It’s My Body, and I’ll Try If I Want To…. (Queering SF #1)

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(This essay was slated to appear in another Medium publication in September, 2019 as the first in the Queering SF series.)

For the Fall 2019 semester, I am teaching an upper-division undergraduate course called Queering Science Fiction. The course is nearly full, though I learned that they signed up not because of the topic, but because of the gen. ed. requirement that it fulfills. But that’s just as well. New faces, new ideas.

We initially spent some time working on definitions. Science fiction, whatever that is. Queer, whatever that is. Turns out, the two concepts have quite a bit in common. Both “science fiction” and “queer” take as a fundamental principle the need and desire to see things differently. To look at situations, concepts, and practices in new ways. And by reading science fiction from a queer perspective, perhaps we can alter how we think and act.

For last week’s class (September 4), we read four stories, but here I would like to focus on John Varley’s semi-canonical story, “Options.” The novelette first appeared in 1979 in Terry Carr’s Universe 9 collection. Varley himself has lead an interesting, and itinerant life. According to his own webpage, he fled his homeland of Texas for a college scholarship in Michigan, but he found academia boring. He dropped out, became a hippie, and lived in San Francisco for a while. When supporting himself became impossible, he turned to writing in 1973, and has done so ever since. While he is well-known for his Geaen trilogy and his Thunder and Lighting series of novels, it was “Persistence of Vision”(1978) that put him on the map. Over the course of his career, his work has garnered 9 Locus Awards, 3 Hugo Awards, 2 Nebula Awards, 1 each of the Analog Award and the Apollo Award.

So, early in his career, and just six years after he started writing, he published “Options.”

This updated version of the Tiresias myth is set in an undetermined future in King City on the moon and centers on a single family, Cleopatra, Jules, Lilli, Paul, and Feather. Cleo is an architect and Jules works in an unnamed business. While both are professionals, much of the domestic and care work falls on Cleo. In other words, gender roles have remained somewhat intact. And, yet, other social mores have changed. Public nudity seems to be a non-issue, as many of the poorer residents cannot afford the disposable clothing, and their children attend school naked. Open relationships seem to be a norm, as well. Both Jules and Cleo have lovers outside the marriage, typically with knowledge and consent of their partner.

And, yet, Cleo struggles with three children at breakfast while Jules calmly reads the morning news (on an iPad-like device). After every one has been dealt with, Cleo herself heads to work, taking Feather with her because the baby is still breastfeeding. The commute is long for Cleo, as they had decided to live nearer to Jules’s work. As Feather breastfeeds on the train, Cleo reads the news on her own newsreader. She then reads a story about the rise of “changers,” those who undergo sex reassignment surgery. At this time, science and technology have made sex changes quick and easy. Essentially, they can grow a clone of someone’s body in a mere six months, and then transplant the brain intact in a simple procedure. The patient walks out an hour later.

The technology, from the vantage of 2019, seems a bit farfetched. That, I would argue, is not the point. Varley is not that concerned with whether or not our technology will get there one day — though it just might. He’s not engaged in technological extrapolation, but rather sociological extrapolation. His real concern here is with examining sex, gender, and sexuality and their relation to the body.

Cleo finds herself just not feeling satisfied. She loves being a woman. She loves being a mother (even if at times she wishes differently). She loves having sex with her husband (even if she sometimes wishes it were not always on his terms). And, yet, something is missing. And so she’s intrigued by the notion of changing sexes. Later, Cleo brings up the story to Jules, but he resists. He has no interest in changing, and he hopes she doesn’t, either. He calls it “a little sick.”

One day while on a shopping trip, she stops into a sex change office. They offer her a virtual model of what she would look like in a male body. Because she has been an athlete, the modeling looks heavier and heftier than she would like. Not to worry, it’s all customizable. But Cleo is not ready to make the change. Instead, they offer her a compromise, a more “androgynous look.” And, on the spot, they reduce the size of her breasts. When she arrives home, Jules is less than pleased. She counters, “‘But I don’t ask you when I put on lipstick or cut my hair. It’s my body.’” This argument begins to raise the central question about the relationship between body and person, between body and identity.

He, of course, thinks about his own pleasure, but also about Feather. Cleo can no longer breast feed. She counters that Jules can breast feed the baby (another new social norm) or bottle feed her. Jules has never been raised thinking of breastfeeding as one of his duties or options, has never seen his body in that role, has never seen himself fulfilling that function. He says it would feel “silly.” He opts for bottle feeding. And because he will be feeding her, he begins to take her to work with him. Cleo reacts negatively, though, because Jules won’t take on the mothering/nurturing role “as a female.”

The proverbial straw appears the next time Cleo has sex, on her back. Jules has always preferred top position during sex. Cleo has gone along with it, though she, too, would prefer to be on top. This time, she insists, and he resists. For him, he cannot separate it with her interest in changing. He cannot separate it from her questioning of gender and sex roles. For him, it feels like an attempt at reversing the roles, at domination. Frustrated, she leaves.

As the news article had told her, Changers tend to commingle. They prefer one another’s company, and they frequent specialized bars. She finds the Oophyte because she’s “still curious.” (An oophyte is the gametophyte of mosses and ferns; they create gametes via mitosis.) At the bar, the lighted sign has an alternating plus sign and arrow attached to the O. It revolved so that “[o]ne moment the plus sign was inside and the arrow out, the next moment the reverse.” While the name of the bar suggests a rupturing of the reproductive imperative of heterosexual futurity, the reality inside the bar doesn’t live up to the hype. In the bar, she has sex with Saffron, who has changed sex many times. Saffron tells her that the body one is born in does not matter, and warns her that changing sexes will not solve any of her problems. Cleo asks Saffron if he had been born female. He responds, “‘It’s no longer important how I was born. I’ve been both. It’s still me on the inside.’” Saffron suggests then that identity is not bodily but mental.

Following her encounter at the Oophyte, Cleo orders the creation of her cloned body. She will have six months to wait until it is fully grown. She informs Jules of her decision; he reminds her that he will not “follow her” in her decision. He says that when she walks into the house in a male body, he may not be able to see her in the same way anymore. Cleo responds, “‘You could if you were a woman.’” Here, again, we see the heteronormativity that permeates the story.

Six months later, Cleo wakes up in a male body. Cleo and the text then shift to Leo and to masculine pronouns. While the children — who have grown up with changing as a social commonplace — hardly notice, Jules is not happy. He brings a woman home for revenge sex, but Leo joins them. They also discover that the revenge lover is also a Changer.

Leo returns to the Oophyte, and he is propositioned by several women. When he cannot “perform” for Lynx, they commiserate. Lynx does not want to hurt Leo’s “male ego.” Lynx suggests to Leo, “‘Don’t be a man. Be a male human, instead.’” Jules and Leo become buddies. Leo feels more “whole” than ever before, and can see that Jules is “not whole.” Eventually, though Leo and Jules do have sex. One question raised, what were Jules’s reservations? Social mores had changed, and the stigma of same-sex sex seemed to have disappeared. Jules’s hang-up seemed to be that, for him, Cleo’s identity, and his love for her, resided in her body.

Leo returns to a female body, but does not return to being Cleo. That person is gone. She (her pronouns always follow her body choice) is now some holisitic combination of Cleo and Leo, and adopts the moniker Nile. She tells Jules, “‘What you have to understand is that they’re both gone, in a sense.’”

Several things become apparent after reading the story. For one, it operates from a particular binary perspective on identities. For another, it assumes a particular relationship between the body and identity.

On the one hand, I would commend Varley for taking on the issue. Far too much SF has simply assumed traditional gender roles, even in radically altered futures. As Veronica Hollinger writes in “(Re)Reading Queerly,” science fiction has traditionally been “overwhelmingly straight” narrative form (24). True, many New Wave and feminist science fiction writers had already addressed gender roles and sex roles by 1979. Still, Varley addresses the issues of body and identity, and body and sexuality squarely and centrally.

Varley may have also been aware of the emergence of Queer Studies in the 1970s. The first undergraduate class in LGBTQ Studies was offered at UC Berkeley in 1970, and Varley was living in San Francisco around that time. Regardless, the story, in some ways, parallels the real-life story of Christine Jorgensen, the first known US citizen to undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS). (I am not suggesting that Varley consciously or unconsciously took Jorgensen as a model, only noting the similarities.) Jorgensen returned from a stint in the Army and attended college and read an article about SRS. Jorgensen then traveled to Denmark for the initial surgeries, and completed them in the US. Her transition was front-page news in New York in the early 1950s, and she was hailed as having paved the way for trans individuals who followed. In 1951, Jorgensen wrote:

As you can see by the enclosed photos, taken just before the operation, I have changed a great deal. But it is the other changes that are so much more important. Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more and, as you can see, I’m in marvelous spirits.

The sentiments here echo the discussions between Cleo and Saffron. For Jorgensen, she was dissatisfied with her body, and the change in bodies was integral to her sense of self and her self-satisfaction. While the change is not quite as clear-cut for Cleo, Cleo does experience dissatisfaction, and Nile does feel more whole (and arguably more satisfied) after having experienced life (and sex) in female and male bodies. Nile tells Jules that both Cleo and Leo are gone, just as Christine says that the person who left the US is gone.

And, yet, “Options” seems to miss the mark in a number of other areas. For one, the story assumes a binary identity. Both before and after surgery, Changers seem to have only two options: female bodies or male bodies. True, they can customize the degree of femininity or masculinity, can sculpt the body to fit a personal self-image. Even so, the options remain binary. That binary is reinforced when Cleo wants Jules to “follow” her into changing. Although they both seem to have little hesitation with taking lovers of either sex, Cleo seems to believe that they should both change in order to maintain the heterosexual dyad. She also seems irritated that Jules will excel at “mothering” while in a male body. For Cleo, cis het remains the normative standard.

The Oophyte sign, while on the one hand a symbol rupturing the sexual reproductive order, at the same time reinforces the binary options of male and female. At Oophyte, Cleo initially has sex with Saffron, who identifies as a man (though has changed many times). Her initial impulse is to maintain the heteronormative relationship, even while in a place situated outside the norms of society. After the change, Leo returns to Oophyte and is propositioned by three women. So, even as Leo pursues a heterosexual relationship, the three women from Oophyte do, as well.

The other area that seems to miss the mark is complexity of the relationship between self and body. During Cleo’s first trip to Oophyte, Saffron says the body does not matter, that it’s the same person inside. During the second trip to the bar, Lynx tells Leo that she does not want to hurt Leo’s “male ego.” Clearly the social function and value of the body has changed in Varley’s future world. Children casually go off to school in the nude. The only shame is of class, not body or sexuality. And yet, Cleo makes it clear that living inside her body, having sex as a woman, giving birth to children, breastfeeding them, playing sports have all had an effect on her identity and her sense of self. So, does the body “not matter?” Leo’s male ego isn’t damaged because Leo has not lived the life with the expectations of masculinity. Cleo makes that clear in her relationship with Jules.

Part of the difficulty that “Options” faces, then, is the way in which it assumes gender and sexuality as an essentialized identity. Of course, it’s not fair to judge “Options” according to theoretical understandings of 2019. But even so, feminist theorists were already rejecting gender as an essential identity in favor of a discursive construct in the 1970s. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which offers a view of gender as a performance of a social norm, does not appear until 1990.

So, “Options” appears at a moment of theoretical and conceptual change. While the story offers a view of sex, gender, and sexuality that might seem outmoded in 2019, it remains an insight into the history of our conceptualizations of sex, gender, and sexuality. It takes identity as an essence. The person exists regardless, and in spite of, the body. And, yet, the experiences one has in a different body matter, and they do affect to person’s wholeness. The characters in “Options” do have some options, though they are limited by the operational model of sex, gender, and sexuality as binaries. As long as we’re offered a static set of choices (birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports), we will be limited in our options. What queer theory and performance theory offer is the notion of sex and gender as a set of practices that we engage in, that shape us as we engage in them, but do not adhere as essential elements of the self. And in that model, we have options.

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).

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