I was talking to a friend about last year’s collection, and he talked about struggling a bit with a kind of gut-level defensiveness, like some of these stories almost felt like accusations. And maybe they are. Not accusations that we’ve deliberately set out to hurt or exclude anyone. But instead pointing out a painful truth: that we’ve overlooked people. We haven’t seen them, and thus we’ve unthinkingly excluded them from our stories and our worldview.
I don’t think of these essays as accusations. It’s not about making anyone feel guilty. It’s about seeing. It’s about understanding. It’s about learning. It’s about all of the things that good stories are supposed to do.
This first essay comes from Merc Rustad and talks about that feeling of exclusion. About growing up with the message that you were “different,” and feeling like those differences needed to be destroyed so you could fit yourself into one of the rigidly defined gender and sexual boxes our stories and our society presented.
There’s this sickening feeling I get when presented with a form–no matter what it’s for–that demands you check one of two boxes: male or female. There’s no third option. There’s no blank space to write “other.” Those two little boxes, with no alternatives (and an inability to leave them blank) send a very specific message: if you don’t pick one, you don’t exist.
I grew up in a highly conservative, Christian, insular community. It did not precisely foster a sense of understanding or tolerance of anything Other. If you weren’t a straight, cis, neurotypical, able-bodied (ideally male) member of society locked into rigid gender roles, well, then what the fuck were you? You obviously weren’t a person. I was suffocating; I didn’t belong and everything around me was holding up giant neon signs that flashed messages like “obviously you’re female since you were born with a vagina” and “no, you can’t be a boy, you don’t look like one” and “there’s no such thing as someone who’s not binary-gendered, stop lying.”
I knew something was different. For most of my life, I thought those differences needed to be destroyed.
Books and movies were an escape–especially science fiction and fantasy. Here were vehicles into whole new worlds where anything was possible. Maybe there would be people who felt like I did: not a girl, not entirely a boy, not explicitly attracted aesthetically to one gender, not agreeing with an arbitrary sex assigned at birth. I devoured speculative fiction in equal parts adoration and desperation. I wanted to find things that could show me how to cope with the reality I lived in.
What I never quite grokked, early on, was why everyone seemed to be binary gendered, cis, and straight. “He” and “she” were the mainstay pronouns. Men were attracted to women, and women to men. Crossdressing was either dramatic disguise or comedy. Everyone agreed with their birth-assigned pronouns. I was constantly confused by this. It just did not click for me why the inevitable pair-up was man + woman.
I was dragged to a conference once when I was in my early teens–I don’t even remember what it was about, other than it was religious-based–and the speaker showed a photo of two gay men kissing. The audience was horrified. Very vocally. I sat there going, “But it’s so sweet! Why is everyone upset?” and started panicking because I seemed to be the only one who wasn’t bothered by the photo. For the first time, I was afraid I would be attacked or worse because I didn’t think the way the people around me did.
I was looking for something in fiction beyond that “normal” that was presented everywhere, only for a long long time, I didn’t know what it was I needed. I liked buddy cop movies and team movies, and since they were mainly all men, I started wondering why the guys didn’t get together. It just seemed like a natural trajectory, you know? Why did so few people agree with me?
It took until I was in my early twenties before I discovered there were words to describe my identity–words like non-binary and trans* and queer. I remember looking at a list of diverse writers on Bogi Takács’ website, and specifically noticing the word neutrois. I looked it up.
“Neutrois is a non-binary gender identity that falls under the genderqueer or transgender umbrellas.”
Fucking epiphany, you guys. I stared at that website and started crying. I was so happy. So fucking relieved that there was actually a way to describe myself–and that there were other people out there who were like me. It’s like being able to breathe for the first time in your life.
I started thinking maybe I wasn’t irreparably broken.
I love SF/F. It’s my genre and it has so many amazing stories and possibilities. Sure, there are problems and not all stories are perfect. But there’s so much potential out there. We all crave stories; we want to see ourselves represented, especially in positive ways. Happy endings shouldn’t be reserved for the straight people.
But when you never see yourself, when you look and look and find nothing, it strengthens the doubts that society and “real life” have already imprinted: you shouldn’t exist.
It’s bullshit, of course, because YES YOU DO DESERVE TO EXIST. And to be happy and safe. You. Yes, you.
I wrote “How To Become A Robot In 12 Easy Steps” while mired in a vicious cycle of believing I didn’t deserve anything good precisely because I didn’t fit a cis/het/binary mold. I needed to speak up and tell a story that I wasn’t seeing and needed to know existed. It was that or disappear.
I’m humbled and grateful when I hear from people who connected with it. I realized, then, I can write things that give other people hope. And that is a powerful realization. If my small contribution can help someone else know they are not alone, then it’s worth all the struggle to put words down and send them out.
Until very recently, I haven’t felt like there was the possibility for non-binary characters to exist, let alone to be happy. I’m most involved and interested in short fiction and film, and while I feel film tends to lag behind prose in terms of gender and sexuality, short stories right now are blooming. (For example: “This Shall Serve As A Demarcation” by Bogi Takács, or “On Shine Wings” by Polenth Blake, or “Stalemate” by Rose Lemberg.)
There have been movements and stirrings and rumblings in the genre to be more inclusive of diversity, and despite those who protest and frantically try to keep SFF a staid, unchanging monolith–change is happening. And it’s glorious.
When I think about how much younger!Merc desperately needed any hint that there were people like them out there, when I think of how happy I get now seeing non-binary people represented in fiction (and in positive ways!), I’m reminded why my voice–why all marginalized voices–matters. Why we are all needed.
I want to create a genre where kids like me won’t have to suffer and yearn for representation in what they read or watch. I believe every positive, respectful portrayal of characters of all sorts of diversities multiplies hope exponentially. And we need that.
One day, perhaps there will be infinite boxes, or an option not to check off boxes at all. Until then, we have stories we can tell ourselves and each other, and the more welcoming and wondrous those stories are, the better it is for everyone. We all need hope, in the end.
Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer and filmmaker who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fireside Fiction, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Scigentasy, and Vitality Magazine. When not buried in the homework mines or dayjobbery, Merc likes to play video games, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter or their website.