Writing Without Gender

When I sat down and started developing the concept that would eventually become my novel Mail Order Bride, one of the decisions I made early on in the process was that I wanted the aliens to have a genderless society.

I didn’t want them to be a hermaphroditic species, or a species where same gender marriage was considered perfectly equal to opposite gender marriage.  Rather, I specifically wanted a sexually dimorphic species, that is, a species which had male and female people, but which lacked any social distinction between them.

Once I had that idea firmly set in my head, I had to sit down and think about what would allow such a society to develop.

One of the first things that came to mind was to decouple reproduction for anatomy, so I postulated a society where reproduction was a technological process.  Both prospective parents give a genetic sample, but the actual gene mixing, gestation and birth occur within the confines of an artificial womb.

The next thing that came to mind was language.  I postulated a completely gender neutral language.  Of course, I couldn’t write the novel in this language because one, the language didn’t exist, and two, even if I created the language, no one would be able to read it.  So, it presented a challenge.

In order to properly represent this language, I had to write all the dialog that occurred in the alien language without gender.  Also, when I was writing from the POV of my alien characters, they had to *think* in genderless language.  There were a few obstacles that were fairly easy to overcome.  It didn’t take very long to decide that ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ would be replaced with ‘parent’, that ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’ would become ‘grandparent’ and that ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ would become ‘child’.  Easy enough.  After that, I looked up genderless neologisms for Aunt/Uncle, and Niece/Nephew.

What was much, much harder then making those choices and looking up a few new words was getting in the habit of writing without gender.  Gender is so embedded in the way I think that I found myself automatically assigning genders to characters, and having to fight myself to make sure I didn’t let that color the way I wrote those characters.  Writing with they/them pronouns was an especially hard habit to get into.

I messed up.  A lot.  A whole lot.  I had to do an entire editorial pass that was just going in and removing incorrect pronouns.  Then I got three different proofreaders to go in and get the ones I missed.  It was a TON of work.  SO much work, and a lot of frustration, because I have spent my whole life being socialized in a way where gender was a huge part of the way I thought about people.  I also messed up when talking about the book to other people, and had to be corrected by people who were more familiar with Non-binary and agender culture than I am.

But I will never forget the first time someone started talking about a particular character, and they described how they pictured them, and something absolutely magical happened.  When I was writing, I had a very clear vision in my head of this particular character and what they looked like, and the alpha reader explained how they pictured them, and used an actor of a different gender to describe how they pictured the character.

I was stunned, and excited, and relieved, because it was the first clear sign to me that what I was doing was actually working.  That I hadn’t unconsciously pressed a gender onto this character who I never identify as male or female in the text of the novel.

I’m not going to try to pretend that Mail Order Bride is a perfect representation of a genderless society and genderless characters.  But it is as good as I could make it with the help of a pack of alpha readers, and it will hopefully get better once the Developmental Editor/Sensitivity reader is done with it.

What I will say is that working on Mail Order Bride, and doing my best to write these characters as authentically as possible, has been an incredible experience, and I am very, very glad I made the decision I did.  Its helped me learn and helped me grow, and I hope its made me a better person.