At one point in Nicola Griffith’s Slow River, the heroine, who works at a sewage treatment plant in a northern English industrial city, shows up for her shift together with her boss. Seeing Lore and the boss arriving together, their blue-collar workmates leap to conclusions and greet them with a chorus of winks and nudges. This is not too surprising, except that the boss is also a woman.
It might be said that a world where blue-collar workers assume two women arriving together at work are probably lovers would represent a triumph for the acceptance of gay people, but there is a twist: there are, in a sense, no gay people in Griffith’s near-future world. Although Lore’s uncle is married to a man and most of the sex in the book is between women–some of it quite steamy, some of it quite nasty (money, drugs, deception, child abuse)–the subject of sexual orientation is never mentioned. Nobody is described as gay or straight, nobody “comes out,” there is no mention even the practical question of figuring out whether a person you like is into your gender. Lore is quite definite about being attracted to women, but she never cites this as a defining feature of her identity.
One of the main questions that classic feminist sci-fi explored was whether, if women had power and autonomy, they would create a world radically different from and better than the one we’ve got (a common means of getting this autonomy was the elimination of men, or escape from them, which is a depressing commentary on how bad things were in the real world). I suppose one could ask the same question about GLBT people, and in both cases, Griffith’s answer seems to be fairly negative, that both groups, being born into a world with a tradition of exploitation and violence, are liable to perpetuate those traditions.
Lore main love interest for much of the book is Spanner, a charming but cynical street criminal. Spanner helps Lore out when she finds her naked and bleeding in an alleyway, but immediately insists on being repaid with Lore’s labor as an accomplice, beginning with various theft schemes and then moving to a year or two of drugged-out prostitution. Beneath her tough-guy exterior Spanner is selfish, secretive, emotionally unavailable, domineering…the complete Bad Boyfriend package, sans the package, of course. To be sure, Lore eventually escapes and finds Cherry the sewage-plant supervisor, just as butch and defiant but also a sweetheart into hand-holding and Tegan & Sara concerts…well, I made up the last bit, but you know what I mean. The point is that Lore’s troubles and triumphs are of a kind that women of any orientation might experience.
So I wonder if this vision of a future of acceptance so complete that it erases categories would strike the GLBT people I know as a dream or a nightmare. One of them once told me, “If I were religious, I would thank God every day that I’m a lesbian.” I don’t think she was just talking about sex with girls being preferable; surely a lot of what she meant had to do with the sense of being unbound by the rules of middle-class society, not expected to marry and settle down, and also of belonging to a club, of having a natural affinity and solidarity with your own people. If mainstream society stops isolating gay people, will they still be more fabulous than everyone else?
By the way, it may seem to go without saying that Lore and Griffith ultimately regard turning tricks as degrading to women, as well as dangerous. Actually, though, it seems that there is a movement among some of the younger generation to rehabilitate prostitution as a medium of female empowerment. I was quite surprised to hear of young lesbians embracing another form of commercial sex by going to strip clubs and buying lap-dances. So maybe Griffith is identifying herself as old-fashioned.
Also by the way, both Griffith and her partner Kelley Eskridge have won [correction, been nominated for] the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. Tiptree (really Alice Sheldon) was a harrowingly brilliant writer of feminist SF who really ought to have been on that NPR top 100 list. If you run across her story “The Screwfly Solution,” give it a read.