Writing Gender in Fantasy Fiction, or How Men are not Hermaphrodites/Intersex

I’d like to take a break from assorted Pagan ramblings to talk about writing, my writing and others’ writings. More specifically, I’d like to talk about science fiction and fantasy (SFF) and how fantasy in particular can’t seem to break the mold when it comes to sex and gender (with some exceptions).

Recently, I have been (slowly) reading through The Wraeththu Chronicles by Storm Constantine because a friend of mine can’t seem to stop raving about them. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, the titular Wraeththu (ray-thoo) are the next step in humanity’s evolutionary chain (and as such, destined to supplant humanity as the dominant species). They’re stronger, faster, and have magical powers. Oh, and they’re hermaphrodites (intersex, to use the polite term). Now, at this point, you might be thinking “Okay, this is new! It’s not every day you see a book with intersex main characters!”

Wait, wait, not so fast! See, this is where the books fall flat on their faces, because, when it all comes down to it, Wraeththu are, well, men. Not only are they created from human males (women can’t be “incepted” (or “turned” to use a vampiric analogy) but the text always refers to a Wraeththu as “he”. Granted, gender-neutral pronouns (sie/zie, hir/zir, etc.) have only come into use very recently, but that doesn’t mean the author couldn’t have made up an appropriate pronoun, as she seems to have substituted ‘har’, (pl. ‘hara’) for ‘human’ easily. Instead of electing to use a gender neutral pronoun, so as to say to the reader “these people are neither male nor female, but have something of both” the use of “he” doesn’t require the reader to really consider what it means to not be part of a gender binary. (And, contrary to popular belief, the masculine is *not* gender neutral, it’s just androcentric).

I know that science fiction has been exploring alternate conceptions of sex, sexuality, and gender for a long time, but fantasy in contrast seems to be a genre that is pretty inflexible in this area. How many main characters can you name that are LGBT? How many aren’t white? How many have a disability (extra points if you can name a character who was born with a disability)? If we’re just talking about LGBT characters, I can name a bunch (at least, a bunch of lesbians, gays, or bisexuals) off the top of my head, but start adding categories and my list gets smaller and smaller. I can’t think of a single main nonwhite, disabled, LGBT character in any of the fantasy books I’ve read.

Which brings me to the topic of my own writing. I’m currently writing a story that tries to challenge some of the tropes that the fantasy genre seems to take for granted. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to publish it, but I definitely need the writing practice and it’s a way for me to play with the tropes I just mentioned. In the world I’ve created, the people recognize three biological sexes: male, female, and intersex (pronouns: sie, hir) as well as a gender identity that is separate from sex (the only issue a trans* person might experience is someone accidentally misgendering them). So far, it’s been an interesting experience. I’m having a lot of fun with one intersex character in particular, sie is very grumpy and annoyed and surrounded by imbeciles who don’t know how to do their jobs properly and I kind of wish I could turn hir into my main character, but sie has a city to run and responsibilities and such. I don’t claim that it will be perfect, because, as a white, cis, lesbian woman, my experience with messing around with gender is limited, but if enough people don’t try, the genre is never going to change. I think a lot of authors are scared to write about different people because they’re afraid they’re going to “get it wrong” but that’s how you get better as a writer, isn’t it?

If anyone’s interested in authors who do use gender-neutral pronouns in their writing, I recommend Elizabeth Bear (particularly Dust) and Laurie J. Marks’ The Moonbane Mage.

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