Queering SFF

Queering SFF: 12 Authors, Critics, and Activists on What’s Changed in the Last Ten Years

At the start of a new decade, and as this column also reaches its tenth anniversary, I wanted to offer readers a bit of a retrospective with some folks who have been part of the broader field of queer SF/F across that same timeline. And by “a bit of a retrospective,” I mean a big ol’ roundtable discussion with some of the finest individuals our field has to offer—critics, organizers, writers, and occasionally all of those at once.

Whether you’re a convention-goer or a short fiction devotee, a home cook or a Twitter fanatic, a novel reader or a nerdy poet, you’re likely to have run into some (or all!) of our conversational partners today at one point or another. Their interests are diverse, as are their engagements with the field of Queer SF/F at large.

So without further ado, here’s our discussion—our illustrious participants are: Carmen Maria Machado, Liz Bourke, Charlie Jane Anders, Nicola Griffith, Cheryl Morgan, José Iriarte, Sunny Moraine, Yoon Ha Lee, Nino Cipri, Sam J. Miller, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Craig L. Gidney.

 

To start us all off, would you mind introducing yourself and your work briefly? Feel free to include any recent or upcoming publications or projects we should be keeping our eyes out for…

Charlie Jane Anders: Sure! My latest book is The City in the Middle of the Night, which came out in paperback on Feb. 11, 2020. My previous novel, All the Birds in the Sky, won the Nebula, Locus, and Crawford Awards, and I also won a Lambda Literary Award for my first novel, the warped trans coming-of-age story Choir Boy. I’m currently working on the second book in a young-adult space opera trilogy, which includes a lot of queer characters, and the first book comes out sometime in early 2021. Also, I have a short story collection called Even Greater Mistakes coming out sometime in the next couple years as well. I spend a lot of my time trying to build community, including literary and queer community, as the organizer and host of a monthly reading series called Writers With Drinks. And I also help to organize and host two other events, the monthly Trans Nerd Meetup and the thrice-yearly Bookstore and Chocolate Crawl. The longer I stick around, the more important I find community to be, and the more I want to try and create spaces where people can share stories and meet like-minded people.

Liz Bourke: I’m Liz Bourke, sometime reviewer and critic. I’ve written the “Sleeps With Monsters” column regularly here at Tor.com since 2012, and in 2017 Aqueduct Press published Sleeping With Monsters, a volume broadly based on the columns as well as including other work. I hold a PhD in Classics (2016), which has—for better or worse—rather informed my work and life over the last decade.

Carmen Maria Machado: I’m the author of a short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and a memoir, In the Dream House, both out from Graywolf Press. I’m also the author of the limited series The Low, Low Woods, with DC Comics. I write across genres, but most of my work occupies horror and fantasy spaces pretty comfortably. My newest fiction is a novella out last month at Granta: “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror.”

Craig L. Gidney: I have written two Lambda Literary-nominated works of short fiction: Sea, Swallow Me and Other Stories and Skin Deep Magic; a young adult novel Bereft; an illustrated chapbook (The Nectar of Nightmares). My novel A Spectral Hue was released last year. This is in addition to a bunch of short fiction published in many different venues. I’m currently working on a serialized novel called Hairsbreadth. Installments will be posted on Broken Eye Books’ Patreon and when it is finished, it will be available as a book. Hairsbreadth has elements of the Rapunzel fairytale and deals with issues of black hair and colorism.

Yoon Ha Lee: Howdy, I’m Yoon Ha Lee. I’m Korean-American by way of Texas. I’m the author of the Machineries of Empire series (Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, Revenant Gun, Hexarchate Stories), the first three volumes of which were Hugo finalists, and The New York Times bestselling middle grade space opera Dragon Pearl. I’ve had short fiction appear in venues like Tor.com, Clarkesworld, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. My standalone fantasy Phoenix Extravagant, which is loosely based on Korea during the Japanese occupation, but with bonus nonbinary painter protagonist and mecha dragon, is due out in June this year.

Nicola Griffith: I’m a queer cripple with a PhD who is a dual citizen of the US/UK and boxes from a wheelchair. I have an idiotic tendency to start things—using data to look at bias in the literary ecosystem; founding #CripLit community; crusades to makes events and organisations accessible—that distract me from my real job, which is story. I’m married to novelist and screenwriter Kelley Eskridge; we live in Seattle.

I write novels, very occasional short stories, and nonfiction; I’ve also published a memoir, and edited three anthologies of queer fiction. My own fiction can be any genre, or maybe it would be more accurate to say genre to me is just a tool, the vehicle to cross a particular story terrain: science fiction in Ammonite and Slow River; crime fiction in the Aud Torvingen novels, starting with The Blue Place; historical fiction in Hild and in-progress Menewood; or contemporary fiction in So Lucky. But no matter the genre, every single fiction I’ve ever written—long or short form—uses focalised queer heterotopia to create narrative empathy. In other words, the main character—the person I focalise the narrative through—is not marginalised because they’re queer. Whether we’re talking contemporary Atlanta or Seattle, the near future, or the deep past, they live in a space/place in which being queer is not an identity issue, it’s just one facet of their being, like the colour of their eyes or the size of their feet: not worthy of remark. And in my work, the body is a site of delight rather than distress. Basically, I write about queer women having a fabulous time being queer—even if they’re running into horrors and/or struggles in others areas of their life (being stalked by monsters, literal and figurative; dealing with alien viruses; coping with crazy mothers; finding sanity after being drugged mindless; surviving snow). The big premise, the conflict, the Problem in my fiction is never being queer.

Cheryl Morgan: I’m Cheryl Morgan. I’m a trans woman. My current activities are that I own Wizard’s Tower Press and I edit, and write much of, Salon Futura. Wizard’s Tower is best known for Juliet E. McKenna’s hugely successful Green Man books, but we also publish anthologies aimed at promoting less-well-known authors. The Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion series of steampunk anthologies features mainly local writers from the South-West of England, and I’m delighted that volume II has stories from two other trans women besides me. In 2020 we plan to publish two books by Croatian writers, a new novel by Lyda Morehouse, and a new Green Man book. Salon Futura is Hugo-eligible in the Fanzine category.

Sam J. Miller: My name’s Sam J Miller and I’m a gay guy writing weird queer science fiction and fantasy and horror about sex and revolution and oppression and animals and climate change. I won a Nebula Award for my debut novel The Art of Starving, and my second novel Blackfish City was one of the Best Books of the Year according to The Washington Post and Barnes and Noble.

Sunny Moraine: Hi, I’m Sunny and I’m a writer (Hi, Sunny). I didn’t intend to be a writer of queer weird/dark/horror fiction, but that’s a lot of what I do, and the majority of it is also quite angry. I used to do mostly short fiction—my short story collection is called Singing With All My Skin and Bone, available from Undertow Books—but lately I’ve been writing much longer things. Which take forever to get through the pipeline, so I have nothing official to announce there, but hopefully soon.

I also write, produce, and narrate the horror drama podcast GONE, of which the second season will be dropping… at some point. It’s complicated.

José Iriarte: Hi! I’m José Iriarte. I write short stories that are lightly spec but heavy on the emotions. My best known works are my Nebula finalist and Tiptree/Otherwise longlisted novelette, “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births,” originally published in Lightspeed and reprinted in Transcendent 4, and my short story, “Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic,” originally published in Strange Horizons and chosen first in the Strange Horizons Readers’ Poll the year it came out. My stories generally feature characters who are queer and/or Latinx, and I’m drawn to writing either about teens or elderly characters. I am currently wrapping up revisions on a novel manuscript, but can’t guess at when or if you’ll be able to see that, and I have a short story coming in the Zombies Need Brains anthology, My Battery is Low and It’s Getting Dark.

Nino Cipri: I’m a queer, trans/non-binary writer, editor, and educator who’s been publishing for about ten years. I primarily write fiction, but have also worked on screenplays, plays, radio features, essays, and reviews. My collection of short stories Homesick came out last October, and my novella Finna was just released in February. I hop between genres often, but I consistently write about queerness and gender feels in my work.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: I’m Mary Anne Mohanraj, a Sri Lankan American bisexual poly writer. I’m the founder of Strange Horizons, author of The Stars Change (which includes queer protagonists), and founder and director of The Speculative Literature Foundation, which gives grants to writers.  I’m an English professor by day, teaching post-colonial lit, pop culture (including SF/F), feminist & queer lit, and creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  I was a co-founder of the Carl Brandon Society (for writers of color in SF/F), have served as a Tiptree juror, and currently serve on the board of the Plurality University (U+), which is working to connect artists, writers, designers, and more, creating diverse visions of the future.

My most recent title is actually a Sri Lankan American cookbook, A Feast of Serendib (March 6, 2020, Mascot Books), but my most recent SFF title was an anthology I edited, Survivor, stories of trauma and survival, including some queer content, from Lethe Press in 2018.  Various short stories of mine are available online, including “Communion,” (a sequel to The Stars Change, at Clarkesworld), “Plea,” (Lightspeed), and “Webs” (Asimov’s, reprinted at Lightspeed), all with LGBT content, all set in my Jump Space universe. 

 

Now, rewind: around this time in 2010, where were you as a creator and what sort of material were you pursuing—what did your path as a writer/editor/critic look like at that time?

Machado: In 2010, I’d just arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was writing realism with light magical-realist touches. Within the year I was writing horror and fantasy, though I didn’t really know anything about the SF&F community or Clarion or anything like that. At the encouragement of my friend, E.J. Fischer—a science-fiction writer who’d come to Iowa a year after me—I applied to Clarion in 2012 and ended up going that summer. In those early years of the decade, I became (and remain!) very obsessed with how genre—as a very broad category—can be used as a tool to manage, control, and explode readerly expectations. I also became (and remain) obsessed with form and structure, and how those ideas overlap with genre.

Lee: I was writing weird concept-driven SF/F, mostly short stories, and hacking away at a fantasy novel that went through a variety of titles—I’d end up submitting it to a handful of agents in 2011 before realizing that it was irreparably broken and trunking the sucker. At the time I was pretty resigned to eking out forgettable short stories for the rest of my life.

Miller: In 2010, I didn’t believe that it was possible to write queer stuff and genre stuff at the same time. Even though the history of our field is full of queer creators and queer work, much of it has been rendered invisible or framed as an accident of a vanished historical moment. “Sure, Dhalgren is super queer and full of sex, but that was in the seventies, etc.”  I was writing queer stuff—stories of mine were republished in anthologies like Best Gay Erotica and Cool Thing: Best New Gay Fiction from American Writers—but only mimetic/realist lit fic stuff. When I was in the genre, I was in the closet.

Cipri: In 2010, I graduated from college with a BA in Theater and Creative Writing in a solidly Not Great economy. I was also clawing my way out of a terrible depressive episode and going through a bad breakup. I ended up moving back to my mom’s house in Vermont and working as a housecleaner while writing on the side. I’d never gotten paid for my fiction at all, though I’d gotten noticed for my screenwriting, playwriting, and poetry as a student. I knew nothing about how to actually start a career as a writer (or a theater tech, which was actually my primary career plan). None of my writing classes or teachers at that point had given me solid information about it; the best I had was the practical chapters in Stephen King’s On Writing, and occasional issues of Poets and Writers Magazine. I remember that my mom bought me one of those massive Writer’s Digest reference books that year for Christmas. I wouldn’t start publishing consistently until 2011.

Moraine: It didn’t actually look all that different, except there was less of my stuff out there; what I was writing was mostly the same, except I was co-writing what turned out to be Line and Orbit, my first novel (out of print now but I’m working on fixing that). I was also hammering away at short fiction, as one does, and trying to break into the pro markets, also as one does. A complicating variable was that I was in my first year of a sociology PhD program, and figuring out how to balance my academic workload with my writing workload was…interesting, to say the least. The path forward itself was a gigantic unknown. All I knew was that I wanted to keep working, and I felt optimistic. Still do, although many things haven’t worked out like I would have expected (I did at least get the PhD).

Iriarte: In 2010, I was not yet published. I had, two years before, decided that the only way I would be able to break into publishing was to begin taking writing as seriously as if it were a second job. By this time in 2010, I had a manuscript of a YA novel—or what we might now call “high MG”—and was a few months from beginning to query agents. I was also writing short stories, but I was still three years away from selling any. Then as now, my stories were broadly YA and faintly spec. I was reading and commenting on a lot of agent and author blogs and getting my feet wet on Twitter and starting to meet some cool people at conferences who were further down the road than I was.

Anders: My career roughly divides into before and after the publication of “Six Months, Three Days,” the novelette that was published on Tor.com in mid-2011, which ended up winning the Hugo Award. Prior to “Six Months,” I was very much a struggling writer. I had been publishing stories for over a decade, with modest success. I had published over a hundred stories, mostly in small press venues, but occasionally in places like Strange Horizons and ZYZZYVA, and some notable anthologies. I had a piece in McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies, “A Serial Killer Explains The Distinctions Between Literary Terms,” which appeared in 2006 and later was collected in print in one of McSweeney’s humor anthologies. But even though I thought of myself as a fiction writer who was doing other kinds of writing for money, my fiction made very little impact. When “Six Months” got nominated for awards, I lost count of how many people came up to me and said, “I didn’t know you wrote fiction.”

Mohanraj: In 2010, I had just started my current professor gig and was drafting a YA fantasy novel (which was shown to a few people, but then put on the back burner). The second book in the trilogy was supposed to feature a lesbian protagonist, and I got pushback from my agent at the time, who argued that if it wasn’t a coming out novel, something where the queer content was the point of the story (it wasn’t), it just didn’t make sense to have a queer protagonist; it’d lock a YA novel in particular out of schools and libraries throughout much of the country. (He’s no longer my agent.)

Morgan: 2010 was a time of change. I’d given up doing Emerald City, my previous fanzine, in the wake of being very publicly outed. I had, totally unexpectedly, won Best Fanwriter in the Hugos in Montreal the previous year, which I think makes me the first openly trans person to win a Hugo. (I’d won one before, but was mostly stealth at the time.) Neil Clarke had kindly given me a job as non-fiction editor of Clarkesworld, which was my main focus at the time. I was expecting to be doing that for a while, and also doing a whole bunch of fan work. But then early in the year I got banned from entering the USA, for reasons that were never clearly explained. This threw a huge spanner in my life; and led to my founding Wizard’s Tower.

Griffith:  In 2010 “It Takes Two,” a novelette about the nature of love, sex, and chemistry, the first science fiction I’d written in more than 15 years, was shortlisted for the Hugo. That was a very pleasant surprise. But there’s a reason I hardly ever write short fiction: it doesn’t pay the bills. And in 2010, with the effects of the Great Recession still very much evident, the world for freelancers like me and Kelley was a pretty hard place. My last novel was Always, the third in a three-book series, each from a different publisher—a marketing nightmare; it did not go well. So I knew I wouldn’t get much for any novel I sold on outline. Add to that the fact that I wanted to do something completely new, and to do it entirely my way—so that when I was done I could sell it on a take-it-or-leave-it basis for the sum it deserved—I decided to embark on the project without a contract. So the beginning of 2010 saw me working on Hild. I knew it was good, I just didn’t know if anyone else would think so. So, although we were broke, and seriously stressed about that, I was also happy and focused on the work at hand.

Gidney: In 2010, I had already published Sea, Swallow Me. I was then amassing the material for the second collection and going to lots of conventions, including Gaylaxicon. That book had been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award, so I got a chance to go to the award ceremony in New York and rub shoulders with Dennis Cooper, Kate Clinton, and Keith Boykin. I felt like a Real Author then!

Bourke: It’s odd—I was just looking back for Sleeps With Monsters, trying to assess where to keep that column—to think of myself eight or ten years ago. It’s hard put myself back in those shoes: in 2010, I was finishing undergraduate study and starting a PhD. I’d only just really starting pitching and writing book reviews (shout-out to the long-shuttered Ideomancer magazine). I didn’t think of myself as queer or genderqueer the way I do now, so I didn’t see things through those lenses. (I only properly came out to myself as a bisexual woman in 2015, although when I tried to come out to my mates they basically reacted with We thought you already knew.) And bless the heart of infant 24-year-old me: she meant well but damn, she was young. And aggressively opinionated—but there was a period, in the SFF community on the internet, before the rise of Twitter and Tumblr, where a fertile community of blogs meant it was possible to have productive, vigorous arguments amidst the confrontational trolling and performative outrage. It’s much harder (impossible) to have a well-moderated comments section on Twitter, which is where a lot of discussion has moved, and harder to work through complex, nuanced discussions.

  

How have you seen queer and trans participation and representation in the field change over the past ten years, broadly speaking?

Griffith: From my perspective, queer, nonbinary, trans folk—as authors, characters, and editors—are no longer so singular; we are no longer lone, flashing critical targets in a straight cisgender binary field. There are more of us, and we write, read, edit, and publish more varied work. There’s been a huge shift from straight cis writers writing about queer women to queer women of all varieties writing about ourselves—lots more #OwnVoices.

And now that there’s more—not enough, not nearly enough—representation, we can write queer folk with ordinary human imperfections without worrying queerness will be interpreted as a signifier of something vile (evil, avarice, immorality, etc.). But perhaps the greatest change has been in the number of trans and nonbinary writers getting published and, importantly, read and rewarded—winning prizes.

All this? Nothing but good.

Gidney: It’s been amazing. Now, there are more LGBTQ+ authors publishing work. I’m particularly happy that POC authors from the LGBTQ+ community are more visible than ever. It’s nice not being the “only queer in the village.” It used to be just Jewelle Gomez and Samuel Delany. Now, there’s Marlon James, Kai Ashante Wilson, and Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. I’ve noticed that more trans and nonbinary writers are now demanding a seat at the table, creating vibrant and exciting fiction, enriching the field.

Miller: I’ve been so gratified to see the explosion of dynamic amazing beautiful powerful stories over the past ten years, with incredible queer and trans creators from all kinds of communities kicking down the door and demanding their/our seat at the genre table. 

Lee: More visibility, mostly, and more acceptance in broader culture. Ten years ago I was probably out as bi (I honestly don’t remember), but I wasn’t out as trans because it didn’t feel safe. To be honest, as someone who lives in Louisiana, I’m still not convinced being out is a great idea, even though in my case it’s publicly available information online; I know queer and trans people in SF/F who are not out for various reasons, including safety. But I’m glad to see more portrayals of queer, trans, ace, polyamorous characters in SF/F, whether books or comics or media.

Anders: It’s been amazing. When I first came along, trans people, and really queer people in general, felt intensely marginal and sidelined in speculative fiction. Well-meaning queers took me aside and told me that there was no way that an openly trans author could ever be successful in SF or fantasy. Even just ten years ago, it felt like there was a small handful of us. But the past decade has seen an incredible blossoming of queer SF, to the point where I couldn’t possibly name all the trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and queer authors who are publishing top-quality SF these days. The annual Transcendent anthologies, along with Meanwhile, Elsewhere, are a good place to find a lot of the best up-and-coming trans and nb authors, but there are more mind-blowing voices coming along all the time. And whenever I go to conventions or other SF gatherings, I feel like the queer community is everywhere. 

Mohanraj: Oh, it’s exploded. When I was teaching ten years ago, I had to really hunt for those stories, and we were in many ways dependent on small presses like Lethe Press and Circlet Press (erotic SFF) for representation. Strange Horizons was always open to LGBT content (since we founded it in 2000), but in the field as a whole, far less of it was published than there is now. Trans and nonbinary stories, in particular, have become much more prominent, and trans authors (like Charlie Jane Anders) are bringing out big books. 

Moraine: It’s not that there was no place for us then, obviously, but I’ve seen this incredible push forward in claiming a space and a voice, our right to be here and to tell our own stories. Which has been great, but also difficult, because I think we’re also doing a lot of wrestling as a community with what those stories ought to look like and how we ought to respond to things we have ambivalent feelings about. For years the big challenge was simply being visible and pushing back on the resistance to our presence, but now I think we’re facing internal challenges in a way we didn’t before, and I think unfortunately not all of that has been constructive.

Bourke: We were always here. But more of us are out, and outspoken. And a lot of that happened in the last decade, in tandem with changes in wider Anglophone society. Though I think the Sad Puppies Hugos issue meant that the SFF community—which includes a lot of publishing professionals—had to make decisions about what it was, and who it was willing to be for.

I personally find it very difficult to disentangle what I see as changes in the field from changes in myself and changes in the society in which I live (in May 2015, Ireland voted in the Equal Marriage constitutional amendment). But back in 2011, Malinda Lo (Ash, etc) began tracking the numbers on LGBTQ YA and we’re looking at a distinct upward trend.

This is also reflected in my own reading in adult SFF. Back at the beginning of the decade, one might encounter one or two novels from mainstream SFF imprints with queer female protagonists in a year, if that (my personal interests mean I’ve never tracked books by or about blokes with quite as much interest), and I don’t know that I came across a novel with a trans protagonist or major character treated sympathetically until the second half of the last decade. Whereas now, one might expect to see at least one such novel or individually-published novella in a month, and more novels in settings where queerness is normal, and normalised.

Progress is uneven: one is still more likely to see cisgender queer women protagonists written by cisgender white people. The structural issues of privilege in publishing continue to affect what we see. But still, it’s a fucktonne of change and the graph seems to be tending upwards to more inclusion.

Cipri: From my view, it’s been an unsteady move out from the margins. It’s not evenly distributed though; LGBTQ writers of color struggle to get the same level of recognition and notice for their work as their white counterparts, disabled and poor writers get shut out of participating in cons, and editors and reviewers are still overwhelmingly cisgender, heterosexual, and white. I don’t want to belittle the progress that’s been made, because it’s tremendous, but there’s still so much farther to go.

Machado: I think it’s been extraordinary to get to watch queer & trans literature move into (some) mainstream literary spaces without sacrificing their essential queerness. I love that, say, Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox and Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl and Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater and Daniel M. Lavery’s The Merry Spinster (published under a previous name) and Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This got published by large houses, and got critical attention. (Not to mention how much excellent queer realism has been coming out from authors like Garth Greenwell and Alexander Chee and Kristen Arnett, and queer nonfiction from folks like Jenn Shapland, Myriam Gurba, Saeed Jones, Maggie Nelson, T Kira Madden, Melissa Febos, Sarah Schulman, Michelle Tea, Paul Lisicky…) I know everyone says this all the time about everything, but I think it’s true: we’re in a golden age of queer & trans literature. It’s a great time to be alive and working as queer creator right now.

Morgan: Over the years I have written a lot about trans representation in SF&F. It used to be quite easy. There were very few books, and almost no out trans writers. I could catalog the field. Now I can’t keep up. There are so many books coming out featuring trans characters and, even more delightfully, many fine trans writers producing high profile books that sell very well. Charlie Jane Anders and Yoon Ha Lee are regular features in Best Novel lists. JY Yang has done the same for novellas. There are so many short stories by trans writers each year that it is entirely feasible to have an annual “best of” anthology drawn from them.

Of course this doesn’t mean that trans people exist on the same footing as cis people. Some of the books about trans characters by cis writers are still clueless or exploitative. And, as the recent furor over the “Attack Helicopter” story in Clarkesworld proved, there are still things that trans people cannot write about for fear of bringing the internet down upon our heads. However, visibility has increased substantially, and while that can be painful it is a necessary first step to liberation.

Iriarte: I feel like I’m more likely to tell on myself than anything else here—there was undoubtedly all sorts of amazing work that I simply missed. But from where I’m standing, it seems like the last decade saw representation in non-specialty outlets go from near zero to…well, not yet rich, but at least fairly present. I’m not sure I remember reading a positive (as in not phobic), OwnVoice portrayal of any kind of trans experience before Lightspeed Magazine’s Queers Destroy special issues in 2015. My spouse, Elle E. Ire, is a bisexual novelist who has published wlw novels with two different small presses. Within the last decade, multiple agents who did not represent her told her point blank that there was no major publisher interest in novels featuring wlw, and so there was no point in querying them. When it came to gender, it seemed as though the only way to avoid the gender binary was to have the characters in question be non-pov aliens.

Now in 2020, I do see the occasional novel that features queer protagonists front and center, but it feels to me like there are a very small number of recognized “go-to” queer authors—particularly when it comes to trans representation—and for wider queer representation, you still have to go to the indies and the small presses to find it. Short fiction feels to me like it’s doing better—I probably read something new with a queer protagonist every week, and I see more representation of, for instance, non-binary characters—but I feel like we’re still in a stage where there is a lot of pressure on any story to represent the most core, accessible experience of queerness possible. Like, the sample size is tiny, so there is a pressure not to have queer characters who are problematic, because they might be the only representation of their kind that some readers will find. A single dominant narrative of ‘What It’s Like To Be ___’ emerges. So as much as things are better now, I don’t think we’ve moved past that point.

 

Are there particular moments that stand out to you, either in your own career or in the field at large, where you became aware of a shift or change taking place?

Bourke: Ann Leckie’s and N.K. Jemisin’s respective historic award successes (Leckie, with an unprecedented sweep of the board for Ancillary Justice; Jemisin, with that historic, unprecedented triple-Hugo trilogy success) kind of feel like moments to me. Not just for queer stuff, but for inclusion more generally.

But, you know, personally there was a fortnight where I read like five or six books in a row, and all of them had queer protagonists, and all of them were coming out of mainstream imprints, and all of them were very different books with very different themes and focuses, and all of them were pretty damn good (it was probably 2018, because one of the books was Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, and one was Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night, and one was C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, I’m pretty sure), and I just…

…I looked around and realised that if I wanted, I could probably read as many books where queerness was normalised and where queer protagonists just were as books where that wasn’t the case. And I read about 120 books a year in a slow year! And that hadn’t been the case before. And I nearly cried.

Machado: I remember, clear as day, holding Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox in my lap and saying—out loud—“I can’t believe this got published.” Because it was so good and so queer and so weird and so absolutely perfect. Whenever that thought crosses my mind, I know something exciting is happening in the culture at large. Because good work is always getting made, but it’s the act of reaching a larger audience that means that something right is happening among the various institutions and cultural gatekeepers.

Iriarte: I already mentioned the Queers Destroy anthologies—that was huge to me. Since then I’ve seen more people going out of their way to find (and by extension, promote) queer stories and writers. The Transcendent anthologies from Lethe Press and A.C. Wise’s “Authors to Read” recommendations stand out as examples. I’ve also watched good conversations take place when it comes to representation and when it comes to open submission calls. One that has hit home to me is the discussions evolving over what publishers mean when they ask for submissions from “women and nonbinary authors.” Often there are signals that suggest that “nonbinary” in this context is code for AFAB, which feels like erasure to me, but I’ve seen these calls gradually evolve to either be more inclusive or to state more clearly what they are looking for.

In my own career, while I wrote many stories exploring genderqueerness or transness before I sold “Substance of My Lives,” I can’t easily ascribe one selling while the others did not to a shift in the marketplace. Many of those earlier stories reflect the way my own understanding of my identity was growing, and the themes I was working though in my life, but failed to be good and interesting stories or failed because my own understanding was not yet sophisticated enough to write a story that would not be harmful.

Moraine: For me personally I think one big moment was the whole Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies mess. Which was negative in a lot of ways, but I also felt at the time that it was indicative of how strong queer and trans folx and other marginalized people had become in the genre; we were perceived as enough of a threat that there was this instance of intense reactiveness. That was hopeful for me.

Another related series of things was the Queers Destroy series of anthologies and special issues that came out in this kind of wave. It wasn’t just individual writers claiming their right to be heard, it was a moment when editors took on this big public role in organizing platforms specifically for our voices. It wasn’t that things like that had never happened before, but to me it felt special.

Miller: As K. Tempest Bradford pointed out—on the 2016 Nebula ballot, 79% of the nominated works across all categories were by writers who were NOT cis straight white men. That to me was really eye-opening, and a great sign that the radical queer voices we’d been hearing coming in from the fringes had finally started to take center stage. I was honored to be on that ballot for my short story “When Your Child Strays From God,” and equally honored to lose to my brilliant friend Alyssa Wong.

Anders: I feel like there was a moment a few years ago when suddenly the awards ballots were noticeably queerer, and there were multiple proudly trans and queer authors in every category. Being nominated for a Hugo in 2017 felt quite different than being nominated in 2012.

Griffith: Sometime in last 5 years, critical approaches to queer fiction has changed enough that I’d be shocked now to get a review from Publishers Weekly like the one I got in 2013 for Hild, which was all about my queerness and my protagonist’s queerness, as opposed to the character, story, and prose. (Sadly, this is nowhere near true of criplit. I’m guessing—I can’t speak with authority on this—translit is somewhere in between.) And definitely I can’t imagine now a young writer dealing with the kind of response I got from my first agent, Fran, when I submitted the outline for Slow River. She called me and said, “This is not a selling outline,” and when I asked why not, she said, “I understand why the main character of Ammonite had to be a lesbian—on a women-only planet she had no choice, poor thing—but why does the main character of this one have to have a girlfriend?” I said, “Because she’s a dyke, Fran,” and fired her.

And until a few years ago you couldn’t find audiobooks of queer SF; the powers that be just thought there was no market.

Lee: Not particularly? I’m not deeply engaged with the SF/F community so it’s entirely possible that kind of shift happened, but I wouldn’t have been the one to notice it.

Gidney: For me, it’s that queer people are finally appearing in SF/H/F media—television and movies. Star Trek: Discovery having a gay couple, and the lesbian pastor in The Expanse are watershed moments.

Mohanraj: I’d actually go back to 2000; we started Strange Horizons then primarily because there were so few slots available for pro writers in the field. One of the Campbell nominees that year had counted, and he said on a panel that there’d been only 25 slots in the magazines for new authors that year. That seemed like an artificial bottleneck, and something that could be addressed.

Around that same time, I’d attended a panel, probably at WisCon, and heard Gavin Grant on a panel, encouraging us to go out and start small presses and magazines. “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” I think he said, with characteristic exuberance. So we went out and started a magazine, and in our first year, published 51 pro stories, tripling the volume of what was available, bringing a host of new writers into the field.

Start-up costs were much smaller as an online magazine; we were built on crowdfunding, and as other magazines followed that path, the field did see a thousand flowers blooming. And with that openness came many more possibilities for representation, on multiples axes.

Morgan: Charlie Jane Anders winning the Novelette Hugo for “Six Months, Three Days” in 2011 was clearly a key moment. I had three Hugos by that time, and picked up a fourth at the same Worldcon, but none of them were for fiction. Whether we like it or not, there is a perceived hierarchy of Hugo categories, and Charlie Jane is way higher up that hierarchy than I am. I’m delighted for her.

The publication of April Daniels’ Dreadnought and Nemesis were also key moments for me. As a kid I had grown up reading superhero comics and had always identified with characters such as Jean Grey, The Wasp, Batgirl and Supergirl. To be able to read a novel about a trans girl like me, who became a superhero, was an amazing experience. Also Daniels’ characterization of trans politics in the books seemed spot on to me.

From my own point of view, having The Green Man’s Heir sell over 10,000 copies, and be a finalist for Best Novel in the British Fantasy Awards, was something that I never expected to happen for Wizard’s Tower. I am so grateful to Juliet for trusting me with such a great book (and to the rest of British publishing for turning their backs on a great writer). I have to say that the sequel, The Green Man’s Foe, is just as good, if not better. You should all go out and get copies. Of course this has nothing to do with trans issues per se, but how many trans-owned publishing houses are there in the world? And how many people assumed that Wizard’s Tower would never amount to anything because it was run by a trans woman?

Cipri: In 2017, at WorldCon in Helsinki, I was on a panel about transgender representation in (I think) YA fiction. One of the things my panelists and I talked about was the fact that trans characters were always the Only Tran in most novels, which was the opposite of our experiences; so many of us had found or made communities of queer and trans people. Cheryl Morgan, who is a brilliant SF scholar, chatted with me later and gently corrected me, telling me that that solitude had very much been part of earlier generations of trans people’s experiences. It was 1) a good reality check about making generalizations, but also 2) emblematic of a shift in audience expectations with trans literature over time. Part of that move inwards from the margins of mainstream literature has come with the recognition that LGBTQ people no longer live in isolation, as singular unicorns in otherwise heterosexual/cisgender stories.

There are probably better answers to this question! But this was the experience that drove it home to me. I like that LGBTQ+ people are being recognized as a community instead of just individuals deviating from the so-called norm.

 

What do you see as current issues or opportunities in the SF world (or the world in general!) for queer and trans creators?

Anders: My hope is that being trans or queer is no longer any kind of barrier to success in SF, though I think time will tell. We’ve made a lot of gains, but there’s still a long, long way to go—and progress has to be defended as well as extended. We can’t ever take our ability to take up space for granted, or we could wake up and find it gone.

Mohanraj: I’m sure there are still barriers, especially in traditional publishing — it’s inevitable, when you have multiple gatekeepers to pass, that some will be resistant to queer & trans content.  And indie publishing isn’t a panacea either — doing it well requires a tremendous amount of time, effort, and business ability from the writer, all of which slows down the actual writing for most of us. It’s not easy, making a career as a writer, still.

But all that said, it seems like a golden age for queer and trans literature, and hopefully that means for creators as well. When you have mainstream shows like Supergirl featuring both lesbian and trans characters, clearly, the world has changed. Our stories are finally being heard.

Cipri: The field is still rife with homophobia and transphobia, just like the rest of the world. It’s become safer, but not safe, and places that do center queer and trans voices are still reckoning with internal racism, ableism, and xenophobia that shut out untold numbers of people. Straight and cisgender people are still overwhelmingly represented in positions of power, as editors, publishers, teachers, agents, and critics. There’s also a loud and worryingly conservative minority of audiences for LGBTQ+ literature that is playing a ridiculous game of queer respectability politics; I’ve seen multiple books and authors this past year face ridiculous backlash for writing stories that don’t fit into a narrow view of neoliberal queer identity. It’s not new, exactly—queer art has been considered dangerously subversive since forever—but it’s weird to see the calls coming from inside the house, so to speak.

But let’s talk about opportunities! There are so many LGBTQ+ writers producing amazing work, and more coming up. I feel like younger readers are queerer and less interested in gender binaries than ever; they know what’s up. Speculative narratives have also drifted into mainstream consciousness—which has its drawbacks, but also gives SF/F/H writers much more reach. 

Miller: Our work has the power to inspire and arouse people who right now are feeling angry or hurt or scared or powerless. Our stories can show people their power, and point them towards positive action. That responsibility is awesome and terrifying, but exciting as well.

Gidney: I would like to see more LGBTQ+ screenwriting and directing movies. The Wachowskis are not enough! I also want to see more intersectionality and exploration of the complexity of our lives. Queer Muslims, Non-binary people of faith, couples (or polyamourous) relationships that don’t center white people. Right now, LGBTQ representation tends to be very white-centered. 

Griffith: Issues: I’ll feel happier when an editor no longer feels able to say, “Oh, no, we can’t buy this wonderful novel because we already have one of these (queer, or trans) this season.” When prizes no longer go to straight authors purporting to tell the stories of queer folk. And when editors no longer assign cisgender critics to review fiction that actively explore trans issues in fiction. When fiction is just by and/or about queer/trans folk, fine, anyone can review it, but when it’s about being queer or trans? Then the critic needs to be not just familiar but deeply informed by the issues.

Opportunities: Myriad! Seriously, so many I don’t know where to begin. But to pick one thing that’s helping to change and improve our visibility is being able to use social media to find, form, and belong to communities. And another excellent shift is seeing is the optioning of queer genre work for the screen, which can only lead to more visibility. A virtuous cycle. I hope it continues; I hope it accelerates.

Bourke: Transphobia is a big problem. That’s an issue. Another issue is how the backlash to the progress we’ve made will manifest (or is manifesting) in the SF world, because let’s not be naïve, we only get to keep progress that we work at keeping, and at making better. (Witness what complacency and Facebook’s micro-targeted advertising have won us in the wider global political world.) And hey, white supremacy is the gift no one wanted and it just keeps on giving, closing off opportunities for queer and trans people of colour—which is another whole structural issue of its own.

But as for opportunities—we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re still an under-served demographic. I’m reasonably sure there are plenty of economic opportunities to be seized with a little bit of pandering… And artistic opportunities, of course, but if we have to put up with capitalism we may as well benefit from it.

Moraine: Like I said above, my sense is that we’re doing a lot of (often intense) internal discussion about how we handle different kinds of stories, especially ones that many people have a negative reaction to even as many others of us react very positively. We’re trying to figure out what kinds of stories should be told in what contexts—or if there should even be any kind of restriction there.

But I think something more solidly and immediately positive is how there’s a big ongoing push for a stronger queer and trans presence on the agent/editorial/publishing side of things, the importance of which really can’t be overstated. We’re looking hard at the role of gatekeepers and how we can change those roles to work for us rather than against us.

Lee: I have serious reservations about certain applications of the #ownvoices movement. I think when people choose to identify as #ownvoices, that can be great for audiences seeking representation and role models. At the same time, some of us as creators are not out due to safety or personal concerns. I really don’t think the community is served by insisting that people who need or want to be closeted need to out themselves before they’re “allowed” to write about being queer or trans or nonbinary, etc., which is something I’ve seen happen online. When that happens, readers’ desire to be “woke” directly harms some of the most vulnerable people with marginalized identities.

Full disclosure, I didn’t want to be out as trans and was basically backed into a corner because I felt, given the climate, I couldn’t credibly write about trans characters without being out. There’s a reason I don’t use the #ownvoices label for my own work.

Morgan: As far as the SF world is concerned, I think we are in a pretty good position. This is not the place to go into detail about what went wrong at Clarkesworld with Isabel Fall’s story. I’d need much more room than Tor.com will give me here. But we have many great writers producing many great books, which is an amazing difference from 10 years ago. The problems that we have are almost all outside of the community bubble.

In the USA the Trump Administration has been busily rolling back trans rights. The more devolved nature of US politics has enabled state governments and the courts to mitigate the effect of much of this, but it is certainly worrying.

The UK has seen a significant rise in activity by anti-trans extremists. We are getting to the point where it simply isn’t safe to be an out trans person here anymore. There have been no legal changes to date, but they will come next year when the UK is no longer bound by EU law (currently we are in a Transition Period that lasts until Dec. 31st, during which EU law still has force here). Things could get very ugly indeed, and that will inevitably impact the ability of trans writers to work, and the willingness of mainstream publishers to buy stories with trans themes. Official government censorship of pro-trans material, particularly in the YA market and younger, is by no means out of the question.

Iriarte: As I alluded to before, I think we need enough diversity of queer and trans stories that we could really explore our realities without the pressure to be the monomyth. Stories of coming out and stories where nobody needs to come out because nobody needs to be closeted; stories where queer people fight oppression and stories where nobody is oppressed because they are queer; stories with queer antagonists; stories dealing with tragedy.

Per Cheryl’s comment, there was a story that touched off a lot of discussion within our community. Leaving aside discussions of content warnings and discussions of titling choices, both of which are useful conversations, I want to focus on the fact that some trans people found the story hurtful while others found it validating, specifically in ways that they had not found validation in other trans stories. That points to two current issues: we need enough stories that everybody can find lots of stories that speak to their experience, but we also need a good conversation about how to help people recognize and avoid triggers for past traumas.

Machado: I think we have a lot to learn from the discourse around “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”—about what it means to write difficult, complicated, non-101 work about our bodies and our identities. I was so crushed and saddened and profoundly disappointed by the tenor and direction of that conversation. I think queer creators can only benefit from a rejection of neat and tidy respectability politics.

 

What’s a vision for the future you’d like to leave us with, thinking on the next ten years—either for your career, or your field, or the world?

Cipri: I’m looking forward to being a crotchety, middle-aged trans person who gets confused by memes. Eventually, I want to be in a cohort of old-ass queers, and help generations of younger writers come into their own powerful selves. I want to continue seeing SF/F writers engage in the work of liberation and organizing—creating the futures they’re dreaming about.

Being optimistic about the future right now feels a little naive and a little like wearing a “kick me” sign on my back. But reading SF/F I think inoculated me against being too afraid of the future, and so many trans and queer people have been robbed of the opportunity to get old. I’ll take the grief that’s undoubtedly coming, because I know there will be joy, too. The future’s gonna be weird and messy and parts of it will probably be awful, but I genuinely want to be around to see it.

Machado: I teach undergraduate students, who are all around 15 years younger than I am, and it’s extraordinary to see how much has changed—for the better—around queer & genderqueer identities. I feel like there’s no way to predict exactly how those folks coming of age and bringing us new literature will be—not to mention how older queer & genderqueer creators, myself included, will respond to that energy—but I bet it’s gonna be amazing. I can’t wait to see what the next decade will bring.

Miller: Obviously we still have a long way to go, in the world and in the genre. And since I’m hesitant to issue any mandates for what and how queer and trans creators should be creating, I’ll just speak for myself and say that for me—one part of my job as a writer is to hold up a mirror to this world so folks can see how it is horrible, and full of oppression and exploitation…but another one of my primary goals is to spotlight how people are amazing, and how the world can get better, and how problems that right now seem intractable could be solved. And to recognize that imagining better worlds in fiction is only one small way of fighting for justice in the real world. 

Moraine: I’d like to see folx embrace difficulty and discomfort—among ourselves, not in relation to what we face in the straight and cis world. I want to see us have the hard conversations that ultimately help us work in stronger, more effective coalition with each other. I hope I see greater solidarity, and I think we only get there through emotional generosity and kindness and the constructive management of our own trauma. We have so many opportunities to lift each other up and make ourselves more powerful as a community; there should be no reason why we can’t seize them together. 

Griffith: Simple: Editors, academics, critics, readers, and writers who truly don’t even pay attention to whether authors and/or characters are queer, trans, or nonbinary. And many more of same, every year. In other words, I want a world where that shit just doesn’t matter, where we’re no longer Other but the norm.

Lee: I’d like to see more representation in terms of characters. This is not a popular stance, but I personally don’t care who’s doing the writing so long as it’s done well and thoughtfully—God knows, as a trans person, I’ve often wished someone else would write me trans characters instead of feeling pressured to do it myself when it’s too personal and painful. I’d like people to feel safer being out if that’s something they want to do, and I’d also like people who don’t want to be out for whatever reason not to feel pressured to change their minds.

Iriarte: Maybe to move beyond representation. Representation is important when you don’t have it, but I’m thinking it’s not the finish line. Maybe some widespread rediscovery of the trans voices that did not receive mainstream exposure in the past. Maybe such plentiful representation that representation itself is not noteworthy, and then stories that fully explore a nuanced variety of trans experiences in the midst of stories that are intrinsically compelling for reasons beyond whom they center.

For myself? Same as always—I want to get better at writing the stories I want to see existing, and, in particular, the stories I wish I’d had when I was younger. :)

Morgan: I would love to paint a rosy future for queer and trans rights here, but I can’t. Climate change has, I suspect, passed the point at which we can avoid a catastrophe. There will be dramatic rises in sea level, increasingly wild and unpredictable weather, and parts of the planet may become uninhabitable. This will lead to a massive refugee crisis, and probably to wars. In such a climate it is difficult for minority groups, especially despised minority groups, to survive.

But we can’t give up. My parents were teenagers during WWII. Their prospects of survival must have seemed pretty grim too. I do a lot of work with queer youth, and I am desperately afraid for those young people, but I will do what I can in my remaining time on this planet to ensure that they have a chance to have a life as good as the one I have had, and hopefully better.

Given the political situation, and the enormity of the climate problem, things can certainly seem hopeless. It is hard to see what we, as individuals, can do. But we can help give people hope, and a vision of something worth fighting for. Fiction is good at that. If I can channel my good friend Neil Gaiman for a moment, let’s all Make Good Art.

Gidney: I would like to see reading regain its rightful status as a pastime, and be as popular as gaming is now.

Mohanraj: My main concerns right now have to do with equity and access. Clarion and other SFF workshops, despite their valiant efforts to keep costs down and extend scholarships, are beyond the reach of many (that’s part of why we give a Working Class Writers’ Grant at the SLF, to try to extend that reach just a little further).  Just attending a convention is more expensive than many can afford, and thus they can’t access the writing instruction that has historically taken place at panels and workshops there. Hence the SLF’s new Portolan Project—portolan maps were navigational aids, and the hope is that we can eventually be something like the Khan Academy, but for creative writing, extending free creative writing instruction across the globe. We need these stories, and we need to help these writers get the resources they need to write them well. When we put together an anthology of climate change science fiction, we can’t just be talking to the techies in Silicon Valley; we need to hear what the Bangladeshi farmers facing flooding think the solutions might be. Ten years from now, I’d love to see the Portolan Project be a robust website, full of resources and support to equal any MFA program.

We’re also looking forward more to the international writing scene. In so many places, the state of science fiction that writers can access—the books in the bookstores—are 30 or 50 years behind what we have in the U.S. If you’re taught (or allowed) to read at all. And in countries like India and China, where SFF scenes are developing, they’re often running in a separate track from American / U.K. / European publishing. I worry about Balkanization, that we’ll end living in separate fictional worlds. If we are to have any hope of solving the problems of the future and supporting the people of today in all their queer / trans / etc. diversity, we need to be speaking to each other. That was always the hope of first contact stories, wasn’t it? That we’d find a way to talk to each other, discover that we were more alike that we’d thought, cousins under the skin. We’re hoping to create an international lit project at the SLF in the next few years and hopefully create an accompanying short fiction award, if funding allows. 

Bourke: A future without xenophobia, queer- and transphobia, and structural racism, and where we’ve buckled down to fix as many of the problems of climate change as possible: that’s a future that’s really hard to imagine. Mind you, I don’t think we’ll manage it in the next ten years, but that doesn’t absolve us from working for it.

(Sometimes I fantasise about public transport. Solar-powered monorails! Emission-free buses! High-speed intercity rail freeing up local commuter lines to carry more trains with shorter spacing! Someone needs to write good SFF about city planning and logistics, is what I’m saying.)

Anders: I really hope the next ten years bring a flood of brave, queer speculative fiction that pushes the boundaries of narrative and identity, but also gives us new heroes to root for and obsess over. I am so here for that.

*****

 

…And let me just say: agreed.

The conversations that unfolded with our participants above showcase some of the depth and breadth of the queer genre world—as well as how it’s changed over the past decade! There are distinct challenges that have come along with increased visibility—though the importance of that visibility is also hard to understate—raising questions such as: what does it mean to have an identity, or to be required to claim one in the public sphere? What are the ethics of storytelling, and what constitutes empathy—for the self, for the other, for the audience, for the creators? There are no simple answers, but the general direction of my thought is to aim for generosity and a willingness to expand, explore, and destabilize strict boundaries around queerness and experience across the globe.

I’m looking forward to seeing us all continue to fight in that direction, over the next decade.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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