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BENDING GENDER(S) IN SPECULATIVE FICTION

Gender-bender is an informal term used to refer to a person who actively transgresses, or "bends", expected gender roles. Gender-bending is sometimes a form of social activism undertaken in response to assumptions or over-generalisations about genders. Some gender-benders identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, but challenge the norms of that gender, feeling that the gender assigned to them at their birth is an inaccurate or incomplete description of themselves; some are transsexual and desire to change their physical sex through hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery, while others were born intersexual. (Wikipedia)

SpecFic (Speculative Fiction) is an umbrella term that covers science-fiction, fantasy, horror or dark fiction, and just plain weird fiction. (Elyse Draper)

In fiction the term gender-bender may refer not only to characters modelled after real-life gender-benders, but also characters who undergo changes in their physical sex – magically or otherwise – throughout the story. A work of art which challenges gender roles or features gender-bending or transgender characters may itself be referred to as "gender-bender". (Wikipedia)

As a child I read every Famous Five book (Enid Blyton). My favourite character was George the tomboy, who refused to be called Georgina and was always pleased to be mistaken for a boy.
As a teenager I read a lot of science-fiction. I especially remember a short story – maybe written by Joanna Russ – where a female secret agent went undercover on a male-dominated planet, passing as a man. Written at the first person, it was a critical and sarcastic description of a culture dominated by inflated male egos.
As an adult I read many literary genres, favouring wimin writers featuring strong female characters or lesbians. Quite a few of the stories used gender-bending in various ways.

A play especially sticks to my mind, 'The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs', written by Simone Benmussa, based on a novella by George Moore. Albert Nobbs was a womon passing as a man and working as such (19th century, Dublin).
Other works that left a sizeable impact on my mind would be 'In the Darkness, Hunting' by Janrae Frank, and 'I Am Morte' by Elyse Draper.

In ‘In the Darkness, Hunting’, the main character, Chimquar, is from a country where genders are equal. Chimquar, known as Tomyris in the country she left behind, is a warrior in exile. Among the people she chose to live with, she hides her gender and passes as a man in order to be free of her actions. This secret could be her demise if discovered. With Chimquar the Lionhawk, Janrae Frank created a character who, Jessica Amanda Salmonson reckons, could have made these tales ground-breaking (as were the intergender characterisations in Ursula K. LeGuin's 'Left Hand of Darkness') in the late 70's, if the lottery known as fame had struck in its author's favour.

In 'I Am Morte', published in 2009, a short story written in the first person, Elyse Draper presents us with Death, and Death being the narrator, no gender is applied. Death is an entity, who follows a specific light/soul throughout many lifetimes. This light is of male gender in some lives and of female gender in other lives. The genders are totally irrelevant to Death. By not applying any gender to Death, the author leaves it to the readers' perception/choice/filter to either sway for a definite option, or enjoy the genderlessness altogether (Yes, in French, 'dead' is morte or mort. It just happened that the name Mort was already taken. It would have been confusing). Pratchett chose to apply a male gender to Death, even so the character is just a skeleton wearing a cloak, in his Discworld books. Gaiman, in The Sandman Library, pictures Death as a Goth young womon, wiser than her youthful appearance would let on. While the character Desire is fluid of gender and of appearance.

In the Chronicles of Tornor, Elizabeth A. Lynn presents the readers with various cultures where it is ok for people to be homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. There is even a hermaphrodite in the third book (‘The Northern Girl’) while in the first book (‘Watchtower’), one character is assumed to be male all throughout.

In ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, people are generally genderless. In the mating season they temporarily develop male or female genitalia.

In ‘The Lunatic Fringe’ (by Alison Moon), werewolves are genderless in werewolf form, and can choose to be male or female when taking human shape.

What is gender identity? Is it biological or is it psychological?
It was once considered taboo, and even illegal, in western society for women to wear clothing traditionally associated with men. The idea of men wearing skirts is still not accepted. One could say that each person has two genders: the gender the person identified with, and the gender people project onto this person.
If gender identity is the person's perception of their own gender regardless of society or people's projections, if gender identity refers to one's internal sense of being male/female/both/neither, is gender a necessity?
The revised edition of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2008) tells us that "The words gender and sex both have the sense 'the state of being male or female', but they are used in different ways: sex usually refers to biological differences, while gender tends to refer to cultural or social ones."
So, in western society gender is generally stereotyped, functional, role-orientated, imposed, connected to the visual, and projected. While it can be all that in speculative fiction, it can also be fluid, free, diverse, irrelevant, invisible, and non-existent.
Does Speculative Fiction encourage a re-definition of gender/s? Is gender-bending an attempt to escape from gender binary? And what is gender-bending?

I believe that Speculative Fiction evolves along with reality. What once could have been considered gender-bending might not be so now. However with so many diverse minds with such diverse imaginations, genders can still be bent in many ways. If literature is an escape from reality, what is it about genders that readers and writers, consciously and unconsciously, attempt to escape? Gender is a limitation for some. Others might be curious. I like to bend genders in my fiction work because I see it as the best way to open people's minds to different options. As a reader, I like to read instances of gender-bending because it gives me temporary amnesia from the so-called real world; it makes me feel better about myself; it strengthens me in my beliefs and in my identity.
What is gender-bending in Speculative Fiction? Lesbianism once was. A womon passing for a man (or a man passing for a womon) still is somehow. A man living more than a century and transforming into a womon in the middle of it. Wimin wielding swords as best as their male counterparts. A being, who can be male or female according to whom it is sleeping with. An appearance so fluid that gender cannot be identified.
Maybe it is the ultimate freedom, when and where you can be whoever and whatever you want to be, without anyone attempting to impose their projection onto you. Because isn't it what we would all want, but cannot get, in this so-called real world. Maybe, ultimately, it is about power, when full equality is still a dream.
Maybe gender-bending in Speculative Fiction is just a tiny thorn in the side of a patriarchal society based on two genders where men are still on top of the food chain. Something allowed/tolerated to keep some of the masses at bay.


A reference website for Speculative Fiction:
http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/index.cgi

Some speculative writings featuring various degrees of gender-bending:
'In the Darkness, Hunting' by Janrae Frank
'I Am Morte' by Elyse Draper
'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula K. LeGuin
'The Chronicles of Tornor' (Watchtower, The Dancers of Arun, The Northern Girl) by Elizabeth A. Lynn
'Stone Butch Blues' by Leslie Feinberg
'The Doctor' by Patricia Duncker
'Orlando' by Virginia Wolf
'Herland' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
'The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs' by Simon Benmussa
'The Sandman Library' by Neil Gaiman
'Lunatic Fringe' by Allison Moon
'Imajica' by Clive Barker
'Wild Seed' by Octavia Butler
'The Female Man' by Joanna Russ
'When It Changed' by Joanna Russ
'The Two of Them' by Joanna Russ
'Golden Witchbreed' by Mary Gentle
'Woman on the Edge of Time' by Marge Piercy

 

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