Sci-male utterings on gender binarism

Sci-male here. No, that is not a typo. Just permitting myself a few primal grunts.

You may have observed this bit of opinion over at the TOR.COM web site. As topics go, fluidity of gender (in the speculative arts) is as old as the hills. Science fiction has been noodling at the idea for decades. Long before the humanities departments at universities began teaching it as gospel. But until now I’ve never come across something like this sentence specifically:

I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.

Got it? Not an exploration of alternatives to the default of binary gender. That would actually fit well within SF’s role as the literature of the possible. No. The author states: an end to the default of binary gender.

Well, that’s a rather interesting imperative. Especially when one considers the very common conceit (in SF circles) that spec fic is not just the literature of the possible, it should also be the literature of the inevitable. Activism in story form. Agitation through words, threatening the status quo. “Dangerous” fiction. Life will be made to imitate art. And so forth.

But is gender—one’s biological and personal identification as either male or female—really just a “social construct” as the author of the TOR.COM piece says? Unlike sports, where you get to pick which team is your team, sexuality is something you’re invariably issued on the factory floor. An XX for girls and an XY for boys. Or, if you want, an XYY or an XXX for perhaps one in a thousand births. And if the factory assembly line has performed to standard, both the XX and XY (and the XYY, and the XXX) models will roll out the door with standard internal and external anatomical features respective to their classification. Some of which won’t manifest until after puberty.

We are not, as a species, delivered into this world stuck in neutral. Biology, like physics, doesn’t have to conform to our ideas about how we think the world ought to be.

Moreover, it’s odd seeing the argument—for the total plasticity of gender—coming from the same academic and literary quarters that argue for rigidity of sexual orientation. If gay people are born gay and therefore absolutely remain locked into their sexual preference at a biological level, why is it then possible for the XX and XY models to decide to magically become, oh, I don’t know, YZ? Or even AB?

But getting back to spec fic, what might the actual societal ramifications of gender obliteration mean? An infinite number of different public bathrooms? Or how about an infinite number of different barracks and dormitories, for military and college use? Or, do we simply remove the signs from all of the above and rack people together as a single, heterogeneous mass? No gender-specific facilities at all! Problem, though. How will a doctor know how to treat an infinite number of genders if some conditions—such as menopause—are very clearly gender-specific to carriers of the XX chromosome pairing? How will someone identifying as gender QRS feel about using the omni-gender toilet next to gender HIJ? What if QRS feels that HIJ will experience uncontrollable sexual impulses in the presence of QRS when QRS has its pants around its ankles? How will the legal system endure the endless lawsuits as the many genders squabble over restroom real estate?

Don’t laugh. It’s already been happening on campuses. Does that mean it’s inevitable out in the wider world, too?

Allow me to propose this shocking answer: no.


Because our binary gender default is not merely a construct. It has a massive amount of biological inertia behind it, too. Tens of millions of years, counting the hominid lines. Hundreds of millions, if we dive all the way back into the seas. The minute nature invented sex as a means to reproduce and strengthen species via gene-mixing, we were put on the road to male and female.

Now, this does not mean all life everywhere in the universe must necessarily be binary gender. There may be life forms with three genders, or four, or five, or even more. Evolution might invent any number of more-complicated means for throwing genes into the proverbial martini shaker, and tossing things up.

But here on Earth, we’ve got what we’ve got. Male, or female. 99.999% of us arrived that way, and 99.999% of us will die that way. Even those who change it up, and undergo gender reassignment. The objective of the surgery and the therapy is not to invent a third gender, it is to merely swap hood ornamentation.

So why must science fiction end the use of binary gender?

Part of this sentiment is, I suspect, rooted in old grudges about sexism. SF, as a genre that is horribly self-conscious, still has a spiritual hangover from the days when it was male-dominated, with stories written by and for men, featuring men doing manly things, and women (in the fiction) were mostly there for eye appeal, and for tomfoolery.

Part of it is, also, I suspect, rooted in SF’s time-honored tradition of flaunting the ordinary. The mundane. The usual. Many an author (and a reader) has been drawn to the genre precisely because it was the one place in literature where you could write and read truly far out stories about truly far out people, places, situations, et cetera.

But I’ve said many times in this space that you can have too much of a good thing. Presently, as SF literature’s total marketshare continues to decline, the genre seems to be working overtime to alienate—rather than appeal to—ordinary people. People for whom the grand old history of spec fic begins with Star Wars and ends with whichever Marvel Comics movie happens to have come out this month. These are readers who not only don’t have a problem with binary gender as the default, they will be seriously weirded out by suggestions that it ought to be otherwise.

And to be perfectly blunt about it, that’s not just okay, that’s healthy!

See, the internet is not the whole universe.

And spec fic geeks, we’re not the whole internet.

There are billions of people on Earth, and lots of them read, and not everybody is going to think “ending” something as fundamental as male/female is such a great idea. Again, largely because of biological inertia. Which has nothing to do with constructs. Nor is it even related to roles. Men and women—especially in the West—have spent the last two centuries gradually learning to take on more and more jobs which used to be very specifically defined for one gender, or the other. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable and, indeed, even admirable, for spec fic to take on the idea that men and women can and will do different things. Compared to their accepted, traditional roles of eras past. Some of which really are subjectively inherited from culture.

But gender? That’s in the blood. Literally. Which means even if we push really hard and try to make the idea of gender plasticity stick, the biological springback is always going to be in favor of binary. Like a sapling that’s been bent to the ground, and let loose. SPROING! There it goes. Despite our best effort to the contrary.

So don’t worry about whether or not you’re “gender normative” in the nomenclature of the academy. What goes on at the university and what actually transpires in real life, can be very different things. If you’re a reader or a writer who never thought twice about “gender binary,” don’t fret. This is just fine. There are (obviously) other people to obsess on that subject, and they will find ways to tell stories for the small audience interested in that kind of thing.

The rest of us will keep telling stories for the big audience.


  1. “I want to read about X”: cool.

    “I think I’ll write about X”: cool.

    “I wish people would write about X”: cool.

    “I’m bored with reading about NotX”: cool.

    “I wish people wouldn’t write about NotX”: NOT cool.

    “I want an end to people writing about NotX”: NOT COOL!

    “I think you should be punished for disagreeing with me about X”: NOT COOL, YOU TOTALITARIAN DIRTBAG!

  2. Brad, you literary barbarian you! You and Larry and Michael and Tom and Johnny and Sarah… The wild bunch… Lol. Yeah, politics don’t really affect us….

  3. Sigh-Male here. Unrepentant Alpha and fairly typical SciFi reader over the last fifty years or so. Keep a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, spare tire, and handgun accessible where lawful. Guess that puts me in the Williamson, Ringo, Corriea, spectrum of fandom.
    Don’t see a problem with F-F pairing since I share that attraction. M-M is a little odd to me, but a polite “no, thank you” has always sufficed. That tiny percentage of males leaving the gene pool by self-selection is no skin off my nose.
    My religion condems same sex relationships, just as it condems most of the relationships I’ve had in my lifetime. It also condems eating shellfish, bacon, or wearing clothing of a blended fabric. I don’t have the secret decoder ring that unravels The Truth, but believe that shared kindness and love are not inherently sinful.
    Have lustfully enjoyed M-F-M, MF-F, and F-M-F activiies in my not so misspent youth (E7 ret)
    But this non binary gender concept just amuses me!
    People are so different in their wants, needs, and desires that “binary” is about the only common ground.
    From celibacy to untamed wantonness “sexual behavior” is completely a choice.
    We may feel attraction to a certain plumbing design, certain subsets of that design, or varying attraction to specific individuals. It’s all within the spectrum of normal.

    How we respond to attraction is what makes us who we are in our own self-identity.

    How others perceive us is, in our enlightened western society, their problem.

  4. The hardwired differences of human gender are the reason I find most (if not all) gender-bending fiction difficult to get into. I have a hard time relating to any character without a solid place to start from. Yes, yes, we’re all human as some may argue, but H2O and H2O2 are only an atom apart…doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable.

  5. I really enjoyed your well-thought take on this. Furthermore, I spent a good while last night reading Larry Correia’s blog with his thoughts on the subject as well… it was quite entertaining. I know this isn’t really the topic of your post but… If this type of thinking is indicative of what permeates SFWA and they are so inept at representing the interests of their membership (maybe I’m wrong but I thought they were against e-publishing), has there ever been a movement afoot to start a new SF professional organization that appealed/represented folks like you, Kratman, Correia, Ringo, Williamson, Beale etc.? There could even be a new snazzy award (like the Quasar Award or something).

  6. My question, which is similar to what I posted over at Larry’s blog, is simple.

    As a male writer, I have a hard enough time writing female characters primarily because I’m not female. I have to base my writing on what I perceive of the women I know, which may or may not be right. It’s no different than what I figure women have to do to write about men.

    However, using that same process, I can also write about gay men and lesbian women, as well as bisexuals from either sex. I’ve known a few of each, so I can write about them easily enough. No big deal.

    Now, if I do as that post demands, how am I supposed to write intelligently about people who I don’t even know? I’m sorry, but as far as I know, I don’t know any transgendered people, so I don’t understand the struggles that make them unique. I don’t understand what trials and tribulations make some of them absolutely hate we “cisgendered normative” types. How am I supposed to write about them?

    Frankly, I’m going to write about men and women primarily, with some gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters from time to time if the story demands it. Honestly, I don’t see how often characters and their sexuality will actually enter into the story, but it might. Whatever.

    I figure my chances at a Hugo are already out the window anyways, so what do I care? 🙂

  7. At points the argument that gender is, when you get right down to it, nothing more than a societal construct reminds me of that bit from Life of Brian when one of the Judean People’s Front guys claims the right to be a woman and have children, biological constraints not withstanding :

    “It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.”
    “But – you can’t have babies!”
    “Don’t you oppress me!”
    “I’m not oppressing you, Stan – you haven’t got a womb!”

    I think you can have empathy for transgender people and still not accept the idea that will alone is capable of reshaping basic facts to suit our own preferences.

  8. That’s the thing. SF as a genre seems to be doing this more and more: how can we pursue some relatively strange and arcane agenda at the expense of a wider audience? I for one am trying to stand on the edge of the science fiction “ghetto” and use my little trumpet to call people over for a look at the wares in my wagon. Not the people already inside the ghetto walls. The normal people passing on the highway beyond.

  9. Lou Antonelli has started a group called SASS that may be able to eventually do a lot of what SFWA cannot do. Presently, I am a hood-ornament officer in the org. But Lou’s getting more and more interested people all the time.

  10. If that’s the running definition, that’s laughable. So, anyone who feels like a woman is therefore a woman? Biology be damned? Ridiculous. And anyone (like me) who tried to barge into that issue under the guise of “I feel like a woman therefore I am a woman” would be drummed out. And rightly so.

  11. It’s always annoyed me when people use the word “gender” when they should say “sex.”

    Bathrooms are male and female; they’re not masculine and feminine. Men can easily pee standing up- a fact which annoys some, but we can and we do. Even an exquisitely feminine man can use a urinal.

    Once sex is clearly separated from gender then lots of these things seem to become more clear.

    Certainly it’s possible to imagine futures in which either gender or sex are fluid but if the demand is to write only of these then I think whoever is making this demand deserves a rude answer.

  12. Similarly, if I said “I’m a woman because of biology, and ‘identifying’ doesn’t even enter into it,” I don’t think think I’d be all that welcome either.

    Though I wonder how much support you’d get if you couched “I feel like a woman therefore I am one” in the right jargon? Something like “I have a fluid gender identity of which female is a real and important part. While I am male-bodied, was assigned male at birth, and my gender presentation is usually perceived as male, telling me that these things make me less of a woman is hurtful and invalidating.”

  13. I have a friend who is male, who insists he’s a woman. He lives with a woman who insists that she’s a lesbian, and that my friend (the guy) is a woman. Physically, he is not a woman. I’m pretty sure when they fool around, he’s doing something lesbians can’t do without significant prosthetic enhancements. Yes, all of our friends love this couple, but we know they are crazy. We humor them and call him a her and just sort of ignore the craziness because they bring a lot of other good things to the table. Which is well and good, but all the pretending in the world has not so far made his frank & beans disappear, much to his chagrin. If only we could pretend haaaaarder, as Ms. MacFar-lane asks…

    To the extent Sci Fi is going to matter, it has to shed some light on reality. To do that it has to be tethered to it more or less, or at least play off against the structure of reality. Stross and Vinge are useful, and besides giving pleasure, they help a brother think about public policy and technology because they explore a lot of those areas starting from scientifically more-or-less sound premises. Dan Simmons, on the other hand, for all the fun Hyperion and Endymion were, is just writing about a dozen deus ex machina characters, walking around doing magical deus ex machina shit. Oh, you can put a little magic in there, otherwise you’re going to have to wait 700 years for the next sequel while Omar sails his spaceship to Alpha Centauri at .1 lightspeed, but for the most part it has to obey the laws of physics and humans have to act more or less like humans, dogs like dogs, or there has to be a really good reason they aren’t acting according to type. Otherwise, you’re just writing fantasy.

    And fantasy is lovely and fun but it isn’t sci fi, because there isn’t a lick of sci in it.

  14. I wasn’t going to post, but then, I figured, no one who has fallen on the “I don’t see why we need this” has brought up what to do about the real world societies that DON’T use binary gender.

    Not sf. Right here on Earth. Real world. Go to India and look at the hijra for an example.

    They’ve been around for hundreds of years. Nobody thinks it’s strange because they’ve always had a third gender there. Biologicially yes you can sex them, but culturally they fill a different role from a man or woman.

    You can separate gender from biology. It’s just it’s not a part of American culture. To think that what Americans commonly believe is the only truth is rather narrow-minded. I wish the Tor post hadn’t been savaged so much because I think it’s worth thinking about.

  15. The TOR piece went off the rails when the author said she wanted an end to binary gender in SF, period. Not, “I want to end it in my own stories,” nor even, “I would like to further explorer the notion that gender may not be as binary as we think.” No, this was a commandment to the genre: end binary gender in SF! We authors are lousy about being told what to do. Absolutely lousy. Telling us what we can or cannot do is like waving a red cape in front of a bull.

    I agree, it’s an idea worth exploring, and this is what SF is usually best at: taking a contemplative look at our modern society through a fictional lens, so that we might better understand who we were, who we are, and who we might become.

    Alex placed an imperative–I want an end!–into the mix, and that got people riled up. And rightly so, I might at. Had I posted something along the lines of, “I want an end to alternative gender exploration in SF” I’d probably have been pilloried. And for good reason, too. I agree, some of the criticism is over the top. But the poorly way the article was worded practically invited disagreement and division.

  16. “When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know, the end result is tyranny and oppression no matter how holy the motives.”

    Robert A. Heinlein

  17. Oddly the orginally writer, McFarland (I have no idea of his/her sex; Alex being one of those non-gender normative names), seems to have missed about 30 years of sci-fi writing. Star Trek: The Next Gen. explored a world with no sex in “The Outcast”. Data’s daughter, Lal, is allowed to select her sexual appearance (she picks female, making her a gynoid instead of an android) and that is just two examples. One also wonders if McFarland has ever read any Lois McMaster Bujold? An whole planet of gay men? The genetic hermaphrodite of Beta Colony and the sexless “bas” of Cetaganda? To name two more non gender normantive examples.

  18. For what it’s worth, the Wikipedia article suggests that the hijra live on the margins of society and experience a number of slights, violence abuse and ostracisms that would be familiar to many (most?) trans gender individuals in America. This strongly suggests that “nobody thinks it’s strange” is at best an overstatement.

  19. I assume McFarland is female – because she’s editing the upcoming Mammoth Book of Science Fiction.

  20. The author of the TOR piece did NOT say she wanted an end to binary gender in SF. She said she wanted the end to the default of binary gender in SF. The one word “default” changes the meaning of the sentence. If I said I wanted an end to the default of heterosexuality in SF, I wouldn’t mean I want no heterosexuality in SF, but that I want stories to include homosexuality too, and not necessarily only when the story is about homosexuality.

    Also, when people say that gender is a social construct, they don’t mean that people feel like they are women or men interchangeably. What they mean is that although they feel an inborn sense of being a woman or a man, the way they express their masculinity or femininity is socially constructed.

    I’m sorry if I sound like I’m lecturing. This is pretty basic stuff.

  21. Hmmmmm. I am going to politely disagree, that it’s as “basic” as it may seem to you. If it really were as cut-and-dried as you propose, for all of us, I doubt so many people would have had so many different reactions to the TOR article. It’s precisely because it wasn’t cut-and-dried that the article prompted numerous objections. As always, where story is concerned, I say: to each their own. Some authors will devote time and energy to exploring outside male/female dichotomies. Others will tell wonderful stories where the male/female dichotomy is tacit. Expressions of these dichotomies vary, of course. But I do think that, even in 21st century America, there are recognizable norms that don’t necessarily need to be kicked to the sidelines just because we’re doing science fiction.

  22. “The one word ‘default’ changes the meaning of the sentence.”
    Heterosexuality is the default because the vast majority of human beings are heterosexual.

  23. One manifestation of the “gender is a social construct” idea is that a boy can be raised to be a girl and everything will work out just find. The overwhelming likelihood is that it won’t. There have been some tragic cases of this.

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