Content Note: Discussion of pornography, conversion therapy. NSFW.
More than a few trans people enjoy transformation-themed fiction, often as part of how we find ourselves. I have spent more time than I care to admit on specific websites that cater to this fascination, including those that do so for erotic purposes. I’ve written before about how awkward this can become for a trans lesbian, aligned with the subject matter but not with its intended audience. What registers to them as a neat little storytelling twist rapidly becomes dystopian and horrifying to people like me. “Life Warp Opportunity,” a 186-page erotic graphic novella available on tgcomics.com, is emblematic enough of this pattern that I have not been able to clear it from my mind in the two years since it was published. So, let’s have a look.
The key players of “Life Warp Opportunity” are Iris, Clara, and Lance. Iris is developing a group of technologies that effect fantastical alterations to bodies and minds, with some success reported in animal experiments, but is struggling for funding. Lance, their mutual friend, is a generally pathetic schlub of a man who is discontent with much of his life, in particular his appearance and difficulty attracting a romantic partner. (This is a theme throughout transformation fiction, which says much about its intended audience.) Clara convinces Lance to serve as Iris’s first human test subject and Iris to accelerate her plans accordingly.
The next bit is hackneyed but fascinating all the same. Following the lead of Lance’s imagination, Iris’s machines make him more conventionally attractive: taller, more muscular, with a less unassuming haircut. He is thrilled, but the habits of his previous awkward life follow him into his new one and he flames out of his next attempt at picking up women in a bar in spectacular fashion. Commiserating with Iris and Clara, the three of them come to a conclusion only straight sitcom writers and fetish artists could reach: Lance will only understand women well enough to seduce them by temporarily becoming one.
Lance reenters the transformation device, and with Iris and Clara’s guidance, transforms himself into Lancea, a petite alabaster-hued redhead. Clara is immediately attracted to Lancea, and Iris and Clara both do what they can to make sure Lancea feels accepted and welcome as a woman up to and including inviting her to a girl’s night and sharing their clothing, but the newly minted redhead has trouble adjusting. Eventually, Iris suggests that they try the other transformation device she has created, which performs mental conditioning.
At first, only the barest hints of the sinister realities to come are visible. The three of them test the machine by making a single, relatively subtle change to Lancea’s mind, making her more interested in tattoos and piercings than she was before. It takes a few sessions. Lancea enter this process skeptical but willing, and it succeeds beyond their wildest expectations. Despite this, Lancea remains reclusive and largely uninterested in the outside world, even more so than when she was Lance, and finds the experiment as a whole increasingly pointless. After all, she isn’t learning anything about navigating the world as a woman, and especially isn’t learning anything that could help her seduce one once she’s Lance again. So the three of them come to another, darker conclusion: they decide to use the mental conditioning device to make Lancea fully at ease in her new form and willing to show it off in revealing clothing.
As a fetish piece, this works. The point is for this recently minted woman to enthusiastically embrace her womanhood, and to explore the tension between her old identity and the new. The mental conditioning provides a way for her understandable reticence about this whole scenario to pass relatively quickly so that more interesting decisions can follow. It sets her up to begin to believe in her own erotic potential and become willing to explore it.
But as an actual trans person, for whom my womanhood is something I had to fight to embody, the idea of a machine that could instantly have made me comfortable in my assigned gender—i.e., not trans anymore—is deeply horrific. In our world, such devices would absolutely have been deployed to force me to keep living as a man and answering to my old name, with whatever amount of abuse and coercion would have been needed to make me cooperate. My parents admitted as much when they told me, “If we could have stopped you, we would have.” And that’s to say nothing of all the other ways that a machine that can literally warp people’s sense of identity would be use to enforce dystopian levels of control, whether it worked swiftly or slowly.
Lancea’s changes are gradual, her outfits going from slovenly to matronly to casually feminine to overtly daring. She grows the sense of ease and confidence the conditioning machine promised and then some. More than just becoming at ease in her new body and feminine identity, she seems to be ascending into a warmer, happier version of herself, beyond anything that Lance seemed likely to achieve on his own. Clara, in turn, becomes more attracted to Lancea with each panel, until the two begin dating. Their romance goes swiftly but nervously, with Lancea still figuring out how to process this relationship and her place in it. She spent most of her life imagining heteronormative expectations about how relationships work, all power and confident dominance he could never live up to before and even less now, while Clara is confident, assertive, and almost too forward. It’s cute, sweet, and rather hot, until it isn’t.
Their lovemaking is by turns tender and kinky, Clara’s dominant personality helping Lancea discover the possibilities her new body holds. Clara proves to be an enthusiastic wielder of a strap-on and Lancea an equally enthusiastic recipient. But Clara is disgusted and insulted when Lancea dons the strap-on herself and suggests returning the favor, proclaiming to her petite new lover, “the last thing I want is for you to try to act like a man…I like girls!”
The mind boggles. Clara’s sense of herself as a woman, in that scene, did not seem to be compromised by wearing this device and using it to bring Lancea to orgasm, nor did she seem to think that Lancea’s attraction to women was compromised thereby. Invoking her orientation and Lancea’s gender to reject this activity is both a low blow and a baffling misapprehension of what this activity usually brings to the people who partake in it, suggesting to me that the writer has not spent much time around actual sapphic women, but it also sets up the next subplot.
Clara decides to take on a male form, as a new layer of temporary fun and exploration.
The pair again revisit the transformation facility. Clara takes on the enhanced masculine shape that Lance-cum-Lancea left behind, naming herself (what else?) Lance, and the pair of them receive new mental conditioning. Clara-cum-Lance cements her new masculine identity and ease in her new body, and Lance-cum-Lancea…makes herself heterosexual for him.
In our world, that is called “conversion therapy” and the more benevolent governments of our planet are working on making it illegal or already have. That it could be deployed here to facilitate erotic storytelling without a hint of self-awareness is…chilling. It is a glaring reminder that most stories of this kind are not meant for queer people to see or enjoy, even when we feature in them. If nothing else, a queer(er) version of this transformation premise might have left Lancea’s old attractions intact and simply added new ones.
Like the previous conditioning, it is not instantaneous, but it, too, succeeds. Lance and Lancea ease into and then enthusiastically inhabit their new roles, each a little worried that they are losing their old selves to this “temporary” experiment, each plowing ahead anyway. They trade homes, they remain a couple, and Lance continues to be the primary motivating force, pushing the pair forward toward new explorations. Lancea’s reticence ends up being a dominant motif in the entire story, as she is pulled into each new step by her body’s urges and Lance’s urging. Clara-cum-Lance’s assertive personality reaches new, almost domineering heights in Lance, confidence she wasn’t exactly missing before but which is on powerful display as the experiment continues. The pair hint at taking on new jobs with Iris’s company and the possibility of exploring other partners after an office party, and the story ends a bit abruptly when Lancea and Lance finally consummate their relationship in their new forms, seemingly affirming that they no longer intend to resume their former lives. (The abruptness is because this story helps set up a larger continuity of similar stories rather than standing alone.)
On its face, this is an astonishingly ignorant piece of storytelling. It literally contains a machine that can make a gay woman straight and reset trans people’s gender identities to make them cis, the fever dream of those anti-gay and anti-trans ideologues that can at least imagine that we exist. In this read, it is only the fact that erotica speaks to primal needs and urges within people, things that are often not palatable in polite company and which are often connected to trauma, that keeps me from condemning its very existence, even as I occasionally revisit parts of that first sex scene for my own gratification. And even this much sympathy is strained when I notice that this author has three distinct fictions on the same site featuring a high-powered white man being transformed into a low-income Hispanic woman for fun and glory.
But there’s another read. File off the potentially coercive aspects, make the mental conditioning more freedom to be oneself and a fast-track toward the ease in one’s own skin that transition can take years to provide, add in the almost-always-missing acknowledgement that trans people even exist, and we get an altogether different story. In this mild reskin, the original Lance is so discontent with his life because he is a closeted trans woman and so inept at attracting women because his most honest attractions aren’t aimed at women. Clara, in turn, is so aghast at Lancea’s bedroom suggestions and so eager to embrace a masculine life because this is her accepting that she is a trans man. The transformation devices grant these two trans people the possibility to not only find themselves, but find each other, with all the techno-magical aplomb that these stories can offer. Their romance becomes much sweeter now, still a bit off for my tastes thanks to Clara-cum-Lance’s constant pressure but no longer premised on being mind- and body-altered into apparent heteronormativity.
Most stories in this genre have this tension. This kind of transformation fiction, close cousin of “sissification” fantasies, invites trans and queer reads but almost invariably leaves them on the doorstep in favor of unpleasant subtext and disturbing text. But few exhibit, embrace, and embody that tension more deeply than “Life Warp Opportunity,” and even as I find other fiction in and out of this genre better suited to my tastes, I keep coming back to this one because I can’t look away from the spectacular train wreck of it. It could have been so beautiful, and instead it’s…this.