by May Peterson, author of Lord of the Last Heartbeat
Fantasy romance feels like home to me. It’s been a mainstay genre of mine since childhood, partly for its sense of wonder and possibility. However, fiction in general has not been a place to find transgender and/or non-binary people like myself until very recently. Many people I know, both writers and readers, wonder how well high and epic fantasy, in particular, can serve as a home for trans and non-binary characters, because these genres tend to rely on non-modern, secondary world settings.
In order to talk about this, we have to ask ourselves what we mean by someone being transgender and why that seems to require a modern setting. “Transgender” is one way of talking about a broad category of people that existed before the word itself did.
“Trans” itself seems to derive from the notion of transition, of transformation. This understanding is very informed by modern industrial society, by Western philosophy that prefers to define nature and humanity in scientific, chemical and digital ways. We may come to imagine that the alteration of the body (or at least the desire for it) is what fundamentally makes someone trans.
Yet so many trans people end up at odds with this narrative, both the dependence on medicine and the emphasis on transition. I, myself, have been in a state of transition for over ten years, and this doesn’t mean I am only partly trans, or that I was less trans ten years ago.
Underneath the language of transition, we’re discussing what I often call gender non-duality. Cisgender norms describe a dualistic concept of the sexes: that there is the female with a certain biology, and the male with a certain biology. Many people do not fit into this duality or its definitions of the body, including intersex people. Although medicine to alter the body isn’t new, the framing of transness as defined by it is both modern and Western-inflected, and can’t fit all non-dualistic relationships to gender. Ages have passed in which indigenous cultures have had their own ways of thinking and talking about gender, including gender non-duality. It’s reductive to try to fit them into a technological narrative that relies on transition, modern society, or only changing from one binary sex to another.
Exploring trans, non-binary, and other gender non-dual people in fantasy (or any genre) requires us to meet those people and ideas where they are, on their own terms, even if it means shedding the modern or technology-oriented ideas we may be used to.
One of the main characters of my upcoming debut novel, Lord of the Last Heartbeat, is non-binary, and he expresses difficulty coming up with precise language to describe his gender. He lives in a setting in which there is a way of talking about gender non-duality and identities we might compare to trans and non-binary people, but even then he doesn’t have a clear-cut definition to fall back on.
He might have an easier time in the modern world. He’d probably opt for a descriptor like gender-fluid or agender, and may use pronouns like they and them instead of he and him.
It’s also true that he may not, and that this is not so unusual even today. I am a non-binary person living in the modern world who uses she/her pronouns, and I also often struggle with exactly how to express my identity even with a plethora of emerging vocabulary.
This is because gender non-duality, like any variation from the norm, can mean an ambiguity that is itself the point. Ambiguity that isn’t in itself a problem to be solved, because it flows from the elusive wordlessness of personal experience that can’t always be tamed and defined, and doesn’t necessarily have to be. The experience unfolds even without any words to name it. This is part of what I was expressing with this character, because I go through this, too.
I encourage focusing on the lives and hearts we are depicting, not merely on the language used. It’s more vital to concern ourselves with what’s responsible and resonant to our audience. This is a broadly important principle in art in general—we’re not only trying to describe the world, but make our stories a home. A home for imaginations, and for the parts of ourselves that may not seem to have one. The power of stories is not only in the bare facts, but the connection to one another they bring. Trans and gender non-dual people deserve that as much as anyone else.
About Lord of the Last Heartbeat:
Stop me. Please.
Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.
But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.
In a world teeming with mages, ghosts and dark secrets, love blooms between the unlikely pair. But if they are to be strong enough to overcome the evil that draws ever nearer, Mio and Rhodry must first accept a happiness neither ever expected to find.