Please welcome my dear friend and awesome writer Deborah J. Ross. You may already be familiar with her work in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover world, but she's here today to talk about some of her own exciting and original work - specifically, her book Collaborators, which is now out from Dragon Moon Press. Here she discusses gender issues in the book, and offers an excerpt for your enjoyment. Welcome, Deborah!
World-Building: Pushing the Boundaries of Gender
By Deborah J. Ross
People – that is, we Terran-humans -- often confuse gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Sex identification arises from biology, and most of us are either male or female genetically and phenotypically. That is, we possess either XX or XY chromosomes, and our genitals conform to the norm. These are not the only possibilities (you can have XXX or XXY, for example) and problems arise from the societal demand that every person fit into one or the other category. This has nothing to do with “masculine” and “feminine,” which are cultural interpretations, or with which sex a given individual is sexually attracted to.
Gender, on the other hand, has to do with how you experience yourself, a personal sense of being a man or a woman (or both, or neither). Each of these is distinct from sexual orientation, which has to do with an enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person. Gender has been described as "who you want to go to bed as, not who you want to go to bed with."
In science fiction and fantasy, we have been playing around with such notions as more than two sexes/genders, none, fluid sexes/genders, and a diversity of gender role expressions. Every so often, a story that takes a new or not-new-but-splashy look at the field garners a lot of buzz, particularly in the queer- and trans-friendly community. Yet much genre writing continues to perpetuate the world view of two oppositional and fixed genders, each with equally unyielding behavioral expectations. For many writers and readers, a character or society that goes too far outside the familiar becomes so uncomfortable as to sacrifice sympathetic identification. It strikes me, however, that even within the limitations of conventional portrayals of sex and gender, we can reach for greater depth. We can go beyond the Caveman Model of Gender Roles, the Separatist All-Men or All-Women Worlds, the Rambo-in-Drag/Supersensitive Male dichotomies and other variations already done to death.
In writing Collaborators, I wanted to create a resonance between the tensions arising from First Contact and those arising from differences in gender and gender expectations. It seemed to me that one of the most important things we notice about another human being is whether they are of “our” gender. What if the native race did not divide themselves into (primarily) two genders? How would that work – biologically? romantically? socially? politically? How would it affect the division of labor? child-rearing? How would Terran-humans understand or misinterpret a race for whom every other age-appropriate person is a potential lover and life-mate? Not only that, but in a life-paired couple, each is equally likely to engender or gestate a child.
Gender fluidity is not the same thing as being transgendered (which is where a person’s gender – their identity – and their sex – their biological/genetic category are not the same). Both are different from sexual orientation, which has to do with attraction to another person. All too often, if a species that does not fit into the female/male division is portrayed in media, they’re shown as sexless, not only androgynous but lacking in sex drive.
I see no reason why sexual activity should not be as important to an alien race as it is to human beings. We humans have sex for lots of reasons, reproduction being only one of them. It feels good – no, it feels great. It creates bonds between individuals, whether as part of lifelong commitments or transient, situational relationships. It’s physiologically good for health, both physical and mental. So for my alien race in Collaborators, I wanted sexuality to be important. I had the idea that before pair-bonding, they’d be androgynous in appearance, neither distinctively male nor female, but highly sexual (at least, post-puberty). Sex would be something they’d enjoy often and enthusiastically with their age-mate friends. However, the intimacy created by too much sex with the same person would lead to a cascade of emotional and physiological effects resulting in a permanent, lifelong pairing. The pairing, a sort of biological marriage obvious to everyone around the couple, leads to more changes – polarization into genders, with accompanying mood swings, aggression, inability to focus – preparing the bodies of the couple for reproduction. Each partner would appear more “female” or “male,” which sets up many occasions for misunderstanding with Terran-humans who think in terms of those divisions (and react accordingly). The Bandari, on the other hand, would wonder how people who are permanently polarized can get any work done, and they consistently react to Terran women as if they were pregnant, and therefore to be protected at all costs.
Just as we’ve instituted the canonical Talk about the birds and the bees, or sex ed in schools, so the Bandari natives would have systems of preparing their young people, trying to ensure that pairing does not have disastrous political or inter-clan consequences. We know how badly that works in humans, so it’s likely to be equally ineffective with Bandari teenagers, too. Here’s an excerpt from a scene early in the book, with two young people:
Alon had stayed up far too late last night, dancing and then lovemaking with Birre. Now he slept on as Birre cracked the door open and reached up to muffle the chain of porcelain bells. Birre slipped inside, past the portfolios of antique botanical prints, round-bellied clay stove, and corner desk. His eyes glinted mischievously as he bent over Alon.
Alon’s head lolled against the back of the chair, one arm dangling, loose-jointed as a child. A patch of sunlight glowed on his face and highlighted the soft fur, turning it to russet over skin so pale and thin, the veins showed as a threadwork of darker blue. His flat, unformed breasts barely disturbed the folds of his tunic.
Suddenly Alon startled awake, heart pounding. His feet kicked out and the hair along his crest stiffened. His hands flailed empty space and then, unexpectedly, closed around Birre’s shoulders.
Alon’s vision leapt into focus. For a long, terrifying instant, Birre’s face seemed utterly unfamiliar to him, as if he’d never seen it before. Yet at the same time, he seemed to be looking into a mirror. They were of an age, although Birre was taller and more slender, his crest almost burnt-colored. Yet in a heart-stopping moment, those round black eyes, so unexpectedly serious, seemed to see right through Alon to the very depths of his soul.
Alon trembled. Everywhere Birre’s body touched his—hands, knee against thigh, the almost imperceptible movement of breath over hair—he trembled. But not with the shivering spasms of lust. Lust he knew well enough, a night’s mutual pleasuring. This new emotion swept away everything that had come before. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.
Birre took a step backward, a graceless stumble. The folds of his tunic slipped through Alon’s fingers.
Despite all the lingering confusion of his awakening, Alon knew in that moment that this was what he wanted for the rest of his life—to be turning, ever turning, toward Birre’s sun.
Birre stood, shoulders hunched slightly, hands hugging his arms, eyes fastened on a display of children’s picture books. His nostrils flared and the hairs along his neck lifted slightly. He stood so still he didn’t seem to be breathing. Noises drifted in from the street outside, people laughing, the clatter of boot heels on stone, and a creaking, hand-pushed cart.
Alon moved to stand behind Birre, aching to take him into his arms. He had been warned—they all had, at school, by their parents—of the dangers of such a moment. How instinctive drives could take over, overruling sense, judgment, even personal taste. Of the disasters of a pairing without intelligent choice. In times past, before Carrel-az-Ondre, the First Helm, such a union could have serious political consequences between feuding clans.
Birre’s head dipped and the movement, almost timid, so unlike him, sent a rush of tenderness through Alon.
“Alon, I’m scared.”
“I didn’t...expect it so soon.”
“Or with me?”
“Oh no, don’t think I wouldn’t want you.” Birre’s voice roughened with emotion. “Never think that!”
The next moment—Alon could never tell how it happened—Birre’s arms were around him, hard and tight, and his heart felt as if it would explode. His breath stuttered through his throat in a half-sob. He couldn’t make out Birre’s murmured words and he didn’t care.
Some time later Birre drew back, pushed Alon to arm’s-length, and looked at him frankly, without any trace of shyness. His fingers gripped Alon’s arms. “Did you have any idea this was going to happen?”
Irrational joy surged through Alon. When he found his voice, he said, “Oh yes, I stayed up all night planning it.”
The familiar twinkle returned to Birre’s eyes. “I know what you stayed up all night doing.” He slipped his arm around Alon’s shoulders. “We should let them know.” Meaning, of course, his own family. They were an aristocratic sept of one of the eight ruling clans.
Alon thought that all his own parents had to do was look at him and they would know. They might even guess it was Birre because for the past year it had been Birre-this and Birre-that. It would come as no surprise, either. He and Birre were undoubtedly the last to realize what was going on.
He turned his head, found the side of Birre’s neck, and touched his lips to the suddenly attractive curve there. He inhaled Birre’s scent.
“Be practical, Alon. We need to decide...if we’re even ready to have a baby.”
“We may not have much of a choice.” Alon straightened up and touched Birre’s breast gently. Birre shivered, and the fur of his ruff rose briefly and subsided. “You see?”
Something in the tension of Birre’s muscles struck Alon as fragile, although he’d always thought of Birre as being tougher, more decisive, and certainly more athletic. He wanted to surround that new vulnerability with his own strength.
With an effort, he moved away. No matter how they polarized, Birre would never be a person to be protected. And Birre was right, they were too young to be having children, no matter the biological urgencies of their bodies. Yet the longer they touched and tasted each other, the faster and deeper the physiological changes would be. They’d both had the classes; they both should have known what they were doing.
Knowing and acting were, however, two different things.