GUEST POST: Using the Transgender Umbrella to Describe the Steampunk Parasol

Posted by 26th October 2010

We decided, a week into October, that we should do something for LGBT History Month, and the marvelous Lucretia Dearfour of The Wandering Legion responded to my plea for a last-minute guest post. Thanks for the post, Lucretia!

As a transgender individual I’ve heard, been called, and sometimes even identified with a lot of different words, including but not limited to: transsexual, trannie, transvestite, genderqueer, trap, crossdresser, drag queen, feminine man, hermaphrodite, androgyne, and (in the most negative sense) fag. All of these terms have VERY different definitions to them but at the exact same time find themselves falling under the same umbrella term: Transgender*.

Hey, I know this isn’t a transgender magazine; it’s a steampunk magazine, but I want to talk about how these communities overlap for me. Within the steampunk community, I have found tremendous strength and openness. This is partly due to the “alternative history,” aspect of steampunk. Since one can cherry-pick what ideas, philosophies, and beliefs they wish to include and which they wish to neglect one can create a world where Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas can be free to kiss in public and maybe even get married! I also believe that this post-modern mash-up that is steampunk is also similar to the concept of transgenderism: like my own identity, steampunk cannot be reduced to one simple definition or label. That’s why no two steampunks ever steam the same way.

Steampunk, like one who questions gender in society, is finding it hard to live within the skin that it had been created in. Steampunk doesn’t just want to stay in Victorian England. It loves the idea of Dr. Steel and the Atomic Age. It pines to know its own future. Will it be like Waterworld, Tank Girl, or maybe populated by contraptions like the amazing train Doc Brown rode in on at the ending of Back to the Future III?

Whenever I bring up these examples at a convention, on a panel, or in conversation one person inevitably will ask “Where’s the Steam?! You can’t have Steampunk without STEAM!” In the introduction to the pulp short story collection Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader, editor Mike Ashley explains how the concept of steam technology in the nineteenth century did not always represent the only form of energy during that era:

Mary Shelly really got things going by showing what wonders of electricity might bring with the possibility of recreating man in Frankenstein in 1818 and then things really began gathering pace. As new scientific and technological marvels came along, so writers pounced on them to see what else the future might bring.

It is perhaps a bit bizarre, then, that the genre should be called “Steampunk,” and not “Electricpunk,” but there is no doubt that it was the opening up of the world through steam trains and the opportunities that steampower introduced that ushered in the Industrial Revolution and began the true scientific revolution that allowed science fiction to prosper. It doesn’t matter that electricity superseded steam as a main power source, because by then the legacy of steampower was so great that it personified the marvels of technology.”
Ashley pg. 8-9

Steampunk is less about “steam” itself and more about potential technology, and what the future COULD bring. Thus, looking at how Atomic Punk handles technology in a retrofuturistic sense or how Post-Apocalyptic/Junk Punk handles rebuilding technology can still be valid to steampunk. But this is hard for a lot of people to wrap their minds around, especially since “steam is in the title of the movement!” Steampunk has, however, become a catch all term for anything anachronistic. For example, part of the marketing strategy behind George Mann’s novel Ghosts of Manhattan was to advertise it as the world’s first steampunk superhero novel, yet it is set in an alternate 1920’s.

Thus the term “Steampunk,” has become an umbrella term in popular culture for anything anachronistic. Despise it if you must, disagree with it if you want, but when popular culture accepts something it can take a very long time to enact a change. But that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Leslie Feinberg, author of Transgender Warriors, experienced something similar in the 1960s during one of the first waves of the queer liberation movement when dealing with the term “Gay,” being accepted as the popular term for her sexual identity:

When we all first heard the word “gay,” some of my friends vehemently opposed the word on the grounds that it made us sound happy. “No one will ever use ‘gay’,” my friends assured me, each offering an alternate word, none of which took root. I learned that language can’t be ordered individually, as if from a Sears catalog. It is forged collectively, in the fiery heat of struggle.
Feinberg pg. IX

In She’s Not the Man I Married, Helen Boyd describes her life with Betty, her real-life male-to-female partner. While defending why she uses the term “transgender” to refer to her partner’s identity as well as those of transsexuals and crossdresser she mentions in her book she says:

…I still find it problematic the way crossdressers and transsexuals self segregate, playing games of “Better than,” or “Who suffers the most,” that aren’t productive for anyone. I don’t find the self-segregation difficult simply because of the border wars or hierarchies, but because the two big camps in the male to female (MTF) world leave those who might pursue a middle ground with nowhere to go.
Boyd pg. 18

And so, very much like within the transgender movement, the steampunk movement runs the risk of staying stagnant because it can’t get past semantics. All anachronistic punk has been accepted into steampunk’s giant parasol of possibilities. Yet, also like the Transgender movement, we should respect that each steampunk is different and chooses to express themselves in the way they find most apt to their personalities and preferences. That’s the way we can see the genre grow and become more interesting it will be.

I am a Steampunk which means I could be Post-Apocalyptic, Atomic Punk, Stitch Punk, Sandal Punk, Bamboo Punk, Gypsy Punk, Edwardian Punk, a dandy, a sky pirate, a mad scientist, a tinkerer in a t-shirt, a goggle-wearing Brechtian clockwork doll who also has an I-Pad with bronze and copper casing jammed into my chest which plays a non-stop mix of Rasputina, Abney Park, and HUMANWINE through the speakers mounted onto my shoulders. Because, as Scott Westerfield says in the afterword to Leviathan, “That’s the nature of Steampunk, blending future and past” Westerfield pg. 438.

* This term, in and of itself, is often debated as it CAN have a very specific definition: one who feels that they are born outside their gender (The social expectations of their sex) but the individual has no interest in making any physical change to their sex (their biology). Transgender, much like Steampunk, has been widely accepted to encompass all deviations from the norm within it’s context. As for Transgender this would be heterosexual Gender/Sex/Sexuality.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ashley, Mike, ed. Steampunk Prime; A Vintage Steampunk Reader.
New York: Non Stop Press, 2010.

Boyd, Helen. She’s Not the Man I Married.
Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007.

Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Westerfield, Scott. Leviathan.
New York: Simon and Schuster 2009.

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