An innocent alien visits Providence, Rhode Island on Christmas Eve. A trio of friends visit a haunted, haunting mansion. Queer cybernetically enhanced bands clash in a dystopian landfill. An attempt to summon the Devil doesn’t go as planned. These stories and more make up Meanwhile, Elsewhere, a collection of speculative fiction from trans authors. Order this remarkable anthology today with a donation to Truthout!
We’re three years past the “Trans Tipping Point,” but mainstream media still won’t let trans people be anything but boring.
2014 was the year of The Trans Tipping Point, when Time Magazine and other mainstream news outlets heralded the new visibility of transgender people as the end of transphobia, highlighting the career success of trans women like Laverne Cox and the “coming out” of certain Olympic athletes. But like Foucault and radical queer groups like Against Equality have said for decades, “Visibility is a trap.” The “transgender tipping point” of 2014 was no exception.
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Rather than make a meaningful difference in the lives and acceptance of transgender people, the Trans Tipping Point was a career boost for a select few, while the incredible violence facing trans people of color, the murder of trans women of color, particularly Black trans women, and policies that harm trans people in school, prison, and public spaces (many of which are now expanded by the Trump administration) continue unabated in 2017. Groups like No Justice, No Pride continue to shut down pride events, calling out the incredible harassment, violence and harm that trans people of color face even in LGBTQ spaces, and Donald Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from the military shows that transphobia is still politically salient.
In many ways, the narrow scope of the media’s Trans Tipping Point has been harmful for trans people, as it focused on the specific experiences of very particular types of transgender people. Infamously, those transgender people, including Caitlin Jenner and other supposed trans advocates, used their substantive place in the public eye as an opportunity to advocate for policies antithetical to the needs of most transgender people, including endorsing Donald Trump.
But even when the fixed media story of transgender experience isn’t actively harmful, it’s often boring. If the Trans Tipping Point did anything, it normalized a particular type of trans narrative that would then become almost mandatory for any trans person receiving public attention, regardless of the basis for that attention. The transgender story, according to most major media outlets, went as follows: dysphoria, transition, fulfillment and societal acceptance. Even the measured and well-crafted interventions in this story from trans figures like Janet Mock didn’t stop the “trans story” proliferation across cable, Netflix shows and Law and Order episodes. More importantly, the number of transgender writers in positions of mainstream cultural power remained unchanged — with notable exceptions provoked mostly through outcry.
Enter 2017’s Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers, an anthology of 25 stories edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett. The anthology, which comes with the tongue-in-cheek promise that readers can “Experience Post-Reality as a Transgender Human,” blows up the idea of a “trans story” in 25 different ways. The trans authors in the book cover a variety of worlds and genres with gender transgressors at the forefront, from undead cyborgs to ancient warriors with gender classifications with no context similar to our own. The book is a huge win for trans writers and Topside Press (a small press that exclusively publishes transgender writers) even in that it exists — but far more importantly, it’s fun and totally wild, a panacea to the cookie-cutter transgender narrative to which even the most ostensibly progressive media relegates trans creators and content.
The Meanwhile, Elsewhere writers, with a variety of identities and life experiences, don’t dismantle or deconstruct the “trans story” in their fiction. Instead, they use the conventions of fantasy and science fiction to rewrite what constitutes a trans story entirely.
The best pieces in this collection do more than just add trans characters to sci-fi stories: They demonstrate how transness changes the tropes and archetypes of the zombie apocalypse, the haunted house, the deal with the devil, for the better. They also refuse to use transgender tropes to tell these stories, unless they’re lampshading them.
Stories like RJ Edwards’ “What Cheer,” the story of a plant-based alien that comes to earth as the body double of a trans woman on Christmas Eve, or Dane Figueroa Edidi’s “Matchmaker,” detailing the work of a witch/matchmaker who finds love even for ghosts, still have trans themes and characters, but are far more about their fantastical and science fiction elements. That’s because in science fiction and fantasy, transgender people can tell stories beyond the boring: counteracting the whitewashed, privileged parameters of mainstream trans stories with stories about heartbreak, oppression, family, and, as a piece in the collection by Jeanne Thornton details, what happens when you kidnap your own Instagram-famous psychic cat.
The biggest weaknesses of Meanwhile, Elsewhere reflect the pressure to perform a particular narrative — when the stories become more about addressing the current salient issues regarding transgender identity than about playing with the wild potential of the fantasy world the author has created. Cooper Lee Bombardier’s “After the Big One,” for example, is a classic post-apocalypse survival story with a queer and trans slant, as the characters struggle to survive when the grid goes down, and the story is much stronger in describing the characters/ relationships than when attempting to address the racial, generational and binary vs. nonbinary rifts in the trans community.
Even as these stories destroy the singular trans narrative, there is still a sense of a shared transness in Meanwhile, Elsewhere. The genres of science fiction and fantasy hold a lot of power for trans writers: not, as preoccupied TERFs or fundamentalist Christians might imagine, because of the “abnormality” of trans people, but because trans people and science fiction/fantasy genre are both visioning different ways to live in the world.
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Sometimes reading science fiction anthologies can give you whiplash — one moment you’re on a rerouted freight ship to Mars, the next you’re in the middle of backwoods Ohio about to shoot a zombie. But even though every piece in Meanwhile, Elsewhere resides in its own dystopia, utopia, or alternate dimension, the writers speak a shared language. Whether about a cyborg transboy trapped on a farm or a Muslim transgirl aborting her divine fetus, there is a sense of connectedness in the collection, not because of the theme of gender/transness in each piece, but because of the frenetic energy, extremely specific niche references and caustic jokes that characterize so much of the work that lives under the umbrella of trans literature. Even in pieces that posit entirely new worlds unlike anything on earth, there’s the sense of the otherworldly trans reality that already exists — that world’s pace and inside jokes are on the page.
Meanwhile Elsewhere is good, weird, out of this world, and occasionally trashy. But more importantly, it defies the singular trans story of the mainstream media, and shows how visionary and interesting trans writers are when they have the chance to write stories they really want to tell. Those stories are far from boring.