Since the creation of the Tiptree Award was first announced by Guest of Honor Pat Murphy at WisCon 15 in 1991, WisCon has been proud to host the award winners and to support the award by hosting fundraisers at-con. Making big changes can be difficult, but listening to the voices of our community members exemplifies the values that our con continues to strive towards. We fully support the Motherboard in their decision to rename the award, and we look forward to celebrating the award under its new name at WisCon 44 in 2020.
This is a guest post from the Tiptree Motherboard. We thank WisCon for kindly allowing us to post this here.
It has come to our attention that our introduction and celebratory song & materials for Tiptree Award winning book Who Runs the World / The XY by Virginia Bergin contained language that suggested the novel portrays a trans-exclusionary view of gender. We want to apologize unreservedly for any harm this caused to audience members. While Bergin’s novel was exciting to the jury because of what they believe to be its trans-inclusive, non-essentialist approach to a trope that has often relied on a dangerously reductive understanding of gender, we also now recognize that the invocation of the trope can in itself be harmful.
Since the ceremony, the Tiptree Motherboard has spent time discussing what we can do to make sure a similar situation does not arise again. We have set in place a policy for vetting of future Tiptree songs and materials prior to public announcement, and we have reaffirmed our commitment to making sure each Tiptree Award jury incorporates a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. We also recognize that no oppressed community is a monolith and that any representative marginalized community member’s reaction, opinion and experience differs from another’s, and as such we need to be careful to include multiple marginalized perspectives in all aspects of the Tiptree organization, including the development and approval of celebratory materials for the winning work. This discussion is ongoing, and we welcome suggestions and recommendations.
We would like to offer a little background on the award and the book for those who may wish to understand how it came to be selected. The Tiptree Award is selected by a jury of five people. The Motherboard selects the jury members, then gives them a free hand both to choose the winner and to interpret the Award’s remit to “expand and explore our understanding of gender.” Bergin’s novel was chosen by Alexis Lothian (chair), E.J. Fischer, Kazue Harada, Cheryl Morgan, and Julia Starkey along with a 9-item honor list and 26-item long list that you can read about here.
2017 Juror Cheryl Morgan, who was unable to travel to WisCon, wrote a review that offers her perspective as a trans woman on the novel. This review was posted shortly after the winner was announced in March. With her permission, we are linking it here so that readers can gain a sense of how the novel’s gender politics was understood by the jury. You can read the original here.
Note that this review contains major spoilers for key plot points in Who Runs the World / The XY.
Ah, another XY plague book. What a tired old trope. And it is YA as well, so presumably the politics will be very simplistic. Yes, I am as susceptible to unconscious bias as anyone else. But in this particular case I had the pleasure of meeting Virginia Bergin and talking to her about the book before reading it. On the basis of that chat I decided to give it a try. I am so very glad I did.
An XY plague is, of course, a plague that wipes out everyone with a Y chromosome, while leaving those with only X chromosomes untouched. It is a staple of feminist separatist fantasy; let’s get rid of all of the men, and then we will have a utopia.
Of course an XY plague will kill a bunch of intersex women as well, not to mention almost all trans women. That’s another reason why hardline separatists love the idea. If you cling to the biological essentialist idea that XX = good, XY = evil, then of course you are going to be excited by such a concept.
This, however, is science fiction. Disasters that wipe out much of mankind don’t happen simply for revenge, or at least they should not do. They happen because that allows us to imagine significant changes to human society that could perhaps not occur in any other way. And they allow us to interrogate the results of such changes.
At first sight the setting for Who Runs the World is indeed a feminist utopia. Life is idyllic for young women like our heroine, River. She has a safe and supportive home. She’s well educated. She loves aircraft and dreams of one day flying and designing them. As she’s smart and well connected she will doubtless go to university and gain the skills necessary to do so. And she is also expecting to marry her best friend and one day raise a family with her.
River’s world is blessedly free of men. She’s never seen one, but her school work has taught her all about the terrible things they did. Her world is better off without them.
Utopias, however, are generally only pleasant on the surface. Peer beneath that and you start to see the cracks.
One way of introducing such cracks might have been to make the book about trans people. Bergin chose not to do that, at least in part because she felt that she didn’t know enough to get it right. A wise writer does not choose to plunge into waters she doesn’t know how to swim in.
So instead Bergin makes the book about biological essentialism. That, as it happens, is a cornerstone of anti-trans ideology. As a result, the book is all about trans people, even though it barely mentions them.
Our story begins when River, traveling home alone because in her world it is safe to do so, encounters a strange animal. It is clearly sick, and rather violent, but it is nothing she can’t cope with so she takes it home to see if it can be nursed back to health.
That animal turns out to be something called a “boy”.
And thus the cracks in River’s idyllic life begin to appear. They show up thanks to the multi-generational cast. Simplistically, women in River’s world come in three types: young women like her; mothers; and grandmothers.
The mothers are the generation of women who inherited the world after recovery from the economic collapse caused by the plague. They now run everything from business to politics to the military. Most of them have never met a man, but they know what awful things men are capable of and know what a mess of a world they inherited.
The grandmothers are women who, in their teens or twenties, lived through the plague. They saw their boyfriends and husbands die in their arms. They gave up their boy babies to government hospitals in the desperate hope that a cure would be found and they would one day see them again. That day never came.
Until now. Because River has brought home a teenage boy called Mason. He’s alive out in the world, which should not be possible. The grandmothers are suspicious, and they want to keep this miracle boy.
Slowly but surely the underpinnings of River’s world are revealed. Unlike many separatist societies, this one does not benefit from parthenogenesis. If the women want children they need sperm. There is only one way to get that, and very few sources. Human sperm has become one of the most valuable commodities on the planet, and the UK is a world leader in its production. River’s idyllic home life is based squarely on economic exploitation of this important resource.
The men who survived the plague, and those boys who have been bred since, are kept in “sanctuaries”. Ostensibly this is because they would contract the plague and die if let out; and because men are violent and dangerous and should not be permitted to roam freely in the women’s world.
Inside the sanctuaries the men are groomed to be exactly the violent, misogynistic monsters the public is told that they are, in the belief that this will make them better producers of sperm. It is all about the best quality product, after all, and there are marketing narratives to be fulfilled.
Mason’s arrival in River’s community gives the lie to the official government line on men. If he’s violent, it is because he’s terrified having been fed stories of what awful creatures women are. Treated kindly, he’s perfectly capable of responding in a similar vein. But the government wants him killed before the story can spread. If River and the grandmothers want to keep Mason they will have to fight for him. River decides to do that using the only weapons open to her: transparency and democracy.
So what we have here is book that strikes right at the heart of TERF ideology. Having a Y chromosome does not automatically make you a violent monster. People who say it does are probably using that story to cover up some ulterior motive. Also, having a feminist, separatist society does not make you free of the temptations of power politics and capitalism. Given the chance, matriarchy can quite unpleasant in its own way.
Many current arguments against trans rights, especially in the UK, are based squarely on the idea that anyone with a Y chromosome is automatically violent and dangerous; probably a rapist. It is biological nonsense, but a very powerful narrative that men have done a lot to bolster because it helps keep women cowed. Having a book that strikes directly at that idea, and asks us to consider how we might build a society that men, women and all other genders share in equally, seems to me like perfect timing. I’m glad it turned up in my year on the Tiptree jury.
So sometimes we can be a little slow to notice obvious solutions. It happens when you are 42, okay?
Over the past few years, a lot of folks coming to WisCon for the first time had a choice to make:
- Attend Opening Ceremonies, which we strongly recommend to anyone who is new, since you learn all about the convention there!
- Attend the First Timers’ Dinner, which we strongly recommend to anyone who is new, since you learn all about the convention there!
…those two things happened at the same time.
No more! Opening Ceremonies was once a combination of entertainments and information, but as more and more of our members found themselves being pulled in different directions Friday evening, we found that the core purposes were to emphasize our policies and to invite the Tiptree Motherboard to crown this year’s winner. In fact, the last several years, that’s been the whole of Opening Ceremonies.
This year, we believe we have found a better way: we’ve combined the Opening Ceremonies with the Gathering. In practice, that means that we’ll be talking with people about WisCon, our policies, and tips & tricks to get the most out of your convention at the Gathering itself! We’ll have folks answering questions and welcoming you at the table with the coffee, tea, and punch. You know, the place at the Gathering that everyone visits!
The Gathering activities will wrap up around 3:50pm, and we’ll close the Gathering and open WisCon 42 by paying tribute to the late Ursula K Le Guin, and then crowning the winner of the Tiptree Award! (Then cake on the sixth floor, but that’s a different topic.)
Voila! Now you can attend both the Opening Ceremonies AND the First WisCon Dinner — or the POC Dinner — or just dinner with your pals — without strife!
If only we could solve all of WisCon’s schedule conflicts so easily…
Ah, dear friends. This is a hard blog to post, but….
After twenty years of having the honor and pleasure of being the emcee for the Tiptree Auction at Wiscon, I am retiring.
I’m sad, but it’s the right decision. I am no longer a spry young thing. Young at heart, always, but the body is different now, and less able to caper and cavort for hours at a time. Plus, I injured my back in 2014, which has limited my mobility and flexibility, not to mention the ease of traveling. Add to that a general WisConian sense of transition, transformation, and change — and it’s time.
It feels like the end of an era. But what an era it was.
In 1994, on the weekend of my 40th birthday, I was in Worcester, Massachusetts, for Readercon, the guest of my friend, Pat Murphy. Ursula LeGuin was the Guest of Honor, and Nicola Griffith was the winner of the Tiptree Award. I knew nothing much about all that, just that the prize was given by an organization that Pat had founded.
One of the committee members in charge of the evening’s banquet and awards ceremony told Pat that some generous people had donated a few items — t-shirts, a handful of books — to benefit the Award, and asked if Pat was willing to auction them off.
Pat was already emceeing the awards and interviewing Ursula, so she said, “No, but I bet my friend Ellen will do it.”
“Sure,” I said. What the heck? It sounded like fun.
And so it was that, at the end of a very long evening, I got up on stage in a hotel ballroom for an impromptu performance, convincing an audience to buy random objects for startling sums of money. Forty-five minutes later, the Tiptree coffers had a thousand dollars, and I was suddenly, accidentally, notorious.
A man asked Spike, “Who is she?”
A total stranger came up to me. “Where else in Worcester are you performing?”
It was a heady experience.
In 1995, I came to WisCon for the first time. More generous people had donated items, and I did another auction during a Friday afternoon programming slot. It was small, but the Tiptree people were happy, and the audience seemed to have a good time.
The next year, the audience was a little larger. More stuff was donated. The Tiptree Auction was becoming a Thing, and I found myself, a newbie to WisCon, an odd sort of celebrity.
Stuff kept happening. I joined the Tiptree Motherboard, the organization thrived with the support of the community, and the auction and I somehow became an Institution.
In the beginning, I felt like my class-clown, childhood self was finally vindicated. Every May, I got to get up on stage — with a microphone — in front of a huge audience — and make people laugh. I also got to spend time on eBay and at garage sales, looking for items that would tickle the Madison fancy. Old space toys, bottles of Lysol, copies of Alice in Elephantland. I spent June through April trying to find things to delight you.
Which is cool enough. But somehow, it just kept getting better. You all started playing right back. I’ll let you in on the secret to the auction’s success: the audience is the real star.
When it works, it’s an energy exchange. I say something funny — you laugh. That makes me feel good, and relaxed, and funnier, and you laugh more and it grows and grows. After a while, you didn’t come just to watch, but to actively participate in the fun.
I don’t know any better way to build community than by shared laughter.
Backed by a shared mythology.
She started out as email shorthand for one of the designs that Jeanne Gomoll and I were considering for a temporary tattoo. Another little fundraiser. The female space pirate with a blasting ray-gun was just “the space babe.”
She became so much more.
Growing up as science-fiction readers and proto-feminists, those of us of a certain age had to piggyback our imaginations onto whatever the men who controlled popular culture doled out to us. But from the get-go, Space Babe was ours.
I ran with her, shamelessly, and with a huge grin on my face. I made decades-old souvenirs of a popular culture icon that had not actually existed. A back-story with no narrative, just imaginary collectibles. If I leave behind a legacy from my auction years, I hope it’s her. I found that I love making art as much as I love performing.
See, my Dad was a painter, and a photographer, and a craftsman. And when I was a kid, I kept overhearing my mother say to her friends, “Oh, the girls all take after me, I’m afraid. Jack is the only artist in the family.” I cringed, hearing that, because I liked making things. But I knew — because I was told — that I wasn’t very good at it. I couldn’t draw — still can’t — and my art projects in school were judged as colorful, but inferior, lumps. Never the ones picked to be displayed on the bulletin board.
The first time I dared to make something for the auction, I was terrified no one would want it. But you did. You gave me permission to make art. And those are some of my favorite memories — being down in my basement for hours at a time, messing about with paints and glue (and Photoshop), turning up in Madison with boxes of things that I made myself, and that amused other people.
My mother is long dead, so she’ll never know that today my art is in private collections in Vienna and London and New York. But I do. And I thank you for opening a part of me that I hadn’t even let myself dream might exist.
Performer, artist, author. I would be none of these today without your support. I have loved the applause, the acclaim, the “celebrity, ” and am forever grateful for how that contributed to my recognition as a writer, especially early in my career.
Like most people, I have many personas. The auctioneer is loud, fearless, funny. The words that come out of my mouth on stage are spontaneous, stream-of-thought, in-the-moment, and ephemeral. Your acceptance of her gave me the courage to allow a much smaller, quieter voice to emerge. My writing is planned and thoughtful. The words you see in print are honed and carefully chosen.
So thank you for allowing me the space for both voices to be heard. For reading my fiction, and for applauding when I got up on stage and put on my chicken suit or shaved my head or did The Happy Dance. I don’t know any other performer who has gotten the chance — even once — to and do a three-hour, one-woman show.
Well, sort of. It has never really been a one-woman show at all. Although I’ve been the public face of the auction, I’ve always have had a team behind me doing the hard work — sorting, preparation, and logistics. And other folks collecting the money and doing the math.
Jeanne Gomoll — a national treasure — was, for a long time, the person accepting donations, setting up the display of items, and making sure the trains ran on time. Scott Custis hauled boxes down from their attic every year. Jim Hudson, a mensch if there ever was one, handled the accounting, a most important part of any fundraiser. In recent years, Nevenah Smith streamlined the process and added her own flair to the event.
It’s been twenty years. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who have supported the auction, the Tiptree Award, and/or WisCon whose hard work, technical expertise, and enthusiasm made me look good up there.
To them, and to all of you — I enjoyed every minute.
Thanks for a great run.
PS-1: Fundraising for the Tiptree Award will go on. We will continue to offer you choice items in return for your support. There will be future auctions, some live, perhaps some online. I may even participate in them, but not as a solo act.
PS-2: The auction was one of the centers of my life for a very long time. But because each of them was one long improvisation, happening as fast as I could talk, I honestly don’t remember much about individual moments. I’m hoping that you do, and that you’ll use the Comments to share your memories with me.
The Tiptree Motherboard
Karen Joy Fowler (ex officio), Jeanne Gomoll, Ellen Klages, Alexis Lothian, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin, Jeffrey D. Smith
Given the recent changes in WisCon leadership, the Tiptree Award motherboard has been asked if our relationship to WisCon will change. The relationship between the two organizations, whose passions and intentions are so strongly aligned, remains vibrant.
The Tiptree Award owes so much about its existence and success to WisCon that people sometimes get confused about where the award leaves off and WisCon begins. So let’s clarify.
The Tiptree Award was originally announced at WisCon in 1991, at founding mother Pat Murphy’s guest of honor speech (Pat cooked up the idea with Karen Joy Fowler). Pat was instantly surrounded by WisCon attendees who wanted to help, and who spent most of the next year fund-raising and generating ideas. The award is named for James Tiptree, Jr., a pseudonym and persona of Alice Sheldon for many years, and it recognizes works of speculative fiction which explore and expand gender roles.
In 1992, the first winners (Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People and Gwyneth Jones’s The White Queen) were announced at WisCon. The award ceremony included a marvelous skit in which WisCon founder Diane Martin, in the role of Alice Sheldon, put on a mustache and an overcoat and slyly provided Sheldon’s work to publishers without revealing Sheldon’s gender. SF3 (WisCon’s parent organization) presented a generous $1800 in award seed money, in the form of a three-foot long check.
Over the ensuing years, the Tiptree Award became more formal, and stopped being run out of Pat’s private checking account. As a registered 501(c)(3) corporation with its own “motherboard,” the Tiptree Award does not have any official relationship to WisCon or SF3, although over the years many people have worked on, volunteered for, and been in the leadership of both organizations, either at the same time or sequentially.
The motherboard has arranged in the past and may arrange in the future to host award ceremonies at conventions other than WisCon; however, WisCon is uniquely situated in the center of the country, at a perfect time of year, and with a very supportive audience, so we anticipate coming back frequently even if not annually.
The Tiptree Award auction has been a feature of WisCon’s Saturday night entertainment for many years, although the first auction was not at a WisCon, but at a Readercon. Ellen Klages, our hilariously engaging auctioneer, has been a WisCon guest of honor, and is a Tiptree Award motherboard member. Some of the proceeds of the auction flow through WisCon’s treasury to the Tiptree Award, while others go directly into Tiptree accounts. All proceeds are used for travel and monetary awards for the winners, plus other Tiptree Award projects.
In the past, we have also donated auction proceeds as “seed money” for other WisCon daughter organizations (Broad Universe and The Carl Brandon Society are two examples), and used funds to help members of the Tiptree community who are in need. The volunteers of the WisCon art show graciously supervise and manage Tiptree Award auction items for viewing on Saturday, and handle sale of t-shirts, cookbooks and Space Babe tattoos throughout the weekend; that money also flows through WisCon to the Tiptree Award accounts.
We are all looking forward to the 2015 auction. Coincidentally, 2015 is the 100th birthday of Alice Sheldon; the motherboard will work with WisCon’s programming team to include appropriate recognitions and celebrations of this milestone in WisCon programming.
Ellen has been doing the Tiptree Auction for 17 years. She is older than when she started, but the auction keeps getting longer and longer, and she gets tired after a few hours.
How can you help?
- Come to The Gathering. Look at auction items. When you see something you can’t live without — Bid. Bid sheets will say:
- TO AUCTION (those will be on stage Saturday night, no matter what) or
- TO AUCTION IF THERE ARE _____ BIDS
- (enough bids by 5 pm Sat., it goes to the stage; not enough, the last bidder has bought it) or
- BUY IT NOW (Fixed price. See it, want it, have it!)
The auction starts at 7:30 pm on Saturday night, and will go until the auctioneer cannot stand anymore, or when the laughs stop (whichever comes first).
Any items that go to auction WILL be sold. At the very end, when the auctioneer is tired and most of the audience has left to go to parties, we’ll take a break, and there will be 10 minutes of lightning-fast, last-ditch paper bidding. The highest written bid when the bell rings will be the winner.
Proceeds from the auction, and Buy-It-Now sales all go to support the Tiptree Award. The money you spend supports a worthy cause, and is also tax-deductible (for any $$ over fair market value).
The Tiptree is also supported by t-shirts, temporary tattoos, and cookbooks, all available in the Art Show. They are way cool.
Thanks for all your help and support!
Join a conversation on Maureen McHugh’s evocative and powerful short story “Useless Things” at the James Tiptree Award website from March 1 to March 31. Moderated by Karen Joy Fowler, this discussion marks the start of the Tiptree Award Book Club, a forum for conversations about the works honored by the Award and the issues they raise. If you are interested in gender issues, the apocalypse, and the intersection of the two, you won’t want to miss this. “Useless Things” can be found in Eclipse 3, edited by Jonathan Strahan, and in the 27th edition of Gardner Dozois’ World’s Best Science Fiction.
The 2008 Tiptree Award Winners are The Knife of Never Letting Go, a young adult novel by Patrick Ness (Walker 2008) and Filter House, a short story collection by Nisi Shawl (Aqueduct 2008). The Tiptree Award will be celebrated at WisCon33.
Full details, including the Tiptree Honor List, can be found at the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award website.