Editors' note: Cheryl Morgan is a science fiction critic who takes a particular interest in feminist and gender issues. Her online book review magazine, Emerald City, won a Hugo Award in 2004. While the magazine has now ceased publication, Cheryl still occasionally writes about books and gender at her personal blog, Cheryl's Mewsings.
In the future, all sorts of things will be possible. One day we may even get jet packs and flying cars. We may also be able to re-shape our bodies in all sorts of interesting ways. It is not unexpected, therefore, to find sex changes featured in many science fiction stories. But just how relevant are such stories to real transgender people? Do these stories portray transgender experiences accurately? Could they help non-transgender people understand the issues somewhat better? Or is there something else going on?
Given the amount of science fiction that features sex changes, I'm not going to be able to cover anywhere near everything. I'm also going to restrict myself to books, which is what I know about. But hopefully I'll cover a range of different approaches to transgender issues and give you a good idea of what is out there.
Bodies like clothes
In some science fiction changing biological sex is as routine as buying new clothes. You will see characters say things like, "so I decided to spend my next 100 years as a woman." But do these books have any concept of gender identity? Mostly they don't. In fact some of them are very confused indeed. One of the most famous is Steel Beach
by John Varley. In that book Varley conjectures that what is essential about humans is not their sexual preference or gender identity, but their sexual orientation. So a lesbian who has a sex change will immediately start fancying men rather than women in order to stay homosexual. It is as if people got a personality transplant along with their new bodies.
Feminist science fiction writers love covering gender issues, but many of the more famous works were written at a time when feminism was generally suspicious of transgender people. The Female Man
, by Joanna Russ, is a classic of feminist science fiction, and a wonderful book. It features separate male and female societies and the men, deprived of women to oppress, make their own by surgically converting boys who fail a machoness test. The whole set-up is very reminiscent of how Janice Raymond talks about transgender people in The Transsexual Empire
. Russ has since apologized for her early antipathy towards transgender people.
Angela Carter takes a rather different line in The Passion of New Eve
. An arrogant young man is surgically transformed into a woman and left to fend for herself in an America suffering social collapse. Her experience of a real woman's life is contrasted with idealized views of womanhood as embodied by the Garbo-like film star, Tristessa de St. Ange. Real trans women, of course, tend to live lives more like Eve's than Tristessa's.
What about the boys?
Trans men are much rarer in science fiction, as they are in other media. One honorable exception is Mission Child
by Maureen McHugh. It tells the story of a young woman who struggles with her gender after disguising herself as a man to escape persecution. Although Jan finds much of life as a man attractive, and is offered the chance of surgery, she is unsure how to proceed. In particular she tells her doctor that she had no thought of being male before circumstances required her to disguise herself. The questions that the doctor asks suggest that McHugh researched the issues well before writing the book, though it is unclear whether she accepts the transsexual viewpoint as valid.
Beyond the Binary
There are many books that feature aliens who are sexless, hermaphrodite or even change sex naturally. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness
is a well known classic that shows the difficulty humans can have in related to someone who changes from male to female in front of their eyes. But for Le Guin's aliens the change is perfectly natural and their gender identities must be very different from ours.
I do know of one book that deals with a genuinely intersex human. Ilario, by Mary Gentle (published in two volumes - The Lion's Eye
and The Stone Golem
- in the USA) is a fantasy novel featuring a lead character with both male and female sex organs, and a functional womb. The book is excellent when looking at the social disadvantages faced by Ilario and the unpleasant attitudes of other people (including Ilario's mother). However, the book also features something of a caricature of an MtF transsexual in the form of a eunuch who chooses to live as a woman. Neferet is described as behaving with exaggerated femininity. She also has a strong sexual relationship with a gay man, thereby advancing the theory that MtFs are "really" gay men who have "gone too far".
Some recent progress
In River of Gods
Ian McDonald describes a character who has undergone surgery to become a "nute" - a person without gender. Tal has no traditional sexual organs, but is capable of orgasms thanks to especially sensitive parts of yt's skin. The complex surgery required to become a nute, and the social ostracism that nutes face in society, are clearly based on issues that face transsexuals in the real world.
Finally we have a book that features real transgender people as heroes. Supervillainz
by Alicia E. Goranson tells the adventures of two transgender people (one MtF, one FtM) who accidentally become enemies of a group of capitalist super heroes. Set against a background of the queer community in Boston, it is clearly written by someone who knows the full spectrum of transgender experiences very well.
As I said at the beginning, I have only scratched the surface here. There are many other books worth discussing - not to mention comics, films and so on. I suspect a few might appear in comments. I'd like to hear of some more positive representations. Hopefully, as transgender people become more widely known, writers of all sorts will portray them more accurately.