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Narrative archaeology: transgender people

Adri Allora


The first time I met in a fiction book a transgender character I was in the Budayeen and Marîd Audran has just introduced me to his girlfriend, Yasmin (George Alec Effinger, When gravity fails, 1987, novel). In retrospect this reveals my preference for a certain type of literature and acquaintances: if I had been even a bit more cultured my first meeting would certainly have been with Orlando (Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, 1928, novel) or maybe princess Ozma (Frank L. Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz, 1904, novel), but nobody’s perfect ^___^

I used to hang out the most unexpected place (at least according to people who doesn’t read sci-fi and fantasy books) and Yasmin didn’t shock the young cisgender man I was, on the contrary she was a fascinating detail in a very interesting setting: transgender and transexual characters were not very common in fiction.

Closed the book, left for another place, I’ve forgotten that people.

A few days ago I attended a double books presentation (Valentine aka Fluida Wolf, Postporno, 2020, essay + Filo Sottile, Mostruositrans, 2020, pamphlet) and the authors made me think about the connection between representation and acceptance (in Italy misoginy, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are very common) and I started to brood over the fact that a glittering vampire would feel more accepted by society than a transgender person.

Even a right-wing politician would feel more accepted by society than a transgender person.

This is crazy.

Because you’re here, maybe you know in my spare time I’m a narrative archaeologist, so I started to dig in the sci-fi field.

Image via IlSole24Ore

Recent years gave was… generous (?) with the readers: we can find transgender characters in Annex (Rich Larson, 2018, novel: Violet, the protagonist, after an alien invasion is free to set her gender and became the last hope to save her city from alien invaders); Provenance (Ann Leckie, 2017, novel: on the planet Hwae, despite physical characteristics gender is completely self-determined. The author used the pronoun “she” to identify every character); Escapology (Ren Warom, 2011, novel: the protagonist Shock, a console cowboy, is a transgender person ostracized from his family (but he doesn’t look back in anger, it’s just part of his life and identity)).

Before 2011, there is a black hole of some kind, because the previous transgender characters I’ve found is in the 1992 Greg Egan’s short story Closer (the unnamed narrator and his girlfriend Sian change bodies and experiment different kind of sexual intercourses — heterosexual, lesbian, homosexual and hermaphrodite — in order to be closer each other). In the same year, John Varley (whose ideas about clonation prefigured Richard K. Morgan’s fictional universe) published the short story Her Girl Friday, set in a distant future when transition is easy (the protagonist become a woman and her colleagues wonder who wanna sleep now… not surprising, right?)

Then, again the dark until 1982.

Love trouble for Tristan and Isolde (via superherohype)

In that year the Mike Barr and Brian Bolland comic Camelot 3000 appears: all the Round Table knights rise to defend Earth from an alien invasion and… Tristan by mistake rises as a woman. She does not accept her new sex, even if Isolde is happy with the transition (“and they lived happily ever after”).

Extraterrestrial au pair, original edition (via lazitellafelice)

In the children’s novel Extraterrestrial au pair (Bianca Pitzorno, 1979) the young extraterrestrial Mo, coming from the star Deneb, moves to Earth to learn its culture and customs. The Deneb inhabitants only discover their sex at the age of 18, but the uncertainty of Mo sex puts the host family in crisis: they need to know what sex is Mo in order to bind his/her behavior in one way or another: the focus is on gender roles.

1976 was a good year:

  • on a desert planet in the distant future, the Jang teenagers told by Tanith Lee (Don’t bite the sun, novel) experiment promiscuous sex, transitions, suicide, and a constant search for thrills;
  • on Neptune’s satellite, Triton, whose human colony has freed itself from sexism, people can choose to change sex at will (Samuel R. Delany, Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, novel). Bron, the protagonist, after looking for an impossible love story with a woman, transites.

Do you remember John Varley? In 1974 he wrote the short story Picnic on the nearside (in the homonymous collection) which teenager protagonist discovers that his best friend made the first Change and became female… and is also determined to make love to him! (I think it’s fascinating: is the transition necessary to make safe the heterosexuality of sex?)

In Michael Coney’s Friends Come in Boxes (1973), to live for a long time, people have their brains transplanted into newborn bodies (and a gay man ask for transplanting his brain in a female body… but I’m not sure this is a transition. And again I wonder if the hypotetical transition server to save the heterosexuality).

Via The Folio Society

In The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula k. Le Guin, 1969, novel) the individuals on planet Gethen are ambisexual, with no fixed sex; this has a strong influence on the culture of the planet, and creates a barrier of understanding for the protagonist Genly Ai (here a short interview on this masterpiece:

Two years before (1967, Henry Slesar, Ersatz, short story) a soldier comes to an atomic shelter and finds only surrogate kinds of comfort… and even the woman who welcomes him is a surrogate: a cross-dresser (okay, here there are so many levels of sadness that it’s not worth talking more about).

The oldest find is Kartoum: A Prose Limerick (1955, Antony Boucher, short story), a very short story about two transgender people abducted by aliens who are brought together on a spaceship for the purpose of perpetuating the human race. Let’s see… I think it’s just for fun.

Do you think it’s a poor landscape? Wait to read the post about fantasy…




Adri Allora

Linguist, entrepreneur (co-founder of Maieutical Labs), curious. I’m here on Medium mostly to learn, even when I write something.