Shades of Grey: Intersex and Genderfluid Representation in SFF
Laura Lam, author of Pantomime, Shadowplay and Masquerade, discusses the books that influenced her writing of Micah Grey, a genderfluid character, and how Science Fiction has been challenging the gender binary for years, and just how important that is.
The character of the Fool, written by Robin Hobb, was the first genderfluid character I came across in fiction back in 2002. I’ll use male pronouns as, for the most part, he does present male in the books. The Fool presents different versions of himself to different people across several trilogies. From the first book, he has all of his defences up. He’s fiercely private and taunts Fitz, our protagonist, and he almost seems like he’ll be a minor character. Yet as each Fitz and Fool book continues, you learn a little bit more about the Fool. His gender is not fixed, and Fitz is finally understanding that. I’ve now been reading about the Fool for over thirteen years.
Robin Hobb returns to one of her best loved characters in this series.
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Other early work I read that challenged the gender binary was the Tamir Triad by Lynn Flewelling, which has a young girl hidden as male by dark magic at birth to protect her from the King. No one tells Tamir this. Tamora Pierce’s quartet about Alanna, a woman who disguises herself as a man to become a knight, also made an impact on me. Neither of those examples really raised the idea of a character being genderfluid as much of an option, though. Both characters end up identifying as female once the ‘disguise’ is cast off and having male love interests.
But these examples were few and far between. So many of the books I consumed had straight, cisgender characters. I rarely came across bisexual characters. If I’d seen more bisexual characters in books, I’m entirely sure I would have figured out my own sexuality a lot earlier. I dreamt up the idea for Micah Grey back in 2007 or so, but didn’t write them for a long time. I’m cisgender, and was worried that writing an intersex, genderfluid character would be too far outside my own experience. I still did a lot of research, watched interviews, consumed everything I could. This was before We Need Diverse Books movement was founded, or the discussion of sensitivity readers/targeted beta readers, so I was a bit at sea. It took me along time to have a finished book—I started querying Pantomime in 2011. I did my best, though Pantomime had a couple of things I massaged in the new release with the benefit of learning more from the emerging conversation, and I continued to do my homework in Shadowplay and Masquerade. In the last ten years, though, books in SFF are challenging the gender binary in various ways, and the genre is the richer for it.
I’m still behind on my own reading (isn’t that always the way?), but there are now so many more chances to find the full spectrum of gender and sexuality in our science fiction and fantasy. The Illustrated Page has an exhaustive list with links to even more resources here. The post is divided into lists with protagonists who are: Asexual, Demisexual, or Aromantic; Gay/Bisexual Male protagonists, Lesbian/Bisexual Female Protagonists; and Genderqueer, Transgender, and Intersex Protagonists. This last section of the list is still fairly short—we have more work to do to add to this area of the canon, and I especially hope we have more releases from #ownvoices authors as well, meaning, for example, trans authors writing trans characters. But the last ten years have changed so much, and I am honoured to have my books join the others on that list.
Books change lives. We should all see ourselves reflected back at us from the pages, even if the stories are set on fantastical worlds. I’ve had readers say the books helped them come out or helped them think about gender in a different way. The books are a fantasy set on a pseudo-Victorian world where advanced tech is more or less magic to the current inhabitants. There’s a lot of emphasis on performance—gender performativity as well as actual circus and magician shows. Taking off one mask and putting on another. Micah Grey has been in my head for ten years, and his story is done, at least for now. I hope people enjoy the show.
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Read Laura Lam's Micah Grey series, Pantomime, Shadowplay and Masquerade now, and find out more about the series.
Gene's life resembles a debutante's dream. Yet she hides a secret that would see her shunned by the nobility. Gene is both male and female. Then she displays unwanted magical abilities - last seen in mysterious beings from an almost-forgotten age. Matters escalate further when her parents plan a devastating betrayal, so she flees home, dressed as a boy.
The city beyond contains glowing glass relics from a lost civilization. They call to her, but she wants freedom not mysteries. So, reinvented as 'Micah Grey', Gene joins the circus. As an aerialist, she discovers the joy of flight - but the circus has a dark side. She's also plagued by visions foretelling danger. A storm is howling in from the past, but will she heed its roar?
Pantomime is the first in the Micah Grey series followed by Shadowplay and Masquerade.