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Panel Notes From Arisia

This weekend was Arisia. I was on a whopping 13 program items, which is quite a lot. I have panel notes from three of them, which I present to you here in one giant bundle. The panels were Trans* and Gender Variant SF, Beyond Binary, and Asexuality in SF These are not transcripts, just hastily scribbled points, and, where possible, all the works mentioned.

Trans* and Gender Variant SF
Dash, Michelle D'Entremont, Julia Rios, Cecilia Tan (m)

Official description: How are trans* and gender variant characters represented in science fiction? How often are these characters introduced only for the purpose of examining the experiences of cisgender individuals? How often are these characters well-developed as the center of the narratives about themselves? What are common pitfalls? And how much research should an author do into the lives of real-world trans* and gender variant people before setting out to write gender variant SF?


How often are these characters introduced only for the purpose of examining the experiences of cisgender individuals? -- Star Trek episode with one-gendered planet, seemed to exist for Riker's story, not Soren's. Also, problem of showing how hard it is for oppressor to be oppressed.

Dash: Not so much that aliens are created to talk about humanity, but that "humanity" doesn't include me.

Can we think of any good examples of gender-variant representation?

I recommend The Courier's New Bicycle by Kim Westwood. Features genderqueer main character who never uses any pronouns. Has close friend who is a trans man. Story told from point of view of the gender variant characters, and is their story, not story of cis characters.

Audience recommends Tamora Pierce (I'm afraid I didn't catch a specific title), who has a secondary character who says that a trickster touched them in the womb and changed their gender.

Audience recommends Cheryl Morgan and Roz Kaveney as good sources for reviews and commentary about books with trans* content. Panelists agree.

Audience member says they work with drag kings and burlesque performers, and that believes walls between gender have shifted to become more permissive in those movements.

Dash recommends Yay Genderform as a great resource, which collects many possible non-binary ways to think of gender.

Someone (Dash?) mentions Gender Outlaws, and there is collective enthusing about Kate Bornstein.

Someone mentions Genderlife Forum as good resource for information on gender stuff.

Audience member recmmends Whipping Girl by Julia Serano as a good book about trans experience. Panelists agree.

Audience member asks if panelists have ever read Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany. Cecilia talks about her eye-opening experience of reading Trouble on Triton, in which the main character goes through gender transformation, and still remains self-centered and arrogant. Idea that this presents gender not as an issue, but as one aspect of a complex character.

Some talk about positive representation involving characters who happen to be trans/queer/non-binary gendered rather than having that be the only focus and issue in their stories.

Someone relates anecdote about Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells. Secondary character happened to be gay, and nothing terrible befell them. Copy editor tried to "fix" this by removing whole sections of the book to cut that character out. The book's editor stepped in and reversed the copy editor's changes.

[Edited to add: txanne says the Martha Wells book in question is actually The Element of Fire.]

[Further edited to add: akiko points out that Martha Wells told this story about Death of the Necromancer, after all.]

Dash: Take care that there are real trans/gender variant people in your world if you decide to make up SFnal explanations for other trans/gender variant characters to exist. Don't have all trans people be laboratory-created mistakes, etc.

Audience member says Charles Stross writes a lot of interesting things, and that Richard K. Morgan writes good gay characters.

Another Audience member brings up a Farscape episode, but we're out of time, and I have no idea which episode or what the connection was.

Beyond Binary: Exploring Gender Via SF/Fantasy
Dash, Greer Gilman, Julia Rios (m), Cecilia Tan

Official Description: When words can take you to the outer limits of space and far-flung fantastic lands, why should so many cultures share the same gender definitions (and oppressions) as we have in the present-day US? How has SF/F given us a different (and hopefully better) perspective on defining gender, and where is it falling short? What are some examples of literature that do a good job in exploring or addressing gender issues of our real world? What are some things we haven't seen yet but would like to?


I moderated this one, and started by briefly explaining the gender binary as the artificial division of people into two genders, which are assigned at birth. In this panel, we were to discuss spec fic that presented characters who did not conform to the gender binary.

I asked the panelists to start by tackling the first question. Why is so much of SF locked into the gender binary?

Cecilia: Because people get told "write what you know".

Me: This is especially insidious because the default view for "a person" is a straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied male. Because the narrative in our society presses so hard on heteronormativity and on this idea of the default view, often people who do not experience life as straight,white, cis, able-bodied men will still write about them.

Dash: Has never written a Jewish character. All characters have defaulted to Christian even though Dash's experience at home is with Judaism.

Me: Can panelists think of examples of SF with good non-binary representation?

Greer: Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Orlando changes gender without it changing their character or personality, and without it being an issue.

Me: Asks audience if they are familiar with book. Explain general concept as sort of love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and possible idea that lover sees beloved as mangificent and transcending gender.

Cecilia: Recommends the works of Vinnie Tesla, who has women who are gentlemen, written with love.

Dash: Expanded Horizons is searchable by category, including genderqueer authors and characters, genderfluid authors, neutrois authors, etc. Recommends work of An Owomoyela, Michelle Belanger and Shweta Narayan in particular.

We talk about the importance of having non-binary gender presented as something not scary, not shocking, a part of someone, but not their sole defining feature.

Greer mentions Albanian Sworn Virgins. We talk about how this is an example of both being focused on the gender binary and breaking it at the same time.

Dash brings the conversation back to SF with Octavia Butler's Wild Seed, which has gender switching immortals.

Audience mentions Lois McMaster Bujold as having disappointing trans and "dual gender" characters. Panelists talk about this as an example of "What if, in the future, trans people existed? Wouldn't that be weird?" We agree it's possible to like things even if they are problematic.

I recommend Diana Comet by Sandra McDonald and Fly Into Fire by Susan Jane Bigelow as examples of trans characters where the trans identity is not the central issue of the story.

Audience asks what panelists think of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Greer: Explains plot of The Left Hand of Darkness.

Panelists discuss problem of this being created species, where all members have same gender. Not human, not allowing possibility or humanity to contain non-binary gendered people.

Audience member is bothered by preponderance of fiction without agency in gender expression. Gender seems to change or become non-binary due to magic or divine intervention or scientific mishap. As if authors can't imagine someone who would choose to express gender in non-binary way.

Audience member says that Le Guin later said she felt she did not portray those characters as well as she would have liked.

Audience member is sick of books that claim to be "queer" but only feature white cis gay men.

Audience member asks if idea like Orlando is essentially erasing. "I don't see gender."

Panel says this depends on context. If object of story feels personally attached to specific gender identity which is not being respected and acknowledged, then yes. If Object feels like gender is fluid, then maybe no.

Cecilia mentions problem of essentialism and prescribing ways of being according to one limited viewpoint.

Audience member wants to defend Le Guin, and says that she was trying to examine the idea of "what if politics was just as horrible, but in both masculine and feminine ways?".

I say that this still defaults to binary view, and is a very problematic what if. Not only binary, but also assumes males behave one way and females behave another. Very limiting.

Greer: Le Guin was trying to show a class of people where anyone could get pregnant.

We agree that The Left Hand of Darkness does have good things in it, and that it is possible to like problematic things.

Someone recommends a couple of titles without this problem: Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Octavia Butler's Bloodchild.

Audience member relates anecdote about last Doctor Who regeneration, and conversation on forum. Would fans still watch if Doctor was a woman? Forum exploded with arguments. Why isn't this community more open to different gender expression possibilities?

Dash would like to know that, too.

Audience would like to see more non-binary, not male nor female characters.

Recommendations for: Octavia Butler, The Courier's New Bicycle, The Jacob's Ladder trilogy by Elizabeth Bear.

Audience: Why are there no non-gendered robots?

Cecilia Recommends Robotica by Kal Cobalt.

Audience asks for examples of trans/non-binary characters in historical or secondary world fantasy.

Recommendations for Greer's work, and The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum. Some talk about problem of research and not wanting to eclipse experience of real transpeople in history.

General recommendations for Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, Scheherazade's Facade anthology, and Beyond Binary anthology.

Asexuality and Asexual Charcters in SF/F
Dash (m), Adrianne Brennan, Julia Rios

Official Description: We're all familiar by now with the sexual orientations homosexual, heterosexual, and bi/pansexual. Much less discussed are asexuals, people who do not experience sexual attraction (but who may experience romantic attraction). We'll discuss what asexuality is and is not. Is it enough that a character has no on-page sex life, or should asexuality be more positively portrayed? We'll cover examples of works that include asexual characters, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these works.


Dash says first order of business is to discuss what it means to be Asexual. Dash and Adrianne are both on asexual spectrum.

AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network is a good resource to learn more about asexuality.

Asexuality is not celibacy.
Aexuality is not a medical condition.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation.

Asexual people may be straight or gay or bi or queer, and may be cis or trans or non-binary in gender identity. Asexual people may be romantic or aromantic. These things do not have to do with their sexual orientation.

Asexual people do not experience sexual attraction. This doesn't necessarily negate libido. Asexual people can be aroused. Some watch porn, and/or masturbate. They simply do not feel sexually attracted to other people, or interested in sex with other for purpose of personal sexual fulfillment.

Asexuality does not equal aversion to sex. Sometimes asexual people have sex with partners for reasons that are varied and complicated.

A "Gray A" is an asexual person who may sometimes experience sexual attraction as a secondary feeling after emotional/intellectual attraction. This can also fall under the label demisexual. Adrianne jokes that these are the bisexuals of the ace world.

Dash lists some of the misconceptions people have.

"You must be a lesbian."
"You must be repressed."
"You just haven't met the right person yet."
"You're not mature enough."

(A)Sexual, a documentary is recommended as a good resource. Dash and Adrianne agree that it is good. Audience says this is available on Netflix.

Audience asks if anyone can think of good representation of asexual and demisexual characters in fiction.

Adrianne cannot think of any demisexual characters at all.

Dash recommends The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, which has an asexual woman of color as the protagonist.

I recommend Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder trilogy, which has a romantic asexual starship captain as a main character.

An audience member asks if Jean Luc Picard is asexual.

Panel says it's hard to speculate about a person's orientation or identity if they don't share that explicitly. We are choosing not to assume things of characters.

Audience member says asexual and asocial are sometimes confused. offers the BBC Sherlock as an example.

Another audience member brings up Frodo Baggins and says he never has a sexual relationship or interest in other hobbits.

We talk a bit about various speculations about characters in The Lord of the Rings, and Dash wonders if most characters in that might be asexual, but we maintain it's problematic to assume someone's orientation based on a lack of evidence to the contrary. We only know that Frodo did not have romantic or sexual relationships, not that he never wished for them.

There are other factors to consider, especially with older work (like Lord of the Rings and Sherlock Holmes stories).
--Period writing may be rife with repression and censorship (whether by authors or censors)
--Lack of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Would be good to see more examples where asexuality was specifically implied.

Audience member asks what panel thinks of The Left Hand of Darkness. Are the aliens asexual? Panel says that these aliens seem to want to have sex with each other when they are in their reproduction phase. Also, it is not really possible to compare alien species where all sexuality and gender is same to humans with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

Another audience member brings up "Coming of Age in Karhide" and notes this implies coming of age=having sex.

That's it. I also recorded the Queer SF&F panel, and I should put that up sometime this month. I'll link it here when I do.


( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 21st, 2013 11:49 pm (UTC)
Good stuff.

(Also, personal plug: my book BANNER OF THE DAMNED is written by an asexual character.)
Jan. 21st, 2013 11:53 pm (UTC)
Narrated by? I still haven't read that one!
(no subject) - sartorias - Jan. 22nd, 2013 12:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 21st, 2013 11:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Taking a look now.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 12:09 am (UTC)
Hope you find some useful stuff.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 12:05 am (UTC)
(You must be exhausted. I know that in addition to everything else, you hosted people. Well done--you're a hero!)

Your audience seems very focused on The Left Hand of Darkness!

It's not fiction, but there's Lisa Bradley's poem "We Come Together We Fall Apart" features an asexual character.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 12:09 am (UTC)
That's a good point about Lisa's poem! I was mostly quiet on the Asexuality panel, as the sole panelist who doesn't identify as asexual...
(no subject) - valarltd - Jan. 22nd, 2013 02:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jan. 22nd, 2013 02:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julieandrews - Jan. 23rd, 2013 04:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - skogkatt - Jan. 23rd, 2013 06:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 22nd, 2013 02:02 am (UTC)
So many things to add to the TBR mountain!

A small correction: the Wells novel in question is _The Element of Fire_.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 05:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading. I'll note your correction in the body of the entry.
(no subject) - akiko - Jan. 22nd, 2013 06:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - skogkatt - Jan. 22nd, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - txanne - Jan. 22nd, 2013 09:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - akiko - Jan. 22nd, 2013 09:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - txanne - Jan. 22nd, 2013 09:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 22nd, 2013 02:08 am (UTC)
My usual co-author, Naomi Brooks, is asexual or autoerotic, whichever (she has no preference on term)

We've written a cross-dressed prince who uses female pronouns out of habit.

I had a PI I thought was asexual. She thought she was asexual ("I gave up going to the movies when I realized I didn't care about those pretty pretty people and their pretty pretty problems, whetehr romantic or explosive") until the mana dropped the right man in her office. Even then, the "Mana is making me want you" part of the deal just made her mad.

You met Gabriel at OutLanta, and we're in the middle of Sword&Sorcery piece about a thief who can change bio-sex at will. We'll probably be doing a lot more genderqueer stuff, since Gabriel identifies as genderqueer.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 05:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading and sharing your recs.
(no subject) - spacehawk - Jan. 23rd, 2013 02:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 22nd, 2013 02:51 am (UTC)
Gender Neutral Bunnies
Ok, I need to tell a story about one of your stories as it relates to gender. It's the one with Good Night Moon and the sci fi gender bunnies.

So when I first read that I had approximately the following reactions: hey cool there's a gender neutral bunny. But gender neutrality isn't [grey or detached or whatever?], gender neutrality is how I get by! And then I got really upset by it, like much more than a little story should upset me. I knew next to nothing about zie and zir and all that, but I instinctively identified with that bunny.

Much later after another series of events I started thinking seriously about gender and realized that I got so upset because I had a lot of anger and tension around gender, a lot of bottled up contradictions. The semi-conscious strategy of seeking out neutrality, and erasing gender like Virginia Woolf does, was my way of keeping the genie in the bottle. There was good enough reason for that, when it started.

It turns out letting that genie out did give me a lot of work to do unraveling all the knots it brought with it. But I'm coming out of it with the notion that gender is ok. It's cool. It's human. We'll never get rid of it. Gender isn't the problem, it's being stuck in a box that's the problem, and gender itself isn't that box. If I hate gender I hate Boy George, therefore gender is actually pretty awesome, QED. I'm down with the bunny rainbow gender spaceship portal now, is what I'm saying. There's probably room for more than one type of gender neutral bunny on it.

Jan. 22nd, 2013 05:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Gender Neutral Bunnies
Hmm, yes. It's not a prescription. Certainly not intended as one, anyway. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Re: Gender Neutral Bunnies - (Anonymous) - Jan. 22nd, 2013 09:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 22nd, 2013 05:11 pm (UTC)
Re: recommendation
Thanks for reading, and for sharing your recommendation.
Re: recommendation - sparkymonster - Jan. 24th, 2013 11:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 22nd, 2013 05:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting your notes!
Jan. 22nd, 2013 05:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading! It was excellent to meet you.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 11:16 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting these wonderful panel notes. Until I'm able to actually go to Arisia, posts like yours are the next best thing to being there.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 03:58 am (UTC)
Glad you found them useful.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 12:30 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for writing this up and posting it. I would like to add that since my revelation this past year that I've never written a Jewish character, I have now made it a point to go and do so, and am actively working on that. It's interesting how sometimes if our experiences are seen as "outside", how we may not even know how to write characters about ourselves until we see enough examples. prezzey's work, writing Jewish characters, helped me make that revelation. (Go read prezzey's spec fic now, everyone. Go go go!)

I wasn't the one to mention Gender Outlaw -- that was an audience member, and I concurred that Kate Bornstein is a good resource.

Edited at 2013-01-23 01:55 am (UTC)
Jan. 23rd, 2013 04:00 am (UTC)
About the Bornstein: Aha, well, as I said, all of this is based on hasty scribbling. :)

Jan. 24th, 2013 03:10 am (UTC)
The Tamora Pierce character who was touched in the womb by a Trickster is in her Beka Cooper trilogy. I think she's in the second and third books, but I don't remember for sure.
Feb. 6th, 2013 02:56 am (UTC)
Ha, yeah, I thought it was in the Beka Cooper series, too, but I couldn't remember which one.
Jan. 24th, 2013 11:14 pm (UTC)
Also, there is a press Flamingo Rampant (www.flamingorampant.com/) which is creating books and other items for gender independent children and families.

One of the books is science fictional (it's set on another planet)

Backwards day

and another is more fairy tale-ish
The adventures of Tulip, birthday wish fairy
Feb. 6th, 2013 02:55 am (UTC)
Thanks for the rec!
Jan. 24th, 2013 11:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for posting these notes. Lots of useful stuff!
Feb. 6th, 2013 02:55 am (UTC)
Thank you for reading!
Jan. 25th, 2013 12:59 am (UTC)
A small note clarifying Cecilia's kind words in the Beyond Binary panel: the story featuring female-bodied gentlemen (having a great deal of explicit sex) is "The Terminando" in my ebook The Erotofluidic Age.
Feb. 6th, 2013 02:55 am (UTC)
Thanks for the clarification!
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 6th, 2013 02:54 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
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