Last weekend, I attended a workshop at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center on “Gender, the Search for Self and the Search for Acceptance,” facilitated by Chloe Schwenke, an ethicist who is herself a transgendered woman. Although much of the workshop centered on personal issues of gender and identity, it struck me that as writers, we can discover much depth and richness by asking the same questions.
For the workshop, we defined sex as the classification of people as male or female. Intersex individuals, that is, people possessing the external characteristics of both, are usually “assigned” to one sex or the other. Gender, on the other hand, is a personal sense of being a man or a woman (or both, or neither). Each of these is distinct from sexual orientation, which has to do with an enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person.
In science fiction and fantasy, we have been playing around for a long time with such notions as more than two sexes/genders, none, fluid sexes/genders, and a diversity of gender role expressions. Every so often, a story that takes a new or not-new-but-splashy look at the field garners a lot of buzz, particularly in the queer and queer-friendly community. Yet much genre writing continues to perpetuate the world view of two oppositional and fixed genders, each with equally unyielding behavioral expectations. For many writers and readers, a character or society that goes too far outside the familiar becomes so uncomfortable as to fracture the necessary sympathetic identification. It strikes me, however, that even within the limitations of conventional portrayals of sex and gender, we can reach for greater depth. We can go beyond the Caveman Model of Gender Roles, the Separatist All-Men or All-Women Worlds, the Rambo-in-Drag/Supersensitive Male dichotomies and other variations already done to death.
To give you an idea what I’m talking about, here are some questions from the workshop. I’ve rephrased them to apply to characters, rather than personally.
How does your character know “what” that person is? What feelings, sensibilities, and other forms of awareness (other than simple body awareness) most make that person feel male, female, or somewhere in between?
Can you describe your character in non-gendered terms?
Does gender influence the spirituality of your character? How?
Has your character experienced a dissonance between what is expected and what was felt internally? How does the character deal with this tension? How does the character’s sense of integrity and honesty affect the response?
How does this character (and the surrounding culture) consider the issues of equality and fairness between the masculine, feminine and androgynous? (Is there a difference between equality and fairness?)
How does the character’s experience of gender affect the perception of the Divine, either within or outside the cultural norm?
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.