feel is transphobic? you should have had more beta/sensitivity readers if you didn’t want people to speculate that you were an undercover transphobe!” sort of way.

And some are angry because, as I noted above, they believe that the escalation to author-hostility was predominantly the provenance of cis commentators trying to sow dissent and division within an already extremely vulnerable trans community.

And some are also angry because, yet again, trans authors and trans themes are being most widely read in relation to controversy, when there are a wide range of beautiful, non-controversial trans stories that go completely under the SF&F radar. (One thread of them, in short-story and book-form, can be found here.)

Meanwhile, a second wave of deeply hurt people has made itself heard ever since the author’s intermediary mentioned the desire to have the story taken down.

Some of these people are authors simply horrified by the thought that a story both loved and hated should be taken down. What defanged forms of writing would this whole incident suggest were the only acceptable forms of SF&F to publish? What in blazes does it say about the SF&F community writ large if it could drive out a vulnerable first-time author over a matter of hours?

And perhaps most devastating of all: Some of these people are trans/cis/NB persons who saw themselves in the story. Persons who are now seeing, in the hostility toward this story from fellow members of the writing community, their own unacceptability writ large; the social illegitimacy, that is, of their own true and vital struggles with gender.

Labels for Politics, Labels for Life

Because… remember what I said about that whole “transgendered”/”transgender” shift a few years back? The struggle for a widespread secular story of trans experience that would “help reassert in the public consciousness an understanding that trans persons Know Who They Are and Know Exactly What Their Gender Is”?

That was, and is, a vital political move, because labels are political. Labels–especially among marginalized communities–are part of a cultural bargaining process that asks, “Look, if I clearly identify myself for you, and I get the government to confirm that who I am is A Real and Legally Valid Thing, then will you stop trying to make my life unsafe?”

But on a personal level? Gender is not a clean-cut affair. And why should it be? We strange, wondrous beasts–we humans born as babes in the cosmos fated to die as babes in the cosmos, even after 80-110 years with ourselves and our societies–are ongoing experiences. So you bet, plenty of trans or cis or NB persons are going to line up behind the secular stories that stand to give them the best chance of living their personal truths as fearlessly as possible in the public sphere… but we’re also all going to be negotiating those personal truths every step of the way. The contradictions in them. The cognitive dissonances. The things we carry from one age and social context into the next, despite our desperate yearning to shake ourselves free of our baggage with the snap of a finger.

The Take-Away

The story published to so much controversy in Clarkesworld this January was a perfect story, then, inasmuch as its messiness (and the hurtful messiness of its fallout) reflected a messiness that exists wherever humans exist, but which is also not always permitted to exist in the stories we tell each other about ourselves.

When outsiders talk about marginalized communities, after all, there is such a desire to latch onto social division within them. See? the dominant-culture argument goes: They don’t even agree amongst themselves, so why should we take their concerns seriously, too?

This completely misrepresents what a community is, though, because every community is a conversation. Sadly, though, this misrepresentation is powerful, because it often compels many marginalized communities to further marginalize outlier experiences within themselves, so as to show a “united front” against the dominant culture that by and large gets to set the rules of safety, security, inclusion, and opportunity for all.

And that’s the challenge secular storytelling faces today, in the 21st century–not just in gender discourse, but in all our divisive spheres of human experience.

That’s the challenge, too, facing humanists across the spectrum: facing everyone, that is, who sees humans as the most critical agents of change in our cosmos; and who knows, too, just how much in the world remains to be improved.

Because the experience of being human is going to be full of jagged edges–always. How I see myself is always going to involve ideas that cut to the quick of others’ ideas of how they see themselves–and vice versa.

So we have to be careful about what we do when–not if, but when–we cut one another.

We have, after all, every right to say that someone’s cut us.

But we also have to be better–a lot better–in how we choose to address the wounds.

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