Transcendent 2 is Full of Top-Flight Transgender and Nonbinary Fantasy and SF

I kept my expectations in check when I picked up Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, edited by Bogi Takacs. How much high-quality transgender speculative fiction would even have been published over the course of the year, I wondered. As it turned out, there’s quite a lot.

Before I speak to more specifics, though, I want to point out how broad and inclusive the spectrum of gender identities in these stories were. While I’m quite interested in fiction about what you might call “traditional” transgendered people, who each identify as just one discrete gender (which doesn’t match their birth sexes), being nonbinary, I’m keenly interested in stories about characters who are not strictly male or female, whether trans or not. To my surprise and great pleasure, Transcendent 2 offered a real wealth of stories like that.

Because so many of these stories are written by non-cisgender people, the trans and nonbinary characters in them are not used as gimmicks or tokens: by and large, they’re complicated, diverse people whose genders are not the most important or most striking thing about them. To go from reading about almost no trans/enby characters straight to full-fledged ones, without having to go through an intermediary stage of diversity for diversity’s sake, is a privilege.

While my enthusiasm for the individual stories was mixed, there was no lack of good writing, and I imagine another reader might well pick other favorites. A few of mine included

  • A. Merc Rustad’s “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door,” about childhood friends in other worlds
  • “Three Points Masculine,” in which An Owomoyela opens up some of the complex issue of a trans person’s own response to other kinds of trans people
  • Keffy Kehrli’s queerly and engagingly imaginative “The Road, and the Valley, and the Beasts”
  • Toby MacNutt’s “The Way You Say Goodnight,” with its half-metaphoric delving into individual burdens, disabilities, identities, and hidden strengths, and
  • “Her Sacred Spirit Soars,” S. Qiouyi Lu’s beautifully evolving story of transference of spirit, oneness, loneliness, and layered identity. While this felt like the least trans stories in the anthology to me, it had one of the most unusual approaches to the idea. For fans of literary rule-breaking, it also is one of those rare pieces of fiction that uses the second person well.

Some other stories caught my imagination less, but the variety and the consistently high quality of the writing prevented any from being stories I skipped, which in such a varied anthology is a real accomplishment for me as a reader. I generally stop reading books or stories the moment I decide they aren’t likely to have anything I really want to offer, and that didn’t happen once in this book. Take a look, and see for yourself.

How Do Bi-Gender People Experience Their Genders?

I’m conducting a survey of bi-gender people to help learn about and spread the word about what it means to be bi-gender. If you haven’t read about it elsewhere on this site, “bi-gender” (also written “bigender”) means having two genders, often but not always male or female, and experiencing them at the same time or at different times.

In other words, some bi-gender people experience their gender as a combination of two, others experience them separately, and still others sometimes do one and sometimes the other. That’s the topic of one of the questions in the survey.

gender identity experience among bi-gender people

For anyone who has read my book, you’ll know that I’m in that small green section, people who pretty much go back and forth between two genders without really ever finding themselves in the middle. As it turns out, that’s unusual among my survey sample: most people sometimes or always experience both genders at the same time.

The one response under “other” was from someone who wasn’t sure if the question meant to ask about gender identity or gender expression. My intention was closer to gender identity, though I meant gender identity in terms of how it feels at different times rather than in terms of how we define ourselves overall. Of course, I can’t say whether other respondents got this intention from the way I phrased the question.

There are other terms that can encompass the idea of being two genders at once: “genderqueer,” sometimes “genderfluid,” and just plain “nonbinary,” for example, could all potenitally cover it. Yet I don’t think it makes sense to try to insist that the term “bi-gender” not include people who might also be described in other ways, even if it were possible to make that change. First, “bi-gender” emphasizes the duality of our genders, which for some of us is a central point. Second, while for some of us, our gender experience may be consistent over many years, for others the experience of being bi-gender can change over time: gender proportions can shift, and the way we experience our genders can change as well. Not expecting the term “bi-gender” to give a specific account of exactly how we feel and present our genders leaves latitude for a range of gender experiences. There’s no point getting out of the gender binary box only to be trapped in another box of expectations.

My sample size is still small, although it’s growing. As of this writing, there are 18 respondents, which seems small unless you consider how difficult to find we bi-gender people currently are! I’ll post more results from the survey in posts going forward.

Neither Male nor Female, Just Like It Says on My Driver’s License

In June of 2016, an Oregon judge ruled that Jamie Shupe, a 52-year-old Army veteran, could legally change their gender to “nonbinary” in the eyes of that state. This seems to have been the first time in the U.S. that a person gained legal status as neither male nor female, which is a little astonishing, considering we’ve always been here–though I admit, for a long time nobody considered our gender identities might be legitimate (least of all, oftentimes, nonbinary people ourselves).

Since then, the motor vehicle departments of Oregon, the District of Columbia, and California have all added a nonbinary option, X, on driver’s licenses, and Ontario, Washington state, and Vermont are now considering doing the same.

oregon driver's license with x gender

One thing that surprises me in all this is that for the most part, this welcome change isn’t based on new laws. California passed a bill to recognize a third gender option, but everywhere else I mentioned, it’s the department of motor vehicles getting things done. Apparently, there being no law that driver’s licenses have to say “male” or “female,” adding a third option isn’t a legal issue: it’s just administrative.

Even as a person who’s only partly out, I would love to see this option available in my state. The idea of having a license that doesn’t require me to say I’m something I’m not (or at least something I’m not a large proportion of the time) is hugely appealing, and I imagine preparing for my new photo by making my face look as androgynous as possible, hopefully leaving anyone who ends up needing to check my ID with no need to be confused or figure anything out.

androgynous face

But then, the bigger issue for me is the name. Even if I can get ID that is more or less accurate in terms of gender and that never presents a jarring contrast between my presentation in life and my presentation in my photo, I still need to be able to refer to myself somehow. Yet it’s already possible to get a legal name change, so all the tools are there.

What about you? Does anyone else out there have or want a non-binary designation on your license or passport?

An Opportunity for Non-Binary People to Get Together and Talk

This past weekend, I had the very unusual opportunity to connect with other non-binary people as part of a larger event, in a closed discussion that didn’t include any mono-gendered people (well, except for one woman who wandered in, not knowing what the discussion was about. Once we realized she wasn’t non-binary, we had to send her on her way, which felt rude, but which was absolutely necessary).

There were about a dozen of us, sitting in a circle and just asking and answering questions. Most there were younger–college age or early twenties–but there were also three or four forty-and-up people, myself included, and age seemed to be no barrier in the discussion. There wasn’t anyone else there who definitely identified as bi-gender, but that didn’t really matter, either. The uniting experience was of being neither strictly male nor strictly female.

It seemed to me that it was a relief and an empowering experience for everyone there to be able to talk to other people who shared something of their experience. The other opportunity I had to participate in a group like this, the experience was very similar: mostly younger people, no one else who identified as bi-gender, and everyone delighted to be there.

To follow up on this, I’m going to look into organizing a one-day non-binary conference, perhaps in Massachusetts this summer. I don’t yet know exactly what we’ll do apart from having open discussion, but that will develop over time. If you’re interested in this conference, please drop me a line. If you’re interested but wouldn’t be able to make it in person, please still get in touch: I want to look into ways that it might be possible to include people remotely through some kind of private videoconferencing.

If anyone has suggestions for the conference or (better yet) is interested in helping plan or organize or staff it, I’m enthusiastically interested in hearing from you. I don’t know that anything like this event has happened before (though I’d love to hear about it if it has), and regardless, this has the opportunity to be a singular event for those of us who feel a little marginal sometimes.

By the way, this site is now also accessible through the address bi-gender.com. I may do more with that domain in future, or create a more broadly focused non-binary site.

Non-Binary Student Commits Suicide by Cop

Scout Schultz was a 21-year student at Georgia Tech and the leader of the Georgia Tech LGBT Alliance.

scout

Why?

I don’t know anything about Scout’s state of mind, but I have to say that this incident isn’t puzzling to me like some such incidents are, because Scout was non-binary, and non-binary people don’t fit anywhere. Not only don’t we fit into the usual categories in the world; we’re even out of place among LGBTQ groups. Even transgender people, who themselves are often on the margins of the already-marginalized LGBTQ community, are usually one gender or the other.

As a non-binary person, it’s hard not to feel like you’re misplaced, a permanent outsider. It’s also hard to believe sometimes that you will ever find a romantic partner, because you can’t be understood at a glance, and it’s usually impossible to know who might even have the capacity to be romantically interested in you just by looking. Straight and gay people generally have a huge pool of potential soulmates (or one-night stands, depending on what they’re looking for). Trans people and non-binary people, on the other hand, are often left wondering if there’s anyone at all for them.

None of these things forces a person to suicide, but they certainly don’t help.

Sorry, but a thing about words

According to a BBC article, Scout “identified as intersex,” but intersex means having been born with ambiguous sexual anatomy; it’s not a gender identity in the usual sense. Apparently Scout had described themself in a profile as “bisexual, nonbinary and intersex,” but I’m disappointed that the BBC didn’t check their terminology and stick with the adjective that appears to be most accurate, “nonbinary.” In reality, it seems as though Scout was not intersex–for instance, according to the Washington Post,

Both parents remembered well the time that Scout came out to them.

“It wasn’t a shock because we’re welcoming and loving parents,” Bill Schultz [Scout’s father] said. “It shouldn’t have been hard for Scout to come out but I think there were some issues involved there which is why they did a session in therapy.”

I don’t imagine Bill Schultz would have been that surprised at Scout coming out if Scout actually were intersex, so I can only conclude that Scout misunderstood what the word meant and that media outlets aren’t checking their terms to make sure they correct the mistake. That’s disappointing, because the words really do matter. Intersex people can be male, female, non-binary, or other, just like anyone else. It doesn’t help for media outlets to be sloppy about their word usage and suggest otherwise. That’s a good way to spread confusion.

Time Magazine: Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’

I’m late finding it, but an article in the March 27th issue of Time Magazine, “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: The Changing Meaning of Gender and Sexuality” (also available online at http://time.com/magazine/us/4703292/march-27th-2017-vol-189-no-11-u-s/ ) offers research and individual accounts on the changing understanding of gender and sexuality. They don’t mention bi-gender people (but then, hardly anyone does), though they do make note of one person who identifies as gender fluid and describes a bi-gender-like experience of life. They also pretty much ignore non-binary people older than their mid-twenties. Still, it’s a well-written and informative article that answers some questions about how widespread non-binary genders and sexual preferences are, how younger people tend to regard them, and how they’re changing in our culture: well worth a read.

 

Recommended fiction: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

My friend Kristin passed along a recommendation to me for Jeff Garvin’s YA novel Symptoms of Being Human (Balzer + Bray, 2016), which tells the story of Riley Cavanaugh, a genderfluid teen. It’s the first book I’ve read where a major character could really be considered bi-gender (though Riley never uses that word, and “genderfluid” is probably a better description of who they are). Riley moves back and forth on the scale between male and female, feeling more boy one day and more girl the next. The story deals with their experience trying to walk a fine line of being themself and not drawing unwanted attention. That line, it turns out, is too thin: as in real life, there are people who take real exception to anyone crossing gender lines or trying to mix genders.

In terms of entertainment, if like me you enjoy YA (young adult) fiction, as more and more adults seem to do these days, Symptoms of Being Human is a good read. Some of the positive attention Riley gets doesn’t feel realistic to me: without giving away what goes on in the story, Riley seems like a realistic teenager with realistic gifts, but some of those gifts are received as though they’re amazing and exceptional, and I found that a little hard to swallow. Garvin also chooses to never let Riley reveal what sex they were assigned at birth, and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, as Garvin must have intended, it keeps the focus on Riley’s actual gender instead of letting us get hung up on Riley’s assigned sex. On the other hand, while being non-binary is very tricky regardless of your assigned sex at birth, the challenges are a bit different depending on what that assigned sex is, both socially and physically, and this story glosses over those differences. Still, it’s refreshing to have a character whose assigned sex at birth is simply beside the point.

In terms of gender experience, Garvin does a great job, especially since nothing in the public information I’ve seen about him suggests that he’s anything different than a straight, cisgender male (he describes himself in this article about gender identity as an ally). Evidently he spent a lot of time reading and talking to transgender and non-binary people before he began to write, and it shows in characters who feel true-to-life in their gender non-conformity.

For a contrast, consider Lauren McLaughlin’s enjoyable but unrealistic YA novel Cycler, in which the main character inexplicably flips back and forth between being physically male and physically female: it’s a good read, but it has no wisdom to impart about being non-binary–though to be fair, I doubt it’s meant to.

Symptoms of Being Human is mainly preoccupied with the difficult question of whether to come out, and how much, and to whom, and how to try not to give your gender identity away before you’re ready. These are important and interesting question, though it was a little disappointing to me that they ended up being the ultimate questions in the book. From my point of view, coming out is a secondary issue, and the main thing is how a person lives and figures out who they are when they don’t fit into the gender binary we’re all taught is basic to our identity.

But Symptoms is a badly-needed and rewarding read, and my hope is that that it’s only the beginning for Garvin and for Riley, that before long we’ll see the continuation of Riley’s story and what comes of them facing these deeper issues.