Revisiting gender theory in fan fiction: Bringing nonbinary genders into the world

Dean Leetal

Kibbutzim College, Ramat Gan, Israel

[0.1] Abstract—While these facts are generally ignored, nonbinary gender is a theme in fan spaces, and Judith Butler's theory of gender creation mostly excludes the possibility of any genders outside of the binary. When brought together, classic queer studies and fan studies texts offer explanations for both and indicate that nonbinary genders are at the core of fan fiction. Fan fiction communities, although often transphobic, practice bringing into the world genders outside of the binary gender system. Judith Butler's gender theory and classic fan studies research inform one another; when they are brought together, it is clear that fandom is a ground for the creation of genders, which in turn are embodied outside of fandom and are objects of attraction that exist outside of binary-gendered attraction models.

[0.2] Keywords—Classic fan studies; Judith Butler; Transgender

Leetal, Dean. 2022. "Revisiting Gender Theory in Fan Fiction: Bringing Nonbinary Genders into the World." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 38.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Nonbinary gender is a recurring motif at the core of fan fiction. Classic texts such as those by Judith Butler (1993, 2006, 2011), Anne Kustritz (2003), and Camile Bacon-Smith (1992) highlight the transgender and nonbinary presence that has so far been continuously disregarded. In particular, Kustritz's theory of gender in fan fiction suggests that fan fiction communities are involved in a practice of bringing genders outside of the binary gender system into the world. I propose that such genders are not only written but brought into our world physically on fans' bodies and that there is attraction toward these genders outside of binary-gendered attraction models.

[1.2] The definition of nonbinary genders is still in debate. Darren Cosgrove (2021) explains that "non-binary people, like their binary transgender peers, identify as a gender different from that which they were assigned at birth. However, for non-binary people, gender identity falls outside of a male/female dichotomy" (78). Samantha Jaroszewski et al. (2018) suggest that "'non-binary' refers to people whose genders are multiple, fluid, and/or something other than male or female" (1). While these definitions are important to establishing and identifying meaning in the discussion, I offer a slightly different definition: nonbinary genders are genders that are outside the realm of continuously, completely, and exclusively "man" or "women." Some nonbinary genders are entirely different from woman or man—these may be no gender at all, partial identification with one or more genders, multiple identifications at the same time, or movement between any of the above. Furthermore, it is important to note that nonbinary genders are not the same as gender nonconforming. There is no one way people of nonbinary genders should or should not look. It is also important to stress that these definitions may apply to some who don't identify as nonbinary: for example, some who don't have a gender and don't wish to define themselves through the absence of such or through a system that is only about gender. Additionally, the white, binary gender system often surrounding nonbinary gender discourse is tied to white supremacy and colonialism. Some nonbinary persons are outside of this system and don't wish to associate with it.

[1.3] People of nonbinary genders are severely discriminated against in Western societies and even in queer spaces. There is very little demographic information about them, and the existing information is sometimes informed by inaccurate questions. That said, Jack Harrison, Jaime Grant, and Jody L. Herman (2012) found alarming rates of violence, inaccessible healthcare, police retaliation, poverty, and attempted suicide rates among people of nonbinary genders. Chase Harless et al. (2019) found that nonbinary people reported poorer health by a wide margin compared even with LGBTQ people of binary genders. Anxiety and depression occurred at 86 percent and 77 percent, respectively (47). Reports of physical assault and harassment came in at 30.7 percent and 84.1 percent, respectively (43). Additionally, 58.9 percent of nonbinary participants reported suicidal ideation, compared with 51 percent of binary trans people and under 20 percent of cisgender LGBTQ participants. Another 45.1 percent of nonbinary participants reported instances of self-harm, compared with 40 percent of all trans participants and 18.2 percent of cis LGBTQ participants (49). They were also far less likely to be insured, and nearly half said they are "always" or "often" forced to educate medical professionals about their medical needs (Harless et al. 2019) (63).

[1.4] LGBTQ communities and spaces often contribute to this discrimination rather than alleviate it, discriminating against less privileged members, including those who are BIPOC, disabled, neurodivergent, fat, poor, from rural places, lower class, immigrants, femme, and so on (Patel 2019). This also includes the frequent erasure and oppression of groups such as asexual, aromantic, intersex, and polyalterous communities. Many LGBT+ communities also engage in severe erasure and hatred toward nonbinary people: for example, mocking pronouns and appearances, erasing identities, withholding resources, and actively seeking to harm them.

[1.5] In fan studies, there is little scholarship about transgender people. There are a few important and meaningful texts, but they mostly focus on binary trans issues. Kristina Busse and Alexis Lothian (2009) explore fan works that include depictions of gender change to find that they are often written for a cisgender audience. Jonathan A. Rose (2018, 2020) writes about fan communities "transing" as a verb, akin to "queering" things, in building on Ika Willis's (2006) work portraying fic as queer play for cis people. This further correlates with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (2006), who describe straight fans as playing with sapphic attraction. Rose (2020) suggests that stories about transgender experiences, such as physical transition and passing, may offer trans readers relief, visibility, and even community and may be useful as a learning and broadening experience for cis people. J. T. Weisser (2019) explores the omega trope in ABO Hannibal (2013–2015) stories as representing trans experiences, explaining that "if omegas are allegorically cisgender women, presenting as a beta becomes an act of transitioning from one's assigned (secondary) gender. Taking heat suppressants is a transmasculine act, analogous to taking testosterone as part of gender transition. The omega taking heat suppressants and the transmasculine individual taking hormones both claim bodily integrity, altering their body in a way that changes how their gender is externally received." Weisser also explains that some stories demonstrate "that the pregnant male omega embodies an intersection between queer masculinity, lycanthropy, and pregnancy, all three of which are desexualized in normative discourse." As a whole, fan fiction research nearly entirely ignores experiences unique to nonbinary people and their connections with fandom. I hope to make a contribution to this discussion (note 1).

2. A community brainstorm to bring forth gender outside the binary

[2.1] Kustritz discusses a common practice within fan fiction communities: reading multiple stories about the same plot or prompt. She wonders why readers would be interested in reading so many stories about the same thing. As she writes, even the most dedicated fan of a trope, having read in one day twenty stories about it, "must tire of basically the same story slightly tweaked by a different author" (2003, 382).

[2.2] Kustritz suggests that this is because fan fiction communities create a large-scale brainstorm, intended to imagine masculinity that is not oppressive toward women (note 2). More particularly, Kustritz offers that fans are working to collectively imagine a relationship with a heterosexual man who is not harmful. As she explains, "By rewriting both the source product and each other's reconfigurations, women are able to write out a radically different romance narrative and an unconventional conceptualization of community, gender, and relationships" (2003, 383).

[2.3] Kustritz also describes how authors read one another's depictions of (gendered) relationships, rewriting and recreating them through repetition. With each repetition, authors make little adjustments, trying to improve the collective vision of potential men who don't oppress (some) women. She explains, "As fan writers work together, rewriting the source products and rewriting each other's reconfigurations, they begin to write out a story that is worth having. They begin to create a metatext that tells us how to live in a relationship founded upon equality" (2003, 383).

[2.4] Kustritz further informs that fans are interested only in reinventing heterosexual cisgender relationships. As she explains, the men captured and rewritten by fans "are also suited to rescription because they embody many of the things that are wrong with the patriarchal system of traditional romance" (2003, 376). The image reflected in Kustritz's description implies that fans are collectively inventing nonoppressive masculinity (toward cisgender, straight women). I suggest that fans often do this to workshop coding not only of a type of masculinity but nonbinary genders.

[2.5] Though Kustritz (2003) doesn't mention it, the structure in her description is reminiscent of Judith Butler's ( 1993, 2006, 2011) theory of the origins of gender. Butler indicates that gender has no single origin, but is rather created by endless imitation and repetition. As they put it, gender is "a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself…the naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies; what they imitate is a phantasmic ideal of heterosexual identity, one that is produced by the imitation as its effect" (Butler 2006, 21). A woman, for example, becomes a woman by behaving as a woman. In this theory, of course, Butler builds on and resonates Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1989). They explain that a woman is both a subject and a woman by imitating behaviors of various other women time and again. As Butler (1993) states, "These are for the most part compulsory performances, ones which none of us choose, but which each of us is forced to negotiate" (26). A woman is required to constantly reestablish her womanhood by continuously repeating this imitation. In this way, women and women's representations perpetually imitate, inspire, and police one another. According to Butler, this is the way genders are created: a society-wide continuous reinvention (note 3).

[2.6] Butler stresses that this is not a matter of choice. Being part of the binary gender system is not voluntary: "it is a compulsory repetition of prior and subjectivating norms, ones which cannot be thrown off at will" (1993, 22). People are not able to just step in and out of genders every day; the only agency Butler finds within the system is in making tiny adjustments, as one repeats gender iterations. These adjustments may then inspire others and be integrated into the acceptable characterizations of one's gender.

[2.7] I argue that there is a loophole in Butler's classic theory that explains and allows for the existence of genders outside the binary, even within Western societies. Butler (1993, 2011) suggests that it is impossible for people to step outside of the binary gender system for two main reasons. First, they explain that gender digressions are severely punished by society, describing severe violence and personal harm to people who don't comply with the binary gender system. It should be noted that this assertion has been criticized by scholars such as Viviane Namaste (2009) for exploiting and universalizing the lived experience of sex workers and black trans women. This universalization, as well as misinformation, contributes to the rift between white and higher-class queer people and black people—a rift Roderick A. Ferguson (2020) sees as caused by and reinforcing fascism.

[2.8] Butler's second argument is that gendered behaviors that are not binary are impossible for others to understand. They write that

[2.9] performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. And this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that "performance" is not a singular "act" or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance. (Butler 2011, 95)

[2.10] More specifically, doing nonbinary genders perplexes people and remains not understood. These genders are unknown to most people, making them incomprehensible and therefore without meaning, impossible to do. To reiterate, Butler's gender model is based on the external understanding of a series of gendering codes. That is, one is a woman when one performs traits recognized by others as belonging to women, and a person performing well enough is then classified as a woman (note 4). Simply put, one is a woman when one is read by others as a woman. Butler (2011) explains that "there is no 'one' who takes on a gender norm. On the contrary, this citation of the gender norm is necessary in order to qualify as a 'one,' to become viable as a 'one,' where subject-formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms" (177).

[2.11] David Ross Fryer (2003) suggests a way to allow room within this theory for a sense of self. He offers that in addition to Butler's model, one has an inner sense of who one is. The source of this sense still complies with Butler's model; one learns the available genders and identities, then identifies with one, creating an inner sense of gendered belonging. Both Fryer's and Butler's models describe a universal, inescapable, and self-perpetuating system of coding. Within this system, presenting as a gender that is not coded, known, and recognized is null—akin to speaking in a made-up language. I argue that a loophole exists that enables some level of system shift.

[2.12] Kustritz's (2003) model may offer this loophole. Butler's model depicts a single person left alone to fight a virtually all-encompassing system. Kustritz's model, on the other hand, describes a community. At the time of writing, the Archive of Our Own (AO3), a central archive for fan fiction works, has more than 2,903,000 registered users. Within a field this large, otherwise unknown codings can be and regularly are understood. Fandom often uses its own language and codes, as anyone who ever told a nonfan "I stan Stucky, but only in H/C PWP ABO AUs" would know. In a community this size, a person inventing codes for gender outside of the binary might not be alone. A person like that may be able to find those who understand their gender language and who by seeing and acknowledging it validate it and make it part of a system.

[2.13] This is not to say that fan fiction fan spaces are without binarism and other types of transphobia: as Busse and Lothian (2009) discuss, fan fiction is often written for the pleasure and education of cisgender people while disregarding the needs and interests of actual transgender and nonbinary people.

[2.14] However, quite a few fan fiction spaces are aware enough of nonbinary genders to recognize and engage with the possibility of genders outside the binary system. I discuss this further later, and it is also reflected in the results of Centrumlumina's (2013) census of AO3 users. While the question to participants was phrased a bit problematically, this census still provides deeply important information: even by the most conservative interpretation of the data, it's undeniable that over 7 percent of participants identified as genderqueer, and about 9 percent chose more than one of the provided gender options. In this way, the fans' counterpublic allows for its own system rules. While there is not a lot of research on the topic at the time of writing, these numbers validate what I believe was a zeitgeist in the census's age: fandom, as a whole, knew of the existence and presence of nonbinary people.

3. This gender is often nonbinary

[3.1] Kustritz (2003) indeed describes fandom as a community project that has the goal of reinventing gender. But according to Kustritz, it seems fans are only interested in improving masculinity and are completely unaware of nonbinary genders. This assertion may be true of some fans, but it seems that fandom is undertaking a more groundbreaking practice in gender creation: bringing forth genders outside of the binary gender system. I now examine the multiplicity and nonbinary characteristics of the genders that fans are workshopping together.

[3.2] While classic fan studies researchers seem to ignore anything and everything transgender and nonbinary, many actually describe practices that they believe to be at the core of slash fan fiction fandoms that are hard to read as binary and cisgender. They set out to understand why fans—whom they assert are heterosexual women—would want to write slash, stories that seem to be about gay men. This story format, it should be mentioned, was shown to be inaccurate due to erasing readers and characters who are attracted to more than one gender (Lackner, Lucas, and Reid 2006).

[3.3] Classic fan studies scholars often suggest that authors writing these stories are in fact writing about women on the bodies of men characters. Bacon-Smith (1992), for example, finds these stories in the hurt/comfort genre (stories where a character is hurt and another cares for or comforts them). As Bacon-Smith explains, hurt/comfort stories allow the woman reader to explore her rage. Through the characters, she is able to inflict pain on those who regularly threaten and harm her, receive empathy, and experience her confusion and dread.

[3.4] Bacon-Smith (1992) also indicates that fans enjoy identifying with men who are being taken care of since this is forbidden to women. She outlines that at the same time, fans identify with characters (men or women) who take care of men, as it validates their identities as women. As such, according to Bacon-Smith, authors may identify with multiple characters of more than one gender at a time.

[3.5] One of the most popular and repeated theories in fan fiction research explains that authors of slash write about romance between men because this allows them to envision romance not based on (nonconsensual, socially enforced) dominance and submission, unlike what they find in heterosexual romance (Lackner, Lucas, and Reid 2006). Kustritz (2003) explains that heterosexual women authors struggle to imagine equal and safe relationships between men and women because of systemic inequality between these groups. Writing stories about relationships between two men thus enables the authors to imagine equality within the relationship.

[3.6] This theory appears in many studies regarding fic, often with the assertion that in slash ships, one of the pairing is coded as a woman. Bacon-Smith, for example, describes the widespread format of women writers writing women characters on the bodies of men characters. She concedes it does not appear in all stories, but "some writers in all genres strongly feminize one character over another: they may emphasize a difference in height and bulk between the pair, such as Hutch's height or the broadness of Kirk's shoulders…Some writers place one of the participants in the role of 'wife,' even if he is a working wife" (1992, 250).

[3.7] This theory is still widely taught and repeated (Lackner, Lucas, and Reid 2006), despite echoing old stereotypes of same-gender relationships. Milena Popova (2018) revisits this theory, pointing out that a lot of relationships within fan fiction and slash are far from equal or ideal. One example are stories written in ABO worlds, where there is often severe discrimination between partners within romantic relationships.

[3.8] Another revisitation of this model by Rukmini Pande and Swati Moitra (2017) indicates that the model does not account for systemic racial inequality that may exist between romantic partners who are both men. This would also be true of many who are transgender, genderqueer, disabled, fat, asexual, aromantic, immigrants, undocumented, neurodivergent, autistic, of different classes, religions, ages, financial positions—the list goes ever on.

[3.9] I suggest that the practice this model describes is all about gender transition. To reword this theory, while some characters are often assumed to be men and have bodies that audiences unthinkingly read as men's, they are really women. This alone is probably the most well-known narrative of what "transgender" means, though it is often inaccurate at best.

[3.10] As Shannon Sennott and Tones Smith (2011) put it, "Often, trans- and gender-nonconforming individuals within a clinical setting are described as those whose physical sex does not match the gender of the mind or soul: 'She's a woman trapped in a man's body.' This explanation may make sense intuitively, but only because the sex/gender binary is so assumed that it becomes a privileged invisible identity" (226). What these classic scholars are describing is a genre in which protagonists are regularly women in men's bodies.

[3.11] This theory also describes authors who are assumed to be women, who find that the best way to express their gendered selves is through characters who are assumed to be men. To paraphrase, the authors described publish anonymously in a space intended for expression of the most intimate gendered lived experiences—and they regularly choose to write these as expressed in or through bodies assumed to belong to men. This anonymous space is also notorious for being intended for the most indulgent, pleasurable gendered fantasies. What this theory is (seemingly inadvertently) saying is that a regular fantasy for fan writers is moving in the world, and being loved, in a body assumed to belong to a man.

[3.12] These are all basic transgender narratives. On the other hand, one might ask whether the two halves of the equation don't negate one another—if these characters are women, and the authors are women, this is not transgender at all. At most, this is what Kustritz and Bacon-Smith describe as appropriating transgender people's experiences in using transition for cisgender enjoyment, as Busse and Lothian (2009) demonstrate.

[3.13] I suggest another reading that takes into account the existence of nonbinary genders. In such a reading, authors feel that the oppression and dreams that they have regarding gender are better represented in this way.

[3.14] Classic scholars such as Kustritz and Bacon-Smith describe a world in which women authors express their lived experiences, fantasies, and gendered selves through women characters (who those not in the know mistakenly read as men). Let's take this to be true while continuing to explore these characters. Though, as Bacon-Smith (1992) says, codings linked with womanhood are often emphasized in these characters, they are often accompanied by emphasis on other codings that are linked with being men.

[3.15] One of many examples is Dean Winchester of the Supernatural (2005–2020) fandom. Dean is one of the show's main characters, arguably the protagonist. Dean is regularly characterized as working hard to build a reputation as a man who is not gay (Tosenberger 2008). This is a rare endeavor for wives and the romance novel heroines that the above theory equates characters like Dean with. In practice, this means Dean is commonly linked with Western masculinity. On the other hand, Dean is described as having long lashes, as well as other codings generally associated with womanhood. More specifically, the character is coded as a woman, alongside being coded as a man. As I (Leetal 2018) elaborate in my work, having more than one gender is one of the common forms of nonbinary gender (e.g., it is often at the core of being bigender, trigender, genderfluid, and multigender; Jaroszewski et al. 2018). Generally, research either treats characters as simply and directly men or—following the model—as women. However, the very existence of these two strong, supposedly contradictory branches implies that these characters have more than one gender—meaning they are therefore not binary.

[3.16] Generally speaking, these characters often have so many contradicting gender codings that reading them as binary-gendered is reductive and out of character. As I demonstrate (Leetal 2018), Dean is strongly described by different scholars as a man, a woman, and variations of those. Writing Dean as having only one gender would mean leaving out a significant part of Dean's characterization.

[3.17] Kustritz (2003) and Bacon-Smith (1992) suggest that one way of knowing these characters are women is that they are generally depicted as facing oppression most often experienced by (white, binary, cisgender) women. Classic fan fiction research, however, ignores the reality that the various oppressions that characters face are very often experienced by people of nonbinary genders. For example, according to Harrison, Grant, and Herman (2012), 20 percent of nonbinary people are involved in informal economics like sex work (22), 32 percent have been assaulted (23), and 43 percent have attempted to take their lives, as compared to 1.6 percent of the general population (22). These are all common depictions of characters in fan fiction.

[3.18] I do not mean to say that every author and character in the fan fiction sphere is transgender or otherwise nonbinary, but it is a strong theme at the core of the field. It is hard not to wonder how much of an erased contribution nonbinary participants have made to the construction of the field. Many have written about marginalized groups' contributions and lived experiences being uncredited, erased from history, or twisted to appear hegemonic, even within marginalized environments (Crenshaw 1991). Eden Lackner, Barbara Lynn Lucas, and Robin Anne Reid (2006) discuss this in regard to women fans in fan spaces dominated by men. It would be fascinating to revisit our fan histories and tell some of the lost stories of marginalized participants.

[3.19] This theory's description of moving between genders or multiplying them is almost intrinsically a trans or nonbinary practice. But Kustritz and Bacon-Smith are far from the only classic fan studies scholars whose writings lend themselves to understanding fans and characters as having more than one gender.

[3.20] Another such scholar is Victoria Somogyi (2002), who suggests that despite common belief, fans who enjoy het fan fiction are not heterosexual. Lackner, Lucas, and Reid (2006) elaborately explore this as well. Somogyi (2002) examines the fandom and fan works around the Janeway/Chakotay ship of Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001). She explains that fans reading a story about a woman and man are assumed to identify with the woman character and desire the man character. According to Somogyi, this assumption is incorrect, and she argues that fans of Janeway/Chakotay instead identify with Janeway, but are attracted to both Janeway and Chakotay. In this way, the assumption of attraction should be broadened, and fans should be recognized as being attracted to both the man and woman characters.

[3.21] Somogyi stops there, but one may ask, why not broaden the identification assumption as well? Somogyi (2002) writes that fans are attracted to both Janeway and Chakotay but doesn't suggest extending the assumption that fans only identify with Janeway. To borrow from Bacon-Smith's (1992) discussion of slash, however, the tendency to identify with more than one position is so strong that "some of the less experienced writers lose control of their point of view in sex scenes, as they simultaneously identify with all of the characters" (239). Why would only the identification aspect of the model not correlate? Just as fans may hold both attractions, they may hold multiple identifications as well. If so, this model describes fans who have multiple genders—a very common form of nonbinary gender(s).

[3.22] One might wonder whether fans' identification with men characters is no more than the practice of an oppressed group pushed to identify with the hegemonic story protagonists, leading them to erase women from stories. Lackner, Lucas, and Reid (2006) discuss this possibility, alongside the assumption that fans are always subversive. They explain that both ends of this spectrum are true, along with a complex variety of experiences between them.

[3.23] In fan fiction, as demonstrated, expressing one's gender experiences in a gender one was not assigned is so ubiquitous it may be transparent. So is writing characters who have more than one gender—that is, characters who are nonbinary (Leetal 2018). This points to fan fiction having an affinity for trans or other nonbinary genders. Whether fans are expressing or, in continuation of Butler, inventing and also doing nonbinary gender, it seems to be a common interest, practice, and ongoing large-scale brainstorm.

4. Brought into flesh

[4.1] The nonbinary gender codings that fans workshop don't remain solely within the realm of words and imaginations. Fans bring these gender practices, expressions, and performances into the world on their own bodies. I now look at the ways fans bring these genders into flesh, such as through cosplay and podfic. Cosplay is a type of fan work that involves dressing up as and/or creating outfits of characters. Podfic is another type of fan work in which fans create audiobooks, radio plays, and other (usually spoken) audio-based art.

[4.2] A lot of fan practices lend themselves to becoming embodied by fans. Cosplay is an obvious example, as are fan movies and theater productions. Fan creators study a character's movements, clothing, accessories, and speech patterns—many down to the smallest, most accurate details. They often spend hours, weeks, or sometimes far longer searching for the exact, perfect item—or making it themselves. Some fans study hairdressing and hairstyling history to get their hair just right to play characters. For example, it is doubtful a lot of the people even in the Good Omens (2019–) television crew are aware of the exact right shoes, buttons, patterns, and hairstyles the characters have at every point they are shown throughout history. Some fans know them exactly.

[4.3] These are, of course, all gendered items and practices. According to Butler (2011), gender is always a performance in the sense that it is based on practices, not in a deep personal core that exists outside of society. Nevertheless, Butler defends that official performances may highlight this model. In cosplay and fan productions, careful and accurate collection and documentation of gender signifiers is common. Like Butler's description of a woman imitating women in order to learn how to do womanhood, fans collect, learn, and develop information. These details, or gender characterizations to imitate, are found in corporate endorsed iterations of stories as well as in fan works, fanon, and/or headcanons. Fans inspire one another in making these ways for genders to be expressed or performed. This multiple and mutual learning also fits Butler's model exactly.

[4.4] For quite a few fans, these practices have meaning beyond a simple performance at a convention. For some, these embodiments have a gendered personal meaning. This blog post from Spnaturalconfessions (2016), for example, discusses enjoying what some fans refer to as secret cosplay: "Sometimes I go to work in my Dean cosplay. Nobody knows it's Dean but my friend and me but it still makes me feel awesome." This feeling may be familiar to a lot of trans and other nonbinary people. It resembles a classic trans practice in which one chooses small signifiers of one's gender when unable to live full-time as who they are. Having something like Bucky Barnes's red star, Dean's amulet, or Aziraphale's tie may help ease dysphoria a little bit or simply promote happiness. Having a signifier of who you are can be meaningful in a world that relentlessly ignores or otherwise invalidates it.

[4.5] Podfic as well easily lends itself to fans' practice of expressing fan fiction genders on their bodies. This is particularly meaningful given that mainstream media offers nearly zero nonbinary roles and characters, and the few existing ones are often played by binary and cis actors. While narrating podfic is unpaid and often doesn't make such representations explicit, it provides the possibility of listening to and playing multiple well-written nonbinary roles and creating in ways that allow one to engage with their gender.

[4.6] Personally, when I tried narrating podfic, it was one of the very few times I felt gender euphoria. It was meaningful to be able to speak this gendered expression and feel it on my skin, my expression, in my throat, in the world. To be able to play a character whose gender I identified with, rather than felt pain in trying to pretend fit me. While binary actors may enjoy playing a gender that feels wrong, doing it for the length of a performance is quite different from spending years performing a gender that is not theirs with no choice and possibly without consent.

[4.7] In accordance with Butler's model, fans learn how to do these genders from various sources. A fandom's canon is far from the only or even main source of gender characterizations—fans often learn them from one another. This happens in the same way that Kustritz (2003) describes, where fandom is a community brainstorm: fans get to know one another's works and accept elements of them. Through repeated reading, writing, and other participation in fandom, characterizations solidify or shift. There isn't a single set way to do fan fic genders just as there isn't a single exact way of doing other genders. But repeated mutual imitation, invention, and policing draw guidelines and pools of codings.

[4.8] Bringing characters' gender codings into our world in flesh is not only done through cosplay and podfic portraying these characters. Many fans adopt into their everyday lives the music tastes, jewelry and clothing choices, drinking and eating habits, and body language and ways of movement in the world learned from their favorite characters.

[4.9] During a period when I wrote a lot of fan fiction, I would often vocalize lines to hear the characters' intonation and voice in order to feel whether it gave me the right body language—as well as what it was like to be in the character's body. I often found myself adopting characters' traits into my own expressions. For example, some of Dean's traits lingered: I started biting my lip and rubbing a hand over my face when I was upset, listening to Dean's music, and wearing flannel over my men-cut undershirts. I tried to learn to speak and walk like Dean and tried to find a jacket like his.

[4.10] In current Western culture, there are very few ways to express or do nonbinary gender through appearance. Genders outside of the binary as we know it existed and still exist outside of Western cultures, as well as in rare and oftentimes concealed spaces within them. As far as most Western societies are concerned, however, the available ways to do nonbinary gender are mostly reserved for very few and privileged body types—there are nearly no social images of how to be nonbinary. Most nonbinary people don't have enough ways to express, explore, and enjoy their genders (or, according to Butler, to perform them). When people talk about nonbinary gender, they usually mean thin, young, white, middle-class people with a slightly boyish or masculine appearance (Gordon et al. 2019). This means, in continuation of Butler, that people who don't happen to embody these attributes are, for the most part, left with even fewer role models and little to no way to express, affirm, or perform their genders.

[4.11] Fandom provides more and more characters who are coded as nonbinary to find joy in and through which to invent and discuss how to do nonbinary gender. While characters are rarely explicitly written as nonbinary (but remain coded as such) and are less represented, especially in outward-facing representation, characters in fandom provide material to create with and often a community to imagine with. While fandom is far from sufficiently diverse, nonbinary characters in fandom provide somewhat more varied ways to be nonbinary. For example, Aziraphale of Good Omens—unlike the emerging stereotype of nonbinary people—is chubby, looks middle-aged, and is always immaculately dressed in elegant upper-class clothing. These representations are something to build on. An inspiration.

[4.12] In her work about affect in fan fiction, Anna Wilson (2016) explains that fan studies must take into account fans' affect and emotions. In continuation of this argument, I suggest that bringing characters into our world on one's flesh is an intimate sharing, entwined deeply with being a fan. When characters feel fear, fans' breath hitches and their muscles tense. When characters are relieved or amused, fans voice their laughter. Characters cry tears formed in fans' eyes. Some fans are aroused by kisses felt on characters' lips. Some lend their bodies as sites where characters' orgasms happen. A ship involves not just the characters: authors and readers are also part of that relationship. When an author writes Dean as loving Sam, the love may be felt in the author's and readers' bodies, as is Sam's returned love and his love for their love. Shipping is a polyamorous relationship involving characters, readers, writers, creators of podfic, and so on. As I tasted for nonbinary gender in my characters' words, in my throat and on my lips, people who make podfic of my stories may echo, taste, shift, or reinvent them. When I dress (poorly) as Bucky Barnes, I am not doing Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes, nor even the comics' Bucky Barnes: I'm recreating the Bucky I could identify with from my favorite fic.

[4.13] Maybe fans are finding ways to express long hidden desires and personal truths. Maybe fans are inventing these genders and themselves as they are inventing characters. Regardless, it is deeply meaningful. This might explain why some people feel attraction to characters in fan works or on fans' bodies as a category different from men or women.

5. Attraction to these genders

[5.1] Fans repeatedly express attraction toward characters, even when they are not attracted to those of the character's supposed gender. It is fairly common to find comments like "I am not gay, but I'd be interested in Dean." One post from Spnaturalconfessions (2014) reads, "I am a lesbian but Dean–makes me question my sexuality."

[5.2] This doesn't always mean attraction to Dean's actor, but rather an attraction toward Dean and Dean's gender. This is exemplified by Tumblr posts like Sherlylawks's ( one post features a call to anyone who "plays Dean or is Dean" and a GIF of a person on a bed gesturing in invitation. It seems attraction to Dean does not always require one to physically look like Dean's most well-known actor, Jensen Ackles, but rather to perform as Dean.

[5.3] Even several of Supernatural's actors talk about feelings toward Dean outside of their usual interests. Perhaps the most outspoken is Matt Cohen, who seems to identify as straight. In response to a fan question, Cohen repeatedly discusses his first scene with Dean, explaining that he had trouble focusing, as he was so mesmerized: "He's like a prince, you know?…I don't remember anything that happened that day, night, or any time before or after because of Dean's mouth" (Leo (Wayward Winchester) 2018). Cohen often specifically mentions Dean's deep, gruff voice as well—not a coding Jensen Ackles regularly uses, but one adopted for playing Dean.

[5.4] The discrepancy of people being attracted to fan fiction characters outside of their general gender preferences can be easily explained if one sees these characters as nonbinary. For example, a person who defines himself as a heterosexual man might simply mean that he is not interested in men. Since nonbinary genders are so frequently, deeply, and severely disregarded, this person may be unaware of or have never asked himself whether he might be attracted to those of any gender outside of the binary. Finding himself interested in a person who is not a woman may not necessarily mean that he is interested in men, but rather that he is interested in someone of a gender outside the binary options.

[5.5] At this time, in most Western cultures, attraction toward nonbinary people is rarely recognized ("Romantic and Sexual Orientation," Nonbinary wiki, Terms for this attraction are nearly universally unknown, and the meaning of words like "pansexual," intended for nonbinary inclusion, are a continuous site of debate over meaning and basic validity. Even sources that do recognize that some people might be nonbinary often disregard the possibility of anyone being attracted to a nonbinary person.

[5.6] This creates an environment where if, for example, a man is interested in women and nonbinary people, he would most likely be categorized as straight; this would hold true unless he dates a nonbinary person who passes as a man, in which case he would likely be categorized as gay. Functionally, his attraction to nonbinary people is often entirely erased. On a personal level, almost every person who ever expressed romantic or sexual interest in me misgendered me to fit their identity of attraction.

[5.7] As such, a very simple explanation of the many people attracted to fan fiction characters, despite not being interested in men and/or women, is that these characters are neither binary women nor binary men.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Despite going almost completely unrecognized, trans and nonbinary narratives appear in classic fan studies theories. Earlier fan studies address the sexuality of fic lovers at best, entirely ignoring the existence of trans people, but our presence is baked into the core of this theory. At the same time, classic models of fan communities' processes of creation correlate with Butler's model of gender.

[6.2] Examining these models together points to a loophole in Butler's model that allows the existence of nonbinary genders. This comes in addition to the ubiquity of erased nonbinary coding (and possibly participants) in fan communities.

[6.3] I suggest that these gender expressions are part of the work that fan fiction fandoms do. Fandoms are inventing ways to be nonbinary and may even be creating nonbinary genders. This is reflected, for example, in the practice of writing slash, as described by classic fan studies works. In this process, the author and character often possess one another's gender(s), sharing into being an existence of having more than one gender. This is also reflected in the ubiquitous attraction in fan spaces toward characters outside one's binary gender preference. I argue that said attraction is often because attraction toward those of nonbinary genders is erased, so these characters' nonbinary genders are erased as well.

[6.4] These nonbinary genders, ways to be, and creations do not remain imagined and fictional but are also brought into our world in flesh on some fans' bodies. This is done, for example, through practices such as cosplay and podfic. Fandom allows some fans the opportunity to embody genders other than those assigned to them; in turn, fan communities allow some nonbinary genders to thrive and even be embodied in their desires and bodies.

[6.5] This work does not deeply differentiate between various nonbinary genders or differences in point of view based on identities, intersectional differences, fandom, or genre. I hope future works will address these, as well as nonbinary fans' historical experiences.

7. Notes

1. One research paper (to remain anonymous, as the author need not be involved) claims that there wasn't any group for transgender stories in fandom before 2008. In fact, the group Transslash did this beginning in 2003 at the latest—and probably in 2001 or earlier.

2. The reference to women's oppression seems to only involve universalized white, cisgender, and otherwise privileged women. Early fan studies research ignores trans and other nonbinary fans and characters, insisting on seeing all fans as heterosexual married women, sometimes going as far as insisting that they are heterosexual (allosexual) women who have degrees and are dissatisfied with their jobs.

3. I use Butler's theory here in order to take part in academic discussion. My beliefs regarding the origins of gender are that the question is overdiscussed. While I enjoy some of the theories, every reply I am familiar with is translated into questioning the validity of transgender or nonbinary people. As far as I'm personally concerned, my loyalty is not with any theory, but with the rights, well-being, and safety of transgender and other nonbinary people. That said, I agree with Julia Serano (2015) that these harmful results are often inadvertent or intentional misunderstandings of theories. In addition, it should be mentioned that some may question the prominence of Butler's classic theories when Butler themself doesn't identify as binary-gendered. It is not for me to guess Butler's position on these issues, but, as cited, the fact remains that these theories are widely popular and are the ones taught. As Serano (2015) explains, Butler the theorist and Butler the person should be differentiated. In addition, it should be noted that while Butler let us know their gender is outside of the binary, their theory remains widely taught and influential, meriting revisitation and reexploration.

4. A mediocre performance would peg her as a failure at being a woman—an unsuccessful woman but still a woman, or at least still binary-gendered.

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