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Sunday, 23 August 2015

Outed again.



I may have just inadvertently outed myself in a comment to  Lynn on her post at yatgb.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/the-c-word about a recent episode of Radio 4’s Late Night Woman's Hour titled Reclaiming the Nerdiverse: the wilder side of fanfic.  This was a fascinating, and sometime racy discussion of how female writers and fans are happily redefining and reinventing gender roles, for themselves and of established sf characters. So racy, in fact, that the BBC has flagged a parental warning on this episode's podcast.

Time to come clean.

           “My name is Susie and I am a science fiction fan.”

There, I’ve said it.  If that doesn’t bring a horde of local villagers rushing to storm Sometime Towers with burning pitchforks, then nothing will.

I’ve been in fandom far longer than I’ve been Susie, over 25 years now, although the germ of both those twin obsessions goes back much further, probably to when I was around 9 or 10, which seems to be a particularly formative time.

And it’s probably not a coincidence. Science fiction has a long history, going back to at least the 50s, of exploring sex and gender alternatives. Maybe it even offered some hope that things could change. If God didn’t answer my prayers that I could wake and be a girl then maybe science one day could. Bron, in Samuel Delany’s Triton, could change sex in an afternoon. The inhabitants of Winter in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness could be either male or female. More confusingly and thrillingly, characters in Theodore Surgeon’s Venus Plus X and John Varley’s The Barbie Murders elected to a sexless androgyny, neither male nor female, and somehow both.

As I wrote in my comment, sf fandom is probably one of the most LGBT friendly communities I know of. Had I actually come out as Susie (as a number of my friends there have come out as gay or transgender during that period) I don’t think anyone would have turned a hair, or been anything other than accepting and supporting. That acceptance of who you were or wanted to be among friends was and remains a large part of its appeal. There are a surprising number of trans fans and writers for such a small community, who feel no need to hide or apologise for who they are.

But what also struck me when I started blogging as Susie was that suddenly found myself in a very familiar place. Over the years, I gradually settled comfortably into fanzine fandom as my preferred area, and the mixture of the anecdotal, the humorous and the confessional that I discovered in writing and responding to fanzines I found all over again in a number of TG blogs. It was like coming home to a different place.


The Beeb followed that Woman’s Hour post discussed above with another program on gender and identity in the most recent episode of their Futureproofing series (first broadcast last Wednesday and available on iPlayer here:  Futureproofing: Identity.

Presenters Timandra Harkness and Leo Johnson explored the idea that in the digital age, things like gender, sexuality and identity will become increasingly a matter of choice rather than something imposed on us by social and biological constraints. It’s already happening (this blog community being a prime example). There are now apparently some 50 different gender choices in Facebook.
But, as Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah of NY University argues towards the end of the program, one of the other things we do when we choose our own identity is also to choose a set of constraints. In choosing to be X, we chose the particular constraints and obligations that identity will operate under, different, perhaps, from the ones we were handed by the accident of birth and upbringing. 

In fact, I wonder how much it isn’t the other way around. Did I choose to be Susie, or did I invent Susie because I wanted to be subject to those constraints (clothes, appearance, fantasies) implied by her identity, rather than those of maleness? How much is this a free choice rather than a rejection, flight or escape? I don’t know. 

And it troubles me in another way. I like to think of myself as a feminist, or at least a supporter and fellow traveler. And yet being Susie, and cross-dressing, is often about embracing the same stereotypes that feminists have been fighting against since the sixties. I wonder if there will ever come a point where I feel comfortable as Susie even when I’m not dressed in overtly female clothes? I think that may be a long way to go, but it might be something worth aiming for.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the suggestion around the Identity programme. Not managed to listen as yet, but it's on the list.

    Oh, and congrats on coming out ;-)

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  2. This post raises a really important question that troubled me for a while: reconciling gender identity with sexual politics. Much of my early impulse toward femininity was traditional (e.g., clothes!) and conflicted sharply with my politics (which in middle age grew toward radical feminism). I reconciled that but only after much thought. One can celebrate femininity (and enjoy its pleasures) without advocating for limiting women's lives. Even cis-gender women are starting to realize this. In early feminist activism (1980s), there was the belief that accepting traditional femininity was implicit endorsement of sexism; that view has since evolved into seeing femininity as greater than that and potentially even empowering.

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