Back when Mass Effect: Andromeda came out, an achilean male friend of mine expressed chagrin at the fact that his male player-character was gender-locked out of romancing one of the new male characters, Jaal. His (R-rated in real life) complaint boiled down to “he’s a kitty-cat man from another galaxy, does he really care about what’s in my pants?” And he had an extremely good point. So much so that they patched out the gender lock after game release. Mass Effect is far from the only IP that falls victim to this, but it certainly has the funniest interactions in this regard. It’s the 2100s and you’re hooking up with a blue alien telepath and the fact that you’re both, ostensibly, women is a concern? Really? That’s what we’re stuck on? It certainly reads like a product of its time.
And it’s really a very fascinating thing, isn’t it? That even in settings that present us with a sort of infinite biological possibility, we still hinge on human-centric interactions in regards to gender and sexuality, particularly ones with heteronormative bents. I’m just as guilty, obviously. We all are. I’m constantly forcing myself to reason out how interpersonal contact with non-human beings might actually work in a world where I’m making the rules up from scratch. What kind of model I could create to work from.
One of the first ways I started challenging my own pre-conceived notions (even as a queer person) was in revisiting the language around gender and attraction. If a male member of a species of human-sized bi-pedal lizards is solely attracted to human women, are they straight? Does it depend on the morphology of the females of the species? If so, where’s the line? If the males of species A more closely resemble the females of species B and vice versa, does a cross-species same-sex relationship actually look more like a heterosexual model of attraction? What about attraction from a bi-sexed species to tri-sexed species? What about within a single-sexed species? When one considers how even the current normal understanding of human genders can already complicate the semantics of attraction (how does one describe a cis-male’s attraction to a non-binary person?), introducing completely alien form-factors has the capacity to create weird and fun new vectors of attraction and romantic interaction.
And in an authentic setting these vectors very likely carry some kind of label. Or at least they would try to.
Because they’d probably run into the same complications and prejudices that we do as modern humans.
The first time I really started trying to come to an understanding with the language, I was working on in-depth character descriptions for an early game (that never released). I had a character who, to suit the narrative, wasn’t attracted to members of his own species. We certainly don’t have a name for that, now do we? Even though it was probably never going to come up in game I had to know. What language would he would use for himself? What would others use on him? Would society use that label like a bludgeon against him? I stumbled through some Latin and Greek. Slammed prefixes and roots and suffixes together. Contrasexual. Extrasexual. Aformantic. Unformamorous. I landed awkwardly on contraformasexual: lack of sexual attraction to physiological form-factors like one’s own. At the same time I devised a semantic cousin. Xenoformasexual: sexual attraction to form-factors other than one’s own.
And they’re not quite…right…still.
I put them through a text trial, saw how they laid out in conversation between two characters. It was…it was still weird. Slipping in epithets like “contrasex” and “xenoform” still didn’t hit well on the proverbial ear.
But I was on to something. I could feel it.
So though I’m still sort of figuring it out in the only way I know how (just…writing it and seeing what happens), this little experiment was the first step in something really important: restructuring my own thought process.
Because yeah, labels can box us in. It can create borders around our self-expression. But it can also give form to what we are, who we are, and what we can be. And who would I be to deny that gift to a kitty-cat man from another galaxy?