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I Can't Be Having with Transphobes Co-opting Sir Terry Pratchett

By James Field | Politics | August 4, 2021 |

By James Field | Politics | August 4, 2021 |


Contains many Discworld spoilers.

Sir Terry Pratchett was, by all accounts, a kind and thoughtful man taken from us too soon. Known primarily for the Discworld series, he sold well over 85 million copies of his work over the 40-odd years he was published. He was knighted for his services to literature, and there was never a more deserving recipient. He showed the world through a comic, satirical lens centered around his secular humanist beliefs, a genuine love of science and fantasy, and weaponized footnotes. His death in 2015 due to complications from early-onset Alzheimers was a demonstration that the universe is not without a sense of cruel irony, and a genuine tragedy.

I live according to the “Tao of Pratchett,” a phrase first coined by author Jim Butcher. As moral codes go it isn’t a complex one, though that doesn’t make it easy. There are a few simple rules. Remember that all people aren’t fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but fundamentally people. Realize that just because a problem isn’t your fault doesn’t mean it isn’t your responsibility. Recognize the world as equal parts comedy, tragedy, beauty, and absurdity. Don’t treat people as things, yourself included. And be yourself, just as hard as you can. It’s safe to say no one, living or dead, had a bigger impact on my moral development than Sir Terry.

Last week several of these precepts came to mind when I heard transphobes claim, without evidence, that Sir Terry would’ve stood next to them on their quest to keep trans people excluded and ostracized. I reminded myself that the world is made of fundamentally absurd people with too much time on their hands. Sir Terry’s daughter, Rhianna, and his good friend Neil Gaiman seemed to have things well in hand, so I moved on.

Fast forward to this morning, when this piece by an absolute doorstop of a human being, Sarah Ditum, came up. I’d never heard of her before today but a quick Google search confirms a fellow Pajiban’s description of Ditum as a woman whose defining trait is her transphobia. The main thrust can be summed up (poorly) by this passage:

The truth is that no one, not even those who knew Pratchett best, can be certain what he would have thought, because the terms of the row taking place over his dead body were not in place when he was alive. It makes as much sense to speculate about which “side” he’d have chosen as it does to ask what PG Wodehouse would have thought about lockdown, or how Jane Austen would have taken the decolonisation of the National Trust. The dead cannot be measured by the standards of a world in which they never lived.
This does not, of course, stop people from trying, especially when it comes to gender identity. There is a micro-industry of efforts to claim people from the past as trans pioneers.

The author, who clearly got her plot summaries from Wikipedia, uses a single Discworld example as the basis of her argument that neither trans-rights supporters nor “Gender Critical Feminists,” (a truly absurd moniker I refuse to use) can know what Sir Terry would have thought of trans women in sports. This is Cheery Littlebottom, the first self-identified female dwarf. Ditum argues, somewhat incoherently, that while trans activists can claim Cheery because she demands her very patriarchal society accept her as female, the transphobes can as well because Cheery is, after all, genetically female. That this is her only example demonstrates the shallowness of her argument. In a tweet, she credits Helen Lewis of The Atlantic, a British writer with her own history of transphobia, with “THE MOST” knowledge of Sir Terry.

It’s unclear if Lewis lied to Ditum or Ditum lied to us about Lewis’s comprehensive grasp of all things Pratchett. Helen Lewis may have done the reading, but it’s clear she doesn’t understand it. It’s unlikely Ditum ever picked up a book. Any book.

On the other hand, I have read my Pratchett. All of it, at least twice. This includes A Slip of the Keyboard, the collection of his non-fiction writing; his Johnny Maxwell and Bromeliad series; Dodger, Nation, and the entire Discworld series. I’ve read or listened to Nation and the Guards, Witches, and Tiffany Aching books at least 5 times each. I discovered Reaper Man more than 25 years ago and I never looked back. Unlike Ms. Ditum and her alleged muse, I’ve gone over all of it, again and again. Obsessive? Maybe. Nerdy? Definitely. Thorough? You bet your Luggage. I can’t say Sir Terry would have been an activist per se. He typically let his writing speak for him. But there is every reason to believe he was or would have been a staunch supporter of trans rights.

Let’s start with the dwarfs. “Sergeant Cheery Littlebottom was a genetic female who forced her patriarchal society to accept her cisgender identity” is a true statement. It also covers less than half of Cheery’s story arc (Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant). It covers even less of the dwarfs’ struggle for gender equality and freedom of identity. In both The Fifth Elephant and Thud! we see how the conservative dwarfs are willing to blame their own violent crime on other species and selectively edit historical records to maintain the status quo. The Fifth Elephant deals primarily with how social repression can only ever be a stopgap measure; like Night Watch and Interesting Times it delves into governments and political groups deciding the problem isn’t restrictive laws and customs, but the wrong sort of people existing in society. In Thud!, racial hatred of trolls is identified as a core belief in dwarfish society, in the same way that their only option for self-identification is to present as masculine. In Raising Steam those stakes are escalated as the fundamentalists, enraged at their declining power, move to physical attacks and outright terrorism to stop societal progress. Having failed to demonstrate the harm in greater inclusion they lash out in increasingly desperate ways. The story ends — at least from the dwarfs’ perspective — with the King coming out as a pregnant Queen, and a number of other, senior dwarfs presenting as female as well. At no point does Pratchett indicate that all these publicly female dwarfs, members of a race already adept at masking their gender, are biologically female.

Remaining with Ankh-Morpork City Guard for the moment, it quickly becomes obvious that Pratchett had no problem with the idea of societal and gender fluidity. In Jingo, Corporal Nobby Nobbs, a man who put the “thief” in “thief-taker,” discovers he’s quite comfortable in women’s clothing when on special assignment in Klatch. He continues to cross-dress in the subsequent Guard books and sees nothing unusual in it. Though he is not identified as trans, we see here again the concept of gender fluidity. He doesn’t use this as a tool to advance past female members of the Watch; it is simply a part of his identity. This freedom of personal expression comes into play again in Snuff and Raising Steam when we learn that Nobby, who has never been lucky in love, has entered a committed, long-term interspecies relationship with a lady goblin. Other interspecies relationships are mentioned, including romantically entangled trolls and dwarfs.

Monstrous Regiment is an entire Discworld book about a conservative, ass-backward country so ravaged by war that many of its young men are already dead. To find their brothers, husbands, and fathers the country’s young women disguise themselves as men and enlist in such numbers that we learn they run much of the army’s command structure, unbeknownst to the government. By the end of the book Sergeant Jackrum, a decorated soldier with decades of experience who is biologically female, identifies as male so strongly that he finds his long-lost biological son and introduces himself as the young man’s father!

And then there are the witches. Witches, in Pratchett’s Discworld, are the epitome of female empowerment. They are powerful, subtle, and bloody stubborn. A witch does as she thinks proper no matter who disagrees, including other witches. A witch does what must be done and accepts the cost with equanimity. Granny Weatherwax, a truly indomitable woman, is the ultimate embodiment of witchiness. The others move around her like planets do the sun, but just as powerful in their own ways. In Equal Rites, the first in Sir Terry’s Witches series, Granny is joined by Eskarina Smith, a young woman with a man’s magic inside her. In Wyrd Sisters, which is more or less a Macbeth satire, Granny’s coven sisters Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick join in the fun. Later Agnes\Perdita Nitt and, most critically, Tiffany Aching become key characters. Agnes is a young witch who’d rather be a singer, and who has a second personality, Perdita, who has an entirely different understanding of Agnes’s body as demonstrated in Carpe Jugulum (hmmm).

And Tiffany Aching? We meet her in Wee Free Men when she is only 9 years old and already determined to become a witch. She rescues her toddler brother from the Queen of the Fairies, defeats an entity older than the physical universe, and kisses the embodiment of winter. In I Shall Wear Midnight we learn that some witches are born, having been gifted by genetics or the gods with a great talent for magic. Tiffany was not one of those children. Tiffany was born to make great cheese — a wonderful calling on its own — but became a witch through sheer determination. Here we see another of the Tao of Pratchett precepts: being oneself just as hard as one can. Tiffany’s body might not know it’s that of a witch, but Tiffany’s mind and spirit absolutely do. That determination allows her to accomplish goals undreamed of by most witches. Tiffany knows who she is, what she is, and she refuses to let anyone tell her otherwise.

This leads us to The Shepherd’s Crown, Sir Terry’s final work. Posthumously finished and published by his daughter, Rhianna, the book’s pivotal scenes were written by Pratchett while he also worked on Raising Steam. It’s fair to say it’s a rough job, both in terms of writing and emotionally. I can’t even write about it without getting a little choked up. Everyone involved did their best but it doesn’t flow like so much of his work. He had to dictate his work at this point, having lost the ability to write due to his decline. It seems obvious that decline was prominent in his mind as he wrote Granny Weatherwax’s death scene, and in the final lessons he wanted to impart before he stepped into the desert beyond Death’s Door. In The Shepherd’s Crown Nightshade, Queen of the Elves, is deposed. Nightshade is the main antagonist of several Discworld novels but here she’s another female victim, mutilated and tossed aside by the male Elf who wanted her power.

Changed by her experiences, Nightshade evolves in much the same way as Janet in The Good Place, both immortal beings who had never before experienced personal growth. Nightshade is profoundly shaken by her experiences and does everything she can to help Tiffany fight the other elves. The Queen’s life ends tragically but not without hope that her experiences can help reshape the changeless, malicious Elves so they may flourish. The Shepherd’s Crown also introduces Geoffrey, a young aristocrat disgusted by what he sees as his family and peers’ violent and regressive ways. By the end of the book, Geoffrey becomes the first male witch and is given charge of Granny Weatherwax’s standing. Some of the more conservative witches are against male influence but Tiffany challenges them to see beyond their history. Geoffrey’s inclusion is a powerful moment for the witches, who live in a world dominated by magic but currently going through its own industrial revolution. “Change, grow, or fade away” is a message found through much of Sir Terry’s work and indeed his personal worldview.

Most of this is allegory, of course. The Discworld series is fiction, fantastical fiction at that, and open to interpretation. But there are limits to that. The recurring themes in Sir Terry’s work speak of human (or troll, or dwarf) advancement beyond the past and our own blinkered social concepts. Sarah Ditum wants you to believe we can’t look at the massive body of work produced by a man who left us only 6 years ago and make a fair assessment of his views. To convince you of this she compares him to Wodehouse (dead 46 years) and Austen (dead 204 years!) because if you think too hard about her premise you’ll find holes large enough to fly a broomstick through. I agree with about 50% of Ditum’s conclusion; she’s correct that transphobes, Helen Lewis, and Sarah Ditum can’t tell us what Sir Terry Pratchett would have thought about trans women in sports. Those of us with a greater understanding of his work, and more importantly the people who knew and loved him, can and have done better.

I am reminded of another recurrent theme in Sir Terry’s work; that of a container shaping and changing its contents. In Thief of Time Myria LeJean, an immortal and changeless Auditor of reality (just read the book), takes human form and is astonished to find herself changed by the process. She feels instincts for the first time. Her thinking is no longer purely logical but dictated by her body’s needs and chemical balance. She thinks to herself “I have seen galaxies die. I have watched atoms dance. But until I had the dark behind the eyes, I didn’t know the death from the dance. And we were wrong. When you pour water into a jug, it becomes jug-shaped and it is not the same water anymore.”

I am both the dark behind my eyes and the jug in which it sits. My jug, my physical body, has felt like me my entire life. I haven’t always liked it, but it’s as integral a part of my me-ness as my thoughts and senses. This theory of embodiment is not unusual in philosophy, and explores how form not only determines not only function but even how we think. “Embodied AI” is a related and fascinating field of research worth diving into. I don’t know what it feels like, emotionally and spiritually, for a disconnect or conflict to exist between my body and personhood. Even if that conflict is purely external in how society tries to define our bodies and selves, it’s beyond my knowledge and probably even my imagination. But I can empathize with how difficult it must be to feel different than you appear to everyone else. I know — we all know — how heavy the burden of societal expectation can be. Empathy is the bare minimum of what we owe to each other, an idea Sir Terry returned to time and time again.

At the end of the piece Ditum says Sir Terry “would have enjoyed the absurdity of being battled over as an icon.” In a way that’s almost true, though as with everything else she got it backward. Near the end of Sir Terry’s life, his good friend Neil Gaiman wrote in The Guardian about the anger Pratchett always carried with him.

Terry’s authorial voice is always Terry’s: genial, informed, sensible, drily amused. I suppose that, if you look quickly and are not paying attention, you might, perhaps, mistake it for jolly. But beneath any jollity there is a foundation of fury. Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any night, good or otherwise.

He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light. And, hand in hand with the anger, like an angel and a demon walking into the sunset, there is love: for human beings, in all our fallibility; for treasured objects; for stories; and ultimately and in all things, love for human dignity.

It’s not difficult to see. Any time injustice or self-righteousness turns Granny Weatherwax into an indomitable tower of cold anger and magic, she stands for Pratchett. When in Night Watch Commander Vimes battles Findthee Swing in the smoke of the burning Unmentionables headquarters, any time he speaks of unchaining the Beast within, it’s obvious Sir Terry understood rage intimately. On the surface, he’d be amused by this battle over his soul. He’d laugh and make a self-deprecating joke about the former Press Officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board being at the center of such social upheaval. And then he’d likely sit down at his keyboard and politely, viciously, flay the metaphorical skin from the transphobes’ bones just as he did racists, social fanatics, and religious fundamentalists in literally dozens of stories. Sir Terry believed in genuine fairness, not merely the appearance of it. He believed every human being deserved respect. He had a genuine love for the underdog and the social pariah, and none at all for the dismissive or bigoted.

I can’t untangle the complexities of transgender people’s integration into professional sports. Unlike Ms. Ditum, I’m willing to admit when the scope of a situation is entirely outside my wheelhouse. It’s why I’ve written thousands of words about fantasy literature and not Olympic competitions. Ms. Ditum’s “work” above for The Times and her previous publications show she’s not so reticent about making judgments. No doubt she’d feel my bob n’ two bits (my frankfurter and beans, my block and tackle, etc) make me less suited to reach the appropriate conclusions. It might be true. I’m probably my own example of the Peter Principle, working at my level of incompetence. But I know what I know. And lady, I know you don’t know Terry Pratchett. He doesn’t need me to defend him. For one thing, he’s long past caring. For another, his daughter and friends can do it better than I can. But I can, and will, always advocate for the spirit of inclusion and personal choice found at the heart of every Discworld novel.


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Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, // Peter Macdiarmid // Mirrorpix