(If this is TL:DR, here’s the takeway. The Tiptree Award is becoming the Otherwise Award. I am an ardent supporter of this change, and stand in awe of how well the award motherboard has handled it.)
My History with the Tiptree Award
I was intrinsically involved with the Tiptree Award from a couple of weeks after it was founded until the winter of 2017. I loved the idea of a science fiction award that explores and expands gender. I was the chair of the first panel of judges, I helped Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler (the founding mothers) incorporate the award, and then I was the chair of the incorporated award’s motherboard for many years.
I left in 2017 with the greatest affection and admiration for everyone involved with the award. I only left because of the results of the 2017 election, which made me feel committed to doing more directly political work, and that has worked out well for me.
Of course, the award continued to matter to me. I do occasional small things for folks on the Motherboard; I read the winners; I keep track. So in late August, when the award (and particularly its name) began receiving intense criticism, primarily from the disabled community, of course I paid attention.
The Issue At Hand
The James Tiptree, Jr. award is named for the pseudonym of a woman named Alice Sheldon. Because the award is about gender, the name for a male pseudonym of a female person is part of the ironic, tongue-in-cheek style the award has always used to make serious statements.
Alice Sheldon died in the late 1980s, by her own hand, after killing her older husband, Huntington Sheldon. The story has always been that it was a suicide pact; there are substantive reasons to believe this and substantive reasons to doubt it. Especially in the immediate wake of renaming the Astounding Award for much simpler reasons, serious and thoughtful questions were raised about whether an award named (sort of) for someone who might have murdered a disabled partner needed to rethink its identity.
The motherboard issued a preliminary statement about the controversy, and started collecting comments — and having their own deliberations. I talked to a few people on the motherboard, and I wrote my own comments, which they honored me by quoting in their renaming statement.
Why This Is the Right Choice
I can give you dozens of good reasons to keep the Tiptree Award name: it isn’t the name of the (maybe) murderess; it has over a quarter of a century of visibility and community; heroes can have feet of clay; etc., etc.
They are, however, eclipsed by one reason: people who live their lives under the shadow of being discounted and devalued want (need) to see the change. Either we are a community which supports and cares about our marginalized people and what they tell us matters to them, or we’re not. Either we believe in “nothing about us without us,” or we don’t.
My first reaction to the call for the name change was negative. Then I started reading what people were saying, people who can readily imagine themselves faced with a spouse or partner who said “it’s time for us both to die, so I’m going to take care of that for both of us.” I talked to a friend somewhat outside of the Tiptree orbit who has spent most of her life with deep suicidal impulses. She talked about how easy it could be for a suicidal person (which Alice Sheldon often was) to extend that impulse to their partner — and how easy it could be for the partner to “agree” without full consent. Consent is tricky.
Margiinalized people are deeply and inevitably aware of the existential threats they face because of their particular marginalization. So if disabled people are calling for something as minor in the scheme of things as renaming an award, and it will give them a voice and a value to get what they call for, the comparative weights of the two options are clear to me.
Why the Motherboard is Amazing
If you’ve read this far, you can stop reading now and just read the From Tiptree to Otherwise statement, itself very long. But just in case, I’ll quote a few fragments:
We want the Award to keep encouraging writers, artists, and other creative people to invent the future that we want to live in. For that to happen, we need readers, supporters, and creators to gather together in support of the Award’s winners and of the process of choosing them. And for that to be possible, we need all the voices to be heard.
From past winner and juror (and friend of this blog) Nisi Shawl:
The issue of harm reduction in the naming of the award is the kind of multifaceted problem the award was founded to address–though the axis of difference on which it focused was originally gender rather than ability. And what I’ve been hearing and saying about how we respond to this problem? That is the kind of multiplex analysis the Tiptree Award’s founders were encouraging by naming it not after an historical figure but a mythic one, a mythic figure arising out of one writer’s response to powerful social pressures.
From the motherboard again:
Joy, absurdity, and irreverence have long been in the DNA of the Tiptree Award. What other award crowns the winner with a tiara, raises money with bake sales, and serenades the winner? Now, our community has spoken and said: there is too much discomfort over this history for many of us to feel joyous about this name.
And a quotation that really caught me, from Black queer studies scholar and creative writer Ashon Crawley:
To begin with the otherwise as word, as concept, is to presume that whatever we have is not all that is possible. Otherwise. It is a concept of internal difference, internal multiplicity. The otherwise is the disbelief in what is current and a movement towards, and an affirmation of, imagining other modes of social organization, other ways for us to be with each other. Otherwise as plentitude. Otherwise is the enunciation and concept of irreducible possibility, irreducible capacity, to create change, to be something else, to explore, to imagine, to live fully, freely, vibrantly. Otherwise Ferguson. Otherwise Gaza. Otherwise Detroit. Otherwise Worlds. Otherwise expresses an unrest and discontent, a seeking to conceive dreams that allow us to wake laughing, tears of joy in our eyes, dreams that have us saying, I hope this comes true.
So, it’s not just that I’m in full support of the renaming. It’s not just that I’m enamored of the name (in large part because of Crawley’s words).
It’s that the motherboard is being the change I want to see in the world. Listening, thinking, taking everything in. Holding our past as valuable, our present as malleable, our future as more open and more diverse than our history.
The statement ends with a call for volunteers. If you’re in a position to step up, this is a great time to do it, and maybe you’ll be as well-rewarded as I have been. I’ve been honored to be associated with this award from the first day Pat Murphy called me about it. I’ve never been as honored, or as impressed, as I am now.