Gender Optics

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Author: Shalen Lowell
What if normative gender standards were legally enforced? How would our institutions inform and enforce these rules and regulations? What would be the consequences of failing to comply with gender expression standards? It’s in the midst of this maelstrom that we join Alex, our genderfluid and nonbinary protagonist who, during the thick of their adolescence, must navigate the choppy waters of lust, love, friendship, schooling, loss, and their city’s rigid – and perhaps lethal – gender expectations. In this world, Alex must constantly exchange their true self for safety and compliance, a relentless transaction from which they feel they never will escape. Can they navigate this slippery slope, alongside their patchwork community of friends and allies? Or is arrest and social persecution inevitable?

This novel is an honest and raw examination of queer lives. Gender Optics will illustrate, interrogate, and challenge the harmful products of binary hegemonic systems that all too often push gender variant folks to the fringes of society. While Gender Optics can be read purely for pleasure, it can also be used as supplemental reading for courses in critical theory, gender theory, gender and sexuality studies, LGBTQ studies, intersectionality, and arts-based research.

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Shalen Lowell is a transgender author residing in Southern Maine, specializing in fiction which validates the struggles and triumphs of LGBTQ+ folx. Shalen has contributed chapters on trans/genderfluid identity to Privilege Through the Looking Glass (Sense Publishers, 2017) and Scientists and Poets #RESIST (Brill Sense, 2019).
Read Shalen Lowell's interview with We Are the Real Deal here!

“In Gender Optics, Lowell introduces us to Alex, a young, gender non-binary person living in a society where heteronormative and hegemonic definitions of gender are legalized. Through rich descriptions of Alex’s thoughts, actions, and experiences, Lowell takes us through the tensions that Alex must navigate of state-sanctioned gender norms and daily micro- and macro-aggressions that force Alex into acts of conformity. Lowell’s honest writing style allows us to believe that this could be both wholly fictional and also painfully close to our reality. Gender Optics is a must read for those committed to exploring a deeper understanding of gender inclusion through both a personal and academic dialogue.” – Liza Talusan, PhD, Educator and Strategic Partner, LT Coaching and Consulting, LLC

“Although gender dynamics often show up as leitmotifs in fiction, they rarely take center stage. Gender Optics offers a refreshing alternative, with the trappings of coming of age filtered through this central lens. In the town of Springfield, author Shalen Lowell builds a world as dystopian as it is quaint – simultaneously a panoptic nightmare worthy of Foucault and a love letter to the New England coastal towns of their own youth. The atmosphere Lowell skillfully creates made me think of reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver as a child, and shivering at the chilling images of a society stripped of all warmth and individuality despite its bucolic setting. There’s a touch of high fantasy here too, if you squint: the great journey into terrible danger by a brave and diverse adventuring party, although I’m not sure Tolkien ever envisioned a daring rescue quite this queer. Yet for all its congruence with classic works depicting the struggles and triumphs of adolescence, Gender Optics has plenty to distinguish it. Perhaps most importantly, the whole novel resonates with a kind of charming awkwardness that will readily ring true for anyone remembering their own adolescence. And Lowell likewise captures the essence of trans and nonbinary life with piercing clarity: terrible trauma shot through with the piercing joy of simple pleasures shared with friends.” – Xan Nowakowski, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Department of Geriatrics and Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at FSU College of Medicine

“I loved this novel, and I really want to be friends with Alex! Lowell captures the nuances of gender norms and inequalities in a fascinating manner in Gender Optics, and does so with a cunning mixture of realism and speculation sure to thrill readers. Gender Optics is not just a story about gender; it is a beautiful journey of friendship, revolution, and ingenuity that will have readers rapidly flipping pages to see what comes next.” – J. E. Sumerau, PhD, author of Via Chicago and America through Transgender Eyes

“Shalen Lowell’s debut novel provides readers with a very contemporary interrogation of the ways in which we enforce small boxes of identity and in the process erase nonbinary and gender nonconforming identities and lives. Reminiscent of the diasporic world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Gender Optics presents us a world just a tiny bit left of our own, in which (inevitable) rightwing sentiment has resulted the criminalization of those who cannot ‘perform’ within the accepted gender binaries. A genre-defying read that encapsulates the idea of social fiction, this is a book for those who might have wondered why infusing your courses with fiction is such a rich tool for student learning. But if you only think of this as a novel for Gender Studies courses, then you are missing its central point. By providing a rich and complex examination of queer lives, and the ways we police gender, this is a text vital for courses in contemporary history, psychology, business management, sociology, biology, communications, neurology, nursing, health studies, dystopian studies and any course that touches on human beings. This is also a novel for everyone providing a desperately needed glimpse into cisheteronormative hegemonic societies that helps us finally see the entire face of humanity in all its complex shades.” – U. Melissa Anyiwo, PhD, Professor and Coordinator of Black Studies at Curry College, Massachusetts

“In their debut novel, Shalen Lowell writes of a dystopian world where gender is regulated by the State. This cautionary tale reflects the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which our society is preoccupied with the maintenance of a gender binary and of gender norms. Gender Optics is a well-written speculation of where legislation such as bathroom bills could lead.” – Jessica Gullion, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas Woman’s University

“Lowell has written a compelling novel that reminds me of a non-binary handmaids’ tale. Here is a story that wrestles with the nuances of gender by showing how Alex, who identifies as non-binary, upends polarized thinking about gender to offer us a new model of gender as a person-centric concept. Through Alex, we see the possibility of the what-if: What if we could be seen as we are, as our own person? This novel should be required reading for everyone.” – Sandra L. Faulkner, PhD, author of Poetic Inquiry: Craft, Method and Practice

Gender Optics, true to its title, offers a near-future lens onto our volatile and uncertain present to illuminate how non-binary, genderfluid, and gender-variant people must negotiate the distorting gaze of cisgender-normative, transphobic culture. Complete with dystopian fascist biopolitics in the form of gender-scanners and gender IDs issued by the Foundation for the Protection of Normative Gender, this is a world of Orwellian paranoia, a world of panoptic gazes to be averted, blocked, refused, and subverted – as well as of furtive gazes cast in the hope of being returned in solidarity, empathy, love, and lust. Through the coming-of-age narrative of non-binary, budding intellectual and writer Alex, Lowell offers a chronicle of the fraught trajectory from self-erasure and shame to self-acceptance and pride in what they provocatively call the ‘Hegemonic Hellscape’ of enforced gender norms. With keen intelligence, sensitive characterization, and an inspiriting humor, Gender Optics connects the personal and the political to tell an intimate story that explodes binarized, cisnormative assumptions. Through the resulting kaleidoscope, Lowell observes love in its many forms: the love between self and other, the love that defines genuine social justice, and the deeply humane empathy that it takes to alter historical structures of exclusion and open up new pathways for entry. Lowell’s brisk, imaginative narrative is a valuable contribution to the growing body of LGBTQI literature, deserving of a place on the shelf between Jack Halberstam’s Trans and Jia Qing Wilson-Yang’s Small Beauty.” – Jared F. Green, PhD, Stonehill College

Gender Optics presents the reader with a powerful indictment of hegemonic gender roles and of the capitalist consumer economy that exploits them. Part dystopian fiction, part theoretical tract, Gender Optics rejects generic boundaries as it presents a clear-eyed assessment of deep-seated cisgender prejudice and a poignant account of the search for a genderfluid and nonbinary self. Deeply compelling and not to be missed.” – Helga Duncan, PhD, English Department, Stonehill College
All interested in gender and sexuality studies, LGBTQ studies, and intersectionality, as well as in fiction spotlighting trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming LGBTQ+ experiences.