This post is a sort of run-on from the last. I had a bit of a rant there about how “diverse” characters (and I’m not talking just about trans) shouldn’t be shoehorned into a creative work without justification. Welp, I wasn’t really expecting to have my point proved so quickly.
I’ve just finished reading Gareth L. Powell’s Light of Impossible Stars, the third in a space-opera trilogy. I liked the first two, and I liked this as well. However, I got a bit of a jolt when late in the book he introduces a new character and sets them up with another, established, character. To avoid spoilers, I’ll call the characters involved A and B. A is the established character and they are both biologically female humans.
As I said, it’s a space opera, set in the far future. A, B and most of the cast are battling against a genocidal alien force; up till now the narrative has been straightforwardly SF/mil/thriller with just a side-order of relationship complications that have been kept low-key and soap-free, and which serve to illuminate the characters. But, within just pages of B being introduced the writing turns decidely Mills & Boon. This is A having a conversation with B:
…[B] glanced down. Her eyes were the lustrous brown of ripe horse chestnuts, with tiny flakes of gold around the pupils, and I felt something skip in my chest…
This bit of glurgy slush (which is entirely unrepresentative of the style of the rest of the book) continues for a while in the same vein, until:
“…Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather keep your body?”
[B] froze. She glanced down at her tunic, and then looked away into the trees, jaw clenched.
I asked, “I’m sorry, have I said something wrong?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
Anyway, a few pages and a huge space battle later, we come a scene where A gets to the heart of B’s ‘problem’. It’s a long passage, so I’ve cut a lot of it, hence all the ellipses:
“What’s your problem?” I asked. She looked up, her face lit from beneath by the glow of her screens, her eyes the colour of autumn.
“You look like you don’t want to be here.”…
…She clasped her hands on the console. “I am dealing with some personal issues….”
…[B] turned her head away. She bit her bottom lip. “It’s more than that….”
…[B] tugged the hem of her tunic, straightening it. She clapped her hands together and pressed the fingertips to her lips. “I’m not really a woman” she said.
And now we get to the point:
I frowned. “Okay.” She looked down at herself. “I mean, physically I am. I was born female. But that’s not how I see myself. That’s not how I am.”
“You’re transgender?” “Yes.”
I laughed with relief. “Is that all?” I’d shipped with trans crewmates before and it had never been a big deal, especially in the Outward, where people had always been free to be whatever the hell they wanted to be, as long as they weren’t hurting anyone else.
I will now stop directly quoting here – I think you get the drift.
In summary: B tells of how she was scheduled to have GRS before this all-out galactic war started and now she fears she’ll never get it. Billions (including all of her family and friends) are dead, hundreds of planets laid waste and civilisation nearly everywhere has been pretty well destroyed. But the prospect of having to spend the rest of her life in the “wrong” body is what she’s having a sad about: “I was about to become the person I am inside, but…I’ll die like this.” (This sentiment of disgust at her body comes after several passages emphasising her incredible physical beauty and attractiveness.)
A’s internal narration continues. She muses to herself that changing sex in this future is very easy – there is the technology to “reprogramme cells and sculpt flesh” (ewww). However, to her (or rather, the writer’s) credit, she then muses on quite a bit to the reader (but not to B) about how millions of the survivors will suffer and die now that they no longer have access to the kind of modern medical technology that can “sculpt flesh”.
Having got the ethical bit over with, it’s back to the important stuff; she looks into B’s eyes and “for a second, everything else fell away. I could hardly breathe.”
This beautiful moment is interrupted by the spaceship’s AI, who has been listening in. She (notice to the pronouns police: I’m using correct pronouns here; this AI – despite possessing no organic parts beyond a few ounces of canine brain matter – has been assigned as female by the author) says she could do the op, she’s done it before and its perfectly simple: “It’s just a matter of altering the body’s hormonal balance and tinkering with the chromosomes, changing an X to a Y. After that, it’s mostly cosmetic. Nothing too complex.” Easy peasy. Just a couple of hours work.
Wait, what…? Despite the story’s universe being convincingly detailed throughout, this is the very first mention in the entire trilogy of humans changing sex. There was possibly some mention here and there of gay sexualities, but I’m 99.99% sure that a word-search would turn up zero instances of ‘trans’, or even ‘gender’, before this.
More than that, just think of what could be done with total body modification on this scale. If changing sex was simply a matter of chromosome-tweaking, hormones and a bit of cosmetic surgery, there wouldn’t be just trans people (and just by-the-by, if their very chromosomes have been changed, how could anybody know that trans people were trans? With every cell in their bodies altered right down to the DNA, they would be totally indistinguishable from ‘born’females/males!); there would also be actual sexless non-binary people and real dual-sexed hermaphrodites (despite the stories, true human hermaphrodism is simply not possible); there would be real furries too – people would be going around in whatever exotic body form they desired. Because that’s what people would do, if the technology existed. More than that, such technology would remove the need to terraform planets – human colonists could adapt their bodies to the environment, instead of the other way about.
And with a technology capable of modifying living cells at the chromosome level, why stop at physical changes? How about curing intractable mental disorders as well, by ‘tweaking’ a few hundred carefully selected neurons? That way, B’s gender dysphoria could have been be dealt with in moments, leaving her happy with the perfect body she already had.
But no, there’s not a mention of anything like that. Everyone is visibly and boringly human, with all the standard human sex-differentiated features, and all human habitats are constructed or adapted to the standard human physiology. There’s one scene with some people wielding mechanical prostheses cybernetically melded with their neural systems, but that’s as far as bodymodding appears go in this particular universe. The author is simply retconning.
So what happens to B? She has the op and reappears the next day, proudly showing off his new manly bod. And A? The change of sex makes no difference to her, she still gazes upon her autumn-eyed love with unfulfilled desire. (I’m just guessing about it being unfullfilled, there’s been no mention of anything beyond chaste handholding. “No Sex Please, We’re Characters In A Space Opera”?) B then announces that he’s off to some other adventure (“nice knowing you all, but I’ve got my new life to live” etc); A retires to her cabin with a broken heart.
And that’s it for B’s character! She plays only a tiny part in the plot, filling a space that could be occupied by anybody. Her transness has no function at all within the story; if s/he was red-haired instead, it would make no difference; she’s a character shoved in without narrative justification. And it shows.
Finally, I know nothing about the author, or why he thought that inserting this character was a good idea; I’ve merely read, and enjoyed, a few of his books. (You may enjoy them too!)
But I’ve discovered over the last couple of years that there are a large number of people who know very little about trans genderism/sexualism*, don’t realise that sex and gender are two different things**, think that being trans is merely a matter of being born into the “wrong body”*** and that this is just a little mistake that can be corrected with hormones and surgery, with the trans person living happily ever after. Above all, they want to be kind to trans people – who are all suffering terribly – and they want to show everybody that they are kind and nice and progressive.
I personally think that this character, in this story, was a mistake; the lack of backstory and characterisation indicates that it was a last-minute addition, bunged in without much thought.
I’m reminded of Sleeping Beauties by Stephen & Owen King, which is about how women everywhere are all overcome by a supernatural sleeping sickness that they never wake from. It must have occurred to the Kings at some point during the writing that they might include some transwomen, but the story makes no mention of them. I like to think that the pair looked into the subject and found that the definition of ‘trans’ is so vague and elastic**** that they quickly backed away from the whole idea. Which is what Powell really should have done.
And so I end this post.
And here begin the footnotes.
* How many of them, for example, know that the majority of trans people don’t have genital surgery, and that some only take hormones and cross-dress. Some self-IDd ‘trans’ don’t even bother with the hormones and just cross-dress.
** Gender is the socially constructed characteristics of women and men; it varies varies between cultures and can be changed. Sex refers to the biological differences that distinguish women from men; it cannot be changed.
*** Which makes it sound as though there’s a heavenly pre-natal conveyer belt where brains are plopped into the correct bodies and every now and then a brain carelessly ends up in the wrong body. And if you believe there are such things as ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains, please read Gina Rippon or Cordelia Fine
**** Well, what does constitute transness? Is a trans person someone who simply declares that they are the opposite sex, or if they cross-dress even when it’s only for half a week? (You may well laugh, but both of these are recognised by StonewallUK as coming under the “trans umbrella”.) Are they trans only if they undergo total Gender Recognition Surgery? When exactly does a trans person change from being non-trans? (‘Sleeping Beauties’ might have had to include a tragic scene where a man wakes up from sleep wailing “Dammit – I’m still not a woman!”) There are no settled answers to any of these questions, so I don’t blame the Kings for not tackling them.