De-Gendering Stories: A Challenge

In one of my WisCon panels (about “calls for inclusion” for trans and non-binary people), I made the assertion that gendering our language is a habit and that frequently requires more work than using gender neutral, but we don’t know the work because it is a habit. I could offer as evidence my habitual greeting of “hey, folks” versus “hey, ladies and gentlemen” (which is longer) or any gender-specific greeting (“hey, ladies”) that requires me to make observations and/or assumptions about my audience. There’s the counter of saying “hey, guys” as gender-neutral being easier, but that requires us to accept that the masculine default is universal enough to be counted as agender, and if we accept that, we’re still taking the roundabout way to wind up using gender-neutral language.

In another panel about trans narratives, I talked about what a watershed moment it was for me when I realized how many CRPGs in the 80s asked you to define your character’s gender and then did absolutely nothing with that information. In most versions of the Ultima Trilogy, your character was a blobby stick figure. Nothing about how your character appeared or was referred to by the game changed based on whether you labeled the character M, F, or (in Ultima III: Exodus) O. It asks you this information, it stores it somewhere, and then it does nothing with it.

Why does it ask you? Because the tabletop roleplaying games on which it was based have a space for it. Because it’s assumed that you need to know this to relate to the character. Because it’s a habit.

We do live in a gendered society, one which tends to gender us whether we accept it or not. The gender of a character can be an important part of a story. It can mean something. But the presumption that it must be known in order to relate to the character…

Back in the 90s, I hung out in one of the original, HTML-based Geocities chatrooms. And there was a person in the room who refused to disclose their gender. I say “refused” because people took it very personally and got very insistent about it. I was not that politically aware back then, nor fully in tune with my own gender identity, but I did find it strange that so many people—mostly men—would assert that it was basically impossible for them to talk to somebody if they didn’t know if they were a man or woman.

“I need to know how to relate to you,” was how one of them put it.

“I need to know how to treat you,” is what none of them said, but what I suspect many of them meant.

I was thinking about this person the first time I decided to try writing a story without gender. There had been times I’d dropped a character into a story without referring to their gender. I’d written stories where the narrator/protagonist’s gender was not immediately clear (which, believe me, caused some readers terrible confusion and mixed feelings when they found out they had been “tricked” into identifying with a woman, even though I didn’t intend any such deceit; it simply hadn’t come up yet).

I’ve only written a handful of stories with multiple characters and actual dialogue between them in which gender does not come up. My short-short “The Sweat of their Brows” (which appears in Angels of the Meanwhile) does not contain any references to gender. The similarly themed “You, Robot” does not gender any human characters, though one of them reflexively refers to an agender robot as “he”. The titular story in my collection The Lands of Passing Through (Amazon Kindle version, multiformat bundle) is, I think, my longest such work. The story “To Live Forever…” in the same collection is a story told in the form of a monologue, or a conversation in which the more minor participant’s part is implied, silent video game protagonist-style. Neither the speaker nor listener is gendered. While I like that format, there are some limits to the stories that can be told in it.

The interesting thing about the other stories I’ve mentioned, the ones that I told in a traditional third-person style but without gendered pronouns or other references, is how people receive them. If I tell them up front what I’m doing, I sometimes hear that the writing is stilted, forced, and unnatural. I’ve never once heard such a complaint from someone who wasn’t primed going in for anything to be unusual. Not once. Not only do people not notice the lack of gender, but in many cases, their mind glosses over it to the point they assign gender to the characters and assume that this is part of the text.

I’d love to see more writers exploring this kind of writing, so here we come to my challenge: write a story of any length with at least two characters and no references to their gender.

There are many ways to do this, none of them wrong. You can simply avoid using personal pronouns in the narration, as most of the stories I referenced above do. You can use a gender neutral pronoun. You can write it in first or second person, allowing one of the characters to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns such as I/me or you. The lack of gender can be part of the story (agender characters, distant characters communicating via text, a character whose identity is obscured and unknown) or it can be incidental. It can be a short vignette or dialogue, it can be a classic story with a beginning, middle, and end. It can be a story where the lack of gender is the point, or it can be a story where it’s incidental.

If you undertake this challenge and you post your story somewhere (your blog, Tumblr, a fic archive), please send a link to it to my email address blueauthor (Where? At…) alexandraerin (Neither Wakko nor Yakko, but Dot) com, with the subject heading “Gender Free Writing Challenge”. On July August 1st, I’ll post a round-up of links to the stories I have received by that point.

To encourage participation, let’s make it interesting. I will award prizes of $25, $15, and $10 to the story I enjoy the most, second most, and third most, respectively. Depending on how many responses I receive, judging and award of the prizes may not happen until later in the month. As English is the only language in which I am a skilled enough reader to judge stories, I can only provide prizes to stories that are in English or have an English translation. I know there are languages in which the challenge portion of this challenge is trivial, but to be considered for the prize, the English version must also be gender neutral.

You don’t have to be an author of any particular skill or career level to participate. If you are a creator with a Patreon (like me), I would encourage you to post your entry to your Patreon feed so that anyone reading the round-up will know where to go if they like what you have to offer and want more of it.

Update: After receiving initial feedback on what was a very spur-of-the-moment idea, I have extended the deadline from July 1st to August 1st in order to encourage more participation.

Update June 9th, 2016:

See this post for some clarifications regarding the rules and suchlike.