A Note on “Biological Sex”

A couple of the talks in Bournemouth yesterday required people to talk about the “sex” of trans people, as “discovered” after their death. This tends to get people (including me sometimes) into trouble over lack of clarity, because sex too is something of a social construct. I thought it might be useful to explain.

When a doctor or corner says that a body is “biologically female” what they usually mean is that the outward physical manifestations of sex correspond to femaleness. That is, the body has female genitalia, and probably breasts. If the body appeared to have a penis it would probably be described as “biologically male” (even if there was significant breast development).

When an archaeologist says that a body is “biologically female” it probably means that the skeleton is typical of someone who went through female puberty, as opposed to someone who went through male puberty. We can’t always be 100% on this, and sadly in the past archaeologists tended to go on skull size. Yes, they did assume that a bigger skull meant a bigger brain meant male. I’ve been told that some still do this.

Neither of those two things is necessarily indicative of chromosomal sex. There are a variety of intersex conditions that can result in a body having external sexual features and/or a skeleton that is at odds with the chromosomal sex.

So when we say that a body was “found to be biologically female” what we mean is that someone made an educated guess based either on external physical characteristics or on the shape of parts of the skeleton. We have said nothing about chromosomes unless an actual chromosome test was done.

Of course a chromosome test is no guarantee of the gender identity of the person whose body we are examining, or of how they lived their life, or of what gender they were assigned at birth. Assignment at birth is likely to be a guess made on the same basis as that made at death, but with less data. Gender identity may not correspond to external characteristics, and the ability of someone to live socially in the gender that comes naturally to them is dependent very much on social circumstances and that person’s strength of will.

All of which is to say that when we read in an historical account that a body of a presumed man was examined at death and that the person in question was “proved to be really a woman” (or vice versa) all we actually know is that there is some level of uncertainty as to the person’s sex and gender.

This is a particular problem when dealing with cases of apparent trans men from before the 20th Century. We know that in the early 20th Century a significant number of people assigned female at birth were re-assigned as male by doctors for a variety of reasons. Lennox Broster at Charing Cross was the leading expert in this work. His patients generally presented themselves to him because they had a strong male gender identity. If they were happy living as women there would have been far less need to consult a doctor. In previous centuries such people would have had no medical options but may have chosen to try to live as men. Having been assigned female at birth, it is plausible that they would again be deemed female after death. That doesn’t mean that they were “really women”.

You may of course argue that intersex conditions such as those that Broster dealt with are very rare, so the chances of some random body exhibiting such a condition would be equally low. However, if that condition is one in which persons assigned female at birth often have male gender identities (or acquire them at puberty) then we would expect such people to be attempting to live as men. That changes the probabilities massively.

Of course it is also possible that such people had no intersex condition but had a gender identity strongly at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth. They might conceivably be ambitious women trying to make their way in a man’s world, or lesbians trying to find a way to express their sexuality in a straight world, though as I have argued before I think these are less likely because of the difficulty of living a life contrary to your gender identity. My point is that we only have the reports of people who saw the body to go on, and those people almost certainly didn’t have anything close to as sophisticated an understanding of human biology as we have now.

Sex, it’s complicated.

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LGBTHM Does Bournemouth

That’s another one done. Only two weeks left. (Yes, I know. LGBT History Month has become so big that it has burst the bounds of February.)

Today I took myself off to Bournemouth. It is a fairly easy trip from here by train. As I hinted yesterday, this one was potentially dodgy because it got attacked by a religious fundamentalist website. They said a few nasty things about me, and a whole lot of really nasty things about Sophie Cook, the lovely trans lady who is also the official photographer for Bournemouth football club. They are not exactly high profile. The guy who runs the site has a massive 15 Twitter followers. But six of them did turn up today to listen to the talks. As the event was being organized by the local students’ union, Bournemouth University kindly laid on extra security to make sure that everyone was polite, and the day went off very quietly.

The highlight of the day was an impromptu talk. One of the speakers was unable to make it, so Jeff Evans of Schools Out did a short extra talk about the time when he and a group of other students took the NUS LGBT Conference to Belfast. They ended up getting picketed by Iain Paisley, and adopted by the IRA. It was a fascinating and heartwarming story, not to mention some very smart politics by Sinn Fein.

There were also two interesting talks about lesbian history. One, by Alison Child, focused on Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney, a lesbian couple whose musical double-act topped the bills in the 1920s. The other, by Jenny White, focused on the inane things that straight men say about lesbians. There was, for example, an amazing court case from 1811 in which the accused got off because the judges could not believe that English women could do such “unnatural” things. Jenny also introduced me to two 19th Century trans people whose stories I didn’t know of. I wonder how many more there must be out there waiting to be discovered.

My own talk seemed to go down quite well, except perhaps with our unexpected guests who looked fairly grumpy throughout. They didn’t seem to want to talk to Sophie or myself, but they did spend quite a bit of time chatting to Jeff who was very positive about the interactions.

All in all it was a pretty good day. My thanks to the Bournemouth students for a job well done. I was particularly impressed that a majority of the students who turned up were from various minority ethnic backgrounds. The speakers were all white, as were the unexpected visitors, but the students gave me a lot of hope.

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My Exeter Speech

Tomorrow I will be off to Bournemouth for their LGBT History Month event. I’ll be giving the same talk that I did in Exeter last Sunday. That one doesn’t work without the slides, but the speech I gave at the Exeter launch does. It isn’t quite as good without all of the visual jokes, but it is at least intelligible, so I’m posting it here.

As some of you will have seen on social media, the Bournemouth event has attracted the attention of a fringe group of religious homophobes. I am pretty sure that they will be too cowardly to turn up in person, if only because that means we’ll see how few of them there actually are.

Anyway, the speech:


People of diverse genders,

I’ve been asked to speak today both as a trans activist and as an historian. These days that doesn’t seem quite so odd as it would have been in my school days. There is a recognition now that history is not just HIS-story, it is overwhelmingly straight cis rich white able-bodied man’s story. When I was at school we were starting to see historians looking at the lives of the poor. When I was at university I started to hear about feminist historians, though judging from Amanda Foreman’s Ascent of Woman TV series we still have a long way to go on that front. There is a shameful lack of people of colour amongst academic historians in the UK. We’ve made the first step by acknowledging the problem, but again there is a long way to go. We also have LGBT History Month. So trans history is being researched and written, yes?

Well, not exactly. Last year I attended an international conference in Canada on trans history. There were a few presentations from people outside of Western culture: a couple of Canadian two-spirit people, and an Indian hijra who now lives in New York. But the vast majority of the material covered by the conference was rooted in Western culture, and didn’t go any further back than the late 19th Century.

Why does this matter? Here is a brief quote from one of the regular attacks made on trans people by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme:

“… the phenomenon of transgenderism which is a social construct of the 2nd half of the 20th century and which has become particularly common in the last couple of decades…”

(Sheila Jeffreys, BBCR4 Woman’s Hour, Aug. 7th 2014)

That was Sheila Jeffreys, who is well known for her antagonism towards trans people. But she is by no means the only person to make that claim. Indeed, what I noticed in Canada is that many people who work on trans history take that claim as a basic assumption of their work.

All of LGBT history has suffered from erasure. We know that. But in the case of trans people the charge that we did not exist, at all, before the 20th century, is very precisely being used to deny us the right to exist now.

This claim that trans people were invented in the 20th century is ridiculous, but strenuous efforts have been made, and continue to be made, to convince people that it is true. Sometimes the erasure is very literal.

One of the most important documents in Inca history is An Account of the Antiquities of Peru, by Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti. The author was a man of native descent who had converted to Christianity and was attempting to walk the difficult tightrope of explaining his culture to his conquerors without incurring the wrath of the Catholic Church.

An English translation of the work was produced by Clements R Markham in 1873 and is published as part of his book, Narratives of the Rites and Laws of the Yncas. Here is a short passage from Pachacuti’s work.

“The Curacas and Mitmays of Caravaya brought a chuqui-chinchay, which is an animal of many colours, said to have been chief of the jaguars.”

On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about his. However, here is the original Spanish.

“Los curacas y mitmais de Carabaya trae a chuqui chinchay, animal muy pintado de todos colores. Dizen que era apo do los otorongos, en cuya guarda da a los ermofraditas yndios de dos naturas.”

Los ermofraditos yndios? Where did that come from? It certainly isn’t in Markham’s translation. American scholar, Michael J Horswell, examined the original and realised that something had been left out. Thanks to him I came to hear of the Quariwarmi, literally “men-women”, a community of Inca who worshipped a liminal deity known as the rainbow jaguar and who appear to have been viewed by Inca society as being something between a man and a woman.

Where trans people are not literally erased, they may be presented as something other than trans. In the case of trans women they are almost always caricatured as sexual perverts. Take this example from the afterword to the English translation of the memoirs of the French cross-dresser and possible trans woman, François Timoléon, Abbé de Choisy.

“Choisy was instructed by his mother to be a girl. The unconscious erotic awakenings in a child brought up to imitate his mother and afforded no masculine gender differentiation are bound to be fetishistic, and reliant on the intimate provocation of dress to excite rather than distinctly orientated towards the body.”

And:

“Men who dress to imitate women usually overcompensate for the possible inferiority they feel. Transvestites project an image of the ultra-feminine woman, which is often the embodiment of heterosexual fantasy. They wear the highest heels, the tightest skirts, their red lipstick signals danger.”

Those comments were first published in 1973, when I was a teenager, and are typical of attitudes towards trans women at that time.

In the case of trans men, the usual way of framing their stories is to portray them as ambitious women attempting to make their way in a strongly patriarchal society. Certainly such people did exist, but most cis historians fail to distinguish between people who cross-dress occasionally, people who cross-dress full-time but do not try to hide their gender, and people who live full time in a gender other than that they were assigned at birth.

Any binary-identified trans person can tell you how hard it is to live full time in a gender that doesn’t feel natural to you. The idea that someone assigned female at birth could simply decide to live the rest of their life as a man, without any affinity for masculinity, and maintaining a strong sense of their own femininity throughout, seems bizarre to me. I had to spend a long time pretending to be a man. I know how stressful it is.

Nevertheless we continue to see efforts to “reclaim” apparent trans men for womanhood. For example, there was a recent New York musical that “reinterpreted” jazz musician, Billy Tipton, as a flamboyant drag king. Given everything we know about him, I imagine that Tipton would have been horrified. Even if he did still see himself as a woman, he made every effort to appear the suave ladies’ man.

The latest historical figure in the spotlight is Dr. James Barry. I haven’t had a chance to read the new biography yet, and I have been told that it contains some interesting research into Barry’s background. What I do know is that the review of the book in The Guardian was a veritable bingo card of transphobic tropes, taking every opportunity to present Barry’s male identity as a deliberate and dishonourable fraud. Were he alive today I suspect that Barry, who was notorious for his short temper and strong sense of honour, would have challenged the author of that review to a duel.

Eunuchs are rarely mentioned in history books, and when they are it is generally with a sense of existential horror, particularly from male historians. No effort is spared to decry the evil of making someone a eunuch, and the eunuchs themselves are described as “victims”. In fiction eunuchs are generally portrayed as fat, ugly, and prone to vicious scheming.

Thanks to the efforts of Shaun Tougher in particular, the history of eunuchs is slowly being rehabilitated. It is pretty clear that the last 200 years of human history are highly unusual because of the small number of eunuchs that existed during that time. The previous 4,000 years were very different.

Given the hundreds of thousands of eunuchs who have been made over the years, it seems likely that they will have had a wide range of identities. Some will have clung to their masculinity; some we know identified closely with women; but almost all of them will have been seen by the rest of contemporary society as neither male nor female, but as something non-binary.

This brings us to the central issue of trans history. One of the arguments deployed by those claiming that trans people did not exist before the 20th century is that the words we now use to describe trans people – transgender, transsexual, non-binary and so on – were not coined until then. Misrepresenting Foucault, these people claim that if the idea of the trans person did not exist then no one could identify outside of the gender binary.

What these people miss is that words like heterosexual were not coined until the late 19th century. Scientific understanding of the biology of gender is a product of the same time period. The very idea that humanity is divided solely into males and females, and that never the twain shall meet, is a 19th century construct.

One reason why countries like India, Pakistan and Nepal are ahead of the UK in terms of legal recognition for non-binary genders is that those countries have centuries long traditions of recognising that more than two genders exist. Before science told us about chromosomes, the idea that gender was mutable was commonplace. Stories of people having their gender changed by capricious deities are common in mythologies around the world, and in some cultures it was believed that one could lose one’s masculinity and become a half-man, if not actually a woman, by inappropriate unmanly behaviour.

This, then, is why I do trans activism through history. The idea that trans people are a 20th century invention is completely false. If anything, it is the idea that human gender is fixed at birth and can only be male or female that is the aberration. In most cultures, and in most times in human history, that idea would seem ridiculous. Exposing the lie that is being told about trans people can only be done by shining a light on trans history.

Posted in Gender, History | 1 Comment

Dinosaur Babies

One of the things that came up on the show today was this news story involving Prof. Mike Benton, a palaeontologist from the University of Bristol. Up until now it was thought that all dinosaurs laid eggs, but a new discovery in China has turned all that on its head. A fossil of a plesiosaur-like creature called Dinocephalosaurus has evidence of what looks like a well-developed baby inside of the adult. That means that Dinocephalosaurus must have given birth to live young, just like whales and dolphins. On the face of it, this makes good sense. An animal that size isn’t going to find it easy to lay eggs on a beach the way turtles do. But it does seem to be a major new piece of evidence, always assuming of course that the news media has got it right.

Posted in Nature, Science | 2 Comments

Today on Ujima – LGBT History Month

It was great to be back in the saddle again, so to speak. I have been way too busy doing training and therefore not doing radio for quite a while. But today I was back with a full show dedicated to LGBT History Month.

First up was some promotion for this event next Wednesday evening at M-Shed, which I am chairing. In studio with me were my good friend Henry Poultney from Off the Record, plus Cai, Jade and Lara who are all young people involved with the event in some way.

Next up was Karen Garvey from M-Shed, who I have also come to know very well over the years. She was mainly talking about this event on Saturday. There’s lots going on, much of it also involving people I know well. My co-chair from OutStories Bristol, Andy Foyle, will be demonstrating the wonderful history map that we built last year with help from Bristol university. Simon Nelson from the City Council will be talking about the pioneering African-American gay man, Bayard Ruskin. Performance artist, Tom Marshman, will be leading a guided tour of queerest exhibits in the museum. Lori Streich will be talking about lesbians in feminism. LGBT Poet Laureate, Trudy Howson, will be topping the bill. And to round it all off the local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will be being fabulous.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

Kicking off the second hour was Daryn Carter from Bristol Pride. He is staging an event at the Watershed on Saturday the 25th. We have a lady from the Tate talking about their forthcoming Queer British Art exhibition. We have Jake Graff. We have Tom Marshman (again). We have Oscar Wilde (probably just a tribute band). And we have me covering 4,500 years of trans history in art. I may have to talk quite quickly.

Daryn and I also had a bit of a rant about the mess the Church of England has got itself into over same-sex marriage.

And finally I was joined by Lesley Mansell from North Bristol NHS Trust to talk about the public LGBTHM events she has organised at Southmead Hospital. They are both trans-focused as well. It is a refreshing change to find part of the NHS working hard on trans inclusion.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

Thanks as ever to Ben, my engineer. I’ll be back in the studio on March 1st for a show devoted to International Women’s Day.

The playlist for today’s show was as follows:

  • Prince – I Would Die 4 U
  • Tegan and Sara – Faint of Heart
  • Laverne Cox – Sweet Transvestite
  • Janelle Monáe – Q.U.E.E.N.
  • Lady Gaga – Born This Way
  • The Vinyl Closet – Garbage Man
  • Cyndi Lauper – True Colors
  • Labi Siffre – It Must be Love

I played Cyndi for Caroline Paige, the RAF trans woman who gave that great talk in Exeter at the weekend. The Labi Siffre was for Kevin as a late Valentine present because I’m soppy like that.

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Talking About Dillon for #LGBTHM17

Bristol 24/7 has published my review of Michael Dillon’s autobiography, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions. This is all LGBT History Month stuff, of course. Many thanks to James Higgins, the new LGBT Editor, for being willing to run such things.

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Fringe is Moving

As of next Monday’s event, BristolCon Fringe will have a new home. It is: The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, 17-18 King Street, Bristol BS1 4EF. We will be in the function room on the first floor. The move should give us more space, better audio equipment, and no interruptions from noisy parties in the next bar or ghosts. (Though it was cool to have ghosts, their conversation was very boring.)

If you are in the area, please do join us from 7:00pm on Monday February 20th when our readers will be local favorites, Gareth L. Powell and Pete Sutton.

Gareth is best known for his alternate history thriller Ack-Ack Macaque which won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel and spawned two sequels. Gareth will be reading a selection of work from my new short fiction collection, Entropic Angel, which will be released by NewCon Press in April.

Pete Sutton is a contributing editor of Far Horizons Magazine as well as one of the organisers of the Bristol Festival of Literature. He will be reading from his debut novel, Sick City Syndrome.

And of course there will be the usual thing where I put the readers to the question.

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Exeter LGBTHM – Day 2

I slept until 9:00am this morning, which I guess shows that I was tired. Of course that meant having to grab breakfast from a coffee shop on my way to the Phoenix for today’s talks. Sorry, I am an embarrassment.

I really enjoyed Michael Halls’ talk about Intercom Trust because of how he made a point of building a network. He said that it was a policy of the Trust never to compete with other LGBT+ organisations in the region for funds or volunteers, and only to work with those organisations that did the same. That sounds like a good way of fighting back against a government determined to make us all fight among ourselves for an ever-decreasing offering of scraps.

John Vincent on LGBT+ and public libraries was rather sad because libraries are in severe danger of extinction.

Shaan’s talk was mostly stuff I had heard before, but I was expecting him to put me on the spot about the Twilight People app and he duly did so. Fingers crossed I’ll have something available for the end of March.

Huge props to my friend Robert Howes for including in his talk the cover of a fanzine produced by a Brazilian cross-dressing club in 1968. He also had pictures of the Revealing Stories exhibition, and of the Bath Orlando vigil featuring the fabulous Ceri Jenkins.

For me the highlight of the weekend was Caroline Paige, the first person to transition in the RAF. I had no idea that there was a trans woman flying helicopters in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Way to go, Caz, you showed them! When I think about what she had to put up with, my own transition was a piece of cake.

The keynote speaker at the end of the day was Diana Souhami who has written many biographies of lesbians. She talked a lot about the large and very influential community of upper class lesbians who lived in Paris at the start of the 20th Century. I wish Bea Hitchman had been there, she would have loved it.

My own talk went well, for which thanks to Ishtar/Cybele/Isis for Her support.

Finally huge congratulations to Jana Funke and Jen Grove for a job well done. I was particularly pleased with the large number of young people who attended.

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Exeter LGBTHM – Day 1

Today in Exeter we had the launch event. This is the one that I was more nervous about because most of the audience would not be there to hear me, they’d be there mainly for a bunch of gay men (and in particular local MP, Ben Bradshaw, who is the first openly gay man to have been elected to the UK Parliament).

As it turned out, it all went very well. Jana Funke and Jen Grove, who are running the event, have done a fantastic job. Everything ran pretty much like clockwork. The staff at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum were very helpful, and they even laid on a bunch of guys in Roman legionary outfits just for me. (Good job this wasn’t the talk about castration in Rome.) It was, as ever, an honor to share a platform with Noorulan Shahid who is doing a magnificent job in the NUS for both trans and Muslim students.

One minor piece of nit-pickery. When you are doing an LGBT event, please don’t begin your speech with “ladies and gentlemen”. Other genders do exist. I’d asked Jana and Jen to warn the speakers about this, and I know they did, but two of them still got it wrong.

Special thanks for the support go to Surat-Shaan Knan, to my pal Emma Hutson who drove down from Sheffield for the weekend, and to Emma’s friend Sonnie who is putting her up and acted as local guide. Emma is doing a PhD on fiction by transgender writers and is therefore the most awesome person in the universe.

At some point I will post the speech, but not now because I need sleep.

Tomorrow I get to talk about trans people from Mesopotamia and Rome.

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Crawford Award Winner

I have been so busy over the past week that I totally missed the fact that Gary Wolfe had made the official announcement for this year’s Crawford award. The Crawford, as you may remember, is for a debut fantasy book. This year the winner is All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

I am, of course, delighted. That’s partly because I loved the book, partly because Charlie Jane is a friend, partly because trans writers FTW, and partly because it is always nice when the rest of the jury likes one of your favorites.

I’d also like to note that Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff was short-listed. Yet more to be happy about.

Posted in Awards, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Introducing Rainbow Pilgrims

Last night I was in Exeter helping my good friend Surat-Shaan Knan do an event about his amazing trans people of faith project, Twilight People. In the process of that I discovered that he has a new project just starting. It is called Rainbow Pilgrims, and it is all about LGBT+ migrants. The primary focus will doubtless be on refugees and asylum seekers, but I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear from LGBT+ people who have migrated without being in fear of their lives.

You can find out more about this exciting new project at the website. Please note that, while it does talk about oral history, there is no requirement to give one to be involved. Fleeing your home and traveling to a foreign country because you are afraid of being killed is a deeply traumatic experience and no one should be pushed into reliving that. There will be other ways of participating.

Given the current desperate situation in the UK for LGBT+ refugees and asylum seekers, this is a very timely project.

Posted in Current Affairs, Feminism, Gender | Leave a comment

And Another One – WEP Bristol Fundraiser


Yes, I know, total overload. But this one is happening in Bristol on the evening after the gig at the Watershed, and they only want me talking for 5 minutes. I can do that. Besides, very good cause. Also it is an open mic. So if you are in the Bristol area, and identify as a woman, please come along and tell us what sort of things you want. You can book (free) tickets here. It’s more on the door, so book now.

Posted in Feminism, Where's Cheryl? | Leave a comment

February Events Update – Young People’s Panel

Tuesday night at Bristol University was fabulous, and I met some great people. That may result in some more events later this year.

But today’s news is that I will be chairing the “Language and Representation Within LGBT+ Culture” event at M-Shed on the evening of the 22nd. This is being staged by the Young Festival of Ideas and Freedom Youth. It is their show, I’ll just be there to keep things running smoothly and (because young people are massively tech-savvy) manage the social media input during the event.

You can find out more about the event here, and book (free) tickets here.

I have another event booked now as well, but I’m not sure if it is open to the public so I can’t say anything yet.

Posted in Feminism, Gender, Where's Cheryl? | Leave a comment

Problem Daughters Interview with Rivqa Rafael


Problem Daughters, the new anthology from The Future Fire, will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, focusing on the lives and experiences of marginalized women, such as those who are of color, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and all intersections of these. Edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad, the anthology will be published by Futurefire.net Publishing and is currently being crowdfunded. I spoke to Rivqa about the project.

Cheryl: Hopefully we all agree on the need for better representation of marginalised women in SF&F, but what does this project mean for you personally?

Rivqa: If I had to summarise it in a word, I’d say “listening”. Although I exist in some intersections, I don’t consider myself marginalised overall, but nonetheless I have had frustrating experiences where things I’ve said about my existence have been ignored (from “no, I’m not interested in hearing about Jesus” to “no, just because you’ve decided I’m being oppressed by men, doesn’t make it true”). It’s exhausting enough as an occasional experience, let alone as the constant one I see women of colour living through just on Twitter (for example).

So I think making more spaces for those voice to be heard, and listened to, is the crux of what we’re aiming to do, and I hope we can succeed in that.

Cheryl: One of the problems of introducing specific types of person into a story is avoiding objectifying them by focusing on what makes them different. Do you have any advice for writers as to how to avoid this?

Rivqa: Exoticisation is definitely something that can happen accidentally, as well as maliciously. It’s always valuable to remember that we’re adding to a body of work, that the tropes we’re using (even if we’re subverting them) don’t occur in isolation. Research and sensitivity readers can be really helpful. In my own reading, I’ve found that writers who are marginalised tend to write “the other” more sensitively than those who are not, but it’s not a given.

I’m reminded of Nalo Hopkinson’s words in her WisCon 2016 Guest of Honour speech: “It’s no crime if your first thought is a deeply problematic one. It’s possible to gaze calmly upon that thought, recognize it for what it is, let it waft on by, and follow it up with a different thought, or a positive action.” Maybe in a first draft, we reach for the easiest, most convenient backstory for a character or solution to a problem. That’s just the starting point. Editing is hard, but in most cases it’s what makes a story great, and it’s crucial in this respect.

Cheryl: Even though we are seeing an increasing number of people of colour writing SF&F, the settings of stories still tend to feel very Western in many cases because so many of the standard tropes were developed by Western writers. Do you hope to combat this?

Rivqa: Definitely. I think that the anthology as a medium is ideal for this. There’s a lot more latitude in a short story to play with structure and still be satisfying to a reader who’s new to non-Western narratives. I hope that for some, it’ll serve as a gateway into works that might be more challenging to their sensibilities! We’re putting our call for submissions out as far and wide as we possibly can, and I hope we’ve made it clear that we don’t expect a particular “type” of story. We don’t have rules about how many acts a story needs, whether there should be conflict, or… well, anything structural, really. We are also accepting poetry, which can, of course, tell a story in completely different ways again.

Cheryl: One of the excuses used for not including marginalised people in stories is that their very marginalisation makes it hard for them to have adventures. To me that sounds like there is a need to imagine how society can be different. Will you be encouraging that sort of work?

Rivqa: Yes, absolutely. There’s a common perception that utopias are boring, but a setting can be wildly different to our reality (or realities, really) while still presenting challenges to characters. That said, I’m not sure how valid that excuse is, and I for one am also interested in stories that challenge that very limited definition of adventure. Conflict (if it’s even needed in a story; see above) can be on any stage or scale. The only limitations here are those self-imposed by writers, and I hope we’ve made a welcoming space where they feel comfortable shedding some of those.

Cheryl: It is great that The Future Fire is doing this book, but I see a lot of people on social media, particularly younger people, complaining about how poor diversity in SF&F is. I suspect this is because they only see books that get into chain stores. How can we effectively promote the fine work being done by small presses and/or get more diversity into mainstream publishers’ output?

Rivqa: I’m not a marketing expert, and publishing as a whole isn’t in the best place. Mainstream publishers don’t seem to want to take risks, and they often view marginalised writers as a risk. I don’t think there’s going to be any revolution in this respect, but I’m hopeful that positive changes will happen over time. In the past couple of years I’ve watched the diverse book blogging community grow, and Patreon is gaining traction. I think a lot of people still see diverse books as a fad, but I hope we’ll reach a tipping point where they’re just normal, because they should be.

In terms of small press, I think building community is the most important thing. A few years ago I had no idea that book-focused spec fic conventions existed, and I had nothing to do with book Twitter (or any other social media) even though I was getting back into writing. Small presses are never going to have a huge advertising budget, so word of mouth is the key to getting people in — or at least, it was for me. Sharing our love for books that reflect our reality (even through the lens of spaceships and magic), requesting books from libraries… all of that kind of thing helps build us all up. It’s always lovely to see small press publishers and authors recommending others’ works; I can only hope that this synergy will gain momentum.

Rivqa Rafael is a queer Jewish writer and editor based in Sydney. She started writing speculative fiction well before earning degrees in science and writing, although they have probably helped. Her previous gig as subeditor and reviews editor for Cosmos magazine likewise fueled her imagination. Her short stories have appeared in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), The Never Never Land (CSFG Publishing), and Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press). In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. When she’s not working, she’s most likely child-wrangling, playing video games, or practising her Brazilian Jiujitsu moves. She can be found at rivqa.net and on Twitter as @enoughsnark.

Posted in Feminism, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Attention British Women SF Writers

Newcon Press will be publishing a Best of British Science Fiction 2016 anthology. The deadline for submissions was January 31st, but it sounds like they are short on submissions by women writers as they have extended the deadline to February 19th and are specifically reaching out to women writers. Submission details are available here.

So get submitting, people. Otherwise I will submit my two eligible stories and then where will the UK’s reputation be?

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LGBT History Month Is Underway

It is all go from now until the beginning of March. This is probably my busiest week. Here’s what’s happening.

On Tuesday evening I am taking part in a panel on LGBT+ History, local and national, at Bristol University. Details here.

On Thursday evening I’ll be in Exeter to talk to Surat-Shaan Knan about the fabulous Twilight People project. Details here.

On Saturday I am back in Exeter to speak at the launch event for their weekend of history talks.

And on Sunday I am giving one of those talks.

If you want to know what I’ll be talking about on Sunday, this post gives some background. (Historian and archaeologist friends, please note that this marketing blurb.)

Posted in History, Where's Cheryl? | Leave a comment

Some WSFS Issues

A couple of things to do with Worldcon have cropped up over the past week or so that I’d like to address.

Firstly people have been asking if WSFS will move the 2018 Worldcon out of the USA because of Trump. This is, of course, not up to WSFS. That Worldcon has been awarded to San José and can’t be taken away. However, I am on the Board of Directors for the San José event so I have a view. Being barred from entering the US myself, my view is somewhat biased.

The location doesn’t become a major issue for many months yet because hotel booking isn’t open. Lots of things could happen between then and now (up to and including Trump starting WWIII). But we are aware of the issue and will be discussing it at the next Board meeting. As Kevin has noted, 2018 is likely to be the only US Worldcon in a 4-year period, so it is by no means unfair to have it somewhere that only USians may be able to attend. That said, we do need to be aware of a potential financial disaster, and need to have contingency plans to hold the convention elsewhere. If it proves necessary, we’ll make a formal announcement, but despite my own travel woes I hope it won’t because I love my US friends dearly and would like them to get their country back.

The other thing that has raised its head is the issue of being a “Hugo nominee”. As most of you will know, that phrase is fairly meaningless because anyone can nominate themselves and therefore become a “nominee”. The important word is “finalist”, and you can only call yourself a “Hugo finalist” if you get on the final ballot.

It is worth noting that WSFS only notifies people of their receipt of a nomination by issuing the voting data. That will show you the top 15 nominees in each category (plus a few in the case of ties). If someone claims that they got email from WSFS informing them that they were nominated they are either fibbing or they are referring to the email you get confirming who you voted for, which means they nominated themselves.

And finally, if you get an email from someone claiming to represent the “Worldcon PR Department” then it is almost certainly a fake. Kevin or I, and a few others folks, may write to people on behalf of WSFS, but never on behalf of Worldcon because each Worldcon is an independent entity.

Posted in Awards, Conventions, Fandom | Leave a comment

Barcelona Thanks

I wasn’t very awake yesterday, and managed to write a whole blog post on the Barcelona trip without doing the most important thing: thanking everyone. I shall rectify that now.

First up, thanks to Agnès Garcia-Ventura and Saana Svärd who organized the whole thing. Some of you folks will know a bit about event organizing. The conference was only about 50 people, but it was 3 days of intense programming, two major social events, one catered lunch plus break refreshments on all three days. There was no attendance fee. I’m seriously impressed with the job that Agnès and Saana did.

Secondly, huge thanks to everyone who made me so welcome throughout the week. I was a total outsider with no formal qualifications in history or archaeology, but I was accepted instantly and feel like I have made a bunch of great new friends (most of whom are young enough to be my children). I learned a lot during the week, and hope to be able to do much better history because of it.

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A Week in Barcelona

Hello, remember me?

I know, I have been very quiet this past week. That’s because I have been very busy. The conference days were long, partly because we had so much good material, and partly because, this being Barcelona, we allowed 1.5 hours for lunch. The days tended to finish at around 7:00pm, after which we’d go out for a glass or two of wine, and then go for dinner. By the time we were done it was time for bed.

The lack of blogging wasn’t helped by the fact that my hotel was fairly basic. The wifi was good but there was no desk so I tended to just check email then drop offline again. I’m not complaining. The room was clean, comfortable and ideally situated just a few minutes walk from the university. It was also very cheap. That was ideal for somewhere I would be spending very little time in, but needed for sleep.

My final excuse for not blogging more is that much of the material was very esoteric. You folks probably won’t be interested in an in-depth analysis of the names that Babylonians gave their children, a list of all of the known scribes from the Assyrian empire and their functions, or Talmudic deliberations on whether being breastfed made a male baby unclean. However, here are a few things I found out about that may be more amusing.

First up, thanks to Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme for introducing me to the Brick Testament. This is a recreation of the Bible in Lego dioramas. Naturally it reproduces a whole lot of weirdness from the Old Testament, including this explanation of when it is OK to have your son stoned to death and this rather NSFW depiction of male sex workers. It is also a useful reminder of just how many people the Israelite god managed to slaughter during the course of the narrative.

Second, thanks to Amy Gansell for introducing me to the recreation of the royal palace at Nimrud created by Learning Sites, Inc.. This palace was built by Ashurnasirpal II and material from it is available in numerous museums around the world. There is also a 2D walk-through available here via a Firefox plugin.

The video below is a 2D fly-through of the place, but it is also available as a VR experience using Oculus Rift. When Amy first encountered the project there were no women shown at all in the recreation. Thankfully Learning Sites has been willing to work with her to develop a representation of Ashurnasirpal’s queen, Mullissu-mukannišat-Ninua and some of her servants.

Since the recreation project was begun, what remains of the actual site at Nimrud has apparently been destroyed by Daesh.

Posted in Academic, History, Where's Cheryl? | 1 Comment

Hola World

This is a very quick update from Barcelona. The weather is much better than in England. The food and the wine are great. The University of Barcelona is as beautiful as ever. I am spending much of my time apologizing to young European academics about the awfulness of Brexit. Even the Americans are less embarrassed than me because Trump is a vague and nebulous threat whereas for some of these people, or their friends and colleagues, Brexit means losing your home and possibly being separated from your spouse.

Anyway, the conference is great. I haven’t learned a huge amount, but I have confirmed a few things I was unsure about which thankfully means I don’t have to do any massive re-writes of my talks for LGBT History Month. I’m delighted at the number of people who want to learn about trans theory to help them with their work.

Posted in Academic, Current Affairs, Gender, Where's Cheryl? | Leave a comment