Monday, September 13, 2010

WORLDCON: Or, what these panelists need is a trans academic

I went to Worldcon last weekend. It was good, I guess, I don't know, I was pretty sick. I spent a lot of time sitting around feeling miserable for myself. On the Thursday, though, I managed to drag myself along to two panels: queer themes in SF; and trans representations in YA SF.

A word on going to panels: I avoid panels on race! Because usually they make me angry! Dr S has, for example, a write up of a panel she went to that devolved into lots of excuses for Joss, what a fucking surprise. It was just like another panel we did that one time, about representations of 'the other' in SF, that devolved into lots of excuses for Joss (from our audience, not from any of the panelists). Anyway now I only go to panels on race and ethnicity in closed safe spaces.

Trans panels are probably going to be the same, I think (not that I, as a cis person, would necessarily or automatically be welcome in a safe space, depending on the requirements of that space), but I'd never even seen trans issues on a panel description for an SF con before, so I thought, why not? See what it is like.

It was like this:

At the queer themes in SF panel, I had to walk out. It was almost as if (and this is a bigger issue I had with Worldcon overall), the panelists were on the panel because they were queer, rather than because they had any intellectual, authorial or otherwise reason for being on there. To my knowledge, all of the panelists were cis. There was talk of sexuality, and then any time they tried to talk about issues of gender or, specifically, trans things, it would come back around to sexuality. Gender and sexuality were constantly conflated, and I came away feeling as if they were trying to talk about trans issues, but completely and totally lacked the language to do so. Better trans-related discussion came from the audience; in fact one of the panelists kept sensationalising the descriptions of trans reveals in stories. I don't know how better to describe this (and my notes at the time didn't elaborate further) - it was all just very odd.

As a cissie, I cannot make this call, but I sort of felt like, if they weren't going to do it with any sort of competance, maybe they should have just talked about sexuality and left the trans issues out of it.

The second panel I attended, on trans representations, was a much more (for me) positive experience. The chair was Cheryl Morgan, a trans academic. The panel was composed of two cis authors, both of whom have written well-received trans characters (Alison Goodman, the author of 'Eon,' and Hazel Edwards, who co-wrote 'f2m: the boy within,' with Ryan Kennedy but who coincidentally also wrote 'There is a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake,'). Cheryl Morgan was really great about flagging whether there needed to be a quick trans 101, and then went in to defining sex and gender terms, just to be clear.

Some things I wrote down in the panel: often in SFF, 'trans' isn't used, instead some other term is used; Hazel Edwards highlighted how people always wanted to see a picture of Ryan Kennedy if he wasn't present (what a fucking surprise, people want to know if he's masculine enough urrggghhh); lots of SFF assumes that in the future, 'changing' gender will be easy (I am reminded of that Neil Gaiman short story, with the rebooting); heavy emphasis on collaboration/talking to people (this comes from a cis perspective, I think, and a clarification that there is no one trans experience).

Anyway, what a surprise that the panel that I felt dealt better with trans stuff (using my arbitrary measurements of better) was the one that centred (or referenced) actual trans experiences and voices. I know that wasn't the point of the queer issues panel, but it just felt so kind of hack job that...yeah.

books or stories (not necessarily SFF) that ended up on my 'check out sometime' list due to these panels:
'Luna' - Julie Anne Peters
'Questors' - Joan Lennon
'Eon' - Alison Goodman (I understand that there might be some cultural appropriation issues)
'f2m: the boy within' - Ryan Kennedy + Hazel Edwards (which actually was already on my toread list)


  1. Hi Steph,

    I'm pleased you found the trans YA panel positive, and thanks for the kind comments. I'd like to note that things were made much easier by the willingness of Hazel and Alison to deal respectfully with trans issues. Thanks should also go to Michael Pryor who curated the YA stream at Worldcon and was very proactive in putting together the panels.

    Worldcon programming can be rather hit and miss because the people responsible for selecting panelists often know little about the people asking to be on panel (contrast that with a local con where the participants know each other well). They also may have limited resources. I may have been the only openly trans person they had available.

    I wasn't asked to be on the Queer SF panel, or the Future of Gender panel (the latter being scheduled at a time I had said I was unavailable), neither of which were part of the YA stream. However, Andrew Butler knows me well and was happy to take comments from me from the audience during Queer SF (possibly after you had left).

    I sympathize with the problem with audiences. I have had trouble myself in the past. Panel moderation is a skill and takes a lot of practice, and sometimes no matter how hard you try you can't rescue a panel. All I can say is that being on good ones generally makes up for the disasters.

    By the way, I'm not actually an academic, I just hang out with them lots.

  2. Hi Cheryl;

    Thanks for dropping by my blog, and leaving a cool comment.

    Yeah, I recognise that I'm coming from a mindset of smaller cons (Swancon is the biggest I've been too, and that's usually only 200 - 300 ish people), where everyone knows the participants and can often ask for recommendations and verifications and knows who is expert in what. I guess part of me was hoping for a successful translation of What I Love About Cons up to Worldcon, so making it everything I love but on a larger scale.

    The other problem (and this is purely personal) is that I do have a very low tolerance for what I perceive to be the mess ups, as it were.

    I thought that you were an excellent moderator, and I was quite glad to see your panel. And today I just finished reading Eon, which was good! It was nice to have heard about Lady Della, and then seen how that played out in the book. I'm also really glad that Hazel and Alison were willing to deal respectfully with trans issues, and I certainly got the impression that they were willing to prioritise/centre trans voices and experiences, which is really awesome.

    Should I correct the commentary about you being an academic? I assumed, as you've presented papers, that you were an academic, though I think my points still stand - having someone who has engaged in an academic fashion with trans issues really did enhance the panel.

  3. Hi Steph,

    Thanks for this post (I found it through the recent Down Under Feminist Carnival). I had to miss Worldcon for personal reasons, but my flatmate texted me in anguish from that same Queer SF panel to let me know I wasn't missing much.

    When that sort of fail occurs it often does feel like the burden is on trans people to correct things, so it's great to see cis allies in our community like yourself speaking out.

    BTW, our paths have probably crossed at some point, at Swancon, if not elsewhere. Hope to meet you properly at a convention some time, having just missed out on Aussiecon.

  4. Hi electricant,

    Your flatmate was right! It was not a great panel.

    I think that it's really important for cis people to educate ourselves and to be good friends, standing up and educating other cis people as necessary. I know that as a not-white person, I get sick of educating white people all the time, so whilst the experiences are different I suspect that there are similar feelings floating around there.

    I see that we have some of the same friends! I bet our paths have crossed paths at some point, so I suspect we might be able to meet sometime. :o)