Queerness in the past and future

I recently read What Moves the Dead, which is a horror novella involving fungi and also nonbinary people. The latter half of that description was enough to override the fact that I don’t generally like horror because I am an actual baby about it. Anyway, there’s a character who’s a “sworn soldier,” which is a peculiarity of their made-up country. See, they have a lot of pronouns, including one that’s just for soldiers, so some years back, women figured out there was nothing stopping them from joining the army. Because after all it’s not “hims” in the army, everyone in the army is ko, so why can’t a girl grow up to be ko? It’s a whole gender created just for this world and this book.

The cover of What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher, showing a rabbit with mushrooms growing out of its body

And I loved it because the fact is, queer identities in the past can be fascinating and very different from the present. Some cultures had third genders which were trans men, or trans women, or all gay people. Some cultures found it normal for young boys to be sex partners for their older mentors. (Glad we moved past that particular one.) In the early 20th century, there was a lot of talk about inverts. These are people whose sexuality is on “backwards” so they’re both homosexual and gender nonconforming. I found it very interesting when, in an older novel I read recently, the “invert” character has partners who are “normal” and basically heterosexual. They’re just into our hero because she’s got a “masculine spirit.”

Today we draw the boundaries differently. In fact, in an attempt to not get caught up in inaccurate assumptions (eg that all lesbians want to be men) we multiply categories. You can have one sexuality, one romantic orientation, one gender, one gender presentation ….. and each of these could be static or fluid or in-between or both or neither!

Personally, I like this. It makes it easier to explain and a little harder for people to stereotype me.

However, I do feel there’s a degree of social construction here. We are what we are. But we also shape ourselves in response to our culture or subculture’s expectations. First we are put into a category, then we make our home there–or fail to. No matter what the standard categories are, there will always be people for whom the categories don’t work.

Which just raises the question of, what categories would other places and times have?

Personally, I feel using exactly the categories we have today ends up dating a work of fiction. There are words commonly used a decade or two ago that are slurs now, and old slurs get reclaimed. Anything you write in 2022 may be embarrassingly out of date by 2040.

But on the other hand, you can’t actually guess how people will see gender and sexuality in the 24th century. Will we have a multiplicity of genders surpassing what we have now? Or will people push back against the boxification of gender and just say queer for everything? Or maybe queerness won’t even be queer anymore; we’ll understand that anyone might be attracted to anybody, no more significant about a person than their interest in blonds.

So: accuracy about the future is not available. But science fiction authors know this. Like fantasy authors, we aren’t really predicting, we’re creating. We want to create a future that could exist, that feels plausible, without attempting to make a statement about what should be or what will be.

In both science fiction and fantasy, the goal is to create a queer world that feels organic and possible. It may be an expression of our wildest dreams, or it may be downright dystopian. But I think creating social constructions of queerness is part of a well-built, living world.

Let’s look at a few of my favorite SFF works doing interesting things with gender and sexuality.

First up, probably my favorite: Ancillary Justice. In the Imperial Radch, gender just isn’t a concept. They have one set of pronouns in their language. The author chooses to use she/her for everyone, which I found an inspired choice–because you see “she” while “he” is almost invisible, especially in SF where we’ve all read books with no women in them at all. We are occasionally reminded that sex does still exist–our narrator reminds us sometimes that people have different genitals, though she doesn’t see why that matters. We also realize after awhile that the erasure of gender is part of the empire’s cultural hegemony. They’re coming for your songs, your tea sets, your holidays, your genders. The erasure of gender, we are meant to understand, isn’t supposed to be good. It simply is. I imagine some people would love a world without gender, while others would rather die.

Of course I must mention that absolute classic, The Left Hand of Darkness. This is a world, not with no genders, but with shifting genders. Everyone is without sex or gender except once a month, when they become one or the other. This results in something very like a world without gender, and much of the book investigates how they manage stuff like marriage, childbearing, custody, and so on. And yet, our outsider hero is reminded at the end, gender is still there. Sexual attraction is there. What does it mean for him, a straight man, to suddenly become attracted to someone he’s been calling him the whole book?

Becky Chambers plays with gender a lot in her work, with different species having one, or three, or shifting genders, or different roles than we would expect. I like the one that doesn’t declare a gender till they’re adults.

The Locked Tomb series is a veritable explosion of queerness. There’s no mention of trans identities, no one ever declares oneself to be gay or straight, and yet absolutely no one is performing traditional roles. Girls are described as princes. Characters we thought were straight get into queer relationships and nobody bats an eye. Women end up possessing men’s bodies, and vice versa, all the dang time. It seems to be a future where we’ve simply moved past the expectation that anything will happen in any specific way.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant starts out in a world where queerness and polyamory are completely standard. Baru has two dads and one mom. And yet that world is set in fierce opposition to the homophobic Masquerade. We have new, derogatory terms for things (eg tribadist instead of lesbian) and our queer characters have to navigate a dangerous world.

Last, I’ll mention the Terra Ignota series. It’s a future where gender is, once again, completely erased. And yet gender underlies everything. This is not a utopia where everyone is happy to shed the strictures of gender. Instead, it’s a world where we are forbidden to speak of half the stuff that matters to people. Thus, as you might expect, performing gender becomes a deviant fetish, one the narrator is obsessed with to an uncomfortable degree. He slaps pronouns on everyone, including pronouns I very much doubt the people would agree to. Including it. Ew. He ends up being the most obnoxiously gender essentialist person ever. The series is an incredible trip, led by the world’s most unreliable narrator.

It leads one to ask, what hasn’t yet been done? What could we have more of? What worlds would you like to live in, and what do you think might happen?

That’s the delightful thing about SFF: your imagination really is the limit.

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