The Trans Stuff at Worldcon

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 It is a bit outdated now.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 MontrĂ©al. 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.

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4 Responses to The Trans Stuff at Worldcon

  1. Catherine Butler says:

    “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 think I see what he’s getting at here – I can see why you might not want to include (say) a society where people change sex (and/or gender) as part of their natural development, like snails (I think?). But I don’t like this way of putting it – because coming out as trans is (at least in my experience) more about affirming who you always were than it is about change. Change follows as a side-effect – it’s not the core of the thing.

  2. Paul Ballard says:

    Hi.

    In return you have managed to floor me by writing a post about my paper! I would have thanked you in person had I known about it whilst still at the conference.

    You are completely correct about the need for better terminology. I was concerned that it would become confusing in the context of a talk, but thankfully most seemed to follow it. I noticed that the term posthuman was used as a synonym for transhuman throughout much of the con, which would have been easier, if a touch woolly, but couldn’t use it in good conscience when referencing Max More et al.

    Regarding the ‘will to change’. It’s early days for this particular strand of thinking for me, and has been and continues to be the subject of much discussion between myself and others. The important sentence, I feel, in the paper is “[a trans character's] gender expression must either be volitional, or the result of an internal, personalised compulsion, not an externally imposed condition.” I decided to hang this throughout, perhaps reductively, upon the phrase ‘will to change’ as change is a common factor in both transsexual and transgender experience*. I am happy to acknowledge that it is certainly not the central factor of being trans, and heartily welcome further discussion on how this issue should be addressed.

    Also, during our conversation, you mentioned that my working definitions of the terms transgender, transsexual, and trans were very similar to your own. If I having unknowingly plagiarised you here, I apologise. Please feel free to point me at the piece(s) I have missed and I will gladly give credit where it is due in any future work on the subject.

    Best regards,
    Paul.

    * For the record, I would describe myself as bi-gender, so there is perhaps an element of personal bias at work here that needs to be addressed.

    • Cheryl says:

      Hi Paul, thanks for dropping by. Will try to write more when I get time to think.

      As to definitions, I can no more lay claim to a definition of, say, “transsexual”, than I could lay claim to a definition of measles. These words are out there and in use. All I can do is explain how they are used. (As opposed to Clute words, which John does create definitions for.)

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