Context Is For Queens
NEELIX: One of those species is the Benkarans. They occupy just ten percent of Nygean space, but take up nearly eighty percent of the space in Nygean prisons.
PARIS: Maybe they commit more crimes.
—Star Trek: Voyager, "Repentance"
(Attention conservation notice: boring Diary-like post about a boring special event.)
(SPOILERS notice for Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, Fan Fiction by Brent Spiner, and TransCat)
I continue to maintain that fandom conventions are boring. I enjoy consuming fiction. I even enjoy discussing fiction with friends—the work facilitating a connection with someone else present, rather than just between me and the distant author, or me and the universe of stories. But for the most part, these big, bustling conventions just don't seem to facilitate that kind of intimacy. At best, you might hope to meet someone at a convention, and then make friends with them over time?—which I've never actually done. And so, surrounded by tens of thousands of people ostensibly with common interests, invited to a calvacade of activities and diversions put on at no doubt monstrous expense, the predominant emotion I feel is the loneliness of anonymity.
But that's okay. Ultimately, I did not come to Fan Expo San Francisco 2022 for the intimacy of analyzing fiction with friends who know me.
I came because of the loophole. As reactionary as it might seem in the current year, I am spiritually a child of the 20th century, and I do not crossdress in public. That would be weird. (Not harmlessly weird as an adjective of unserious self-deprecation, but weird in the proper sense, out-of-distribution weird.)
But to cosplay as a fictional character who happens to be female? That's fine! Lots of people are dressed up as fictional characters at the convention, including characters who belong to categories that the cosplayer themself does not. That guy dressed up as a vampire isn't actually a vampire, either.
Conventions are actually so boring that the loophole alone wouldn't have been enough to get me to come out to Fan Expo (been there, done that—seven times), except that this time I had a couple of new accessories to try out, most notably a "Taylor" silicone mask by Crea FX.
The "Taylor" is an amazing piece of workmanship that entirely earns its €672 price tag. It really looks like a woman's face! Just—a detached woman's face, wrapped in tissue paper, sitting in a box! I had said buying this product was probably a smart move, and it turned out that buying this product was a smart move! The skin color and texture is much more realistic than a lot of other silicone feminization products, like the cartoony beige of the Gold Seal female bodysuit from the Breast Form Store that I also blew $600 on recently (and damaged badly just trying to get it on).
(As far as workmanship quality goes, I wonder how much it helps that Crea FX are visual-effects artists by trade—makers also of male masks and monster masks for movies and plays—rather than being in the MtF business specifically, like the Breast Form Store. They know—they must know—that a lot of their female masks are purchased by guys like me with motives like mine, but we're not the target demographic, the reason they mastered their skills.)
Somehow the mask manages to look worse in photographs than it does in the mirror? Standing a distance from the mirror in a dark motel room the other month (that I rented to try on my new mask in privacy), I swear I actually bought it, and if the moment of passing to myself in the mirror was an anticlimax, it was an anticlimax I've been waiting my entire life (since puberty) for.
The worst nonrealism is the eyeholes. Nothing is worse for making a mask look like a mask than visible eyehole-seams around the eyes. But suppose I wore sunglasses. Women wear sunglasses sometimes! Could I pass to someone else? (Not for very long or bearing any real scrutiny, but to someone who wasn't expecting it.)
It immediately became clear that I would have to cosplay at one more convention in order to test this, and decided to reprise my role as Sylvia Tilly from Star Trek: Discovery (previously played at San Francisco Comic-Con 2018) at the next nearby con. There had been a plot point in Season 1 of Discovery that people in the mirror universe are more sensitive to light. At the time, this had seemed arbitrary and bizarre to me, but now, it gave me a perfect excuse for why (someone who looks like) Tilly would be wearing sunglasses!
I was soon disappointed to learn that one-way glass isn't actually a real thing that you could make sunglasses out of; what's real are half-silvered mirrors that are deployed with one side in darkness. For good measure, I also added of a pair of padded panties from the Breast Form Store to my outfit, another solid buy.
So on the night of Friday 25 November, I threw my 2250s-era Starfleet uniform in my backpack, put my breastforms and wig and mask in a box, and got on the train to San Francisco. (My ticket to the con was Saturday only, but it's nice to get a hotel room for the night before, and get dressed up in the morning within walking distance of the event, rather than taking the train in costume the day of.) Carrying the box around was slightly awkward, and the thought briefly occured to me that I could summon an internet taxi rather than take the train, but it was already decadent enough that I was getting a hotel room for a local event, and I had recently learned that my part-time contract with my dayjob (which had started in April as a Pareto improvement over me just quitting outright) isn't getting renewed at the end of the year, so I need to learn to be careful with money instead of being a YOLO spendthrift, at least until dayjob IPOs and my shares become liquid.
Arguably, just the time was more of a waste than the money. Focusing on writing my memoir of religious betrayal has been a stuggle. Not an entirely unsuccessful struggle—the combined draft mss. are sitting at 74,000 words across four posts, which I've been thinking of as parts 2 through 5. ("Sexual Dimorphism in Yudkowsky's Sequences" being part 1.) But having 74,000 words isn't the same thing as being done already and back to the business of being alive, instead of enjoying a reasonably comfortable afterlife—and even a single Saturday at Fan Expo instead of being holed up writing (or pretending to) puts an upper bound on my committment to life.
Worse, in the twelve-day week between Fan Expo and me getting this boring Diary-like post up about it, OpenAI released two new GPT variants (text-davinci-003 and ChatGPT). It's not a timeline update (and most days, I count myself with those sober skeptics who think the world is ending in 2040, not those loonies who think the world is ending in 2027), but it is a suggestion that it would be more dignified for me to finish the memoir now and go on to sieze the possibilities of another definitely-more-than-five-you-lunatics years of life, rather than continuing to mope around as a vengeful ghost, stuck in the past to the very end.
(The draft of part 3 is basically done and just needs some editing. Maybe I should just publish that first, as one does with blog posts?—rather than waiting until I have the Whole Dumb Story collected, to be optimized end-to-end.)
Anyway, Saturday morning, I got myself masked and padded in all the right places, and suited up to walk from my hotel room to Moscone West for the convention! They had a weirdly cumbersome check-in system (wait in line to get your QR code scanned, then receive a badge, then activate the badge by typing a code printed on it into a website on your phone, then scan the badge to enter the con), and I dropped my phone while I was in line and cracked the screen a bit. But then I was in! Hello, Fan Expo!
And—didn't immediately have anything to do, because conventions are boring. I had gone through the schedule the previous night and written down possibly non-boring events on a page in my pocket Moleskine notebook, but the first (a nostalgic showing of Saturday morning cartoons from the '90s) didn't even start until 1100, and the only ones I really cared about were the Star Trek cosplay rendezvous at 1315, and a photo-op with Brent Spiner and Gates McFadden (best known for their roles as Lt. Cmdr. Data and Dr. Crusher, respectively, on Star Trek: The Next Generation) at 1520 that I had pre-paid $120 for. I checked out the vendor hall first. Nothing really caught my eye ...
Until I came across a comics table hawking TransCat, the "first" (self-aware scare quotes included) transgender superhero. I had to stop and look: just the catchphrase promised an exemplar of everything I'm fighting—not out of hatred, but out of a shared love that I think I have the more faithful interpretation of. I opened the cover of one of the displayed issues to peek inside. The art quality was ... not good. "There's so much I could say that doesn't fit in this context," I said to the table's proprietor, whose appearance I will not describe. "Probably not what you're thinking," I added. "Oh no," she said. I didn't want to spend the day carrying anything that didn't fit nicely in my fanny pack, so I left without buying any comics, thinking I might come back later.
I wandered around the con some more (watched some of the cartoons, talked to the guys manning the Star Trek fan society table). Eventually I checked out the third floor, where the celebrity autographs and photo ops were. Spiner and McFadden were there, with no line in front of their tables. I had already paid for the photo op later, but that looked like it was going to be one of those soulless "pose, click—next fan" assembly-lines, and it felt more human to actually get to talk to the stars for half a minute.
(When I played Ens. Tilly in 2018, I got an autograph and photo with Jonathan Frakes, and got to talk to him for half a minute: I told him that we had covered his work in art history class at the Academy, and that I loved his portrayal of—David Xanatos.)
I had recently read Spiner's pseudo-autobiographical crime novel Fan Fiction about him getting stalked by a deranged fan and wanted to say something intelligent about it, so (my heart pounding) I went over to Spiner's table and paid the $60 autograph fee to the attendant. (If Gates McFadden had written a book, then I hadn't read it, so I didn't have anything intelligent to say to her.)
I told him that I thought the forward to Fan Fiction should have been more specific about which parts were based on a true story. He said, that's the point, that you don't know what's real. I said that I was enjoying it as a decent crime novel, but kept having a reaction to some parts of the form, No way, no way did that actually happen. He asked which parts. I said, you know, the way that the woman hired to be your bodyguard just happens to have a twin sister, and you get romantically involved with both of them, and end up killing the stalker yourself in a dramatic confrontation—
"I killed someone," he said, deadpan.
"Really?" I said.
No, he admitted, but the part about getting sent a pig penis was real.
I gave my name as "Ensign Sylvia Tilly, U.S.S. Discovery", and he signed a page I ripped out of my Moleskine: "To Sylvia", it says, "A fine human!"
As far as my hope of the mask helping me pass as female to others, I didn't really get a sense that I fooled anyone? (Looking at the photographs afterwards, that doesn't feel surprising. Proportions!)
I guess it's not obvious how I would tell in every case? A woman wearing a Wonder Woman costume recognized me as Tilly, enthusiastically complimented me, asked to get a photo of us. She asked where I got my costume from, and I murmured "Amazon." Her friend took the photo, and accepted my phone to take one for me as well. Would that interaction have gone any differently, if I had actually been a woman (just wearing a Starfleet uniform and maybe a wig, with no mask or breastforms or hip pads)?
People at the Star Trek cosplay rendezvous were nice. (The schedule called it a cosplay "meetup", but I'm going with rendezvous, a word that I'm sure I learned from watching The Next Generation as a child.) A woman in a 2380s-era sciences division uniform asked me my name.
"Ensign Sylvia Tilly, U.S.S. Discovery," I said.
No, I meant, your alter-ego, she said, and I hesitated—I wanted to stay in character (that is, I didn't want to give my (male) name), but some minutes later (after the photo shoot) changed my mind and introduced myself with my real name, and she gave me a card with her Star Trek fan group's name written on the back.
My wig was coming off at the beginning of the photo shoot, so I went to the bathroom to fix it. (The men's room; I am spiritually a child of the 20th century, &c.) The man who was also in a Discovery-era uniform also wanted a photo, and I ended up explaining the rationalization for my sunglasses to him ("definitely not her analogue from a parallel universe where people are more sensitive to light"—but Doylistically because I'm wearing a mask instead of makeup this year), which he thought was clever.
Maybe I should have tried harder to make friends, instead of mostly just exchanging pleasantries and being in photos? There was a ready-made conversation topic in the form of all the new shows! Would it have been witty and ironic to confess that I don't even like Discovery? (I finally gave up halfway through Season 4; I don't care what happens to these characters anymore.) I guess I was feeling shy? I did later join the Facebook group written on the back of the card I was given.
The photo op with Spiner and McFadden was the assembly-line affair I expected. They had a bit of COVID theater going, in the form of the photo being taken with a transparent barrier between fan and stars. Spiner said, "Sylvia, right?" and I said, "Yeah." Pose, click—next fan.
I did get "ma'am"ed on my way out, so that's something.
At this point, I was kind of tired and bored and wanted to go back to my hotel room and masturbate.
But there was one last thing left to do at Fan Expo. I went to the vendor hall, stopped by a side table and wrote "unremediatedgender.space" on a strip of paper torn out from my Moleskine, then went back to the TransCat table.
I changed my mind, I said (about buying), where does the story start? The proprietor said that Issue 1 was sold out, but that the book Vol. 1 (compiling the first 6 issues plus some bonus content) was available for $25. I'll take it, I said enthusiastically.
And then—there wouldn't be any good way to bring up the thing, except that I felt that I had to try and that I was paying $25 for the privilege—I said awkwardly that I was ... disappointed, that our Society had settled on a "trans women are women" narrative. The proprietor said something about there being more enthusiasm in 2016, but that coming back to conventions after COVID, public opinion seems colder now, that she was worried.
I asked if she had heard of the concept of "autogynephilia." She hadn't.
The proprietor asked if I would like the book signed. I agreed, then hesitated when asked my name. Sensing my discomfort, the proprietor clarified, "Who should I make it out to?"
I said, "Ensign Sylvia Tilly, U.S.S. Discovery."
"Sylvia Tilly! Keep on exploring the final frontier," says the autograph.
Sensing that there really was no way to cross the inferential distance over a transaction in the vendor hall, I said that I had some contrarian opinions, and that I had a blog, handing the proprietor the slip of paper before taking my leave. (As if implicitly proposing a trade, I thought: I'll read yours if you read mine.)
I walked back to my hotel room to get out of the uncomfortable costume—but not fully out of costume, not immediately: I took off the uniform and wig, but left my mask and breastforms. I had packed a hand mirror in my backpack the previous night, so that I could look at my masked face while lying in bed. I appreciated the way the mask really does look "female"; the illusion doesn't depend on a wig to provide the cultural gendered cue of long hair. (Of course; I have long hair in real life.)
I swear it looks worse in photographs than it does in the mirror! Gazing into the hand mirror while feeling up the weight of my size-7 breastforms, it was almost possible to pretend that I was admiring flesh instead of silicone—almost possible to imagine what it would be like to have been transformed into a woman with a shaved head (surely a lesbian) and DD breasts.
I often like masturbating into a condom (no mess, no stress!), but catching the cum with toilet paper works fine, too.
I mean, it is bad, but the fact that it's bad, isn't what's bad about it.
What's bad is the—deficit of self-awareness? There are views according to which my work is bad. I can imagine various types of critic forcing themselves to read this blog with horror and disappointment, muttering, "Doesn't he" (or "Doesn't she", depending on the critic) "know how that looks?" And if nothing else, I aspire to know how it looks.
I don't get the sense that TransCat knows how it looks. Our hero is a teenage boy named Knave (the same first name as our author) in Mountain View, California in the year 200X, who discovers a cat-ears hat that magically transforms him into a girl when worn. While transformed, he—she—fights evildoers, like a pervy guy at Fanime who was covertly taking upskirt photos, or a busybody cop who suddenly turns out to be a lizard person. Knave develops a crush on a lesbian at school named "Chloie" (which I guess is a way you could spell Chloë if you don't know how to type a diaeresis), and starts wearing the cat hat more often (taking on "Cat" as a girl-mode name), hoping to get closer to Chloie. Cat and Chloie find they enjoy spending time together, until one day, when Cat makes some physical advances—and discovers, to her surprise, that Chloie has a penis. Chloie punches her and runs off.
... how can I explain the problems with this?
Superficially, this comic was clearly made for people like me. Who better to appreciate a story about a teenage boy in the San Francisco Bay Area of 200X who can magically change sex, than someone who remembers being a teenage boy in the San Francisco Bay Area of 200X who fantasized about magically changing sex? (Okay, I was East Bay; this is South Bay. Totally different.)
But I can't, appreciate it, other than as an anthropological exhibit—not just because of the bad art, or the bad font choices (broadly construed to include the use of ALLCAPS for emphasis rather than bold or italics), or the numerous uncorrected spelling errors, or the lack of page numbers, or the unnecessarily drawn-out pop-culture references that I didn't get—but because the author is living inside an ideological fever dream that doesn't know it's a dream.
The foreward by Tara Madison Avery mentions the subset of transfolk "whose gender journey involves hormone replacement therapy." The "episode zero" primer tells us that the hat brings out our protagonist's "True Form". "[A]m I a straight boy with a girl on the inside? Or am I a gay girl with a boy on the outside?" Knave wonders. When Chloie's former bandmate misgenders her behind her back, Cat tells him off: "Chloie is a woman, even without the pills and surgery! You don't get to decide her identity based on her looks, or what she did to attain them!"
And just—what does any of that mean? What is an "identity"? How can you "be trans" without hormone replacement therapy? I was pretty social-justicey as a teenager, too, but somehow my indoctrination never included this nonsense: when I was a teenage boy fantasizing about being a teenage girl, I'm pretty sure I knew I was pretending.
Is it an East Bay vs. South Bay thing? Is it of critical importance whether the X in the year 200X equals '4' or '8'? Or, as a friend of the blog suggests, is the relevant difference not when you grew up, but whether you left social justice, or continued to be shaped by the egregore through the 2010s?—the author anachronistically projecting elements of the current year's ideology onto the 200Xs that we both experienced.
And just—there are so many interesting things you could do with this premise, that you can only do if you admit that biological sex is real and "identity" is not. (Otherwise, why would you need the magic hat?) The situation where Knave-as-Cat is pursuing Chloie as a lesbian, but Chloie doesn't know that Cat is Knave—that's interesting! I want to know how the story would have gone, if Chloie (cis) found out that her girlfriend was actually a boy wearing a magic hat: would she accept it, or would she feel betrayed? Why would you throw away that story, but for the ethnic narcissism of an "everyone is [our sexual minority]" dynamic?
And if you do want to go the ethnic narcissism route and make Chloie trans, why assert that Cat and Chloie are equally valid "even without the pills and surgery"? Isn't there a sense in which Cat's identity is more legitimate on account of the magic? How would Chloie (trans) react if she found out that her cis girlfriend was actually a boy wearing a magic hat? Would she die of jealousy? Would she bargain to try to borrow the hat—or even just steal it for herself?
(The conclusion to Issue 1 establishes that the hat's sex-change magic doesn't work on Knave's male friend, at which our hero(ine) infers that "it was meant for me." But is the power sponsoring the hat as kind to other (sufficiently) gender-dysphoric males? If so, I'll take back my claims about "identity" being meaningless: whether the hat works for you would be an experimental test demonstrating who is really trans.)
My favorite scene is probably the one where, after watching Fight Club at Cat's behest, Chloie admits that it wasn't bad, but is cynical about the educated middle-class bros of Project Mayhem thinking themselves oppressed by Society as if they were an actual persecuted minority. Cat is impressed: "you actually have stuff to say about [the film] too! You can be critical about it without trashing it. That's kinda rare". And maybe it is, kinda? But just—there's so much further you can go in that direction, than basic bitch social-justice criticism of basic bro movies. It's like putting "Microsoft Word skills" on your résumé (in the 200Xs, before everyone started using Google Docs). It's not that it's bad to know Word, but the choice to mention it says something about your conceptual horizons. Do you know how that looks?