Horns, Feathers, and Scales: Reclaiming Genderqueer Monstrousness

Content warning: body horror, implied self-harm.

I.

In my early twenties I had a reoccurring waking dream. Sometimes I saw it as I was trying to sleep, sometimes when my vision blurred from working too hard on an essay for class. Sometimes in class, or at lunch. I’d hold my left forearm before me and see a tiny cut at the wrist.

I never remembered making the cut, but always reached forward to pinch the edge of the wound and pull. My skin slowly peeled back, in a long strip as wide as my pinky. It only stung as I stripped my skin away, like it was a scab not a layer of flesh.

Sometimes under the blood I found scales or feathers, an eruption of thorns. Other times I saw tendons and threadlike arteries in a fleshy tapestry. Sometimes I was awed, sometimes nausea crawled up my throat as I studied the inner workings of my forearm.

I became obsessed with the vision, and fantasized about putting a knife there, cutting a line to see what might happen. Or occasionally I pressed my right thumb to my pulse point as if I could keep the vision away by touching the edge that would peel back first. I knew it was a dangerous fantasy, and tried to stop invoking it. Tried to stop the thrill I experienced when it happened. I knew these lines of my imagination were the lines of destruction and suicide. I didn’t want to die, but I thought I deserved to hurt. I didn’t know why, just that something wrong was lurking under my skin.

It took me years to connect this weird, specific vision to my personal queerness and dysphoria. Not until I was writing stories about girls who suddenly sprout thorns up their spine or boys who grow long black feathers from their pores, screaming as they shatter into a flock of angry black crows. Not until I wrote about young queens who took power by transforming into troll mothers, knowing they’d lose their humanity. I can’t remember a single book I’ve written that didn’t have a hero or villain—or both—with something literally monstrous inside them.

II.

As a kid, there were two kinds of stories I loved most: monster stories and tragedies. By monster stories I mean everything from Beauty by Robin McKinley to Jurassic Park to The Vampire Lestat and by tragedies I mean certain love stories.

I remember reading Taylor Caldwell’s I, Judas at twelve—I stole it from my grandma’s house—and realizing what made that story, already sad, even more tragic was that Judas was obviously completely in love with Jesus. That famous kiss meant more than it was supposed to and probably ruined my relationship with the Church. My dad used to tell me the story of Patroclus and Achilles to get me to stop pouting (Achilles locked his bedroom door and refused to come out, and it got his BFF killed, see, Tess, stop pouting) and I was extremely suspicious about how intense that relationship must have been for Patroclus to do what he did. (Read “intense” as GAYYYYY and join me in wishing tiny Tessa had had Madeline Miller!) Vanyel Ashkevron from Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series was the most powerful Herald-Mage ever, and his whole self and all his magic were tied to the tragedy of his lover’s death.

I adored them. I wanted to be them. I rewrote all their stories for myself, I imagined new versions with different outcomes. I pretended I was Judas, I was Achilles, I was Vanyel or his (sexy, gay) nemesis. I pretended some of them—of us—were girls, and it never occurred to me as a teen to wonder why all the queer characters I longed to be were men and male-presenting.

I did also love queer coded characters who didn’t die—Lestat, Raistlin (sort of), the Goblin King, Alec Campion—and I slowly realized the ones who survived were the ones who escaped tragedy by leaning into villainy. They weren’t looking for redemption, because there was nothing wrong with them. They weren’t in tragic love affairs, because they were monsters! They were Other, and chose to embrace that power instead of letting the narrative convince us they deserved to die. Maybe the way out of queer tragedy, some deep part of me seemed to decide, was queer monstrousness.

III.

I’ve known I was genderqueer/nonbinary since I was about twenty-four. But in 2004 I did not know I could use those words in context with myself. I was profoundly uncomfortable with the gendered nature of my body, but it was hard enough being queer without grappling with gender. So I buried it. I tried to hate my body only because I wasn’t tall enough or skinny enough or graceful enough. Not because my body was extremely, overtly, feminine.

Then I found myself part of two communities built on very specific heteronormative gender rules. The first was the brothel at the local renaissance festival, where I started performing full time in 2005. It was the most gendered space I’d been in since I graduated from my all-girls high school six years previous, but it was entirely performative. We played in drag, and we knew it. We had our rituals, our in-jokes, our filthy, beautiful routines. And it was so hard to inhabit my body most days, even when the other women made me feel strong and sexy. I played elaborate games with myself, and usually managed to break through for a few hours or minutes a day to truly embody that gender, that sexuality. But sometimes I hit a wall I couldn’t talk about to anybody, because there wasn’t a place for it. For me. There wasn’t room to be other, because the point was to be sexy women who revelled in who we were and the power it gave us. I was required to be grateful for my sexy feminine body or else lose my admission to the club.

At the same time I pushed deeper into the local pagan communities I’d been dipping in and out of as I moved around for school. I craved magic and god, because I missed that bone-deep faith of my Catholic childhood. Surely I could find it in witchcraft!

But when it came to magic, when it came to god, I wanted to be true to myself, and that meant exploring the aspects of divinity that called to me: horned gods, warriors, shapeshifters, tricksters. The gods reflected in those characters I loved as a kid. This was acceptable when solo, but at gatherings I was always flat-out denied the chance to participate in “men’s magic.” Women’s magic centered on power that was found in menstruation and receptive energy, creation and nurturing. There were women warriors of course, but warrior goddesses were virgins or whores just like in Catholicism. There was no such thing as queer space in that community, back then. Instead, I encountered what I can only call a strong heteronormative pride in binary divinity: the chalice and the blade or nothing. It was so simple: I couldn’t channel Herne the Hunter because I didn’t have a dick. I had to be a facet of the Great Goddess because I menstruated. And worse, people demanded to know why I was so disrespectful of women and goddesses by refusing to attend rituals about the triple goddess. Why couldn’t I find power where I belonged? What was wrong with me? Didn’t I know I looked exactly like a sexy fertility goddess, so I should be grateful and let the men worship me? There it was again: I should be grateful. It made me sick.

The women of the festival brothel were interested in what I was saying about gender performativity. But I got tired of every conversation with pagans about magic turning into a fight about gender essentialism. In most ways that matter, my gender cost me faith—and magic. Frustrated, I thought maybe I needed to accept my body and its obvious gender or be unhappy forever.

Like most people in the age of the internet, I found what I needed in those weird online edges. Queer storytellers and trans poets were right there when I started digging. I went back to some of my favorites and read new nonbinary interpretations onto them: reading Lestat as a 24 year old was a genderqueer revelation he couldn’t have been when I was eleven, and his mother’s rejection of gender and civilization had been waiting the whole time; Alec Campion from the Riverside Series became my icon of gendered trauma and self loathing but ultimate triumph; Gloria Anzaldua didn’t only write about political, sexual, cultural, linguistic borderlands, but she poetically carved pieces of herself away to reveal the furious, powerful Coatlicue within. Twelfth Night meant Will Shakespeare understood me. Jadzia Dax wasn’t just queer, she was genderqueer.

There was genderfuckery in all the shadows! Scouring the Internet, I found a lot of wild stuff, good and terrifying, including a group of people who identified as dragons. That was how they understood what they felt inside, how their gender could be so different from their frail gendered human bodies. I wasn’t a dragon, but considering it, opening up that huge, scaled, winged space, made me feel so free. And it made me remember that vision I’d had for so many years of peeling away one long strip of my forearm and finding scales.

I spent weeks writing feelings down, writing exploratory essays, and noting patterns of how I felt when—it was fairly unpredictable, to my surprise. I gave my distinct gender feelings different names. The ones who loved me back learned to ask: “Who are you today, who are you feeling today?” The external validation gave me power. But I remained terrified. I still didn’t have the words.

So I stopped it all again. I cut everybody off from that messy gender part of myself except my partner. I buried it, another gender funeral, and told myself to be a successful adult I had to be only one thing. I was trying to get published, and I definitely needed to stop saying weird things about my gender or nobody would take me seriously.

I didn’t realize I was channeling all that gender trouble into my characters.

First, Blood Magic, which in its original state included a third act with some serious gender-fluidity I eventually took out in order to sell it. What the book retained was a genderqueer villain named Josephine Darly whose goal in life was to live forever. She was a shapeshifter by means of body-snatching, and she didn’t distinguish between genders or even species in order to get what she wanted. I joked at the time that she was the author-insert character but it was always the most true thing I ever said about that book. I was the bad guy.

In the companion, The Blood Keeper, the queer antagonist learns how to become not only other people or animals, but a forest. He learns the beautiful horror of becoming roses, and forces the hero to share the experience, transforming him into a half-human, half-crow monster. In this one, I was cursed roses and desperate longing, and still the bad guy.

My Asgard books are full of queer monsters and gender shapeshifters, from Loki themself to Glory the Fenris Wolf, and a stone heart that turns its keeper into a huge troll. Transformation and inner monsters are the point of those books, and found family and road trips and love. At least in this one, I was the untrustworthy gods.

In 2016 I wrote Strange Grace, a dark fairy tale about queer teens living in a town that sacrifices a boy to the Devil’s Forest every seven years in return for prosperity and health. As I developed the story I realized I was writing about genderqueer and monstrousness as if they were the same. I was horrified. That wasn’t how I felt about myself, was it? Like a monster?

Yes. Yes it was, I had to admit—but not necessarily in a bad way. Like Lestat, like Raistlin, like Jareth, embracing the villain seemed the only way to take power and retain myself. The conversation about queer and queer-coded villains in literature is a long one, and I’ve always fallen on the side—if there are sides—of liking it. It isn’t a matter of “better to have queer villains than no queers at all” either: it’s a matter of power. When I was young literature showed me that to be queer you either had to be tragic or monstrous, and villains are not just monsters, they’re active monsters. Villains are the ones who do something, who drive the entire story. They matter so much you can’t unravel their threads from the story without ruining everything. And I’m pretty sure queer-coded villainy inherently has a lot to do with challenging binaries. Gender binaries for sure, but also binaries of good and evil and right and wrong. Queerness exists outside of Western ideals of heroism—pure, just, masculine, violent—which automatically pits queerness against protagonists, and aligns us, and our coding, with villainy.

As I worked on Strange Grace—and also simultaneously The Queens of Innis Lear, a feminist fantasy reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear where everybody is a bad guy, hurray—I slowly excavated the words I hadn’t had during those years in my twenties when I was a little more open, a little more free. A little more messy and brave. Through Arthur’s dealing with his gender trauma by facing a literal devil, through Mairwen’s nonbinary magic, which exists only in-between spaces, through Baeddan’s violent, raw transformation from boy to monster to half-monster, I started to understand myself a little bit better. Arthur has to accept that he gets to define himself, regardless of his appearance and what other people call him—or even what the devil calls him. Mairwen must understand that in-between spaces don’t have to be dangerous, don’t have to be othered, they can be where you choose to live and love. Baeddan’s constant physical transformations are gentle or traumatic depending on his relationships to the people around him at any given moment. Those things were all about me and my own feelings about my identity and body. In Strange Grace I finally wasn’t the villain, but I was definitely caught in monstrousness.

We’ve known for ages that monsters in stories aren’t inherently bad. They’re just othered. They’re outside the norm. That’s why there are so many queer monsters—outside or beyond the norm is what queer means. But I couldn’t shake the heart-ache of aligning myself, and therefore all of genderqueerness, with monstrosity. Wasn’t I doing something wrong if my queerest characters were monsters and villains? Harmful? Just because it’s what I longed for and still do, doesn’t make it good.

Finally, I asked myself, what if I can make it good?

IV.

When I set out to write Night Shine, my mother was dying. I needed to write something fun and filled with magic and things that gave me joy. So I decided to write about queer, shape-shifting villains, the kind I’ve needed and loved all my life—but make them the protagonists. Oh, they’re still bad guys. The Sorceress Who Eats Girls didn’t earn her name metaphorically. Kirin Dark-Smile is a wicked, selfish princess, and doesn’t think he needs redemption. Night Shine is a great demon who exists outside of all kinds of human morality.

Each of them is a piece of who I’ve always been. The sorceress is a shape-shifting wlw sorcerer willing to do anything to get her wife back, and she exists outside the binary because in this world magic is inherently nonbinary, beyond life and death, day and night, woman and man. She uses her power to make her body into the monster she finds most beautiful—complete with shark teeth and snake eyes. Kirin is a traditionally queer-coded antagonist-prince who knows who he is, including every shade of his fluid gender, but makes hard choices about the parts of himself to hide or reveal. He loves his body but hates how it’s perceived, and that’s a knife-edge to walk. Night Shine is a nobody without the words to understand the vast, hungry, demonic power under her skin—though she’ll learn those words before the end. When the sorceress and Kirin help her learn to peel away her skin and embrace the monster within.

Writing Night Shine was a revelation.

It’s about a bunch of villains and monstrous queer people (and one reluctant bodyguard), and it’s also about love and identity and annoying unicorns and river spirits and lava demons. It has everything I love in it, including some things I’m trying to practice loving about myself.

I suspect that so many genderqueer people younger than me already know what it took me so long to discover: that there’s beauty and joy to be had in the monstrosity of gender. And maybe the work isn’t to normalize nonbinary and genderqueer identities so much as to drag everything into the shadows with us. Away from the harsh light of day and away from the solid unforgiving darkness of night. Into the dance between where everything can be—and is—possible.

Tessa Gratton has wanted to be a wizard since she was seven. She’s lived on three continents and traveled across more, has a degree in feminism, and once translated her own Beowulf before settling down in Kansas to write and box and create the perfect whiskey cocktail. She’s the author of multiple YA and adult fantasy novels, plus more than a dozen short stories. Find her on Twitter @tessagratton.

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