Surly Book Review

It’s a bit more accurate to call this “surly short story review,” I suppose, but the entire anthology (The Future is Queer, which bills itself as a sci-fi anthology with queer themes) that contained this story was mediocre at best, so I’m ok with extending a blanket of surliness over the entire thing. I was already a bit skeptical about this book since the back cover asked “…what does the future hold for gays, lesbians, and transgenders?” but I’m a fan of short stories and am always looking for less-straight sci-fi reading material so I decided to give it a go.

The book’s editors each have an introduction, and in typical anthology fashion they mention themes or plot devices present in each story. The phrase “a future where too much tolerance is suffocating” stuck in my mind when I read it, and I was a little worried about what that story might describe. Well, dear readers, let’s find out together in the world of “Instinct,” by Joy Parks.

By 2045, when this story takes place, discrimination against people based on sexual preference and gender identity has been outlawed (although there are some private gated communities that enforce heterosexuality). Once equal rights were achieved and greater freedom led to more personal experimentation, there was little cohesion within the queer community, and the community itself faded away for the most part. The narrator, a single lesbian, tries to patronize a matchmaking service (online dating has been outlawed because “too many people were arrested for misrepresentation”) but can’t find anyone she’s interested in – none of the available women seem like “real lesbians” to her. She’s contacted by an underground organization that takes queers out of the protected dome cities where most of the population lives and into reclaimed rural areas, where they can live out fantasy lives based in different eras of oppressed queer life. She decides to go to a 1950s-era settlement, where bigots (volunteers trucked in from the private hetero communities) will be present to lend the proper amount of danger and she thinks she can have a Real Lesbian Experience. When she arrives, she knows exactly how to put on her makeup and wear high heels because her instincts have kicked in. THE END.

I think there’s a lot to be said for resisting assimilation, or at least understanding that not every queer’s goal is marriage and “acting straight” in a Craigslist M4M ad sort of way. I’m not interested in marriage and upholding an ideal of proper masculinity, and I’m certainly more interested in a discussion of legal and social rights for assorted QUILTBAG folks that doesn’t focus on “and then we’ll all be happily married.”

But there’s something really uncomfortable about reading a story that explicitly states that achieving full rights will lead to a complete destruction of queer identities and community, that when things become too easy and we have nothing to fight for, we cease to be ourselves at all. If struggle “builds character” BUT all that character and passion evaporates when the struggle ends… did it really exist in a substantial way in the first place? Does Parks actually believe that every non-straight person has, as their ultimate goal, complete assimilation? That any sense of queer identification would vanish once that goal was achieved? A character in this story says that assimilation meant there was “no reason to congregate, no gay bars, no dyke potlucks, no gay media.” Wouldn’t lesbians with full rights still want to hang out with each other? Wouldn’t gay men still enjoy going to bars where it was more likely that attractive men would appreciate being hit on? I do not see the connection between “no more oppression” and “no sense of queer identity.” If there’s a decent argument to be made here, the author certainly didn’t manage it.

I wouldn’t be so angry if the story presented a picture of a different way to fight for rights; there are many queer activists right now who are focusing on housing, education, health care, immigration rights, prison reform, etc. and not just marriage and the millitary. It’s possible! It’s happening! And if Parks took this story in a different direction, where her nameless savior tried to show the narrator another way to work for queer rights and community that didn’t focus solely on assimilation, I think it could have been both more interesting and more believable. Instead, she seems to be saying that only a retreat to more dangerous and oppressive times can restore a sense of queer culture and identity in the community, and I just can’t get behind that at all.

Setting aside the premise of the story, which I find inherently flawed, the narrator’s treatment of trans people and identities made me wish I could justify throwing a library book into the ocean. Early on in the story, the narrator explains that “MTFs became nuWomen and FTMs became nuMen,” although there’s no explanation of what exactly this awkward terminology means. I suppose “trans men” and “trans women” aren’t futuristic-sounding enough?

Next, we see the narrator sift through her matchmaking possibilities: “A lot of them were obviously nuWomen, even though I’d specifically said I was interested in birth women only. Maybe no one but me could tell the difference anymore…I wanted a woman who’d come into this world as a woman for reasons I couldn’t even articulate, and no amount of debate or rationalization was going to change that.” So, great! Another lesbian wanting to exclude trans women as Not Really Women because she doesn’t think they were born women. Clearly the narrator knows these women’s minds and histories better than they do. But it’s a personal preference she can’t rationalize away, so we can’t blame her for it! The narrator and an employee of the matchmaking service make this even more explicit when they claim there are “no real lesbians” registered: they’re all either trans women or straight/bisexual women looking to experiment (bisexuality is also treated with little respect in this story).

The narrator is pretty fixated on her ability to tell if someone is trans; above, she knows who is “obviously nuWomen” and when she meets the slim and androgynous liason for the outside-the-dome settlements, she’s initially confused about her gender but knows she’s “not a nuMan; the hormones still made you gain weight.” I suppose if I wanted to be charitable I could imagine that this refers to a future form of testosterone that causes weight gain in every instance, but my sense of charity ran out about two paragraphs into this story.

Further examples of bizarre and offensive passages about trans folks:

“If you are born a woman, become a nuMan and still want women, does that make you straight?” Well, unless you also like men (and allowing for people to self-identify however they like), PROBABLY SO. It’s not really a trick question.

“A lot of gay men and lesbians had decided to pack it in and become nuMen and nuWomen.” WHAT. That’s… that’s not how being trans works at all. I have run into this bizarre thought process before: “why did you become a gay man, when gay men want to be women?” and “why go through all this trouble if you aren’t going to date a female?” are actual questions I’ve had to answer. I am constantly baffled by some people’s inability to separate the issues of sexual attraction and gender identity. There’s some interplay there, to be sure, but not enough to excuse this sort of statement.

“Even the trannies were more real back when you actually had to have some real motivation for jumping the gender line. Not like now, when you get the operation easier than you could once get a pack of smokes. All gone now.”
What the fuck can I even say to this? The idea that medical gatekeeping keeps the fakers and wannabes from transitioning is disgusting, as is the reduction of transitioning and a trans identity to “the operation.” No one is earning points for having a harder medical or social transition than anyone else, and if access to surgery or hormones or basic fucking respect was easier, then that wouldn’t make trans people “less real.” It would give people more options and help them feel more in control of their lives and their bodies. This is such a vile statement.

I don’t know that I have a lot of brilliant analysis to make about this – the tone of these comments, along with narrator’s desire for someone who was born a woman and the reference to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, say quite a bit without my help, don’t you think? – but I was really angry to read this content in what was specifically billed as a lgbt-positive anthology. As usual, the T was pretty much silent.

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