On Tides, Visibility, and Quiet Revolutionary Acts

There was a time, back when I first began seriously aiming at a life as an author, that I thought I’d have to select a pseudonym. Well, I knew I’d have to – writing under my birth name would lead to far too much potential violence, and it is never good PR for a writer to thump readers over the head with their latest bestseller during signings. Any of you who have last names that inspire tired old jokes repeated as if they were a comedy revolution will know exactly what I mean.

But that wasn’t the main reason why I planned to change my name. Nor was it the fact one of my characters had filched my first name and refused to give it back.

I’m a woman. This is why I felt I had to use a pseudonym.

And it wasn’t a mere matter of safety. Yes, I considered the problem of stalkers. I thought about identity theft. Both of those could happen even if I didn’t achieve fame and fortune. But the main consideration for quite some time was the fact that women don’t get taken as seriously as men. An author with an obviously female name had a harder path to publication, and if published, had a fight getting her work recognized, because, y’know, girl. I don’t remember where I picked up that knowledge. But outside of the romance section, the vast majority of authors were men. The vast majority of awards went to men. A dismissive attitude toward female authors prevailed in most circles I traveled in. And gawds forbid a woman should ever write SF about women’s issues. Strong female characters, great! Strong female authors, not so much, although a few were waved around as if to ward off charges of sexism.

And lest you think these are ridiculous concerns, I invite you to peruse these pie charts. You’ll note that for the majority of book reviews, the pie is overwhelmingly male. In 2011.

So, I thought, it would be best to write under initials. I went through a lot of two-initials-plus-cool-last-name combos. I’d be all secretive, I thought, like George Elliot. I’d not have author photos. My book would rise or stand on its own merits, and by the time people figured out I was a girl (eww!), I’d have already won ’em over with my deathless prose, so it would be all right.

Over time, though, this began to seem like an idiotic thing to do. I ended up reading some books by obvious women and liked them. My friends liked them. Hell, Connie Willis won Hugos and Nebulas left and right, and she made no effort to hide the fact she was female. By then, I’d chosen my pen name (the name which you know me by, dear readers), but I’d still been determined to keep some things on the QT. No author photos, no trumpeting the fact I’m female. After encountering astonishingly good women writing SF, like Connie Willis and Octavia E. Butler and Patricia A. McKillip, I started feeling a little feisty about it. Gods damn it, why shouldn’t I be proud to be a woman? How the fuck were women going to get any respect as authors if they kept hiding behind ambiguous (or downright masculine) ‘nyms and avoiding anything that so much as hinted at their gender? Fuck ambiguity. I’d plaster my picture all over the back cover and come out roaring, “I am woman! See me kick SF arse!”

Now, plastering my picture all over the back covers of my books will have to wait for, y’know, actually finishing and publishing some, but you may have noticed that I don’t hide my gender round here. I am a woman, damn it. I may not always enjoy it (once per month, on average). But I’m no longer worried about it. I’m no longer eager to hide it. I am even proud to be a woman.

Actually, let me walk that back: I feel silly being proud of an accident of birth. It’s like being proud I’ve got toes.

I’m proud to be the kind of woman who has decided it’s no longer worth hiding behind plausible deniability, who has instead decided to give the old boys’ club either the finger or the two-fingered salute, depending on how Anglophile I’m feeling at the moment. I’m proud to be among the women who are writing as women, who are taking the broader culture by the collar, giving it a gentle but insistent shake, and saying, “Pay attention. No, my eyes are up here. And if you dismiss this excellent tome for the mere fact it was written by a female, I will be sorely tempted to thump you over the head with it.”

(Fortunately for them, my moral code doesn’t allow me to do that any other way than metaphorically, but from the way some people howl when you mention that it would be awfully nice if people treated women more like people, you’d think I’d literally just dropped J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter novel on their noggins. In hardcover.)

The point of this rant, which is rather longer than I intended it, is to say this: that women doing nothing more than being visibly female whilst also being awesome shook me out of a culturally-induced distaste for my own gender. That’s it. That’s all it took. Before I was ready to listen to the feminists, before I’d learned the first fucking thing about activism and social justice, these visible women made me realize being a woman was actually okay, and that challenging an inherently unfair system was a damned good idea. They made me realize I didn’t have to go to any great lengths to do it, either: being out and awesome is part of the battle. Being unapologetic about who and what you are can be a revolutionary act.

I bring this up because one of my favorite people in the universe, Ryan Brown, wrote a post called On Being a Gay Scientist and Finding a Sense of Community, in which he discusses being at an event for a GLBT organization and having one of those moments where you realize that you’re maybe not as involved in the cause as you feel you should be.

Part of me feels a sense of responsibility to speak up and make it clear that there are GLBT within the ranks of science and academia. After all, it was someone else’s speaking up that made my life as a gay male easier. Do I not have a responsibility to pay the same debt forward for the future generation? And how do I approach that without labeling myself in terms of my sexuality?

That’s the same dilemma many of us who are members of disadvantaged groups face. We don’t want to be labeled as a woman/atheist/LGBTQ/black/[insert other minority here] scientist or writer or what have you. But hiding, denying what we are, does no one any good. Do we have to become enormously outspoken? Become activists? When we don’t necessarily feel drawn to a cause, but know that cause has helped us, what do we do to further it?

Ryan’s hit on one way: don’t hide. Be visible. You don’t have to shout, “HEY EVERYBODY, I’M A [insert minority here] SCIENTIST [or other profession]!!!” but simply be visible. I’m a writer and a woman. Ryan’s a scientist and gay. We’re here, we exist, we’re part of a group of people who are doing outstanding work and are [insert minority here]. We may engage in some activism here and there. We will sometimes talk about what it’s like to be this and that. But our work is not solely defined by our respective genders and sexualities. And as more people become visible, being gay and a scientist, or a woman and a writer, will be no longer seem so exotic.

By not hiding, by unequivocally being what we are and what we do, we’re creating a climate in which other people can imagine themselves achieving their dreams, without having to hide a fundamental aspect of themselves.

Anderson Cooper has realized that. As he said in advising the world at large that he is, in fact, gay,

It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something – something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.

I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand.

The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.

I love that. And he’s right.

As more of us stand up apologetically and say that the fact is, we are x, and we are proud of it, we change society. We provide role models for those folks who are x and afraid that means they will never be able to follow their dreams while remaining true to themselves. We get society used to the fact that x exists, and can be all sorts of things, and be successful, respected, and happy doing them. Eventually, x may even become as unexceptional as saying, “I am a scientist, and I also run 10k races.”

But we will never get there by staying silent. Some of us will engage in a fair amount of shouting, because society can be a little hard of hearing. But those people who stand up and say in perfectly ordinary voices, “I’m x, by the way,” before wandering off to follow their passions are also helping make our voices heard.

You want to pay it forward and help the tide advance? There are many ways*. One is to be who you are, visible and proud.

Moi and Ryan in downtown Seattle, with Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains behind us. Revolutionaries! Note the bow tie. Bow ties are cool. Image courtesy Robert.


*I don’t mean this post to condemn those who have good reasons for keeping to the shadows. If you have to keep your head down for reasons of safety or family or what have you, there are still ways you can support those who are fighting for you. Vote. Donate. Find other means of being a quiet revolutionary until you can emerge. Small actions add up.

On Tides, Visibility, and Quiet Revolutionary Acts

8 thoughts on “On Tides, Visibility, and Quiet Revolutionary Acts

  1. 1

    This is why, when the post-doc I work for was asking me what I want to publish under for my first (hard-won through blood, sweat and tears for the past three years as I had one of those chemistry Projects From Hell that give a boatload of negative results but none cool enough to publish) two papers and recommending that I go with my initials and surname (for the same reasons you mention above), I chose to include my [obviously female] first name, middle initials, and surname.

    Take that! I’m a woman, and I’m getting published in good journals. Neener neener.

    I wonder how many of the initials-only authors in the literature are female. I know the named authors seem overwhelmingly male.

  2. 2

    Thanks for writing this! I struggled with the idea of using my real name on my blog and ended up settling on my initials and surname for these exact reasons. I don’t have a photo up because I’m afraid of internet trolls and really want to avoid comments on my appearance. I feel conflicted about doing this because I really want to be active and involved as a science blogger, but there is a certain amount of fear I have about the visibility. I’m glad to know that I’m not alone with these feelings.

  3. 3

    I struggled with this as well–I used to use my real name online, but have since moved to this pseudonym. Part of the reason is my profession–as a social worker I have many, many clients who would harass me in my personal life if they had the means. Part of that is safety as well–I’ve been the one to take people’s children away, sometimes permanently; there are a lot of folks that are angry about that. And then there’s the professionalism–unfair or not, many of the systems I interact with (the courts, police, local government, grant providers, etc) could (and likely would, considering the relatively conservative area I live in) use my atheism or activism against me.

    It’s incredibly frustrating, because I don’t think being outspoken against sexism or the problems with religion are BAD things. But that doesn’t mean others don’t, and I have to plan for that.

    So I’m semi-anonymous online, but I have become involved locally as the coordinator of the local humanist group–I decided to do so after the Women in Secularism meeting, actually! :) And I use my real name there, and screw anyone who has a problem with it. ;)

  4. 6

    Great post, Dana. As someone who is white, male, straight, middle-class, and older, it’s tough for me to understand the concerns you voice — and yet I remain in the atheist closet. Dang.

    You’re my favorite FTBlogger, by the way. For both the rocks/birds/flowers posts and thoughtful ones like this.

  5. 7

    FWIW one of my favorite authors is Lois McMaster Bujold.

    I just checked & the 1st writing of hers that I encountered had her full name on the cover.

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