Gender 401 For The Writer

Next up at World Fantasy Con was “Gender 401”. Having attended 101 and 201 panels in the past, I was ready for the discussion.

NOTE: I recognize that as a cis-gendered female I can listen and do my best to promote understanding and inclusion, but I am by no means an expert. If I’ve misrepresented anything in this panel write-up, don’t hesitate to call me out on it.

Also, I recognize that my notes are aimed more for the cis-audience– in part because I know I’m the wrong person to explain gender identity to anyone who isn’t cis. But, hopefully, the book suggestions are at least helpful for everyone.

[For those who aren’t familiar with Gender 101:

  • A transgendered individual has determined that the gender that they were assigned at birth does NOT match their personal identity.
  • A cisgendered individual has determined that the gender they were assigned at birth DOES match their personal identity.
  • Non-binary (nb or enby) people can run the gamut: [EDITED: I originally stated what the expression was, rather than the identity.]
    • Identify as multiple genders at once
    • Identify as different genders based on how they’re feeling on a particular day (also said to be ‘gender fluid’)
    • Identify as non-gendered
  • An intersex individual is one who was not easily assigned a single gender at birth ]

So, now you’re familiar with the cornucopia of gender identities, let’s get back to writing and figuring out how to use this knowledge to enhance our worlds.

Ways That Genre Fiction Can Improve

  • Remembering that cisgendered people aren’t the only ones out there and including all kinds in our stories.
  • Making sure the existence of transmen isn’t completely ignored when revisiting the overdone “What if men could get pregnant?” trope.
  • Thinking through the world. There are plenty of stories about gendered magic or cities that ignore where transpeople or non-binary people live.
  • Avoiding Scooby-doo style reveals, where the bad guy is transgendered — or just dressed up as the opposite sex to avoid suspicion.

TIP: You can acknowledge, then add a few details about how those cases work. You don’t have to make your story about gender identity, you just have to let people outside the binary exist in your world.

TIP 2: For gendered magic, you have to decide how to handle it. It can be influenced by whether magic is assigned at birth or something that happens when you hit puberty (or some other sort of ritual). And if someone changes their gender identity, does their magic change with them?

So. How do you decide what’s best without playing into stereotypes? And if you’re trapped in the gender-binary, how can you make sure you’re properly portraying these characters?

The best way to figure out how to handle non-cisgendered characters is to read stories by non-cisgendered writers.

Genre Writers Who Have Handled Gender Well

  • Austin Chant
  • JY Yang
  • Akwaeke Emezi
  • Charlie Jane Anders
  • Ursula K LeGuin
  • Octavia Butler

And collections of stories:

  • Transcendent Anthology – Edited by KM Szpara

There was a shout out to LeGuin for first introducing genre fiction to gender exploration.

Another place to explore is the Tiptree Awards. Begun in 1991, it started off just giving credit for having a woman as a character in an sf/f novel. But each year, the bar raises.

According to Ellen Klages, a Motherboard member of the Tiptree Awards for over 20 years, if a bar fight doesn’t break out when the winner is announced, clearly, the novel selected wasn’t cutting edge enough and shouldn’t have won.

What Our Panelists Would Like To See

  • Middle-aged and older women that aren’t witches
  • More stories that start off ‘beyond the pale’, to start to normalize their existence
  • Diversity in representation – not all perfect or all villain. If you have one person outside of the gender binary in your story, how you represent them will be a huge focus. If you have many, in multitudes of roles, it goes a long way toward fighting stereotypes.
  • Writing outside the box

Writing Worlds Outside The Box

If gender is so enigmatic now, how diverse could the real future — or your fantasy worlds be? Why even stick to binary genders in fantasy?

One can find inspiration from the common garden slug for new ways of handling gender identity.

TIP 3: If everything is different, it’s hard for your readers to follow. They’ll need a handhold of familiarity. Just remember that different audiences will need different handholds — what alienates some readers, will allow you to reach others. Decide who your story is really for.

TIP 4: Well. I guess this is more of a warning. These worlds can be very difficult to get the balance right, to bring the reader into a strange new world, without losing them. It takes a lot of skill to do something experimental, successfully.

Hopefully, if you weren’t already exposed to these concepts, you’ve got a better grasp of ways to fill your world with more gender diversity. If you were already familiar with them, I hope you found something of value from this write-up.

Go out and remember to include transgendered and non-binary people when filling your worlds. Plus, join the fight against gendered stereotypes and cis-gendered assumptions.


  1. Hi! Non-binary writer here with a few comments on the text portion of this post. I read the post, but I didn’t watch the video so I apologize if these comments are things you cover in the video:

    First off, I love that you posted this. I wish more stories did acknowledges the existence of people like me. You make some great points, especially about gendered magic. Here are a few things I might clarify or add:
    -What you say about how non-binary people express themselves seems true, but it’s more than just expression. It’s identity. That’s implied but not super clear in your text definition. The gender I was assigned at birth (female) does not match my personal identity. However, I don’t identify as male. I identify as neither male nor female. I often go for a non-gendered expression, but it is because neither binary gender fits my personal identity. Point being the non-binary definition should have more in common with the trans definition.
    -I’ve heard from several transmen that the concept of CIS men getting pregnant, sometimes called m-“preg” is very offensive. Just don’t write about CIS men getting pregnant.
    -And if you do include trans and non-binary characters, people want to see it done in a world where those people are accepted and happy, not suffering or being hated for their gender.
    -The story doesn’t have to make it all about the gender identity.
    -If want to see ways to handle diverse genders in writing, read stories that feature non-binary and trans characters written by non-binary and trans characters.

    Ardulum: First Don by J.S. Fields is a great example of space opera using non-binary genders. The author is non-binary.

    If you don’t mind sexy fiction, Darkling by Brooklyn Ray is contemporary fantasty written by a non-binary author and features a trans main character.

    My YA novel, Power Surge, is urban fantasy, and like me, the main character is non-binary.

    In general, NineStar Press has some great books about nonbinary and trans characters :

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your input. Thank you for taking the time to educate me, I appreciate the effort you took in replying to this post. (FYI: The video is basically the blog post in video format. Just for those who prefer to absorb content auditorily.)

      I’m feeling foolish for identifying non-binary individuals by their expression rather than their identity. I’ve edited my 101.

      Also, thanks for your additional resources!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very positive, and helpful post. I think there should be mention of Lois Bujold McMaster’s Vorkosigan novels for her handling of gender, non-binary gender, and the way she created characters who were not miserable because of their gender differences. But then, I often bring up Bujold’s work. Too often, I suppose.

    Personally, it was Left Hand of Darkness by LeGuin that first allowed me to see that other writers were looking at gender in ways my imagination and self were struggling with as a teen.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is CANDY. Having grown up in one of the most diverse cities in the country, I ditch a contemporary work that reads like Mayberry. But as a fledgling scribbler, I think an educated, measured approach is key to avoid stereotype (and evil twin: caricature) or worse, exploitation. Ironically enough, the late-great Chester Himes addressed trans characters (with varying degrees of success) in his Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson books–written in the 1950s. Good stuff, Sis. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d also recommend Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon was Ours. She’s a fantastic author (also, queer and has a transgender husband), and writes in a surrealistic style that is so rich and engaging.


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