The first part of discussing the herstory of all women cultures went from the early 20th century up to 1970. Several people remarked that there hadn’t been queer-positive stories. We’ve forgotten that part of our heritage when it was virtually impossible to publish positive images of Queer lives. Many countries had (and still have) laws that forbid positive depictions of so-called alternative lifestyles. To have any depiction of Lesbian lives it was necessary to have a tragic ending. It was shocking to have a Lesbian still alive at the end of a story as in The Killing of Sister George. Gay men were rarely openly depicted and the stealth Gay men still were killed on a regular basis.
After 1969, it became more possible to have at least neutral depictions of Lesbians and Gay Men. Appropriately the first story published on an all-female world where the women were Lesbians is called “When it Changed” by Joanna Russ.
Joanna Russ refounded the Feminist Utopian version, apparently in the absence of any knowledge of Herland. (The situation I’m trying to avoid.) In her own words, “I have read SF stories about manless worlds before; they are either full of busty girls in wisps of chiffon who slink about writhing with lust (Keith Laumer wrote a charming, funny one called “The War with the Yukks”), or the women have set up a static, beelike society in imitation of some presumed primitive matriarchy. These stories are written by men. Why women who have been alone for generations should “instinctively” turn their sexual desires toward persons of whom they have only intellectual knowledge, or why female people are presumed to have an innate preference for Byzantine rigidity, I don’t know.”
This first story concerns the fears of women that their society based on affectionate relationships between women who marry and raise daughters together will be unable to survive the arrival of men. Her magnum opus, The Female Man published in 1975 transcended this concern. The all woman society existed in a future where women may have committed Gendercide – as in the male paranoid fantasy Sex and the High Command published only 5 years earlier in 1970.
The theme of Gendercide continues in other book series started in the 1970s. Alice Sheldon (AKA James Tiptree Jr.) wrote a novella called “Houston, Houston, Do You Hear?” where a group of astronauts in the 1970s – all male of course – face a disaster in space that throws them into a future where an accident on earth had reduced the population to 11,000 women who have used cloning to rebuild the population to several million. Unlike Virgin Planet where the women are delighted at the concept of meeting men again the women treat the men as potentially useful curiosities. Unlike “When it Changed” there is no possibility that the society will be overcome with the re-introduction of men. The story ends with the certainty that after the men have been sufficiently studied they will be put to death.
I have to admit to being unable to read more than two books out of four of the Holdfast Chronicles by Suzy McKee Charnas. The underlying premise – based in feminist analysis of the 1970s – is that there is no possibility of men being anything other than oppressors of women who must be eradicated. None of the men are heterosexual and the homosexual relationships between men are treated with loathing. There is one scene where a group of women beat another woman to death for wishing to use a dildo during Lesbian sex. The enlightened society reproduces by having sex with horses. (The two books I’ve read are Walk to the End of the World published in 1974 and Motherlines published in 1978.)
My reaction is idiosyncratic since these novels have received many awards for Lesbian/Gay fiction including the James Tiptree Jr. Award for three different volumes, the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame, and a nomination for the Lambda Literary Award.
Through the 1980s to the end of the millennia interest waned in the single gender world stories. My opinion is that writers began exploring beyond the gender binary making people question the concept that gender and sex were the same thing. Even in James Tiptree Jr.’s story “Houston, Houston. Do You Read?” introduced the concept of women who took androgen treatments to masculinize their bodies. There was also a movement to the concept that sexism is innate (AKA biological) rather than social. Writers started exploring what gender roles would look like in a world where men and women lived together but without oppression.
John Varley is a writer who looked at gender roles in cultures where biological sex is voluntary. In the Titan trilogy (Titan 1979, Wizard 1980, and Demon 1984) he introduced Robin of the Coven as a woman from a woman only space settlement. (Another bias I admit to is finding this character delightful.) Feminist principles are not subject to disagreement any more than people seriously discuss whether lightning is caused by Thor swinging his hammer. The women of her world are quite aware that there are men out there but it has no relevance to their lives either positive or negative. Other women in the story are normatively depicted as Lesbians even if they come from worlds with men.
For fun, I have to add one last Feminist Utopian world that was written as a direct response to Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet. Sadly I can’t find her original quote so here is a paraphrase. ‘Reading Virgin Planet got me thinking about how a society with only one gender would actually work. Could a person from that planet even recognize a member of the opposite sex? What would happen to our understanding of gendered labour if there were only one gender? That’s why I started writing Ethan of Athos.’
Ethan of Athos is a book I love that presents an examination of the history of Feminist Utopian thought – satirically presented in a male-only society. Social status is determined by how good a parent you are. The world is non-violent since the ‘gender which is the source of all evil’ is banished. There is a fear that the presence of the other gender will cause a social collapse. Things we consider ‘women’s work’ are part of the economy. This work is respected and justly compensated. While many people are in loving monogamous relationships dedicated to raising children there is a respected caste who have dedicated their lives to chastity. The Lesbian Utopian novel is a world of gay men.
My next article will be on the history of alternative sexuality in Werewolves called “Growing Hair in Funny Places. The Werewolf as a case study in Testosterone Poisoning.”
A special thank you to Ms. Lorna Toolis Senior Department Head of the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy for her help in finding books based on a loose description of story elements.
John Allenson is a pen name for someone who has a horribly insulting real life name he does not use on social media. He has had a long process in trying to be an author but may actually be making some progress. He’s a gender-queer Jew who lives in Toronto.
This column is a tour through some of the bits and pieces of Queer themed Speculative fiction over the past few millennia.