Monday, 3 March 2014

Women-only Calls and Non-Binary Authors

Cartoon rainbow octopusImagine you like every sort of berry. When you go to a friend's house, they give you a bowl of strawberries. This is great, because you like strawberries. The next time they offer you strawberries again. And again. And again. Because they only offer you strawberries, all your other friends think it's all you eat, so when you go to their houses, you also get strawberries. Eventually, you have enough and ask if maybe you could have blueberries for a change.

Everyone's shocked. Why this hate for strawberries? Why can't you just eat them? After all, they always thought of you as a strawberry person, because that's all you ever ate.


I've talked before about the issue of non-binary gender in genre. Specifically that it's difficult when the only gender or sex identity calls going out are for women. Since then, I've seen a few calls that address one of the issues - assuming that the only way to identify as a woman is to be a cis woman. That's much better than being told to get my own theme issue, and other such insults.

It also comes with a problem. It means that despite identifying in a broad way, I can only ever identify as a woman when it comes to submissions. If I could be in a couple of women's anthologies, and a few non-binary ones, some dealing with marginalised sex and gender identities in general, the big book of androgynous stories and trans* author tales, I wouldn't think anything of submitting to another woman-only call. Except this isn't how it goes down. There have been an increasing number of calls for women, whether it's guest post opportunities, submission calls or lists of authors. But it's not being matched by an increase in calls for marginalised sex and gender identities in general. These only get included in a lump with the QUILTBAG, which usually means a lot of gay and lesbian stories with maybe one or two that tackle sex or gender identities*.

A wider problem is it means anyone who doesn't identify as a woman in any part is not included. This creates a rather weird divide where you could have twenty androgynes, but though a handful can submit because they have some identity as a woman, the rest can't. Yet everyone's still an androgyne and has more in common with each other in reference to gender identity than they do differences.

This doesn't mean woman-only calls are inherently a problem. Much as it's not a problem when we have race-specific calls or separate calls for different sexualities. The issue is the woman-only calls don't happen alongside more general calls for marginalised sex and gender identities**. It's assumed that the way to counteract cis man dominance is to provide opportunities for cis women, rather than to provide opportunities for anyone who isn't a cis man.


At a personal level, this makes women-only calls difficult. I'd already decided that I wouldn't submit to any that implied women = feminine, particularly after the abuse the last time I queried such a thing. But it's a difficult career decision not to submit to any of the calls, ask to be on any of the lists or take up any guest posting opportunities. There are precious few things I can do that pay money or get me noticed so I can go on to earn money. I'm not in a position where I can forget about money.

The result is I do submit, but very selectively. I submitted to one last year. I decided against the ones this year, as it seems like they mushroomed up to a large number of calls.

What I'd really like is for more general venues to be open to more stuff. I don't like having to display an identity badge to get into a specific market, because there's always a chance of being rejected on identity alone (and such rejections are often much harsher than ones based on not liking a story). We don't live in that world though. I've had issues even with technically binary-identified characters who don't entirely fit the mould, which has generally discouraged me from writing stories about non-binary characters. I'd have maybe one or two shots of selling such a story to a pro market** before it hits the trunk. I'm more open to this now I'm self-publishing, but the things I wrote before were always with the awareness that I could only move so far from certain notions of gender roles before the story was unlikely to sell.

The point being author identity calls are here to stay for a bit, and I'm not in a stable enough position that I can avoid them all. I wish I didn't have to walk away from some of them, because I know there won't be other equivalent calls to replace that opportunity. I wish there were calls I could submit to without feeling bad about it, and without wishing I had more money, so I could just disregard any calls that made me uncomfortable.


I have considered other ways of silently protesting. One is through pronouns. I'm easy-going about pronouns, in that generally I don't give a monkeys as long as it's respectful. I'm not fussed on 'it' as it's usually used as an insult, but he, she, they and other pronouns I can't actually spell are fine.

One thing I do like is when people mix it up a bit, and take me up on the fact they can choose a pronoun. It means that articles and reviews about me might each make a different choice, which is a good way to make people stop and think about why that is.

So one thought is to do the same myself - to use a different pronoun in every bio. In the case of sales to women-only markets, to actively use a gender-neutral pronoun. Though this is hypothetical, because there are bigger barriers for me to enter a women-only space, even at times when I'm trying to do so. People are aware my identity is non-binary, but rather than it meaning they're more conscious of non-binary identities, it means they're more likely to decide not to include my name because they don't know how that fits.

The point here isn't that I'm amazing and people are failing to see my genius. It's that I'm one example of a trend. Other authors who talk openly about having an identity other than cis woman or cis man also don't tend to appear, even at times when they're trying. Once someone is open about their identity, they're signing up for additional obstacles if they do try to pursue women-only opportunities. So after making that uncomfortable decision, the door is likely to be slammed anyway.


My ultimate concern with all this is it's not simply about particular authors struggling to sell stories and be included where they could be included. It's that the attitude behind it means people aren't fully accepting the range of identities people can have, which makes it hard for any author with one of those identities. This was very apparent from the reaction to Alex Dally MacFarlane's introductory post on post-binary fiction. It was too complicated. It wasn't realistic. What do you mean these people are real?

I'm conscious that when I talk about this, people will read it, they will link to it and they'll say they learnt something. This is what happened last time. But next time they decide to tackle gender in genre fiction, they'll be writing a series of posts on women in genre, putting out women-only calls and otherwise only talking about women. It's great that more calls are noting that a woman does not need to be a cis woman or identify that way completely, but it's still missing the main point. I personally can be included in those discussions, as I do identify as a woman to an extent, but others can't. And even in my case, it's problematic. It's basically saying, "I know you have a non-binary identity of which being a woman is only a part, but I see you as a woman and I expect you to identify that way all the time."

An example of that is I've had to frequently repeat that I do identify as a woman in part. But I don't get to say I identify as a man in part and as neither in part. It's something I have to bring up if I want to talk about it, because it's never asked about. This creates a skewed view that I must identify as a woman more than any of the others, because I keep mentioning being a woman. But I only do this because the environment created only has space to discuss that one aspect of my identity. Not because that aspect is bigger or more important than the others.

Just for once, I'd like people to stop offering me strawberries.


* One of the reasons for having more specific calls is to deal with some identities being lesser represented when it's a wider call. The specific calls also don't replace the wider ones, because if you only go specific, there will be identities missed. So there's room for both. The issue here is we don't have both. We have specific only, for one specific identity.

** I'm using "marginalised sex and gender identities" rather than "non-binary identities", because not all marginalised sex and gender identities are non-binary. A person may have a binary identity which was not the one they were assigned at birth, or they may switch between binary identities (whether it's on a daily basis or slower changes over the course of their life), as some examples. I talk about non-binary issues as that's where my own experience is, but this isn't to mean that's the only identify that may have an issue here. A general call for submissions would need to consider its wording carefully.

*** There are more token paying and non-paying markets, but that's another issue. Marginalised people have a higher chance of not being wealthy, so it's much more painful when a story earns a tiny fee. A pro payment might pay a bill, but it'd take a lot of token payments to get anywhere near that. And yet markets aimed towards marginalised people often don't pay well.

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