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The Evolution of Sexuality, Homosexuality and Gender in SFF – Part One

Alchemist of Souls (cover)One of the most exciting and vast elements of modern SFF is the presentation of alternative sexualities and genders. There is as vast a wealth to mine regarding sex, gender and sexuality as with its expected counterparts (that is, heterosexuality, and standard genders that reflect biology). Instead of these stories, issues and personalities being ignored or shied away from on grounds of social non-acceptance and taboo, writers now explore the people and lives behind these identifications, regardless of their personal identifications or preferences; writers write people and now more than ever, that don’t merely read as “straight, white male”. Literature should pre-empt changes in society, through the bright and inquiring minds behind the words, and there have been instances of LGBT interest within branches of the genre for some time (part two will explore this more closely). Following this, literature moves with the changes in society and before long, they are assimilated smoothly. Just as LGBT themes have become more and more accepted and part of the normal expectations of most medium, SFF is no different.

Naturally, there are many different ways of handling these themes; some are quite obvious and seek to inform and educate about the lesser known aspects of the LGBT community–such as transgenderism and transexualism–whilst often the themes are either interwoven with the plot or are an integral part of character and do little to herald themselves. Later (in part three of this series), I want to examine and compare the types of SFF in which the different themes and methods of presentation occur, and try to determine if there are different “types” of LGBT literature within the genre. I expect there to be, to a point, somewhat of a clear divide between SFF geared towards the themes of romance and sexuality, versus novels in which the sexuality or gender status of the characters is moot, whilst the story continues onwards.

City of Ruin (cover)If we start with the obvious, recent and renowned sources, we easily find work by Lyle, Newton and Morgan, LeGuin and Hobb, Lackey, Rice and Huff. These works promise a story that centres on a character with an alternative sexuality, without crossing the line into paranormal romance. To touch on the distinction lightly, we’ll say that paranormal romance might exhibit elements of the fantastic (usually, as revealed by its heading, paranormal in nature), but the stories involved more frequently concern themselves with romance as a central theme, and the topics surrounding it. As such, whenever LGBT themes are presented in paranormal romance, the love and sexuality topics usually feature in a different way, more central to the plot than in other genres, such as typical SFF. This, of course, is the same for heterosexual paranormal romance, too, as well as the stories that mix in bits of both.

Homosexual coupling isn’t something that happens by way of sly winks and coy nudges in SFF anymore. It’s open and comfortable and instead of a story simply toting homosexual characters to be “current”, the relationships are a part of real and cosmopolitan societies, or a taboo demonstration of freedom in societies in which homosexuality is forbidden. The bottom line generally is that men or women sleep with and live other men or women because it’s as natural to them as breathing. It’s just another part of being human and living a life. It’s never just about sex and an alternative lifestyle of sexuality; it’s just another love-story as part of a bigger plot, no different to the hero courting his/her love interest, or sub-characters forging relationships between themselves.

Fool's Errand (cover)But it’s not just sexuality that has begun to feature in SFF. Whether it’s vague, such as with the ambiguous sexuality of Robin Hobb’s Fool, or clear and an obvious part of the story and character, as per the pointed transexualism of Lan in Legends of the Red Sun, gender has begun to feature heavily.

The two examples above are useful as they demonstrate more than one level of transgenderism or transexualism. The Fool could be classified as pangender. There are instances of The Fool presenting as both genders, but elements of how s/he swings comfortably between the two demonstrate that the swing does not occur from confusion, but rather from a sense of self-security within both genders.

There are many readers who view Fool as completely genderless in a conventional sense, whereas others consider the character to be essentially male, but comfortable with the idea of gender as a fluid notion. There are events within the books that suggest his/her gender, one way or the other. For example: a character who sees Fool as male, takes over his body during healing–this suggests that if Fool was not the gender Fitz was expecting, then he would notice. Naturally, this raises the point that gender is not a physical attribute, which further complicates the mystery around the character, especially as, throughout Hobb’s world, Fool has presented entirely as one gender, and entirely as the other. In many ways, after the complexity of Fool, Lan is very cut and dry.

Lan begins the book, The Book of Transformations, as a transwoman. She is biologically male but presents, passes and identifies as a female. Later, through cultist magic/technology, she becomes biologically female. She ceases to be a transwoman and becomes a woman so that her gender matches her sex.

The Steel Remains (cover)Needless to say, there’s little mainstream SFF that features transpeople, so its inclusion here is an indication that it does exist, but is a new idea even in modern SFF, unless you examine anime/manga and look at the (both comedic and serious) representations of “gender-bending”. It’s not expressly the same and isn’t usually treated in the same way as a Western handling of transgenderism. This is possibly because gender and gender stereotypes are less pronounced in East-Asian cultures. We aren’t, of course, considering cross-dressing within the same region as gender dysphoria. Cross-dressing to pass physically as the opposite sex is not uncommon in SFF: men have dressed as women on the stage, and women have donned armour and bound their chests to fight as knights. This isn’t a conflict between the mental identification as one gender, and the physical appearance as another. Cross-dressing is either for theatrics (think of not only when women were forbidden to act, but also of drag queens and transvestites), the necessity to be perceived as a different gender, or for pleasure.

But it’s not just the presentation of alternative sexualities that has evolved, the whole notions of sex and gender have been imagined and re-imagined throughout the years–in fact, they are still being constantly re-examined and re-defined. It is the constant examination that will shape the theme for this series.

Following this introduction, we shall approach the topic from three directions: first, we’ll look at the linear evolution of the topic through SFF from its earliest roots, to present date. Part two will consider the varying ways in which LGBT themes are presented. And lastly, part three will finish up by considering the subject as a whole, in light of parts two and three, and in relation to its further evolution within the genre.

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8 Comments

  1. An interesting article. You might be coming to it later, but I hope you won’t ignore Moorcock’s work in this area in the 60s and 70s, especially in the Cornelius books and The Dancers at the End of Time. Looking forward to parts 2 & 3.

  2. Keith says:

    Loved this article. I rushed out to add your examples to my wishlist. One of my first encounters with LGBT-themed characters in literature was in Imajica by Clive Barker. This is truly an under-rated work of epic fantasy. Although not central to the plot, the character of Pie ‘oh’ Pah is an interesting one. Pie is capable of shape-shifting and is able to shift gender. It is a massive work and it has been about 10 years since I read it, but it is definitely worth mentioning here.

  3. Avery Moore says:

    Interesting article!

    I am a huge Robin Hobb fan, and honestly, I never even thought about the Fool as being pangender. To me, he/she was just the Fool, a unique and interesting character that I absolutely adored. I love how Robin Hobb handles this in her novels. It seems to me, that in a lot of the books I read, being LGBT is a big deal. There is a fuss about it, and sometimes it seems like the author wants to point out how awesome he/she is by including such a character.

    I cannot say the same for Robin Hobb. Whenever I encounter an LGBT character in her novels (or someone like the Fool), it just seems to be part of them. It is who they are. Society in Hobb’s world will not always allow this, yet it isn’t the focus (like it often is in other novels). I really admire Hobb for that.

  4. Interesting you point out that encounter with the Fool as a hint of his real sex. I thought it was a cop-out that Fitz concluded that the Fool was so unlike him biologically that it wasn’t a same-sex attraction after all. And I LOVED those books.

    Great article, though.

  5. E.E. Ottoman says:

    I really liked this article. I was so excited to see gender and sexuality in fantasy and science fiction talked about seriously and openly outside of LGBTQ specific publish circles. I guess the only think that bothered me was the tone of the article which to me sounded a little too close to “now that SFF publishing is completely open and accepting of all gender and sex variance …” Which I don’t believe to be the case at all. I think in a lot of ways fantasy and scientific fiction books where the main character is not straight or cisgendered is still a very niche phenomenon not a widely accepted one. Would I love to see that change? I would adore that to change, and yeah there are people writing some fantastic mainstream fantasy and science fiction with LGBTQ characters and have been for a long time. They’ve always been in the vast, vast minority though. I don’t think that’s changed or is changing as fast or as drastically as the tone of the article makes it sound.

    I am still really looking forward to the next to articles though.

  6. AJ Zaethe says:

    This is a great article. Definitely going to have to give these a read. I find that letting a character form as who they are works more efficiently for gender and orientation functionality, than me just straight out saying “I want to write a novel about a homosexual female mage”. I think it helps me to write in a way that it doesn’t feel like I am pushing my own views of acceptance to the forefront of the novel and just let it flow as part of the story. In other words, I don’t use non-heterosexualities as shock values. Here is an example: I recently came up with a fantasy story idea and the particular character it would focus around; as I wrote the idea out, I realized the character was gay. I hadn’t tried to set him up with a woman, but when I was fleshing out some of the details of single or not, I felt that he had a male lover. Character creation is fascinating to me. You never know when they will speak up and as what.

    • Anne Lyle says:

      Very true. Believe it or not, all the PoV characters in my first novel were straight when I began writing it, but as I dug deeper into the setting, it became clear to me that I really needed to engage with the very different attitudes of Elizabethan society towards sex and gender, from cross-dressing actors to the widespread practice of bisexuality (particularly amongst young unmarried men).

      Hence the plot of “The Alchemist of Souls” has superficially little to do with the characters’ sexuality and relationships, being in essence a political/spy thriller, and yet ultimately it’s driven by those same relationships and the motivations they create.

  7. […] The introductory article of this series promised that the first part of the real flesh of this series would talk about the linear evolution of the topic. […]

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