I was so delighted and overjoyed to be guest of honor at Wiscon this past weekend. It was a dream come true, because Wiscon is my favorite convention in the entire universe. I’ve twice come away from Wiscon with a brand new story burning up my brain, and in fact I wrote most of “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word” on the plane rides home from Madison. So I really felt a lot of urgency to write a speech that hit on some personal, emotional stuff and also spoke directly to that community which I love so much.
Since I gave that speech, people have been asking me if I would post it online. I had to think it over, because that speech really was intended for one specific audience in one room, but then I decided to go for it. As you read this, you’ll have to imagine me saying these words in a ballroom full of intersectional feminist nerds. Okay? Great. So here it is…
Years ago, I was standing at an intersection waiting for the walk light. And I noticed a little kid looking at me and trying to get their mom's attention.
I had this sinking feeling as I braced myself for this kid to say something like, "Mommy, mommy, why is there a man wearing a skirt?" Or, "Mommy, mommy, is that a boy or a girl?"
Back then, I attracted my fair share of attention on the street, because I often dressed kind of over-the-top—in short pink skirts, neon tube tops, and leg-warmers with little hearts all over them—and I had only just started my transition. So I should have been used to it. But on this particular day, I just wasn't in a good place mentally to be called out by a little kid.
So I'm standing there, preparing myself for the worst.
And then, that kid points at me and says, "Mommy, mommy, why is that person hugging a tree?"
I look down, and sure enough, I'm hugging a tree.
It's like: Okay. That's a legit observation. Can't really argue with that. Well-spotted, kid.
I hug trees all the time. Partly for luck, but also because if I don't do it, maybe nobody else will. Trees need to hear that they're beautiful and we appreciate what a good job they're doing.
I keep thinking about that incident lately, with the little kid, and what it means. And I think it comes down to: I'm trans, and I'm a weirdo. I'm not a weirdo because I'm trans, and I'm not trans because I'm a weirdo. I just happen to be both of those things, and they've both shaped my life.
Being a weirdo has made my life as a trans person so much better. I don't know where I'd be today, if I hadn't had the power of silliness and playfulness and small-time anarchy on my side. I decided a long time ago that reality is kind of intrinsically absurd, and the only way to deal with it is to be more ludicrous than this ludicrous world.
I never really know what I'm doing. As a writer, as an organizer, as a person giving a speech right now. Any time I start to feel like I have it all figured out and everything makes sense, that usually means that I'm full of prodigious quantities of shit. And this is what I want to tell you all tonight: Not having an answer IS an answer.
Growing up, I was kind of an odd duckling.
I had a really severe learning disability, so I managed to be both super-nerdy and also bad at school. My brain was super good at coming up with random artifacts, but terrible at answers. I got bullied a lot, and even the worst social rejects stayed away from me. A lot of my earliest memories involve just wandering around the schoolyard on my own, getting lost in my own fantasy world full of imaginary creatures and stuff.
And my heroes were always oddballs and misfits. I watched a lot of Doctor Who and Monty Python at a super impressionable age, and this gave me a really skewed idea of how adults were supposed to act. In fourth grade, I filled hundreds of pages of school workbooks with Doctor Who fanfiction. Back then, I thought the word "obscene" meant "intruding onto the scene," and I loved the idea of a colorful disturbance. So my Doctor Who fanfiction was full of lines like, "'Hello there,' he said obscenely."
One of my earliest memories is singing "I'm just a girl who can't say no" from the musical Oklahoma for my grandma and all her friends, and they seemed to really like it.
I'm still just a girl who can't say no, incidentally.
I spent a lot of my twenties trying super hard to role-play as a serious adult, and also as a man. And I was so lucky that when I was ready to step out as a girl, I found a queer community that was full of total goofballs. Especially once I was in the Bay Area, I got to be surrounded by people doing the strangest performances imaginable, dressed in nothing but body glitter (which everyone called "raver scabies").
I got to be part of the Cacophony Society, the bisexual magazine Anything That Moves, the underground publisher Black Books, and a whole crew of surrealist speculative fiction writers. I started organizing weird events, like the Reverse Striptease, where a bunch of performers came on stage naked and then put their clothes on. Or the Ballerina Pie Fight, which is just what it sounds like. And then there's Writers With Drinks, this literary series I organize where I bring together as many genres as I can and introduce the authors with facts from other universes. Writers With Drinks is my attempt to use make-believe author bios and unpredictable lineups to mess with the stuffiness and genre segregation of typical reading events.
That attitude has also shaped my science fiction and fantasy writing. I can't help putting guidance-counselor assassins and cat butter and shapeshifting genitalia and fake time travelers into my stories. I have a hard time believing in any world that's not full of incongruities and, yes, obscenities.
And you know, that's the second thing I wanted to tell you: you can use random strangeness to bring people together and build community. A community built on bizarre nonsense can be just as strong, and resilient, and beautiful, as one where people are brought together by fear. We can have fun organizing, and organize by having fun.
I can still remember how terrifying it was to go out of the house wearing women's clothes and makeup for the first time, nearly twenty years ago. I remember when my ride home flaked and I had to ride BART back home to North Oakland, wearing a skimpy Wonder Woman costume.
When you're trans, out in the world, it can feel like the least breath of wind can blow your skin away.
People use the phrase "gender presentation" a lot, and it always makes me think of myself as a set of powerpoint slides. Or a beautifully curated centerpiece full of flowers, ribbons, an ice sculpture and maybe even a butter statue—but not cat butter, okay?
But it's messier and more confusing than that phrase "gender presentation" implies. To be a trans person in public spaces is to be constantly aware of other people putting together their own picture of you, which can easily feel like the capital-t Truth. It's easy to get sucked into obsessing about which little signifier or fashion choice might cause people to slap one label or the other on you. Maybe it's my fault that desk clerk called me "sir," because I was wearing the wrong socks, or I had one tiny hair on my upper lip, or I didn't fix my makeup just right.
And over twenty years of being openly trans, I've rolled for damage. I used to get harrassed on the street all the time. One time, a guy followed me home and tried to break into my house. Someone kept editing my Wikipedia entry to change all the female pronouns to male pronouns, over and over again. I got horribly harrassed at Comic Con and still feel broken up about it. One time, I had two job interviews where they had told me on the phone the job was mine and the interview was just a formality, but when they met me in person, suddenly there was a hiring freeze. Brrrrrr.
So it's easy to see why trans people get obsessed with the toxic, self-destructive notion of "passing." Which basically means that if you just play the game well enough, and look PERFECT, then maybe you can trick people into thinking you're cisgender. It's all bullshit. You can't control what goes on in other people's brains. But it's seductive bullshit.
A lot of my earliest writing about being trans was all about how I don't try to pass, because I'm proud to be trans. But since then, I've spent way too much time buying into this nonsense---especially when I was writing for this high-profile site called io9, and I was constantly doing press events where almost every other journalist was a white cishet dude. When you're the only girl in the room, let alone the only trans girl in the room, trying to get a quote from Robert Downey Jr., and you’re having to raise your voice to be heard over all the cishet white men, you'll do anything to make Robert Downey Jr. not misgender you. Or worse. (As it happened, Robert Downey Jr. was lovely and got my pronoun right, and I love him forever.)
It's hard to admit that you can't keep other people from misgendering you, and that it's not your fault when it happens. It sucks to realize that you can't control such a basic part of your identity in the world. Not to mention, not everybody can afford all the electrolysis and surgeries and other stuff you're "supposed" to do. I still fall into obsessing about looking "perfect," and buying into myths like "if you just act like you own the place, people will accept you." Which is really just another way of saying, "you can use your class privilege and whiteness, if you have those things, to obtain a get-out-of-transphobia-free card." Those strategies are not available to everyone, and they lead to more divisiveness, and more bullshit hierachies.
As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore wrote in the introduction to her wonderful anthology called Nobody Passes: "If we eliminated the pressure to pass, what delicious and devastating opportunities for transformation might we create?" This notion of passing is all about internalized transphobia and privilege, and it eats away at our ability to form communities and alliances.
Back in the day, other trans people sometimes told me they didn't want to be seen with me in public. Not just because I looked outrageous—I could tone it down, and often did—but because we would make a bigger target. One transwoman by herself can fade into the woodwork, but two transwomen standing together draw more attention. So people were like, "I just can't be seen in public with other any trans people, it's not personal."
And I used to believe that an openly trans speculative fiction author couldn't possibly have a successful SF novel. Like, most people would just never accept a trans author of science fiction and fantasy. I was sure I'd just thrown away my shot at success, when I decided to transition. I was super angry and bitter about this, but I never doubted that it was true.
Fast forward to a couple years ago. I was having drinks with Julia Serano, the trans activist and theorist who's shaped how we talk about transness. And she congratulated me on winning the Nebula Award for Best Novel for All the Birds in the Sky, and I was like, "YOU did this. You and everyone else who pushed back against the stereotypes and barriers and transphobic nonsense. I owe this to you." I bought her so many drinks.
And I'm also so grateful to Annalee Newitz, my partner and collaborator in everything good ever, for supporting me and encouraging me to be my wildest truest self. Annalee, you are the fire of my heart and the breath of my soul, and I literally do not know where in the multiverse I would be without you.
I'm afraid the scary times are just beginning. It's going to get a lot scarier. And the people in this room, this community around me, are a HUGE part of what's giving me hope right now. You all are my strength, as I hope to be yours.
And I know how hard we had to fight to bring this community together. I've been coming to Wiscon every year since 2004, so I have seen firsthand how painful and difficult it's been.
But you know what? We're not just still here, we're still just as loopy and silly as Wiscon ever was. This event right here, where we give out an award funded by bake sales and slapstick auctions, with a tiara and an impromptu sing-along, is one of the most delightfully wacky events I go to every year.
When I started going to Wiscon, I was one of maybe three trans people at the convention. And now I couldn't actually tell you how many trans peeps are here this year, because it's too many to count. And I just did a book tour where every single event had a bunch of trans folk in the audience, and I always felt like crying with happiness.
I want to go back in time and tell those people who used to say that they couldn't be seen in public with other trans folk that we rock way harder when we join together.
In my writing, I'm thinking more and more lately about how to show the power of community, and how to include everyone who's marginalized and pushed outside the lines of communal membership.
Being a weirdo has helped me find communities over and over again. And I really believe that your imagination is your strongest defense against everyone who wants to dehumanize and control you, and make you smaller. Your imagination is HUGE. Your capacity for constructive nonsense owns no limits. The people who want to shove us into boxes always want everything to make sense and to be clear-cut and simple, and it's on us to complicate and confuse them.
As speculative fiction writers and readers, we have a special connection to weirdness, and that can be a source of power. It can be a source of unity, without conformity.
So yeah, I want to say it again: Not having an answer is an answer.
If you keep falling off the drop-down menu of gender options, you are powerful.
If this crappy world smacks the wrong label on you, you are brilliant and amazing.
Your stories are awesome. Your perspective matters. This community needs you.
I'm so proud to be here with all of you, at this sugar-fueled celebration of goofiness, with so many of my favorite writers and thinkers and makers around me. You are all my heroes. Thank you for having me.