Today there was an academic program section that included a paper on trans characters in science fiction. It was given by Paul Ballard, and I went along to see what he had to say. I was completely floored when he opened up by recommending that people read this. It is a bit outdated now. I need to do a new version.
Paul works with a trans youth group in Kent so he knows his stuff. Like me, Paul is concerned that trans people are being misrepresented in fiction because of a desire by cis writers to use them for entertainment, or to make political points. He made an interesting point that for a character in a novel to count as trans that character should have a specific will to change in some way; it was not enough to have forced change, or change that is entirely natural of the character. I need to think a bit about this, in particular with reference to people who see themselves more as gender-fluid, but it could be a useful distinction.
Mention of characters that shift genders naturally brings us naturally to The Left Hand of Darkness. Paul noted that the Gethenians really aren’t trans people in a Terran sense. I noted, as I often do in such discussions, that it can be read as a book about Trans Panic; that is the discomfort (and sometimes murderous rage) that cis people can develop when confronted by a trans person whom they thoughts was cis. Also giving a paper in the session was Jason Bourget, whom I had previously met when we were on a trans issues panel together in Montréal. Jason is a Le Guin scholar (and presented a good paper on gender in The Dispossessed). He noted the debate over the fact that Le Guin had used male pronouns for the Gethenians, and said that the Trans Panic reading only works when male pronouns are used. If female pronouns had been used, Genly would need to be gender-swapped to female (and probably made a Radical Feminist) for the same reading to work.
By the way, trying to read a paper which talks about trans people and transhumanism, which are two very different things, is very difficult. We need new terminology.