Picnic on the Queer Side: more of why I love sf/f

We're queer, we're nerds, get used to it!
We’re queer, we’re nerds, get used to it!
I was 13 years old and had been a semi-faithful reader of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for a few years. I think I found my first copy in a magazine rack in a drug store sometime during fourth grade. I had pleaded and begged for a subscription of my own, and one of my grandparents had bought me a subscription for my twelfth birthday—except they got me a subscription to Galaxy Science Fiction instead. Which wasn’t bad, it meant I got a magazine about the size of a paperbook every month filled with short stories, novelletes, and sometimes serialized novels. But my adventures in the pages of Galaxy magazine is a story for another blog post.

It was summer, just months before my 14th birthday, when I got hold of the new copy of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and found inside it a story called “Picnic on the Nearside” written by John Varley. In it, the narrator, Fox, who was 12 years old and lived on a colony of the moon sometime in the future, had been in an epic argument with his mother, because he wanted a Change. He didn’t explain right away what the change was, but before that reveal, we learned that people in his society could easily alter their bodies (his mother exchanged her feet for peds/hands before going out to a party; and Fox mentioned a time he had assembled an eight-legged cat). Then Fox’s best friend, Halo, shows up as a nude woman, which finally explained what the change was. Fox and Halo had been best buds for years, and Fox worried that now that Halo was a woman, it would ruin their friendship.

Cover of the paperback edition of on of Varley's anthologies which included the story in question.
Cover of the paperback edition of one of Varley’s anthologies which included the story in question.
There are many other interesting things that happen in the story: Fox and Halo take Fox’s parents’ vehicle out on the surface without permission and get into a misadventure. But the really mind-bending part of the tale was the setting: a society where changing genders was only slightly more complicated than changing one’s clothes, and where everyone was okay with it. That was just mind-boggling!

I have to make a couple of digressions here. The first is that not all queer people are transgender, transsexual, nor transvestite. Gay boys don’t want to become women, we’re guys who are attracted to and fall in love with other guys. The proper answer to the clueless question, “Which one is the woman” is “Neither, that’s the point!” But one of the reasons young gay boys often idolize female characters in their favorite movies, books, and so forth is because the female characters are the objects of desire of the male characters. Similarly, young lesbian girls often idolize male characters in works of fiction. Young bisexuals may find themselves idolizing both, and so on.

Because there were no openly gay characters in any of movies, TV shows, books, short stories, et cetera which made up our cultural landscape growing up, one of the only ways to imagine ourselves in the worlds we longed to live in was to identify with the female characters. So on one level, “Picnic on the Nearside” offered me a more explicit way of projecting myself into that world. It was as if one of my subconscious coping mechanisms had been made manifest in the plot! Therefore, this story so intrigued me not because its imagined future would afford me an opportunity to change genders (which wasn’t what I wanted), but because it offered an escape from the expectations that boys were only allowed to do boy things, and only allowed to be friends with other boys, and only allowed to be boyfriends with girls.

The other digression is about the difference between a gender fluid milieu and a gay/lesbian culture. Varley has written a lot of stories set in the same world as “Picnic on the Nearside,” including several with the same character, Fox, as the protagonist (though the stories starring Detective Anna-Louise Bach {for example, “The Barbie Murders”} may be a bit more famous). Many of his characters change genders and have love affairs with people who have also swapped genders, but many times his imaginary gender fluid society is still very heterosexual. Fox never thinks of Halo as a potential sexual partner until they are opposite gender, for instance. Some of the couples who appear in the various stories seem to be just friends when they happen to be the same gender, then become lovers only when they happen to be opposite.

Many psychologists and sociologists now theorize that men who like to dress up as women and have sex with other men while thus dressed up are actually exploring an exaggerated heterosexuality. Having, in the online world, been sometimes emphatically propositioned by guys like that, and found myself turned off by their “flirting” that consists of trying to get me to say I will treat them the way an extremely selfish chauvinist man might treat a “slut,” I see their point. The men pursuing those scenarios are so into their fantasy of what heterosex could be that sometimes they want to experience it from the girls’ side. They aren’t turned on by the other man as a man, they are turned on by the situation of a woman submitting to a man in very specific ways.

Looking back on some of Varley’s stories, they can feel more like a mostly hetero exploration of gender roles, rather than a pan-gender exploration of sexual orientations.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s a lot right with it.

A lot of the pain, fear, and bigotry directed toward LGBTQ people is grounded in very narrow and strict views of gender. It’s why homophobic men are almost always also misogynist (or at least very chauvinist). So anything that makes us question those assumptions about intrinsic differences between men and women, what roles men and women are each allowed to take in society, and the morality of those gender binaries is a good thing. And there’s no question that Varley’s tales exposed many of hypocrisies at the heart of all those assumptions.

I became a Varley fan that summer. Even more so, I became a fan of the protagonist, Fox, who went on to appear in the short story “The Phantom of Kansas” and the novel Steel Beach. Questions of gender and sexuality are at most a minor consideration in most of his stories, and I’ve come to appreciate his ability to take seemingly any speculative notion (no matter how weird) to its logical conclusion, and still tell a cracking good yarn along the way. What grabbed me that summer, while re-reading Fox and Halo’s misadventure again and again, was that there was at least one writer willing to tell stories that didn’t exclude a queer viewpoint. And there were editors who would print it, and by implication, readers other than me who wanted to read it.

And that was an amazing epiphany for a 13-year-old gay boy in the rural and very redneck Rocky Mountains.

4 thoughts on “Picnic on the Queer Side: more of why I love sf/f

  1. I have been meaning to comment on this one; I wanted to let my ideas settle before I spewed words. We’ll see if I succeeded.

    I found this interesting and surprisingly familiar. I remember knowing about transsexualism (though it was just called “had a sex change”) years before I learned about homosexuality (which was years before I learned about bisexuality). For various reasons — including, but not limited to, crushes on girls — I sometimes speculated I was genetically a boy and modified as an infant, before I could have known. I eventually figured out that, yup, I am female, and being female could encompass more than what society says. It took longer to figure out the bisexual part.

    I talked to another bisexual person about this post, and he said that he, too, sometimes wondered about his gender identity due issues like attraction to other boys and enjoying some pursuits that society currently defines as “for girls.”

    Such rigid definitions of gender and the gay/bi invisibility does not seem to help anyone. Not the homosexual or bisexual children, trying to figure out why they like whom they like. Not the “tomboys” or “girlyboys” (why the label “boy” in both cases?) who feel comfortable in their bodies, but like to do things outside the gender dichotomy. And not transgender or transsexual people, whose feelings might get dismissed as “just a phase,” in part because of the confusions others experienced.

    1. One of my trans friends (who I knew before and during his transition), once commented that why he got so angry at gay people who dismissed bisexuals as just being in a phase is because for him being lesbian (before transition) had been a “phase” because it was easier to define himself as a lesbian than a man whose body didn’t match his gender.

      “So I went from being a butch dyke to a straight man! Who’d a thunk?”

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