Creating Worlds of Gender Diversity
Embracing Anamarija Šporčič's call to action
In 2018, Slovenian scholar Anamarija Šporčič wrote an article in the academic journal ELOPE (English Language Overseas Perspectives and Enquiries) titled "The (Ir)Relevance of Science Fiction to Non-Binary and Genderqueer Readers." The article argued that science fiction writers had, in the last 75 or so years, used the genre to explore some innovative imaginings of nonbinary gender identity, but that the genre afforded still much more potential for creating worlds in which untraditional and nonbinary (in short, liberated) visions of gender. Šporčič surveys the field and concludes that much of that potential remains untapped.
Šporčič noted how sci-fi writers, despite wide imaginations in other areas, tended to stick with gender binary even when depicting non-human characters. Gender stereotypes remained dominant in much sci-fi writing, tv, and film. Šporčič mentions several notable exceptions such as Octavia Butler and Greg Egan. Lots of sci-fi gets written each year and yet the depiction of genderqueer and nonbinary existence remains uncommon. Why?
Trans activists and queer theorists have done hard work to establish an understanding of what previously had been unexplained, suppressed, or obscured by the dominant culture's powerful attraction to the gender binary. Many writers, even those like me who identify as queer, suffered from hermeneutical injustice. Šporčič cites Miranda Fricker's definition of this concept:
Hermeneutical injustice signifies a situation in which "a person has no way to describe their experience because the conceptual frame doesn't exist yet due to their stigmatised or disempowered identity" (Fricker 2007 quoted in Bergman & Barker 2017, p.14)
I identify with this concept. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I got a chance to read queer theory that clarified my own experience and identity. Those conceptual frames for genderqueer existence now exist due to the hard won efforts of trans activists and queer theorists. So it's time for sci-fi writers to take up Šporčič's call to action.
I'm currently working on a few short stories and flash fiction pieces in which the characters live in worlds that see gender much differently than our own. In one of my works-in-progress, a character in the 23rd century looks back on the 20th century and marvels (with a considerable amount of pity) at how much pain people endured for the sake of living up to expectations of "real men" and "real women." They just can't understand it -- similarly to how we in the early 21st century just can't understand the nature of the religious devotion that spawned The Thirty Year War.
Šporčič cites their 2016 dissertation when they claim that sci-fi becomes "a source of ontological versions of emerging worlds." That's what interests me about the potential of sci-fi. As I embark on this new time of focus for my own writing, I plan to push my own imagination further and further, attempting to achieve some of those new ontological versions. Sci-fi gives us a chance to hold up counter-examples to our own understanding of the nature of being, and I fully plan to take that chance and run with it as far as my mind will take me. Hopefully, I will be able to hone my craft and contribute to genderqueer visibility in sci-fi publications.
Building on the work of Jay Stewart (2017), Šporčič writes:
"To consider one's body not as an object or thing but as a site or place where meaning is produced" is not easy to do in practice, which is why representation and visibility are of extreme importance.
Extreme importance -- I agree. I hope that in the next decade we see even more sci-fi writers turn their attention to depictions of nonbinary gender, creating genderqueer characters and worlds. I'm excited to contribute to that effort.
One last important note: imagining a nongendered existence isn't creating something new -- it's returning to something originally there. Most anthropologists would agree that in the 250,000 of the existence of homo sapiens, the gender binary as we conceptualize it has only been around for the last 10,000 years at most. And, even that's not uniform across the various peoples of the earth. Toward the end of their article, Šporčič quotes Alex Iantaffi (2017):
"We are only beginning to understand (again) and to (re)imagine what a world based on gender diversity might look like."