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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  • Curtis Wright

    A very interesting read. As an outsider I have always found it very confusing how there are so many points of view inside of the movement and it becomes very difficult to say anything for fear of hurting or alienating a percentage of those who consume what you wrote or said. What is safe to say or write? What isn’t? How do you know? How do you handle the vitriol of people who are victims knowing that they are vulnerable, but simultaneously not wanting to apologize for writing “your story” and “your experience” especially when it sits outside of what others think that should look like? It seems like it would be exhausting at times. Your article was a very clear look into how all of that comes into play. Thank you.

  • DingoJack

    Strange.
    If I were the editor(s) of this magazine, I would have contacted the author and said: ‘we’ve gotta talk’. Once I got the drift of the authorial intent, I would have published it but with an author or editor’s afterward to explain that intent. It seems to me that a editorial failure led to unintended hurt to the readers and the author. (Also it kind of shut down a necessary conversation about ‘labels’, who gets to ‘label’ whom, and why).
    Just my $0.02 as a complete outsider.

  • This all happened *very quickly* at a time when the editor was recovering from heart surgery–but you’re talking about a pre-emptive decision, as if the editor knew the story was going to cause this reaction and accepted and published the piece with foreknowledge. Not at all the case. Clarkesworld has published many pieces that have been thought-provoking statements about cultural issues; although some have suggested that “cis” blinders on the editor’s part played a factor here, there’s no way of knowing *for sure* which piece will make people angry and hurt to these levels over the course of a weekend.

  • Oh good. Thank you for commenting with an outsider’s perspective; it’s often difficult to know from within the tempest how clearly things will read tl someone outside it. You’re asking great questions. I don’t we can do much more than try to ask the right questions right now, and to listen carefully to the answers we receive. All best wishes!

  • PlatypusPond

    FWIW I came to the story without preconceptions and I read it as a satire on the horrid meme. I thought the idea was brilliant.
    I’m cis, but trying to learn

  • DingoJack

    Ah I see. I wasn’t aware of the rapidity of events (for some reason I was under the misapprehension it was a print magazine), nor the extenuating circumstances of the editor’s medical condition.
    I would have thought familiarity with the various communities would have alerted one to the harmful tropes — but I totally get how blinders can make one’s judgement less than stellar. And on that note – I would like to stress that we all make mistakes, mine was that, re-reading my comment, I came across like I was saying it was all the editor’s fault — it wasn’t. It was a mistake.

  • Clarkesworld does offer print editions of the stories, eventually! And most outsiders to SF&F don’t realize that genre industries by and large have moved to electronic first-publication, so that’s another really easy mistake to make. Honestly, this is as much of a learning curve for me, DingoJack, as it seems to have been for you. One gets so immersed in a given context, one forgets what it’s like to see that context from another point of view. Thanks so much for offering yours!

  • I think “I’m human, but trying to learn” covers the bases for all of us. 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and commenting–and for engaging with the SF story, too!

  • PlatypusPond

    “I’m human, but trying to learn” seems like a really good motto, but I swear some people are actively trying not to learn. 🙁

  • Grimlock

    I’ve been a fan of SF&F for what I just realized is literally decades. However, for the last decade or so I haven’t really been an active part of any online community related to SF&F. I was only ever a part of fairly small communities, and the fan community of one author.

    It’s always a peculiar experience to read about issues that embroils the larger community. I caught some of the mess around the Hugo awards while browsing John Scalzi’s blog a while ago, which was complete news to me at the time. And let’s not get into how I became quite torn about Orson Scott Card a few years ago.

    There’s not a point that I’m getting at here. Just rambling, and, I guess, wanting to express why it was very interesting to me to read this post.

  • Anne Fenwick

    It’s interesting about shifting identity labels. I think I’m rather older than you (50) so when I started out in life I used the label ‘woman’ – on the proviso that it was clearly understood this referred to the shape of my body and not one single, solitary other thing. That really didn’t seem to be a problem in my circle at the time. Then trans-people came along and promoted pretty much the opposite definition of ‘woman’ and in effect, de-labelled me. I note that they care a lot about owning the label, whereas I only care about not being misidentified as a woman under this new regime. So now, I go with gender neutral.

    As for the ‘attack helicopter’ my teenage daughter came out with that some months before this story was published. I’m sure she wasn’t aware of the apparent transphobic side to it. Rather, the identification with the slightly aggressive, artificial/mechanical, humorous side of it was a genuine representation of how she feels about her gender identity at this time. I can also see how it relates to an experience of mind/body duality (independent of belief in such). I always said ‘I know what kind of car I’m driving’. It represents my experience of being in a body. Consequently, we were both a bit upset to hear about the thing with this story (which we haven’t read).

    At any rate, young people like my daughter are living in a world where a largeish proportion of them are adopting a whole plethora of non-traditional identities. Possibly, getting the names wrong is a terrible thing but I believe one of them calls themselves (is?) a hemi-boy + some bits I’ve forgotten. The trans-boy of the group passes for a bit conventional. In the end, I think trans-people did open a linguistic/identity can of worms there. It seems highly debateable how many people can actually identify with the labels ‘cis-woman’ and ‘cis-man’ which I belueve they created. The interesting question now is, how important was this postulated group to their identity processes, and will it make any difference to them at all if it fragments and evaporates towards other labels that better reflect those people’s self-peeception. Theoretically and ideally of course, it shouldn’t.

  • Phil

    I think I maybe missing something. This was a work of fiction and presented as fiction right? I haven’t read it so can’t really comment except that surely characters can be as horrible as they want in fiction without having to agree with them or be offended by them?

  • Noted, thanks!

  • You’re missing that it’s not just “offense” but trauma. The title was immediately upsetting to some because it’s anti-trans rhetoric. That, and the lack of clear authorial identity, plus many of the atypical statements within the story itself, had many both feeling that anti-trans writing had been centred in a prominent genre magazine, either overtly or through dogwhistling rhetoric. Fiction is no protective shield from allegations of hate speech. Have you heard of The Camp of the Saints (1973)?

  • Hi Anne. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The contention here is whether “trans people … open[ed] a … can of worms.” I know that reading much of second-wave feminism was always baffling to me because gender was often coded with such stark binary divides as to rather set itself up for such a linguistic fall. Is there a secret “women’s language” that existence in the patriarchy cut me out from? Hardly. All language is construct. Beauvoir’s “one is not born but rather becomes a woman” likewise “opens a can of worms” such that a great many different ways of performing gender might emerge in its aftermath. So to me it seems a pretty dangerous game to place the blame for linguistic shifts at the feet of marginalized groups… and it’s also pretty clearly inaccurate from our history. Understanding and defining gender has always been a struggle. In the early centuries through to the Middle Ages, people were seeking to “unsex” themselves through Christ, and different cultures have had different ways to negotiate two-spiritedness throughout the millennia, too. So I understand that it can be baffling, and tricky sometimes to keep up, but we need to be cautious when presuming there was ever a fixed notion of gender that somehow has fallen to bits only in our lifetimes. The conversation has ever and always been in flux.

  • Anne Fenwick

    place the blame for linguistic shifts at the feet of marginalized groups

    I think this really highlights the problem with perceptions in our society, because many people would automatically take that as a credit not a blame. I’m a bit worried that we project our expectations for groups onto situations involving them without noticing the double standard. But then, in this case, we get into the issue of proper attribution of ideas.

    I think there seems to be some substance to my belief that the term originated in the transgender community in that this site tells me the word cis-gender was initially popularised by a transgender theorist named Julia Serano. I also heard about it initially from transgender activists. But the linked site also says that the term originated in academic articles a decade or so earlier. I did try to trace the origin of the term back using Google Scholar, and then Google itself. Admittedly, this is an uncertain procedure, especially given the time I invested. The earliest reference of the term ‘cisgender’ that I could find on the internet dated to 1987 on the website of The International Foundation for Gender Education. The IFGE is (I think) the USA’s earliest transgender activism organisation, also founded in 1987. Did the term ‘cis-gender’ originate earlier, in a more informal, perhaps unpublished (unpublished online?) context within the transgender community? It seems likely to me, but other possibilities exist. It would require a less casual kind of historical research, though it would be very interesting. But anyway, it’s very obvious that the term was initially coined to mean ‘not-trans’ with the presumption that pretty much anyone who didn’t identify as trans- was cis-. In just a few decades that term/definition was born then exploded into multiple fragments.

    The term ‘gender’, in the sense that we use it now, is not much older. Perhaps you can find in Spanish, since it’s certainly true in French, that the word is still widely used to mean ‘type’ or ‘variety’ in all contexts, and only secondarily has acquired the meaning we now attribute to the English word. The whole question of whether we can/should apply this concept to historical societies or other societies that did/do not use it is a matter of open debate. Obviously, you did in your comment, and I also think we can, so long as we are careful, and sensitive to the fact that it is our concept, being deployed for our purposes. I’m a historian, and I don’t doubt the ethics of that stand up better when applied to societies long gone. However, it is a whole other debate.

  • Oh, research into language and its origins is ever so much more fun in the age of Google Scholar, isn’t it?

    My reference to the term “unsex” comes from studies of medieval saints’ tales, as well as romaunces of the era. There, women were often chimerical beasts by nature, cross-dressing was a frequently employed tactic to navigate the world, and men and women alike sought to be something other than their base nature through different aspirational understandings of Christ. So, I’ve seen a lot of “gender”-shifting in the literature long before the word’s more contemporary use. (You’re absolutely right: in the Spanish it continues to be used more for “type”.)

    A related issue is also whether Serano was doing anything new by contriving another binary through which to understand the world. That seems painfully common to human discourse: the construction of new terms to differentiate oneself from that which came before, and also to create a fairly straightforward in/out-tribalism for a marginalized demographic. Victorian-era feminism, for instance, appeared as “womanism” in quite a few documents; the term “feminist” is far more strongly coded for the 20th century variants, which often forget the versions that came before because they didn’t use the same terminology. Strikingly enough, though, this has even allowed the issue to come full circle, with some black discourse proposing the use of “womanism” to differentiate POC activism from “white feminism.” So aren’t all new terms framed in contrast to perceived pre-existing status quos?

    As such, I again have to express both scepticism and caution at the nowadayism of suggesting that the trans community in recent decades opened a distinct “can of worms” linguistically and ideologically. Was the queer community of the 70s and 80s not also undergoing its own labelist divisions and falling-outs irrespective of trans discourse? (I’ve put up with biphobia from lesbians who came out in that era and retained its biases, so that’s a bit of a rhetorical question for me–but I am happy to hear dissent from someone who might have experienced differently, firsthand.)

    That said, I used “blame” only because “can of worms” has a negative connotation, but I don’t think I gave due credit to the meditative nature of your concluding thoughts: mea culpa. Your point about whether the label will be necessary once “the cis” has been reduced to an incoherent demographic is one I share. I loathe labels myself, because they seem like a modern Zeno’s paradox: forever subdividing us without ever arriving at the uniform distinction of every human being’s experience in the cosmos. I am… not holding my breath on us in my lifetime being able to cross the room in full.