The Deeply Depressing Unpublishing Of "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter" (Unlocked)

Let's just disappear anything that makes anyone uncomfortable

(An image of a military helicopter, with two pilots visible.)

My subscribers voted, overwhelmingly, that they are okay with me sometimes unlocking previously paywalled posts that are at least three months old. That’s what I’m doing here — this post ran on 1/17/2020, and the original version lives here. As always, I’m cloning it to protect the privacy of subscribers who commented on the original — this version was created on 6/30/2021, in part because Vox just published an interesting followup piece about the deeply negative consequences of the below events.

If you find this article useful or interesting, please, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. My paid subscribers are the reason I was able to write this piece in the first place, and they’re the ones who keep this newsletter going.

Give a gift subscription

“I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” is a meme used to make fun of trans people. It’s basically deployed in the sense of, Oh, so you’re a woman? Well I’m a piece of military equipment! It is, in 2020, a dated sort of insult, but I would imagine it still stings many trans people when they come across it in the wild.

Earlier this month Clarkesworld Magazine, which does sci-fi and fantasy, published a story with the title “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by an author named Isabel Fall. Here’s how it starts:

I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.

I lied. According to US Army Technical Manual 0, The Soldier as a System, “attack helicopter” is a gender identity, not a biological sex. My dog tags and Form 3349 say my body is an XX-karyotope somatic female.

But, really, I didn’t lie. My body is a component in my mission, subordinate to what I truly am. If I say I am an attack helicopter, then my body, my sex, is too. I’ll prove it to you.

When I joined the Army I consented to tactical-role gender reassignment. It was mandatory for the MOS I’d tested into. I was nervous. I’d never been anything but a woman before.

But I decided that I was done with womanhood, over what womanhood could do for me; I wanted to be something furiously new.

To the people who say a woman would’ve refused to do what I do, I say—

Isn’t that the point?

From there, Fall unspools an absolutely bonkers, brain-melting story about war and sex and gender (and climate change! and artificial intelligence!) that had me riveted as I read it a couple days ago, hunched over my phone on the G train. It’s really, really good. I’m not going to attempt any sort of in-depth literary analysis because that’s not a strong suit of mine at all and I’d much rather have you read it yourself and develop your own views on it. I just think it’s excellent sci-fi.

If you do click that link, you’ll see that it takes you to a weird archive page. That’s because after the story went up, it apparently made some people very mad. They were mad that the story discussed gender identity in a way you aren’t supposed to, that it used that meme at all, that — well, insert whatever reason you want here, because the reasons aren’t the point. The point is they read the story or, more likely, the title of the story, it made them feel bad or mad, and therefore, by their stunted child-logic, they determined someone had done something wrong. That is, they couldn’t conceive of a situation in which 1) a story makes them uncomfortable; but 2) that’s sometimes what stories do, so there’s no particular action to take.

I’m not linking to the angry responses because they mostly appear to be Twitter randos, but there seemed to be very little indication the angriest people had actually read or grappled with the story itself (and it is a challenging story to grapple with). But whatever the details, the anger-campaign had its effect. Soon, the story disappeared, replaced by a brief statement: “This story has been removed by request of the author. An official statement will be posted here soon.” On Twitter, the rumor begain spreading that the author herself was a trans woman, and was blindsided and horrified by the reaction the story had garnered from within her community — she felt guilty and ashamed for having published this (wonderful) piece of fiction. She had wanted to reappropriate that meme, to have this story, which is not transphobic, pop up at the top when someone entered it into Google.

When I checked in on the Clarkesworld page where the story had lived this morning, I found a lengthy statement from the magazine’s founder and editor, Neil Clarke, which confirmed those rumors. Perhaps most importantly, Fall is, in fact, a trans woman — albeit one who is not out of the closet.

Clarke’s statement is awful and craven and throws Fall under the bus, even as it pretends not to. Here are some snippets — and remember from the young-adult-fiction blowups that ‘ownvoices’ refers to people staying in their lane in terms of identity, like a black person writing black characters, a trans person writing trans character, etc.:

Some hopefully obvious things that need to be said to provide context:

  1. There is no one true transgender experience. It’s a diverse path and what works for some trans people may not work for others. How wide that path is perceived can vary by person. (I’d say this is a common trait across all communities.)

  2. There’s a long history of marginalized communities attempting to subvert their oppressors by reclaiming slang, nicknames, and labels.

  3. Stories that involve sensitive subjects can be risky. We don’t want to shy away from that. To do so would be equivalent to ignoring the existence of that the people that they represent. Suggesting that these stories shouldn’t appear in broader SF publications denies their place in the wider community and limits their audience. That is not to say the choice to go narrow isn’t a valid course. It’s the author’s choice when and where they want their story to be heard.

  4. Twitter can be dangerous. Discussions there tend to lack nuance, and it is very easy to amplify negative accusations. This leads to a cycle of anger and retaliation that can quickly shut down effective discussion. We can’t control what happens there, but we can hopefully learn how to better avoid setting off such storms, and to respond better to them if and when they happen.

  5. And perhaps most importantly, positive interpretations do not invalidate negative ones. Negative interpretations do not invalidate positive ones. We don’t control how a story makes us feel and liking or not liking one are both valid responses. Regardless of which side they stood on, many were attacked for their position on this work. It still continues even in the story’s absence.

What have we learned?

  1. Even with ownvoices authorship and ownvoices sensitivity reading, it is still possible to miss something. In this case we can see two groups of trans readers with directly opposing views that are deeply rooted in their own experience and perspectives. In some cases, what made the story speak to some is also what alienated others. Neither perspective is wrong, but they appear to be incompatible with one another on some level. Knowing that this was a potentially controversial story, we should have employed a broader range of sensitivity readers. This is not to say those we worked with failed, but rather that they only represented a slice of the community and additional perspectives could have helped inform us of a potential conflict. It may not have “fixed” things but it would have provided opportunities to better prepare ourselves and our readers for what lay ahead. This was an oversight.

  2. In some cases, information contained in the bio is critical to gaining the trust of a reader. I would never have pressured Isabel to out herself as trans in her bio, but it’s clear, given the way that information shifted the discussion, that would have helped some readers be a bit more trusting of Isabel, the venue, the story, and what she was hoping to accomplish with it. Should the work ever be restored, additional information will be included along with the story to help properly warn and inform the reader about potential issues. In the future, we will also provide the bio to our sensitivity readers.

  3. That we didn’t understand enough about trans politics to properly advise a new author who was wading into the deep end. I’m not suggesting that we tell an author what they can and can’t say, but had the previous two items be [sic] done correctly, we would have been in a better place to prepare her. Because of those failures, our knowledge gap contributed to the problem.

Clarke could have easily published a short statement with the general shape of, “Unfortunately, the author of this story, Isabel Fall, received a wave of harassment after it was published. She requested it be unpublished and I have regretfully agreed.” Instead, he chose to stoke the idea that because people were offended by this story, there is something wrong with it. How else can one interpret his claim that someting was ‘missed’ and could have been ‘fixed’? This is what I mean when I say he’s pretending to support Fall but throwing her under the bus: He’s absolutely accepting the framing of the hysterical online critics when he didn’t have to at all.

But nowhere in this almost 1,400-word-long statement will you find a clear explanation of exactly what is wrong with the story. That’s because the only accurate answer to that question is something like “Some people have very superficial but dearly held ideas about what gender is, and because this story took a more complicated and fraught and creative approach to its theories of gender — one which challenged those ideas — those people became deeply offended.” That’s why a story in a major sci-fi outlet had to be unpublished. I guess the alternative, by Clarke’s logic, would be to tell or imply to some people that their interpretation of the story isn’t ‘valid.’ Can you imagine that? Dealing with the pain of someone telling you your interpretation of a work of art isn’t valid??? I’d be in bed for weeks.

I wrote a lot about the YA unpublishings and the surrounding culture of online fear in this newsletter. I don’t want to jump back into this subject. But I found this entire turn of events so profoundly depressing. We are building a world of cowardly, shallow, masturbatory art. The ideology pushing things in this direction is completely incoherent, because it really is just built on visceral feelings. Look at the above excerpt: Clarke’s notes claims that 1) trans people did read this story beforehand, and therefore (by implication) must have been okay-enough with it that he was confident enough to publish it; and 2) that he (reluctantly) now thinks he should have noted the author was trans.

So: Do trans voices matter or not? Do trans opinions matter or not? Which ones? What about when they disagree? If I read the exact same fictional text once with the belief it was written by a cisgender person, and then again with the believe it was written by a transgender person, should my interpretation of it differ wildly?

Of course, in the long run this only punishes the bravest and most creative people. Neil Clarke will not feel any compunction about running the next Clarkesworld story about cyborgs and aliens and pew-pew-pew space battles. No. But he will think extra long and extra hard about publishing anything with even the faintest whiff of genuine thematic danger do it, anything that actually touches on the jagged edges of real human life. Which is too bad, because danger is an absolutely vital component of some of the best, most memorable art.

It’s too bad so many people in different areas of fiction publishing are cowards, opportunists, or both. It would be better if they could get a bit more organized and stand up for the creative values that should be underpinning this whole “writing and editing and publishing fiction” thing. Instead, over and over and over, gatekeepers are caving to loud, angry, thoughtless people who often haven’t read the stuff they’re criticizing, and who don’t actually care about art at all. They just want their own fragile beliefs stroked at every turn, which is poison to genuine creativity. Neil Clarke had an opportunity, and like so many others, he failed; like so many others, he empowered people at whom he should have been flipping a middle finger.

I’m going to leave the last word to the trans YouTuber ContraPoints, who recently posted a 100-minute-long video about cancel culture, her own cancellation, and the rather insane tropes that prop up online pileons. At one point, she says, “Just because you were hurt by content I made doesn't mean that that content is bad, or that I’m victimizing you in some way.”

That’s it. That’s the whole thing. How can grown adults in 2020 not understand this?

Questions? Comments? A list of paintings, short stories, and novels you would like to see turned to ash? I’m at or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Image is from here.