In many ways the science fiction pulps and the science fiction novels of the pulp era were conservative when it came to gender matters. Women – if they appeared at all – were usually relegated to the roles of girlfriends or victims, and sex was never mentioned. Compared to the romance, detective, and especially the spicy pulps, the science fiction pulps were incredibly chaste. But in one respect the science fiction pulps were progressive even by current standards: sex change stories.
Gender Change and Gays: Yay! and Ick!
From the beginning, pulp stories and novels about sex change (technically "gender change," since gender is what you are and sex is what you do) struck a positive note. As mentioned in a previous column, Gregory Casparian's The Anglo-American Alliance (1906) is a near-future novel in which two women, Aurora Cunningham and Margaret MacDonald, have a love affair while in school. Although Casparian never describes their relationship as taking place in a physical way, it is clear from his descriptions that Cunningham and MacDonald are lesbian lovers, and both go so far as to make "a solemn compact, bound by an inviolable oath, not to make any alliance with any suitor whatever and to remain united to each other in souls until death should them part." After graduation, Cunningham returns home to England. MacDonald's reaction is to consult with the famous surgeon Dr. Hyder Ben Raaba and persuade him to perform a "mental and physical metamorphosis" which turns Margaret into a man. Now "Spencer Hamilton," MacDonald marries Cunningham and the pair lively happily ever after.
The Anglo-American Alliance is the first science fiction novel with lesbian protagonists and the first to portray a gender change. Cunningham and MacDonald are positively portrayed and their relationship is depicted as no different from a heterosexual love affair. However, rather than have the two women live happily ever after-a denouement perhaps impossible given the publishing climate of 1906-Casparian had one change her gender, so that the lesbian couple becomes a male-female couple, and the traditional expectations of the reading audience were appeased. Too, the main characters are both women, and many male readers would dismiss Cunningham's experience with the notion that all she needed was a real man.
The only other pulp-era novel of the fantastic to portray both gender change and homosexuality was significantly more hostile. Michael Arlen's Hell! Said the Duchess. A Bed-Time Story (1934) is a cross between a society detective story and Machen-esque horror. In a near-future London a series of sex crimes are committed against men, and the police are looking for "Jane the Ripper." The virtuous and kind Duchess of Dove is a suspect, but the Commissioner of Police refuses to believe that she could have done it, because the killer had sex with the men before she mutilated them, something the Commissioner refuses to believe the Duchess is capable of. It turns out that the murderer is the demonic disbarred doctor Xanthis Axaloe, a bisexual shapeshifter who transforms himself into the Duchess in order to murder and foment social unrest. The novel becomes heavily erotic, and undoubtedly disturbing for its contemporary heterosexual readers, as Axaloe, in female form, mesmerizes and begins to have sex with one of the protagonists before being strangled to death.
Violation of Hetero Expectations
Male readers would have similarly uncomfortable with "Teoquitla the Golden," which was written by "Roman de las Cuevas," the pseudonym of anthropologist Mark Harrington (1882-1971), and appeared in Weird Tales (Nov. 1924). The story seems to be a standard Lost Race story, in which Robert Sanderson, an American explorer, discovers a lost valley of Aztecs. Sanderson is a callous womanizer and had earlier gotten a woman pregnant and abandoned her. The woman committed suicide, and her parents ask the Aztecs to punish Sanderson. The Aztecs offer Sanderson the choice of being sacrificed to Huitzilopchtli or devoting his life to the goddess Centeotl. Not understanding the implications of his decision, Sanderson chooses Centeotl. Initially he is made to wear women's clothing and to act as the goddess' avatar on Earth, but later he is forced to drink a special liquid which changes him into a woman, Teoquitla. Teoquitla eventually accepts her new gender and role and falls in love with Montezuma, the ruler of the Aztecs, but after they are married Montezuma is killed by local bandits, and Teoquitla sadly leaves the Aztecs and returns to the United States.
"Teoquitla the Golden" has in common with Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" a twist ending which is both transgressive and a violation of the reader's expectations and perspectives. The narrator of "Innsmouth," Robert Olmstead, is the audience's point-of-view character and the putative hero of the story, but at the end of the story he joins the Deep Ones, and as he does so his point-of-view, which the audience has been sharing, becomes that of a Deep One: alien and antithetical to humanity. In "Teoquitla the Golden" the point-of-view character for the mostly male audience of Weird Tales not only becomes a woman, but falls in love with a man (and a non-white man, at that), marries him, and (implicitly) has sex with him. In The Anglo-American Alliance the lesbian Aurora Cunningham became the heterosexual Spencer Hamilton–something the heterosexual male audience would have approved of–but in "Teoquitla the Golden" the heterosexual Robert Sanderson becomes the heterosexual Teoquitla, which the heterosexual male audience, having projected themselves into the role of Sanderson, would have been discomfited by.
Happy Endings (Not That Kind, The Other Kind)
"Teoquitla the Golden" ends tragically, but other gender change stories in the pulps end on happier notes. The narrator in H.O. Dickinson's "The Sex Serum" (Weird Tales, Oct. 1935) describes how Professor Neville, an elderly scientist, discouraged a young man, Gilmour, from pursuing Neville's daughter, Jeanette. This was done not out of protectiveness for Jeanette, but rather because Neville had always wanted a son and hated having a daughter, and was working on discovering a process for changing a person's gender. Ultimately Neville finds one and uses it to transform Jeanette into a man. When Gilmour discovers this, he forces the professor to undergo the process, but this destroys the professor's intellect, and Gilmour goes insane, killing the now-female Neville and stunning the now-male Jeanette. The story ends with the narrator's admission that he used to be Jeanette, but he is now the happy and contented father of two boys and has absolutely no regrets about his change of gender.
In Thorne Smith's Turnabout (1931) Tim and Sally Willows are a married couple who are bored with their lives and roles in society, feel generally unfulfilled, and are sure that the other has it better. Their constant bickering so annoys Mr. Ram, an Egyptian idol the Willows keep in their bedroom, that one night, while the Willows sleep, Mr. Ram swaps their genders. The usual Thorne Smith wackiness, familiar to readers and viewers of Topper, ensues, as well as some social critique of suburbia, the church, and medicine. The wife adjusts relatively quickly to her husband's body, although his social and work duties are confounding to her, but the husband adjusts less easily to the wife's body and her pregnancy. He eventually does, however, and even embraces the experience of childbirth. Eventually Mr. Ram undoes his change, and the Willows are reconciled to each other. As with Jeanette in "The Sex Serum," the Willows do not find a changed gender bothersome, and Tim and Sally are far more discontented with social duties and roles than with their altered bodies.
Although nearly all pulp stories showed the recipients of gender change to be happy with the change, some pulp stories were suspicious of those changed, if not outright hostile. David H. Kellar wrote a number of stories for the early science fiction pulps, many of which were highly intolerant of women, blacks, and Asians. Unsurprisingly, Keller was hostile toward the idea of gender change. In his "The Feminine Metamorphosis" (Science Wonder Stories, Aug. 1929), a female business executive responds to an oppressive glass ceiling by joining a group of women in China who are paying Chinese men to allow themselves to be castrated. An extract from the severed genitals is sent to Paris and then injected into five thousand feminist zealots, which changes their gender. Thus changed, they conspire together as a ruthless group of businessmen whose ultimate goal is to eliminate masculinity from the human race (with the exception of a few strapping lads who will be messenger boys). However, this goal is not achieved because, according to the story, all Chinese have syphilis, and the feminist zealots received this syphilis along with the genital abstract.
In Isidore Schneider's Doctor Transit (1925), a married couple, John and Mary, are dissatisfied with their lives, much like Tim and Sally Willows in Turnabout, but primarily on sexual grounds: Mary hates being controlled by her reproductive system, while John is unhappy at being limited to one sexual partner for the rest of his life. When they find out about the dwarf scientist Dr. Transit, who can apparently work wonders with his machines, John and Mary decide to investigate. Mary seduces Dr. Transit and convinces him to change her gender and John's. They become Joan and Marlowe, but the transformation does not bring them any happiness, and Joan convinces Dr. Transit to turn her back into a man. (Marlowe disappears from the book). Joan becomes "Jeremiah," a new man, who believes himself a prophet, founds a cult based on Transit, and eventually kills himself, expecting to be resurrected. (He isn't). In Doctor Transit the change in gender not only enhances previously existing unhappiness, it brings out latent insanity.