Oct 5 2011 2:30pm

The Steampunk That Dare Not Speak Its Name

People have always had sex. Even in the Victorian era, a time synonymous these days with prudery and abstinence, sexual acts were committed.

In one of the period’s most infamous cases, popular author Oscar Wilde was tried and jailed for the “gross indecency” of making love with other men. Yet Wilde wasn’t alone in his support of “Uranian” (same-sex) relationships. Poet Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover and originator of the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” (echoed in this post’s title), was also a proponent of the well-known Uranian movement. Since steampunk so often draws on Victoriana, we should find Uranian interests represented in a fair number of steampunk stories, right? Plus, the overtness of sexual markers such as corsets in steampunk, and the tendency of the genre’s authors to imagine modern attitudes into their versions of the past, should make queer steampunk common enough that multiple examples are easy to find. Right? Right?

Alas, other than slash fiction, there’s no long, strong tradition of steampunk stories that ignore heteronormative restrictions. Fan-generated steampunk slash riffs off of speculation about the homoerotic content of films such as 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” and 1999’s lamentable “Wild Wild West.” And why shouldn’t it so riff? Steampunk is about choosing your own adventures and making your own reality.

Non-literary varieties of steampunk have been associated with some fine gender bending. The Florida Queer Art Collective, for instance, put together a March 2011 show called Gaslight: A Steampunk Extravaganza, complete with costume door prizes. The online discussion group Steampunk Empire recently compared notes on how to subvert gender dress codes via steampunk cosplay.

Comics creators Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell produced the earliest example I could find of professional queer steampunk literature. Their Sebastian O series stars a thinly-disguised Oscar Wilde battling the evil mastermind of a computer-generated Queen Victoria, Lord Theo Lavender.

Lavender claims he controls the virtual reality in which he and the Wilde analog live. After Sebastian escapes from Bedlam, a mental hospital notorious for ill-treating its inmates, his investigative path crosses that of a George Eliot/George Sand mash-up (a pipe-smoking woman novelist in male drag) and an ostensibly reformed ecclesiastic pederast. Our hero is not a nice man: he detests the poor and mocks his enemies. But he’s undoubtedly better dressed and wittier than his opponents, and unashamed of his Uranian “crimes.” The comic’s three volumes were originally published in 1993, which makes Sebastian O a contemporary of Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine and places it solidly in steampunk’s first wave. It was reissued as a single volume in 2004.

In more recent years, small presses have published steampunk novels with queer romantic elements, such as A Certain Pressure in the Pipes by Clancy Nacht and The Inventor’s Companion by Ariel Tachna. The independent press Torquere published Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories in January 2011. In late October of the same year, they’ll release the sequel anthology Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories (including an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Everfair). With tongue firmly in cheek, Liz Henry of included this Lesbian Steampunk Bingo Card in her review of the first book.

Further queer steampunkery looms on the near horizon. In preparation for this post, I questioned two new authors about their contributions to the subgenre. Jude-Marie Green discussed her short story “A Glorious Madness” appearing in Issue #2 of Unfettered Fantastique. Jei D. Marcade discussed “The Anarchist’s Wife,” her unpublished Clarion West Writers Workshop submission story. Both feature bisexual protagonists.



Nisi Shawl: What moved you to include queerness in your recent steampunk story?

Jei D. Marcade: The realization that despite my protagonist’s attempts to manufacture a rigid structure for her life, her natural inclination is to chafe at limitations of any kind, including those placed on her sexuality.

Jude-Marie Green: I am straight and attracted to men, not women. Except now and again I’ve been blindsided, though I didn’t feel the desire to pursue those attractions. I do love the rush of a strong, stimulated libido. But a relationship, especially a road relationship such as the one between Donna Quick and Jane Smith, goes way beyond libido. There’s teamwork, respect, and compassion. These are all parts of the personal interactions I tried to explore in this story.

Shawl: Do you anticipate doing more along these lines?

Marcade: Absolutely. Before I wrote “The Anarchist’s Wife,” my brain birthed a long and winding clockpunk plot-thing that I’m currently trying to wrestle into either a novel or short story serial, and which features characters who might, if prodded, rate themselves a “one” on the Kinsey scale. You’ll probably see me whining about it come NaNoWriMo.

Green: Yes, I’m writing a sequel.

Shawl: Is there a resonance or relationship between steampunk and queerness?

Marcade: I suppose there could be a relationship, if queerness were equated with the subversive element inherent in the portmanteau “steampunk.” I was blessed to have grown up with queer friends in fairly liberal environments, so queerness sort of wove itself into the fabric of my reality and doesn’t retain any especially subversive connotations. My super-secret-evil-plan is to see the world shed previously held criteria for certain strains of “normative behavior,” which at times I manifest by stubbornly ignoring that they exist. But I can see how queerness might be an attractive platform from which one could write in what has been a pretty starkly heteronormative body of literature, at least on the surface.

Green: Honestly, I don’t know if there’s a resonance or relationship there. Queer is part of the human condition, right? So you’d think it would be all through the literature. All literature. But it does seem strangely absent. We might as well write what’s real: attraction happens. And the human race, as a whole, isn’t vanilla.

Nisi Shawl won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for her 2008 story collection Filter House, and she was WisCon 35’s Guest of Honor. She’s still hard at work on her Belgian Congo steampunk novel-in-progress, despite the temptations of social media and the necessity of earning the rent on her apartment. She thanks Professor Thomas Foster of the University of Washington for loaning her his cherry copies of the Sebastian O comics.

This article is part of Steampunk Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. Nightsky
Is there any ace steampunk? Does anyone know?
2. Immanuel Phlogiston
No mention of the Sapphic themes within Gordon Dahlquist's The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and The Dark Volume? Or the gay and lesbian themes that run all through Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series (particularly the smouldering tension between Alexia and Madam Lefoux)? I've occasionally wondered whether it was a requirement of Steampunk heroines to be at least bi-curious...
Nisi Shawl
3. Nisi-la
Thanks for the comments! I knew when I wrote this post I would miss mentioning some works. I have read the first Dahlquist book; I cared so little for it that I didn't read the sequel. I haven't read Carriger's series at all. I want to do that soon.

Earlier this week I began All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen, featuring an "invert" as one of the main characters. Only 100 pages in, so I can't say for sure if it's going to be good or great. It definitely does belong in this category--it even features a Wildean epigram, from which its title is taken.

There are probably other works we need to look at through this lens. I'm hoping to hear of more.
5. Daylina Miller
I'm blessed to be a part of the state that boasts the Florida Queer Art Collective that put together the March 2011 show called Gaslight: A Steampunk Extravaganza. It was beautifully done.

Thanks so much for this article. There's a lot of discussion about multiculturalism in steampunk but not as much about sexuality, at least not on the surface. Why, in 2011, is this not a more open subject? Why is steampunk still primarily restricted to heteronormative relationships like much of other genres of literature? This is a good way to get the conversation started.
Michelle Morgan
6. goblinbox
While I very much enjoy books and stories featuring "Uranian interests," I have to admit that I'm becoming a bit overwhelmed with the stridency of the demands for more of it, everywhere, all the time, in every genre, in every story length from short to novel, in article after blog post. There's an exceedingly vocal minority saying, IF YOU DON'T FEATURE US IN UNUSUALLY HIGH PERCENTAGES OF PUBLISHED MATERIAL, YOU'RE DENYING US OUR GAY/LESBIAN/BI/TRANS/THIRD GENDER/OTHER RIGHTS!

Whatever. If you want to read it, go write it. Don't whine like you're being oppressed, because you're not. Sci-fi and fantasy don't owe you soft porn. (If you're looking for sex, go read erotica. There's tons of gay steampunk erotica!)

Not all readers of science fiction and fantasy give a shit about all the millions of possible non-gender normative story structures out there -- nor should they if their primary interest happens to be in gender normativity. It's not oppression, kids, it's just disinterest.

Personally, I buy a lot of non-gender normative reading material in a variety of genres, and ever since I read Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness I've expected my speculative fiction to challenge the way I see the world. I love characters who are neuter or transgendered; I love cultures who have one, or three or more, genders instead of two; I love the idea of consciousness rather than gender being the real identity of character.

But. Unless a character's orientation matters to the story, I honestly don't care what s/he/it does in bed. And I don't want non-standard orientation stressed just for political reasons, because it makes for crap writing.
7. Polenth
There are enough stories with robot ponies to earn them a place on the bingo card? How did I miss these stories?!
Nisi Shawl
8. Nisi-la
@6 Wow, rant much?

I am writing it. And I'm asking for representative representation. And I'm good.
Jaymee Goh
9. Jha
Immanuel Phlogiston: Are you talking about the Contessa's assault on Miss Temple at the beginning of Book 2 of Dream Eaters? I've not read the Dark Volume, but much of the sexual content within the Dream Eaters books, particularly the same-sex encounters, are predicated on violence. I find the first two books beautifully written, but I wouldn't consider it to have Sapphic themes.

Daylina Miller: It appears easier to code visibly as non-white than it is to code visibly as queer, besides cross-dressing. (Just because someone cross-dresses does not mean they are not straight, after all. Sexuality and gender expression are somewhat different, although running along close lines.) There will be posts discussing more about sexuality soon!

goblinbox: Are you aware of the percentages in the publishing industry? How do you know we are asking for an "unusually high percentage"? You must have missed the #YesGayYA debacle, where Malinda Lo uncovered that the YA industry only publishes 0.6% homosexual content. Sorry, but the queer population are not only 0.6%.

Disinterest perpetuates oppression. But for someone who's disinterested, you sure are defensive when people say "yo, we'd like to see more stories featuring queer characters, because there ain't enough"... such a statement warrants a caps lock hyperbole of the vocal minority?

So what if you, individually, love buying non-normative stories? Because no matter how much you buy, there still isn't enough for the masses of us out there who don't see them in our bookstores. Minorities are starting to find their voice to express their need to see more of themselves represented in media, and you are overwhelmed? How come? When you are disinterested anyway?
Nisi Shawl
10. Nisi-la
@7 Not only do robot ponies have a place on the Lesbian Steampunk Bingo Card, they have the central place!
Jaymee Goh
11. Jha
But Nisi, where ARE these robot ponies? In the clefts?
Nisi Shawl
12. Nisi-la
And this just in:a lesbian steampunk song, complete with lyrics is at It is called "Lady in Waiting," and features the dark, echoey vocals of Unwoman.
Nisi Shawl
13. Nisi-la
Robot ponies are ubiquitous. They pilot the zeppelins. They work the looms. They are everywhere--Look! Behind you!
14. Polenth
On more serious sides, now my "OMG robot ponies!!!" thoughts have died down, I've found it hard to find steampunk LBGT stories that match my own tastes. I don't like stories where being queer means the person leads a life of angst and misery (especially when everyone else gets a happily ever after). It'd be nice to see more of characters who are queer and are doing steampunky things (perhaps involving robot ponies), and get to be happy.

Carriger didn't really work for me for that reason. I enjoyed other aspects of the book, but all the homosexual relationships end badly in a series where heterosexual relationships end happily-ever-after. It's not something I've seen others mention, so maybe it didn't come across that way to anyone else. But for me, it got in the way of enjoying the books.

Which is a rambling way of saying more representation would be good, as it'll mean a broader range of approaches to the characters. It'd be good to see something for everyone. (And now, it's time to write a story about robot ponies).
Neville Park
15. nevillepark
To Goblin Box, Esq.:

Sir, placating tiresome and priggish 'Dionings' as yourself is not an aim of the Uranian movement. We clamour for the depiction of characters such as ourselves in popular scientific romances to be honest, fair, and, indeed, universal, because we desire that Uranianism itself should be universal; that our peculiar form of Love should not be confined to romantic attachments, but should transform the very world.

Can the miseries of our current society, viz., the desolation of the work-house, the drudgery of the zeppelin-worker, &c., be accommodated with the beautiful and charitable (in the Corinthian sense) Uranian way of life? Can I open my heart to only my fellows of the bourgeoisie? This is impossible, sir! The Uranian revolution must be a socialist revolution as well, an uplift of the lower classes. The next stage of human evolution, if you will (and I hope Mr. Darwin shall not be displeased with the analogy).

It is our desire that the new technologies rapidly being adopted should afford some solution to our social ills. For example—may the automatons called robotniks become new modes of transportation, replacing the horses and ponies which suffer so upon our cobbled streets, and require so much labour to care for? My fellow Uranians have many such ideas, which you may read about in our periodicals. Sir, do not meet us as a preacher of antiquated mores, but as a comrade for our promising new future.


M. Neville Park
Kristin Franseen
16. musichistorygeek
Words cannot describe how much I want to see a steampunkish universe in which folks like Magnus Hirschfeld and Edward Carpenter accomplish their legal and social reforms...

@Polenth--I think it's a bit over-generalizing to say that heterosexual relationships in Carriger's books are "happily ever after."

I mean, it's all but stated that Ivy was pretty much disowned by her family for marrying an actor, while Conall publicly accuses Alexia of infidelity. Granted, these things are resolved more immediately than the troubles of Mme. Lefoux and Lord Akeldama (and poor Biffy!), but I get the feeling that there's more going on with Mme. L and Lord A than Alexia fully realizes. From interviews Carriger has done about the series, I also get the sense that the last book might end on a more positive note for everyone involved.
j p
17. sps49
Only 0.6% homosexual content? So is there 99.4% breeder content?

Percentage discussions come up fairly often (at least around here), usually following a similar pattern of "x%", followed by "x%? No way in heck", and ending in "my original indefensible number doesn't matter, we exist and should be represented".

Which brings us back to this page, informing readers of what is out there that we might not know about but be interested in buying anyway. Thank you, Nisi-la.
18. ChaosTheThird
I've read STEAMPOWERED and it was great. Led me to authors I may have never heard of otherwise, like Amal El-Mohtar. Glad to hear that you'll be in the next volume, Nisi. Looking forward to it.

@goblinbox: There had to be one, didn't there? Cool, quota met.

Now, let's make comments like that 0.6%.

(Meanwhile I'm aware that by even addressing that fellow we're giving heteronormativity a disproportionate amount of time on the stage.)
19. AO
"Breeder" is not a like term to homosexual. Besides, there are homosexuals who "breed" and heterosexuals who don't. As well as those who are bisexual who don't like the binary equation of these arguments. And people who are asexual. The desire to fit people into such neat little categories is the refuge of the small-minded who can't deal with people as they are, but instead need to generalize in a manner that, however well intentioned, is still discriminatory.

Further, framing the discussion solely in terms of whether or not one is oriented to reproducing makes little sense to me, as, in addition to not always being accurate, the opposite of "breeder" would be something such as "useless". Why would anyone who's not prejudiced desire to push for such a label?
Nisi Shawl
20. Nisi-la
ChaosTheThird, well and briefly said. I hope you'll like my story. I hope you'll like all the stories. Lemme know.

AO, as a queer-identified woman myself, I also dislike the term "breeder," though I know what it means. I don't find it offensive, just inaccurate, and am most often inclined to let it slide.
Jack Flynn
21. JackofMidworld
Not that it's a major plot element (aside from some occasional sexual tension), several of the recurring characters in the Parasol Protectorate Series, by Gail Garriger ( are either lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
j p
22. sps49

The only people I have heard use the descriptor were LBGT and applying the term to me.
24. Kelley Grosso
Was it called "Uranian" because they were so in love with Youranus?
Kristin Franseen
25. musichistorygeek
This is more relevant to Oscar Wilde than to queer issues in steampunk, but the short story "Steampunch" in the "Extraordinary Engines" anthology has Queensberry campaigning against mechanized prizefighters...because he's convinced real men will stop boxing and become effeminate.
Cynthia Ward
26. CynthiaWard
Another excellent post on steampunk from Ms. Shawl.

Speaking of the subgenre, you'll find a certain amount of gay and lesbian erotic activity (though ultimately more heteroactivity) in 1901: A Steam Odyssey by "Lionel Bramble" ( and at least some lesbian tension in "Lionel Bramble's" story in Like Clockwork: Steampunk Erotica ( Wonderfully twisted fun (tho' not for the easily offended or the completely-B&D-aversive).

(Note to Nisi: The author is one of our classmates ).
27. cgeye
OMG Robot Pony-Girls!

fixed that for you.

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