Over the past few days I have encountered several references to the use of trans people in art. Firstly there is this article, referencing the LGBT History exhibition, which appeared on Unmaking Things, a blog that is a joint production of the Royal College of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum. We’ve also had a request, following on from the exhibition, to find trans people who are willing to be photographed for an art project. And finally, some asked on Twitter if I thought it was reasonable to claim to have gained an understanding of trans people through reading science fiction.
What these all have in common is that they involve the representation of trans people in art, probably by cis people. In her blog post, Lauren Fried notes that in the exhibition, “There is very little imagery which pertains to the (re)design of bodies here; instead, the histories of these bodies are referred to through objects and archival documentary sources.” This was very deliberate on our part and Fried, though her academic interest is in the design of bodies, understands why we did it. (I’ve since corresponded with her on Facebook.)
All too often, images of trans people, both factual and artistic, are intended to other the subjects. We get the notorious “before and after” shots that the newspapers are so fond of running (and that trans celebrities are automatically asked for, even when an article featuring them has nothing to do with their transition or history). And we get gender-bending art displays that either revel in androgyny or present “you can’t tell” images.
Of course there is a place for such things. The exhibition does contain a portrait of a trans woman, local theatre director, Martine Shackerley-Bennett, who allowed her artist friend, Penny Clark, to chronicle her transition. You can learn more about the work Penny did in this YouTube clip.
There is also a long and honorable history of performers such as David Bowie, Boy George, Tilda Swinton and Andrej Pejić who delight in presenting an androgynous appearance. That is their right, and the questioning of gender boundaries that results from their actions is to be welcomed as it has done a great deal to advance public acceptance of trans folk.
Where problems arise is when people start with the gender-bending image and conclude, “this is what trans people are.” As I hope regular readers will be aware by now, the truth is much more complicated. While there are many trans people who would love to be as famous, good-looking and as brain-exploding as Swinton or Pejić, there are many who do not. Very few want to be the subject of “freak show” imagery.
So how does this fit into learning about trans people from SF? Well, if you’ve read my essay on the subject you’ll know that most 20th Century SF featuring trans people was written by cis people who seemed to have very little idea what actual trans people were like. It also tended to make the trans folk “issue characters”, by which I mean that their otherness was the significant thing about them, the reason why they were in the story. Respectful or not, it tended to be the literary equivalent of the freak show image.
The other thing about 20th Century SF is that it often features gender transition as a choice rather than as something the characters need to do in order to be themselves. The assumption is that future technology allows such essentially cosmetic surgery, and so people will opt for it. Iain Banks, to his credit, has always acknowledged that such choices are predicated on a society that has achieved gender equality. Few people would choose to become a member of an oppressed group in society. In our current society, where women are still second class citizens, and trans people are often barely accepted as human, the idea that transition is a lifestyle choice is deeply offensive to many who undergo it.
So does reading 20th Century SF actually help you gain an understanding of trans people? From one point of view, clearly not. I’ve had earnest people tell me that they know all about folk like me because they have read John Varley’s Steel Beach. This makes me want to put my head in my hands and weep. If that’s what you get out of your reading then you are in deep trouble.
On the other hand, what SF has always done is usualize the idea of gender transition. (Yes, “usualize” is a made up word. That’s because the word commonly used in a sentence like that would be “normalize”, and “normal” has all sorts of connotations beyond the mathematical.)
What I mean by this is that if you read SF (and to a lesser extent fantasy) then the idea that someone might change their gender is not strange and frightening. SF readers are accustomed to reading about things that might not (yet) be real, whereas those who do not read SF often excuse themselves by saying that they can’t accept things that are not real, even in a work of fiction (which is, by definition, unreal). If you can’t accept the possibility of a changing world in fiction, the chances are you won’t be too keen on actual changes in the real world.
So I do think there is a way in which reading SF can help people to accept trans people. Of course it isn’t foolproof. While there are some people for who reading SF as made them eager and willing to encounter aliens, there are others who feel it has taught them that the only good alien is a dead alien. I’m also aware that there are SF fans who are perfectly OK reading about people with green skin and tentacles, but can’t cope with ordinary humans who have brown skin, or breasts. Art does not affect all people in the same way. However, I can see how reading SF may have helped people to be more understanding about difference. Whether those people would have been as understanding without it, I can’t say, and neither can they. If they want to credit their reading as being formative, I’m happy to let them.