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Transcendent ed. K. M. Szpara

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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
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K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.

It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.

Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.

A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.

One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.

That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.

The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.

Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.

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Trans Like Me by CN Lester

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What does it mean to be transgender? How do we discuss the subject? In this eye-opening book, CN Lester, academic and activist, takes us on a journey through some of the most pressing issues concerning the trans debate: from pronouns to Caitlyn Jenner; from feminist and LGBTQ activists, to the rise in referrals for gender variant children – all by way of insightful and moving passages about the author’s own experience. Trans Like Me shows us how to strive for authenticity in a world which often seeks to limit us by way of labels.
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At this ‘trans tipping point’ (thank you, Time), a lot of people still don’t know anything about trans people outside a famous few: Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock. All of them are beautiful, and identify as women. CN Lester doesn’t: like me, they are genderqueer, and want to open up the discussion about trans issues to a more diverse array of genders. Trans Like Me is their book-length attempt to do that.

Trans Like Me is written very much for a cis audience. That is, it’s written with the intention of educating a cis audience about trans issues and trans lives, and the reality, complexity, and diversity of those lives, rather than to a trans audience as a rallying cry or political manifesto. Lester certainly has a political agenda, but it’s one that involves getting cis people to sign up to trans rights; hence, explanations of how dysphoria can feel from the inside, discussions of the reality of discrimination against trans people on an everyday basis, and explanation of the medical and legal obstacles trans people face in getting recognition as ourselves. They lay these things out excellently, while also combining them with calls for change in how the world handles trans people: Trans Like Me suggests how the medical and legal professions can handle trans people better, with concrete ideas for recognition.

Lester’s marshalling of evidence is an interesting combination of scientific data and personal anecdote; much of their argument about gender diversity not being a mental health condition comes from their own personal experiences of having mental health conditions, rather than discussions of psychologists’ research. Trans Like Me does use scientific evidence and historical evidence in other areas though; for instance, Lester makes a very strong argument using historical evidence from a broad swathe of the past to demonstrate that gender diverse people have always existed and been part of (Western) society in varying ways.

One of the key elements of Trans Like Me that distinguishes it from most volumes on trans issues is the way Lester engages with gender diverse people who are not, like themself, binary trans people. Trans Like Me talks about a range of gender expression, from genderfluidity to nonbinary, and how they fit into the discussions of trans issues that we usually see; thus, they open up a space for nonbinary people in the discussion of trans issues and of what needs to be done for a more trans-inclusive society. They are also very clear on the importance of allowing flexibility and change in one’s gender over the course of one’s life; this includes discussion of raising children who are gender diverse, through to late-life transition.

There are weaknesses and gaps in Trans Like Me; Lester unfortunately doesn’t discuss agender people at all, assuming gender is something everyone has, and their discussion of intersexuality (as distinct from the range of trans identities) is both brief and focused largely on undermining the idea of a biological binary of sexes. Lester also at times tends towards the defensive; while necessary when trans people are under attack from a variety of fronts, it would have been nice to see them put forward a stronger argument of itself, rather than strong arguments against trans-exclusionary positions. I would also have liked to see a more clear set of proposals for change: Lester does have some policy ideas, but they don’t really have much of a programme for social reform, or concrete suggestions for action.

Those weaknesses are relatively minor, though; Trans Like Me is an absolutely fantastic book for educating a cis audience about trans issues, as well as opening up the world of nonbinary issues for binary trans people, and I heartily recommend it.

Disclaimer: I am hosting an event with CN Lester and Kaite Welsh at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street on August 17th. Please join us!

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Just Girls by Rachel Gold

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Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. She was an out lesbian in high school, and she figures she can stare down whatever gets thrown her way in college. It can’t be that bad.

Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag College, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.

New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.
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There aren’t many trans narratives out there, so when one comes recommended strongly, I’m always going to perk my ears up, as I did for Just Girls when it was recommended by a friend at Eastercon in Birmingham this year…

Just Girls is an odd book for a trans narrative. After all, much of the transphobic abuse we encounter isn’t directed at a trans person, but at a cis person who pretended to be trans to protect a hypothetical trans person they didn’t know; but that doesn’t make its portrayal any less real. Similarly, there are times when Gold straightforwardly reproduces the arguments of TERFs and other transphobes in order to have characters counter them – often ineffectually or without really having another character doing so, as if the rest of the dialogue is missing. As such, this is an odd book, that seems to be reproducing a lot of the abuse it is trying to highlight; this isn’t helped by a strange avoidance of consistent language (trans, transgender and transsexual are all used, in overlapping and often interchangeable ways).

Where Gold engages with sexual and intimate partner violence, she’s much better; it’s explicitly described in retrospect, although not at the time, and controlling behaviours are conveyed very well, and the consequences to the characters are real; Just Girls makes it a secondary core of the novel, although the ways it is tied into the trans narrative is slightly strained.

Of course, there’s more to Just Girls than intimate violence and arguments with Germaine Greer (who Gold namechecks as wrong). The whole book is a slightly overlong, complicated set up for an ending that feels a little too neat for the complexity of the story Gold is telling; she sets up love triangles, squares, and polygons of all kinds, and then knocks them down into simple pairings, in a rather frustrating and reductive way that fails to engage with the possibilities of, for instance, polyamory. On the other hand, some of the elements of the plot are carried off really well – Gold’s description of augmented reality gaming is fun and immersive, and her idea of gamifying social justice activism is an interesting one with true real-world application.

The place where Just Girls really thrives and falls is in its characters. The non-protagonist cast are really well drawn, although there is a strange dichotomy between “good” people who all get trans issues instantly and without question and “bad” people who are vilely transphobic, with nothing in between (and no “bad” people who are bad but not transphobic). The LGBTQIA Alliance members are fantastically portrayed, as are the geeky friends Ella makes; but the standout secondary character for me is Nico, the genderqueer friend Ella made at school who changes hir/per/yos pronouns as and when they become bored of them.

Ella herself, narrator of half of Just Girls, is a slightly annoying character; for someone so interested in science, it seems to barely be an interest of the narrative, just dropped in occasionally for flavour, and her trans narrative and her love triangle is really all there is to her, something the story and the internal monologue keep coming back to in unsubtle ways. Tucker is more interesting; her own mixed emotions are much better portrayed and much more richly human, and the third-person limited frame of her sections allow her to breathe a bit more, Gold’s writing tending to be better in these sections and much more able to create a character from the outside than in.

In the end, Just Girls is a worthy book, but I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile one: it can’t quite decide what it wants to do, except argue for trans acceptance, and it can’t quite decide how it wants to do that.

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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.

Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.


Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten.
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This year’s Costa prize went to a relatively brief first-person queer historical fiction novel about the American Civil War by an Irish man, namely, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. A novel that puts the queer back into history, and looks like it might deal interestingly with racial issues in the past? Sign me up!

There is an approach to writing fiction set in Ireland, historical or contemporary, that is often though far from exclusively practiced by Americans, that a number of my friends refer to rather derisively as Oirish. Days Without End, by an Irish author writing about America, might be seen as revenge for that approach; call it, perhaps, ‘Murcan. Barry’s approach to Days Without End is stream-of-consciousness recollections from the Irish immigrant protagonist Thomas, meaning that the entire book is written in this strange ‘Murcan; it feels not only cliched but also impenetrable, which makes the whole book feel like something of a slog, rather a frustrating read.

The plot, on the other hand, has great potential; Days Without End covers United States conflict with the Native American tribes in the West, the Civil War, and the assaults on Native Americans by the United States under President Andrew Jackson. Barry isn’t willing to let America off the hook about its past, being very explicit about how often it has broken treaties with the Native Americans, and how appallingly it treated them. He’s also not romanticising the colonisation of the West, talking very clearly about the deprivations of the life of the early colonists and the lack of everything they suffered through. The Civil War is portrayed in the way it’s seen in the start of the film Free State of Jones: poor people who didn’t know why they were fighting, slaughtering each other in brutal, painful ways, with terrible mistreatment and neglect from the governments on both sides. Days Without End also doesn’t flinch from the cruelty of the Confederacy, and its remnants, towards African-Americans, free or slave; although it does have a tendency to also suggest that this exact same cruelty was often applied to the Irish – Barry suggests that conditions on the ships bringing Irish migrants to Canada and the United States were identical to those on slave ships.

Barry has an interesting approach to writing his queer central relationship. Days Without End doesn’t pretend queerness was either socially unremarkable, nor socially unheard of; he talks about soldiers having sex with each other on campaign in the absence of women, and about Thomas and his partner John not hiding their relationship from friends. However, there’s a less clear approach to gender taken in the book; while Barry has fleeting mentions of two-spirit people amongst the Native Americans, he also writes Thomas, across the course of the novel, exploring his gender presentation. If Days Without End had other clear queer couples this wouldn’t be a problem; as it is, it seems to confuse homosexuality and transness, as if they’re inextricably linked. That Barry doesn’t have Thomas come to a simple, single conclusion about his gender identity, or have him use modern terms, makes sense; however, the way he presents the questioning is frustrating.

Days Without End is a book with huge promise, and the Costa Award suggests that it fulfills it. The reality, though, is that Barry has written something that has grains of excellence, some brilliant and interesting elements, but overwhelmingly, it’s a frustrating slog.

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Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? by C. J. Atkinson, illus. Olly Pike

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Meet Kit – a 12 year old undergoing medical transition – as he talks about gender and the different ways it can be explored. He explains what it is like to transition and how his friends, family and teachers can help through talking, listening and being proactive.

With illustrations throughout, this is an ideal way to start conversations about gender diversity in the classroom or at home and suitable for those working in professional services and settings. The book also includes a useful list of recommended reading, organisations and websites for further information and support.
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Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? first came to my attention thanks to its media coverage in the wake of condemnation by such luminaries as Norman Tebbit, former Thatcherite Cabinet member and rabid queerphobe, and Sarah Vine, columnist for the vile rag the Daily Mail. It is a resource for (young) children and for adults who work with them to better understand gender diversity, and part of a series of such volumes on different issues from the same publisher.

The book is divided into two parts: first, forty-odd pages, with illustrations, about Kit, a fictional trans boy who tells us about growing up so far, accessing the Gender Identity Clinic, accessing school facilities, resources and support, going onto hormone blockers, and his trans friends, who include nonbinary people and a trans girl. This section of Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is clearly aimed at children, both those who are trans and those who are cis, as a broad explanation of trans issues; it uses simpler language, although it introduces things like neopronouns and legal issues around the Equality Act (2010). It also presents, very clearly, things like the difference between gender identity, gendered stereotypes, sex, and sexuality, and explains how those are unrelated, a key thing for children.

The second section of Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is about half the length and focuses heavily on explaining to adults how they can support trans children, at home, at school and in other settings. This section gets more technical and specific, but also brushes lightly over a number of issues; one of the major problems is its UK-centric nature (GICs, GIRES, and the Equality Act (2010) are all UK institutions), given that it is for distribution internationally, and another is its occasional inaccuracies. Atkinson’s guidance about the law, for instance, suggests that the Equality Act (2010), in protecting gender reassignment, protects people whether or not they medically transition; in reality, however, the position is that only those who intend to, are, or have undergone medical transition are protected (therefore, for instance, I am not), an important mistake. However, the clarity of explanation of the duties of confidentiality and support are welcome.

The one other area Atkinson glosses over rapidly in Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is that of intersex people. There is one brief mention of intersex people, and there is an entry in the glossary, but some more information, especially for parents and professionals, might have been helpful; after all, intersex children are more likely than most to have medical procedures forced upon them by adults who do not understand intersex conditions, and to be raised in ways that very strictly enforce gender conformity. A little more attention paid to these issues would have been welcome.

In the end, though, I wish something like Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? had been in circulation when I was at school; something that might have put a name to some of the unease I felt about myself, and helped me understand it. C. J. Atkinson has produced a vitally important resource I hope schools across the UK capitalise on.

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