Sci-fi as a Queer Genre
Imagining new worlds opens up creative, “what if” possibilities.
The Matrix, Warner Bros.
By Taj M. Smith
I first saw The Matrix in the seventh grade at my friend Rich’s birthday party. He had just finished opening his presents and there, amid the piles of wrapping paper, lay a thin plastic box with “D-V-D” emblazoned on its side. Four figures clad in all-black and sunglasses graced the cover, with white streaks of letters and numbers cascading down against a grey backdrop. I cradled the box like it was a precious photograph. The rigid plastic warmed in my hands, becoming pliable while we watched Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) singlehandedly take down what seemed like eight cops in the opening scene. The film moved on different but simultaneous temporal planes, and, as the plot unfurled, I felt as if my reality was slowly being explained to me. I suddenly had language for the things I had been feeling—that nothing is as it seems.
The Matrix was more complicated than any other science fiction movie I had seen before. In the film, the reality we know is actually a computer simulation. Known as the Matrix, this simulation serves as a power source for the intelligent machines that dominate the real world. Morpheus and Trinity are in search of “the One” who will free humankind from the machines, releasing them from the Matrix. Enter Neo (Keanu Reeves), the film’s protagonist, who must learn and unlearn the ways of the Matrix. As he watches a bald child bend spoons using telekinesis, the child tells him, “There is no spoon.” Neo repeats the phrase, taking it in as the spoon he is holding bends. By the end of the movie, my perception of limits had melted away all together.
“There is no spoon” became my mantra. I began to question the reality of everything, including my own identity. Though this kind of searching is to be expected of any middle schooler, the questions I had weren’t typical of most kids in my middle school. I began to wonder about gender. The Matrix helped me put words and images to a reality that I thought only I was experiencing. I was about twelve when I knew for certain that something about me was different. I wouldn’t admit it until college—I violently repressed it until then—but I knew. I would lie in bed, wishing that life were a computer simulation from which I would awaken into my true self, a cool and confident young man. At twelve, this movie turned my world upside down.
The Matrix revealed to me an alternate world in which change is inevitable and welcomed. In this fictional world, created by Lily and Lana Wachowski, boundaries are challenges that need transforming. The world is malleable—not fixed. Seeing the film marked the beginning of a serious journey into self-discovery and transformation. Sixteen years after the film’s release, I see it reflected in almost every aspect of my worldview. To me, the world is malleable, even if it is not a computer simulation. I am a transgender Christian who sees the promise of new life as an imagined future in which people are charged with the task of building their world from the ground up. This world is imagined in that it does not yet exist, but the possibility to create it is embedded in present-day society if we ask, “what if,” aware that reality encompasses both the quotidian and the strange.
This became more and more apparent to me in the years after I saw The Matrix. I started reading science fiction, and I began to wonder whether it was possible for the things I read to become real. Maybe there could be a planet with a sea of sand dunes like Frank Herbert’s Dune, where people fight against an imperial force for use of their planet’s resources. Perhaps, in the future, toxic dust will cover the earth such that most organic life will need to emigrate to some other planet orbiting some other star, as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Could the humanoid robots we create become so humanlike that they blend into society? I let my imagination run wild, thinking through as many scenarios as I could for the future. I looked for parallels between what was happening around me and what was happening in the books I read. I made connections between what authors saw in the world around them and what made them construct the worlds in their stories. I began opening the books as if they were oracles, as if the writers knew what life would be like in some far corner of the universe eons into the future. I began to see the novels I read as urgent calls for people to form ethical relationships with each other and the world. This is when science fiction started to feel more like a religious experience than escapism.
I had always been interested in science fiction, having grown up with shows like Star Trek and The X-Files, but I hid this information from my peers, knowing it would land me in the “nerd” category. For a while, I actively shunned sci-fi. I left Ender’s Game behind, choosing to bring the latest issue of Guitar Player Magazine to school with me instead. When my peers expressed disdain for Lois Lowry’s The Giver, I did too, even though it was my favorite piece of required reading in school. In spite of hiding my interests, most of my middle school attempts to fit in failed. I thought people would like me if I was good at things, so I made it a point to be the best at every activity I undertook. After school, I ran sprints and layup drills in the park until sunset to make myself indispensable to my basketball team. After sunset, I played my trumpet and guitar, sending scales set to Miles Davis songs through the flimsy walls separating my family’s apartment from our neighbors. Bleeding lips and jammed fingers were signposts telling me that, soon enough, I would have a fabulous life filled with all of the love I desired. I didn’t count on the unfortunate reality that boys tend not to like it when girls are better than them at sports and music, nor did I realize that these were not considered typical “feminine” activities. I was constantly met with statements like “Girls can’t play football” or “Trumpet isn’t a very feminine instrument,” and “You’d be such a pretty girl if you just acted like one.” This last phrase cut me each time I heard it, and as I got older, I heard it frequently. Being myself would never be enough to earn the approval that I was taught to need. Worse than that, being my actual self would necessitate a change that I didn’t think was possible in Vacaville, California.
In my hometown, two state prisons and an air force base just outside of city limits served as constant reminders of the social order, and the ubiquitous phrase “biblical family values” enforced a moral order I learned I was excluded from. Though my family wasn’t religious, most of my peers were evangelical Christians. By high school, I was well aware that, in the beginning, God created “Adam and Eve” and not “Adam and Steve,” that “God created man in his image,” and that the only sanctioned romantic relationship was between one man and one woman, who were allowed to have sex only after they married. Friends explained these things to me, opening their Bibles to chapters and verses that burrowed into my brain. Pieces of Genesis and Leviticus, Romans and Revelation burst from my lips at will.
After I came out as a lesbian in my senior year, each friendly attempt at “saving” my soul felt like a personal affront to the new sense of reality I was beginning to claim. Still, I could see how my friends thought they were doing a good thing for me, despite how terrible it made me feel, so I went along with them until I no longer felt like I was pretending. At the time, my friendships were the most important things to me. I would be a youth group–going, praise band–loving Christian if it meant that I would get to keep them. I couldn’t keep these friendships, though, regardless of how many songs I knew by Christian bands like DC Talk or how many altar calls I joined. The closer my spiritual path brought me to my actual self, the more I had to choose between my newfound community and the self I was discovering. I left churches almost as quickly as I joined them. In the end, I quit looking. A god who did not want me to be myself was not a god that I wanted to worship.
Eventually I returned to the genre I had scorned in my early adolescence, having become politically engaged through the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984. In the world of 1984, constant surveillance, perpetual war, and a hierarchical language that leaves no room for nuance are the norms. The sixteen-year-old version of myself looked up from this novel to see similarities with the post-9/11 world. I revisited The Matrix, determined to find clues that I was already living in a dystopia of sorts. My wardrobe turned black, my sunglasses stayed on, my track jacket became a leather trench coat, and my vision of the world grew a little less certain. I began to “wake up” like Neo did. Cynicism crept in as I reconnected with my rebellious spirit, questioning authority and questioning God. It never occurred to me that God could have been questioning me as well. I knew the god I could not worship but did not yet know the god for which I searched.
I was searching for a god that could show me the possibility of other worlds. . . . This god was alpha and omega, beginning, end, and all things in between.
I was searching for a god that could show me the possibility of other worlds. That change is in plain sight, bringing with it new life and new ways of living and, sometimes, we have to fight for that change. This was the god I saw represented in The Matrix and in Star Wars. This god was alpha and omega, beginning, end, and all things in between. I dreamed of the god of creation and apocalypse embodied in the disciplined calm of the Jedi and the fighting spirit of the hacker. Even as I enrolled in every religion class my community college offered, thinking that I could unlock the secret to the universe, something still felt limited. I didn’t understand what was missing until I transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz. There, the pieces of my religious travels melded into a vision of myself I hadn’t previously considered possible. I leapt from my spiritual closet, no longer wondering whether my queerness could be reconciled with my religious truth. Growing up, I had wandered through evangelical spaces where I was not welcome. On campus, I found a small group of progressive Christian students, most of whom were queer identified in some way. We would probe the depths of faith together, envisioning a new life and a faith that changes the world for the better, beginning with our inner worlds. For me, this meant accepting my reality as a transgender man.
I came to a better understanding of my Christian identity as I delved deeper into alternate worlds. For me, the Christian scriptures have always felt distant and a little alien. The world of Jesus felt more strange than real, even as the Jesus portrayed by the Gospel writers reminded me of sage-like characters I had encountered in books. Traditionally, Western Christian theological language is fixed within sex-specific bodies and ways of being. That God established two sexes, each with its own set of sex-specific duties, is a prominent feature of the Creation story. Consequently, these are the only bodies recognized as whole by many churches, though these are not the only bodies that participate in these churches. These are either/or bodies—either male or female, queer or straight. Their perceived fixity eliminates the in-between, the liminal space where God constantly creates and re-creates us anew. It is a space for both/and, where a body can be both male and female, gay and straight. What lies at our innermost parts, those parts that are in constant communication with God? These are the parts stories emerge from. In science fiction, I felt the presence of these generative, liminal sacred spaces more than I ever had in traditional religious texts. Sci-fi arises from that liminal space as the result of the already/not yet. It unsettles what we know to make room for what’s possible.
I began to recognize the recurring religious imagery in much of science fiction. Herbert’s Dune uses messianic themes of salvation and restoration to advance its plots. Paul Atreides rises as the great Muad’Dib who will save the people of Arrakis. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr. narrates the history of time after a third world war in which humans are doomed to progress toward their own annihilation, mirroring biblical cycles of creation and destruction. These stories are so rich in theological language and religious imagery that it’s hard to miss. But it wasn’t until I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness that I began to appreciate the ways religious imagery shows up without trying.
No other novel affected me quite like The Left Hand of Darkness. In the novel, Le Guin imagines a world without gender. The story takes place on a fictional planet called Gethen that is in perpetual winter and that is populated by a race of people without gender. It is under observation by an intergalactic empire known as the Ekumen of Known Worlds, consisting of known planets with humanoid populations. Le Guin builds a bleak world out of ice and darkness. We see mostly through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from an Earth-like planet who has been to the bleak, icy Gethen to recruit the planet into an interplanetary council known as the Ekumen. Ai is male and sees the genderless world he’s been dispatched to only in terms of human gender. Ai reveals his initial thoughts about Estraven, his Gethenian counterpart, saying, “His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s either,” as if an alien body would hold to the same gender standards of what man or woman should be.1 Even in this imagined genderless world, bodies are made to conform to a standard defined by human eyes.
I put the book down, wondering why the two-gender system most widely recognized in the modern industrialized world has to be as such. In what ways is humanity limited when it limits gender expression? The imagined, genderless world Le Guin created embraced the “what if” question and sent me spinning toward questions of “how” and “why.” We are so “certain” that there are two genders, just as we are “certain” that God, fitting within these limits, is male. If anything, Le Guin’s attempt to go beyond gender shows us that certainty eliminates the possibility of what if: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”2 Science fiction has taught me to believe in the possibilities that come from uncertainty. The Left Hand of Darkness taught me that even our understanding of the body is subject to the uncertainty of the “what if.”
The filmmakers responsible for The Matrix have undergone their own transformation since that film’s release in 1999. In 2012, after years of rumors, Lana Wachowski made her debut appearance after transitioning from male to female while promoting the movie Cloud Atlas. An adaptation of the David Mitchell novel, in the film actors change gender, age, and race to create a series of interlocking stories about the continuities between different people across centuries. In March 2016, the other Wachowski sibling made her transition public after a British publication threatened to do so without her consent, making Lana and Lilly a prominent, openly transgender sibling pair in the film industry. Though Lana and Lilly were able to transition without most of their fans batting an eye, both siblings experienced the private torment of self-acceptance and the fear of societal backlash. Despite their fears, Lilly and Lana Wachowski remain pillars in the science fiction film and television world, having directed the Matrix trilogy and the hit TV series Sense8. They are known for depicting misfits who learn that reality is not what it seems. After gaining this knowledge, the characters must risk their lives to fight against an oppressive social order that binds people to one way of being.
Worlds like the ones the Wachowskis imagine are spaces for resisting those outside forces that tell transgender people that we are unlovable. Lilly Wachowski spoke at the GLAAD Awards this year, saying: “When faced with the rather simple proposition of whether you’re unlovable, our imagination falters. Too many of us end up on the wrong side of the existential question of love or oblivion. And so we ring that bell. Not just for everyone else’s sake but our own.”3
Though trans people are gaining more visibility in the public eye because of figures like the Wachowskis, trans people make up more than half of the victims of hate-filled violence against LGBTQI community members. Trans women of color are at an even greater risk. In 2015, more than twenty transgender women were murdered in the United States, and more than half were women of color.4 As I was writing this article in June, laws barring trans people from using bathrooms and other public spaces were up for debate in multiple states, and LGBTQI people across the country were raw with grief in the aftermath of the hate-filled attack on Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, which left forty-nine victims dead. In a world in which many believe that queer and trans people are not worthy of the breath in our lungs, we stand up to assert our dignity and our humanity with the tools that we have. We write articles and plays, make movies, sing songs, and dance toward a world where our lives are valued more than our deaths.
I don’t know what the future holds, but part of my task as a Christian is envisioning a new world in the face of that uncertainty. When I close my eyes and begin to build, the crust of the earth is a web-like structure knitting creation together. I think of the kingdom in this way, with God as a fabulous, life-giving spider spinning intricate lines between all of creation and me. I see the many ties entangling me in the world and I respect them, fearing that they may be cut. I imagine myself in the stark landscape of Gethen, clasping the hand of my mate as we stare into the endless white of the snow. We step forward without knowing what lies on the other side. All of my trust is in the hand I am grasping and in the possibility of something other than what is. I think back to the veiled reality of The Matrix, while a child’s voice in my head tells me that there is no spoon. My world will be what I make of it, and I want to make one in which my life matters. My religious faith tells me to imagine and create. Science fiction shows me how.
- Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969; The Berkley Publishing Group, 2010), 13.
- Ibid., 75.
- Amy Walker, “Lilly Wachowski Speaks at GLAAD Awards,” Transgender Mag, April 3, 2016.
- Kari Larsen, “20 Transgender People Have Been Murdered in the US in 2015: These Are Their Names,” Penn Live, October 08, 2015.
Taj M. Smith, MDiv ’16, is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School. He is an emerging preacher in the Boston area and a blogger for The Huffington Post.