It Gets Better in Kansas (Queering SF #31)
As the story has it, Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller began the “It gets better” movement in 2010 with a casual utterance of those three words. The words and sentiment were picked up by social media, and then became a global organization. The aim of the organization is to “uplift and empower” LGBTQ youth who might be struggling with coming to terms with their sexuality, with coming out, and with acceptance. The science fiction story “Ad astra per aspera” can be read as a fictional account of “It gets better.”
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Finnish SFF writer Nino Cipri (here). In 2018, Cipri published “Ad astra per aspera” in the Gender Diverse Pronouns issue of Capricious Magazine. (I wrote about that issue here.)
“Ad Astra Per Aspera” is a cheeky, short piece about shifting genders and runaway pronouns. The story takes place in Kansas, mostly in a diner. The title of this story, “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” derives from the state motto on the state logo. The expression is Latin for “to the stars through difficulties.” An archived version of the State of Kansas website notes that Kansas became the 34th state in January 1861. The official history of the seal claims that the motto acknowledges the difficulties that the early settlers faced, including the great race/slavery war. However, John James Ingalls, Kansas’s first Secretary of the Senate, is credited with suggesting the motto. According to him, he envisioned 33 stars in the skies, and one new star emerging from dark clouds, which symbolized the struggles of early statehood. The motto was adopted in May 1861.
A running image in the story is the poem “Le bâteau ivre” (The Drunken Boat) by Arthur Rimbaud, who was himself a bit of an iconoclast, and he had a two-year, tumultuous relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine. Written in 1871 when he was just 16, the poem employs an extended nautical metaphor to represent the journey of life. A boat believes that it is breaking away from human society and floating freely, much like our narrator.
In the story, the unnamed narrator (gender and pronouns unknown) finds xself (since the gender and pronouns are unknown, and since “x” is a variable, for the purposes of discussing the story I will employ the variable “x.” In doing so, I do not mean to impose a gender or a pronoun on the narrator but only to be able to talk about the narrator as a variable, as a potential, which I think reinforces the point of the story) driving through Kansas and musing on all the thing x has lost on road trips: a journal, a bag, a wallet, and a gender. The narrator imagines that a waitress in a diner, with a nametag that says “Debra,” might have picked up a lost book or a lost gender, that she might be contemplating a name change or a pronoun change.
The ponderings about gender in Kansas are peppered with proleptic parentheses. The narrator frequently pauses to allow the reader space to contemplate their own preconceptions and assumptions: about Kansas, about the narrator, about losing one’s gender, about changing one’s gender. Maybe, just maybe, you are not quite as sure in your gender as you thought you were. Maybe, just maybe, things can be different. Maybe they will get better.
Kansas does not have a stellar record regarding gender and queer rights. The Movement Advancement Project (MAP) tracks gender and sexual equity by state. Regarding Kansas’s Sexual Orientation Policy and Gender Identity Policy, Kansas scores “low” in both. While same-sex marriage is allowed, the partner of a same-sex parent cannot adopt. While Kansas has some non-discrimination employment laws, it also has localities that have banned anti-discrimination laws. Non-discrimination laws tend not to apply to queer and trans youth. And, Kansas has a number of religious exemption laws that allow discrimination of queer and trans individuals. And now, in 2021, Kansas has joined the cavalcade of states working to discriminate against trans individuals and trans athletes.
And, yet, Cipri sets their story in Kansas. As Cipri notes, for many people, the first association with Kansas is The Wizard of Oz. A fantasy land in which wishes can come true. A magical place in which the nasty evil people can be eliminated (with flying houses or buckets of water). And, yet, Kansas has a poor record for queer and trans folk. And it is is here that the narrator loses xer gender, which might be picked up and tried on by Debra. If Kansas’s motto is “Ad astra per aspera,” then it suggests that things can get better after, or through, or because of adversity and struggle. A Latin version of “It gets better.”
To be sure, the “It gets better” movement has its detractors. The primary objection is that the sentiment does not really foreground action NOW, relieving pain and torment NOW. For some kids, some later moment in life is too late. But for some, knowing that things will not always be so dark is helpful. For some, knowing that amazing things can happen, even in Kansas, and things will get better, through difficulty. The stars are possible.
Ritch Calvin (he/him) is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave), editor of “The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism” (Aqueduct), and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland).