Transcending Flesh: Boys Shall Not Pass

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

a pink and blue sky with a radio tower

This essay is one in a series which focuses on writing gender in science fiction and fantasy settings that provide body modification options beyond our current level of technology. Note that you can download this collection of essays from my website here.


Transcending Flesh:
Gender and Body Diversity in Futuristic and Fantastical Settings

Essay #11: Boys Shall Not Pass (Gender Detection Spells)

Let's talk about Joanna.

Joanna is writing a whimsical story with young adults living together in school dormitories while they study magic. Gender doesn't come up much in the story (and that's fine) until Joanna remembers that she doesn't really want boys sneaking into the girls' dormitory to do naughty things. A easy solution presents itself: just put a gender-detection spell on the dorm and teleport away any boys who try to enter! The problem is that Joanna's story is now a mess of gender issues which effectively exclude trans people not only from the named cast of characters but from the background world-building at large.

What is this "gender detection" spell actually doing? It is the author's job to figure this out, first and foremost. If the spell is detecting genitals, then it is worth asking why it was considered appropriate for a school to conduct magical genital searches on underage students. That seems incredibly invasive and inappropriate! Why do school officials need to know what young Harvey's genitals are?

If the spell is detecting genitals, by what criteria are students barred from the girls' dorms? If the spell is looking for penises and ejecting anyone who has one, then trans girls who have not medically transitioned are being denied entrance to the girls' dormitory. If the spell is looking for, say, a uterus and ejecting anyone who doesn't have one, then cis girls with certain medical conditions are now also being ejected.

But what if the spell isn't detecting genitals and is instead detecting actual gender? Well, you can have spells which detect gender in trans-affirming ways, but it's still problematic for it to be used in this fashion here. Why? Well, you're now "outing" to peers and parents any trans boys who were closeted and living in the girls' dorms, potentially exposing them to bigotry and violence. The spell will also catch Luella in its net, as she is genderfluid and only a girl on every day that isn't Thursday; on Thursdays, Luella is a boy and now magically barred from the dormitory--which is inconvenient and cruel, to say the least.

If Joanna really wants a spell to keep certain people out of the girls' dorms, then she will need to make a listed database of people who are allowed inside and pair that databae with a spell that boots anyone not on the list. That way at the beginning of school year, people who can sign up for the "girl" dormitory include trans girls, closeted trans boys, nonbinary people, and genderfluid people. As a bonus, nothing at the school is rummaging around in people's pants!

It can be okay in certain instances to have magical gender detection spells which affirm trans people's gender. But those spells should never be used to forcibly "out" trans people to others, nor to expose them to violence or bigotry.


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