Graphic by Chrys Marr (she/they)
As queer folks, we strive for decent representation in media. We want to uplift our voices, make sure our stories are seen and heard. It is understandable that we are defensive of who’s allowed to tell our stories. We want to convey our experiences, but it’s often difficult to determine what we want to convey. When a story seems to breach our comfort zone (or even downright makes us uncomfortable in the case of the story I’m about to mention), what do we make of that representation as the audience? What happens to the people involved?
On January 1st, 2020, a story by the name of “I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall made its way onto Clarkesworld Magazine, a hub dedicated to publishing science fiction. The story is about a woman who, after joining the military, becomes an “attack helicopter.” Unfortunately, my quick synopsis doesn’t do the actual story justice, but this Wikipedia article gives a really good synopsis of the story, and you can find a preserved version of the story here.
The story tore the queer community apart. Many were mixed in their reception of the story. Some were intrigued by Fall’s ideas about gender, others were angry that such a story was allowed to be published in the first place. Mainly, people wanted to know how they should receive the story based on whether or not Fall was trans,which is problematic in the first place.
Fall was elusive. There wasn’t much information on her, other than that she published the story. This tweet was what started the conjectures about who Fall was, claiming that Fall’s words read as “a puppy-like troll.” The only thing people knew about Fall was that she was born in 1988, prompting many to associate her with the Nazi movement because of the 88. Science fiction authors, N.K. Jemisin and Neon Yang were associated as some of Fall’s biggest detractors (although Yang’s tweets about the situation have been since scrubbed off the internet). Many stated that the story had committed acts of violence against the trans community and accused Fall of being a fetishist and predator. Fall was sent death threats and hate mail harassing her over her anonymity.
Then Fall outed herself (against her own will) as a trans woman before asking Clarkesworld to retract her story. Fall was hospitalized and began detransitioning, her voice ultimately silenced before it could even reach beyond its small scope of the internet. The internet had killed Isabel Fall and nobody seemed to bat an eye.
Months after the commotion Fall’s story made, threads about it popped up once again on Twitter. I didn’t really hear about Isabel Fall until tweets about her appeared on my timeline sometime in June of 2021. I wanted to learn more rather than jump on the same assumptions that popular Twitter threads made about her.
Her story is tragic and one that warns of how identity and labels can be nefarious (the same themes that would appear in “I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter”). It is a story of transmisogyny and mob culture. Would things have been different if Fall disclosed her identity? Would her story have been under the same scrutiny?
I’m a firm believer in the fact that no one has to disclose anything about themselves, especially on the internet. I’ve written many articles before, talking about the dangers of assuming someone’s identity. It puts weird pressures on us to find labels that make sense to everyone else, rather than labels that make sense to us. Also, complete strangers don’t need to know personal details about your life if you don’t want them to. The amount of information we tell people is relative, and we should respect that. No one should ever be forced to out themselves to strangers.
But Fall had to out herself. Her story had prompted so many responses that accused her of being a man, a troll, a predator, and a fetishist. A trans woman was assumed to be a man based on her writing. Imagine being Fall, a closeted trans woman, having to read the evil assumptions made about you that not only misgendered you but also painted you as a villain.
Fall’s story was about her experiences with the pressures of womanhood and what it meant to be the ideal woman. It was about how we assign gender roles, and how bad-faith actors can co-opt gender liberation for their own means. And yet, people who didn’t know her were already assigning her a gender role before she had to inevitably declare her transness (and ultimately reject it because she no longer felt safe in the community).
Trans women voiced their sorrow for Fall and for themselves, no longer feeling comfortable creating in science fiction circles. They also voiced how Fall is a victim of transmisogyny, that her story was under so much scrutiny simply because she was a trans woman.
And they were right.
Many twitter threads after Fall revealed her identity blamed Fall for the backlash she received. Fall’s detractors said that her hospitalization was her fault because she didn’t write a story that was clear and posited queerness as morally good. It wasn’t a perfect representation. They claimed that Fall was trying to appease cis people, that her story was indicative of transphobia and queerphobia. And even then, they ungender Fall, centering themselves as the victims of Fall rather than Fall as a victim. In Twitter threads, they never mention her by name and use neutral pronouns to refer to her. Her detractors make Fall purposefully elusive, hiding her identity under “they.” They hurt us! They write. They call Fall a fetishist and a predator, insults, and stereotypes constantly levied at trans women.
Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I’m not sure Fall’s story actually reads that way. I encourage everyone to read it if they can and come to their own conclusions, but I see Fall’s story as a trans woman venting her frustration with how the world treats her for passing. It was about how we assign arbitrary gender roles to strangers based on how society views these genders. Most importantly, it’s anti-war and discusses how the U.S. imperial war machine has co-opted diversity and queer theory for its own means. It was confusing but nuanced, and while it isn’t the best story I’ve read this year, it’s a good one nonetheless.
Still, her voice was silenced before it could become something more than niche internet dilemmas. Fall is nothing but a ghost, haunting Twitter threads while those who played key roles in her detransitioning get to be a part of monetized publishing projects that co-opts her themes and prominent science fiction awards being backed by Raytheon. We need to acknowledge that transmisogyny exists. Why was it so easy for people to fall into the harassment campaign against Fall? Why was Fall forced into hiding while her harassers live free lives?
What does Fall mean for the future of trans authors, especially for those who are closeted? What does she mean for authors who are trans women? What does she mean in terms of representation?
The answers to those questions are complicated. Fall no longer writes as far as I’ve been made aware. Many trans writers have lamented that they’re unsure about how to write their own gender experiences, afraid that they’ll face the same backlash as Fall, especially if their works aren’t digestible and marketable.
Fall is a cautionary tale. She was a casualty in the fight for good representation. I don’t blame people for immediately jumping on the offense when Fall’s story was released. The title is a common transphobic dog whistle, and it made sense that people probably weren’t going to take it well unless they read the actual story. Even so, Fall is allowed to be critiqued for her work, but no one was critiquing her. Instead, they were making unfounded assumptions about her and now we lost what could’ve been a prominent trans voice in science fiction literature. For us to write about our identities, must our stories always be marketable? Must they be easy to digest? Fall took a chance writing “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” and it ended up with her socially dying, disappearing into the void of cishet society.
To quote Fall in a line that really sums up my thoughts about her situation, “Have you ever guarded anything so vigilantly as you protect yourself against the shame of gender-wrong?”
Author: Judah C (They/Them)
Artist: Chrys Marr (She/They)
Copy Editors: Brooke Borders (She/Her), Bella (She/Her)