Queer Family in Ohio (Queering SF #24)
In previous essays, I have written a lot about Ohio. Mostly about some messed up events and legislative matters. This time, we’re looking at a Queer SF story set in northwest Ohio.
Brendan Williams-Childs’s (he/him) personal webpage says he was born in Wyoming and studies in Kansas. He has said in an interview that he had a grandmother who lived in Ohio. His webpage also says that he has published ten stories, though only three of those appear on the Internet Science Fiction Database.
His story “Schwaberow, Ohio” appeared in 2017 in the anthology, Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers (ed. Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett, Topside Press). That collection was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in 2017. Since the publisher of that collection has gone out of business, Williams-Childs made the story available on Medium.com.
Although the story is set in northwest Ohio, it’s really set in the midst of a national debate and a national election. In this near future, authorities have developed technological interventions into the human body. Haleigh Thompson, the wife of the presidential candidate, has significant technological enhancements. She is derogatorily referred to as a “cyberbabe.” Authorities have also developed “neurological behavioral implants.” This wire inserted into the head can be used to “treat” juvenile delinquents. It would also be used to “treat” autism. And trans individuals.
Our protagonist Walt’s father is vehemently opposed to the wire, to all technological enhancements. He is not interested in using tech to address Walt’s autism. Indeed, he went to prison for stabbing someone with a synthetic heart. But when discovered that the wire can also be used to stop people “from being trans,” he has a change of heart. Had they the money, Aunt Marianne would simply stick a wire in Walt so “they could stop [Walt] from stimming and being trans” (300). Walt says that Aunt Marianne “would turn me back into a girl, maybe even a girl who isn’t autistic” (297). Uncle Ray is a bit more sanguine about Walt. He rudely waves his hand in front of Walt’s face to make sure that he is paying attention, but has no particular interest in changing Walt.
First, recent studies are showing a higher incidence of autism in gender diverse populations than in non-gender diverse groups. A study in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders suggests that the incidence of autism is as much as 10 times higher in the adolescent gender variant community than it is in the adolescent cisgender community. Similarly, Spectrum News reports a 2020 study of adults in the UK shows that autism is 5 times more likely among members of the gender diverse community. Walt represents this community.
Second, what Walt also represents is the differential attitudes about individuals with autism and individuals who are trans. Members of the community at large are likely to think that autism is something that cannot be changed, that it is something they were born with. Members of the community at large are likely to think that trans is an illness, or a life style, or a choice that someone makes. They are also likely to think it is a sin or is amoral. And, therefore, even someone opposed to technological intervention might be in favor “fixing” a trans kid.
Third, “Schwaberow” comments on the ways in which our behaviors are scripted. Walt frequently displays repetitive behaviors. He reminds himself of the order to put on his shoes. Walt notes that “It takes five tugs on the blue string to roll the shades up” (296). And, “I sit on the ramp and count the eggs. It takes three minutes. There are sixteen” (296). He completes his chores: “Efficient, measured. Robotic” (308). People in Walt’s life have argued that he is trans because he learned and emulated his father’s behaviors. Walt believes that the wire, the neural reprogramming, is simply “A script to erase a script.” For example, after Walt and Ray spring Walt’s mom from jail, she says, “You’ll always be my baby.” A line she has repeated his whole life. A script that mom reels off whenever she sees Walt. The story suggests that we all operate by scripts. That’s the process of socialization. The wire would only instill a different set of scripts.
Fourth, Williams-Childs also demonstrates the structural inequalities that trans individuals and individuals with autism face. Ray and Marianne do not have the money or the insurance to pay for the neuropsych intervention. Walt reminds us that a life on medication for a trans person would be expensive — particularly for the state. If the state can use neurological behavioral modification implants, then they can save money in the long term. He also notes that insurance does cover transition surgery, but it does cover “gender dysphoria alleviation.” They will pay to try to make someone cis.
Finally, the story demonstrates the importance of online community, even as it shows the ephemerality of it. He is good friends with Rebecca from the “Chicago part of the internet.” They are no longer friends with Diana from the “Milwaukee part of the internet.” Rebecca is part of the anti-robot-modifications part of the internet, too. Neither of them are OK with the modifications. Apart from community and support, they hang out in subreddits for robo-mods and DIY-trans issues. Sometimes, fam is made.
And so, on Election Day, Walt packs his things and leaves Schwaberow. The only Schwaberow that I know is the Schwaberow Cemetery outside Anna, Ohio. He packs “four sweaters, six shirts, three pairs of pants, an extra pair of shoes. Five hundred and twelve dollars” (309). He leaves the cemetery and heads for Chicago, for his online fam who has supported him. For his online fam that does not want to modify him.
Ritch Calvin 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).