It’s no secret that I’m enamored of the “cross-dressing and sword-fighting” genre, but I had a moment a few months ago when I got so fed up with a novel of that description that I almost threw it out the bus window.
You know the story: guy 1 (a straight cis man) meets guy 2 (a cis-identified woman in disguise as a man for Reasons); there’s an attraction; guy 1 has queer panic about his homoromantic inclinations; and then guy 2 reveals himself to have been the princess, sister of some lord, or heir all along! Boom, heterogamous marriage may commence! Heterosexuality is defended!
Some spoilers for The House of Four Winds below; basic plot for Ancillary Justice.
I hit a brick wall when this tired-ass plot cropped up in The House of Four Winds: adventurous young Princess Clarice sets off with her parents’ permission to seek her fortune disguises as “Clarence” and gets embroiled in a sea mutiny with magic and pirates, and falls in love with a sailor–who, when she reveals she’s a woman in disguise, pulls a “oh, thank the gods because no homo” on her. While I appreciated Clarice’s strong desire to stop hiding who she really was from him and be her self-defined “true self” because it reminded me of the struggle of being in the closet, there was no reason not to have said love interest react as “Oh, well, I was attracted to you when I thought you were a man, although I was a little concerned you might be underage based on your appearance.* I am bi/pan/omnisexual, I would be happy with you regardless of your gender identity or presentation because I think you’re awesome, so if you’re a cis woman, that’s okay, too!”
As a non-binary person** in triplicate (sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression)–and these are purely my experiences, not those of all other non-binary types–I don’t really understand what it’s like to have my attractions to others dictated by gender identity or perceived genital configuration, which is something I hear a lot from monosexual cis people.*** I don’t know what it’s like to identify strongly as a particular gender outside of the context of fighting for political and social rights for women and AFAB people. We don’t even need to get into my sartorial choices here.
I’m just exhausted of reading and watching media where there is the promise of seeing my flavor of queerness and then having it yanked away because the creators are so ignorant of or threatened by the possibilities of non-binary queerness that the piece ends up being a ceaseless string of bi- and intersex-erasure, gender conformity, and queer panic.
Thus, I decided I wanted to start a virtual book club where I can read stories about characters who are also nonbinary in some respect. Or, as I wrote to my friends in a private email, “I want to read every book where gender and sexuality is complicated and then proceed to flail about them with a group of similarly minded people.”
The focus will on books about characters with non-binary sexualities, gender identities, or gender expressions. That is, characters who are bi/pansexual/queer-identified, or whose gender expression or identity is not strongly fixed to the gender binary (may include agender, transgender, gender-nonconforming, gendervariant, genderfluid, intersex [as identity], non-binary, genderqueer, et al). While most of the suggestions have been speculative fiction novels (as opposed to non-fiction, including autobiographies), graphic novels, comics, and short stories are certainly welcome.
Commenters and readers: It’s okay if you’re not queer-identified yourself as long as you’re interested in the genre and you are respectful of the experiences of the other members who identify as queer and/or non-binary. Conversely, I don’t want to ruin the group with people who are going to accuse others of not being queer “enough” or not doing queer identity “right.” I’ve experienced this from both sides: monosexual binary “friends” and partners telling me that I wasn’t femme enough or butch enough or that I was too queer or not queer enough for the last number of years, and I am DONE. Done, done, done. If you are so threatened by someone else’s appearance or identity or sexuality that you choose to shame them for not conforming to your own identities, you need to take a long, hard look at why your sense of self is so fragile instead of perpetuating the cycle.
Long story short, I want to create a safe space to discuss media that falls into the BTQIA and NB/GQ sector of the rainbow alphabet soup. Be respectful of everyone.
So, what are we reading?
At the suggestion with the group of friends I’ve recruited, our first book will be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. It’s one of the most beautiful sci-fi books I’ve ever read. You may have heard of it because the main character, Breq, uses she/her pronouns as default pronouns when she doesn’t know someone’s gender (which is 95% of the time), sort of like singular, gender-neutral they.
Yet, Leckie’s treatment of alien gender and gender identity is far more than just a search-and-replace on pronouns; gender is not the major “point” of the book, but rather an ever-present component of a sci-fi story about intergalactic colonialism and cultural imperialism in an intricately built world. For anyone who wants more queer stories that aren’t just about coming out or self-discovery but more like “queer stuff in spaaaaaaace!”, this is perfect.
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.
Get your books and reconvene on May 25, 2015! I’ll publish my review of the book with points of interest (spoilers will happen) on that date, and I hope you’ll hop in on the comments! Want to comment here to further the discussion prior to my review? Comment, but just be sure to write SPOILER if necessary.
*This is an actual plot point, not an offhand remark on “passing privilege.”
**EDIT: I am a bisexual genderqueer person who was assigned female at birth. I use they/them pronouns. That’s only scratching the surface of my individual sexual orientation and preferences, gender expression, and gender identity. Labels are useful for a baseline, but all of us are more than our labels. (If you decide you want to comment “but you don’t seem [fill in the blank],” stop. Delete that comment draft. Delete all the comments in your pocket.)
*** “I would totally hit that if [person] didn’t have a —” No. Just don’t ever say that.