I’m getting an increasing number of e-mails about this particular topic, so I thought I’d address it here, now, and open it up to discussion:
In The Android’s Dream, there’s a fairly important character named Archie McClellan, who is a computer technician. During the course of the book, we meet Archie’s significant other, Sam Berlant, who also turns out to be a fairly significant character, although for slightly different reasons. Archie and Sam have a long-standing relationship, based on love, affection and hot sex. Archie is male. Sam’s sex, however, is not specified. Look through the book, and you’ll notice that Sam lacks singular pronouns: It’s always “Sam said” or “Sam replied” or such; when there is pronoun use, it’s “they” as it refers to Sam and one other person (usually Archie).
Most people, it seems, haven’t noticed that Sam is a character of unspecified gender, which is something that I actually take as a compliment. It means that I pulled off not specifying a character’s gender through an entire book in a manner that does not call attention to itself. As it happens, that was one of my goals: once I decided to not to specify what Sam’s gender was, I also decided to try to do it in an unobtrusive way that didn’t get in the way of the story. By and large I seem to have gotten away with it; I suspect people read the story and sort of assigned to Sam whatever gender they were comfortable with or thought was appropriate and then just kept going. Nevertheless there seems to be a number of people who noticed the lack of pronouns, and either wondered what I was up to, or were irked because there was this character of indeterminate gender running around, and not only did they not know whether Sam was male or female, they also didn’t know whether Archie was gay or straight.
So which is it? Is Sam a he or is Sam a she?
I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know.
Swear to God, I’m not lying. Here’s why: When I was writing, I got to the place where Sam showed up, waiting for Archie, and I started writing the two of them, and after I was done writing them I noticed that I hadn’t actually used a pronoun with Sam yet. And then I had two thoughts: “Hmmm, that’s interesting, I wonder what sex Sam is,” and then I thought “Hey, I wonder if I can pull off not saying what sex Sam is all the way through the book.” I mean, since I had already not applied a pronoun to Sam, and it seemed to work so far. So that’s what I did, and from that point forward I consciously avoided thinking about Sam in a gendered way. Oh, I know what Sam looks like, but let’s just say androgynous is the best descriptor here. But I haven’t got Sam naked to look at the private bits that would (presumably) give away gender one way or another. I don’t know what gender Sam is. I, as the author, never asked.
Now you might think this is foolish, that an author doesn’t know the gender of one of his creations, but, come now. Fact is, there are lots of things I don’t know about my characters, because those things are relevant to my understanding of the character or to the story at hand. What is John Perry’s favorite flavor of ice cream? Got me. What does Jane Sagan think about Ancient Sparta? I can guess, but I don’t know. Is Harry Creek generally conservative or generally liberal, as we understand those terms today? I haven’t the first clue. Does Archie know First Aid? Possibly, but we never find out. What sex is Sam? Don’t know; it never really came up. It wasn’t actually important in the context of the story; what was important was that Sam and Archie loved each other. As it happens, this tells you about me — namely, that I think the fact two people love each other is more important than whether they are of the same or opposing sexes — but it doesn’t tell you about Sam. You don’t know, because I don’t know.
Anyway, it’s not an either/or thing. There are actually three options here, for Sam’s gender and Archie’s orientation:
1. Sam is a man, and Archie’s gay (or some flavor of bisexual);
2. Sam’s a woman, and Archie’s straight (or some flavor of bisexual);
3. Sam is intersex, and Archie doesn’t actually give a crap what anyone thinks of his sexuality or his relationship with Sam.
I have to say that of the three, Sam being intersex makes the most sense to me. After all, I have gay or bisexual characters in all of my novels (except, oddly, Agent to the Stars), and I clearly haven’t had a problem noting that they are so; I’m not historically coy about gay or lesbian characters in my work. And, to the extent that Sam as an adult chooses to live as neither male or female specifically (as I personally think Sam would, given what I know of the character), it wouldn’t make sense to make reference to “he” or “she” since neither would apply. I’m not saying Sam is intersex — again, I kept the issue of Sam’s gender out of my head entirely — but I have to say that of the three options it’s the one that appeals to me the most.
Bear in mind that in not assigning Sam a gender, I wasn’t trying to make a big statement about writing or sexuality or how so much of who we perceive someone as being is tied up in their gender — although, as it happens, not giving Sam a gender seems to have made at least some folks think about each of these issues a bit, and I’m not unhappy about that. If having Sam of indeterminate gender gives people an opening to discuss these issues, great. Glad to help the conversation. But as I said, my intent was to have Sam’s lack of stated gender not actually be an issue; in other words, I didn’t want people to notice. For one thing, that would mean I have some writing skill. For another thing, it could mean that Sam’s lack of stated gender actually didn’t matter, or doesn’t matter, and that people just accepted Sam, whoever he/she/neither of the above was, and kept on going because they wanted to find out what happened next. Personally, I see that as the optimal response.
Anyway, the answer to “What Sex is Sam Berlant?” is: Dunno. Personally I would suggest reading the book with Sam as male, and then with Sam as female, and then with Sam as intersex, and see which version works best for you.
And then, when you’ve settled the question of “What Sex is Sam Berlant?” to your personal satisfaction, you can ask yourself another question about The Android’s Dream:
What color is its hero, Harry Creek?