gender on my sleeve

(Originally Published in E-MAIL MAGAZINE ISSUE #3)

By Amelia Berry

On my wrist I have a tattoo. It’s a tattoo of the Venus symbol - ♀ - with a set of bared teeth inside of the circle. When I came out as trans, however, many years ago that is now, this was my originating act, etching the ancient symbol of the feminine indelibly into my skin, a kind of “fuck you” to anybody who thought that this was a fad, a phase, or the side-effect of some mental fissure. I had been thinking about this symbol for a long time.

It comes from an Angela Carter novel. One I found for two dollars at the Salvation Army when I was 18 and living out of home for the first time. The Passion of New Eve. It’s a strange, dense, allegorical book. A surreal genderfuck odyssey through a future America torn apart by race war and gendered violence. At the time I would have told you I picked it up because I loved sci-fi, or because I’d enjoyed The Bloody Chamber, or because, well, you just have to pick up a Virago Modern Classic going that cheap(!). The real reason I bought The Passion of New Eve was the blurb:

“This is the story of how Evelyn learns to be a woman…”

It was like I’d stumbled upon some kind of scandalous, shameful, terrific secret. The media I’d seen (and consumed voraciously) which dealt with changing gender was all tawdry or comic - Glen or Glenda, that episode of Look Around You where David Mitchell’s character invents an instant gender swap machine, hell, Tootsie. This book seemed to endow it with a kind of heightened, Biblical Truth. Eve was the protagonist. You followed her, you heard her thoughts as she transformed into a woman (a real woman!) from a horrid, unfeeling man. There’s even a kind of T4T lesbian love moment which I can’t say anything else about without spoiling the plot. Of course, The Passion of New Eve was written in 1977, and the treatment of transness is far from pristine. Eve is forcibly transitioned by a militant feminist cult (whose emblem now adorns my wrist). Her new genitals are described a few times as a ‘wound’, an unfortunate transphobic trope. And in a particularly upsetting scene, a character is stripped, degendered, and literally pissed on. But, you know what, compared to The Crying Game, or Midsommer Murders, or Ace Ventura Pet Detective, or Mrs. Doubtfire, or any of the countless trans panic villains I’d been brought up on, this was magic. Eve was my first sympathetic trans character, and my first step away from thinking of myself as a monster, a freakish villain with an unspeakable secret.

It should probably go without saying, but representation is important. Narrative is important. To misappropriate some Sartre, “existence precedes essence”, what we are is not inherent or necessary, it is constructed through our actions, our understanding, our relationship with the world around us. The Passion of the New Eve was not just formative for me because Eve was relatable or recognisable, but because the story gave me a structure for understanding my own story. One that was denied to me in so many other places. Sci-fi is important because in constructing futures, we construct possible selves.

A popular trope in feminist sci-fi is the all-female future. A plague has wiped out all those guilty of possessing the wrong chromosomes. Women’s advanced genetic engineering has allowed them to reproduce asexually. The world is transformed into a new Eden. But wait, where have these men come from, and why are they ruining peaceful non-competitive society? From 1915’s utopian Herland, to James Tiptree Jr.’s black and sardonic Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, the all-female future is a tool for redefining femininity and satirising the values of the patriarchy. In its simplistic biological essentialism, it also erases trans identities (1). In Tiptree’s story the lack of “men” in the future they have found themselves in is revealed when the people they have seen as men are revealed to be “really” women, “goddam little bull dyke[s]” medically altered to appear more masculine and fill masculine roles. The outsiders’ understanding is confirmed by our future natives’ statement, “no men”. Hundreds of years in the future, following unimaginable changes to humanity’s lifecycle and modes of cultural expression, we cannot escape a 19th Century Western colonial attitude to gender. For these writers, it is literally unimaginable to move beyond the dogmatic centrality of the sex/gender binary. Whatever changes to human biology, physiology, culture, technology, male and female are the immutable reality. The unmeasurable breadth of gendered experience is erased, not only from the present, but from any future possibility.

In Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, the all-female future contains a parallel: Manland (2). This all-male society takes a portion of its population and forces them to be medically transformed into women. These are the ‘changed’, and the ‘half-changed’, and the section of the book they appear in is jarring regurgitation of transphobic stereotypes. They speak in ‘strained contralto’, they dress in pink chiffon gowns with long gloves, feather boas, and high heels, they are raped, abused, and still looked down upon by Russ’s narrator as a gross parody of femininity. If you’ve ever witnessed an argument with a transphobe, you’ve probably heard it put to them that trans identities have existed across all of human history and across every culture. But to the bigot, the relative contingency or ‘naturalness’ of trans identities are irrelevant. Trans people might exist countless aeons into the future, for the bigot they will still be disgusting, absurd, freakish, and beneath contempt.

I don’t want to tell you not to read The Female Man, or any of James Tiptree Jr.’s short stories. They’re beautiful, funny, engaging, strange, and marvellous pieces of writing. Rather, we should take a lesson from these visions of the future. Find their borders, their limits, and push beyond them. Create futures where genders are as beautiful, abundant, and ever-changing as the leaves on a tree. Perhaps by imagining these futures, we can help the next generation to become them.


(1) It should be noted that this, of course, also erases intersex identities. Sadly, a deeper discussion of this is beyond the scope of this personal essay. (2) Russ has since apologised for this section of her book.