What more could I have asked for from Bogi Takács’ anthology, Transcendent 3, than transgender vampires? Nothing. That’s what. As someone who was a fan of Teen Wolf back in high school (yes, it’s true–don’t @ me), K. M. Szpara’s “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” delivers on all of my daydreams about how I would react if I was turned into a gothic monster with super-fast healing. Except, instead of me getting turned into a werewolf and being carried off in the beautifully-sculpted arms of Derek Hale, it’s a trans guy named Finley who finds himself bitten by an old cisgender gay vampire named Andreas. In this modern-fantasy world, where vampires are regulated by law, Finley’s transness and his new-fangled (wink-wink) vampirism collide. I make it out to be all fun-and-games, but this short story is one of the pieces in Transcendent 3 that left me feeling the most raw. In it, fellow trans guy K. M. Szpara approaches medical transition, fears of forced detransition, and transphobia within both the medical and cis gay communities–all within the frame of a modern gothic fantasy setting. He touches on the long-proven reality that trans people will adapt to their circumstances, even when hindered by cisgender people (both enemies and friends) who have no right to make decisions about trans folks’ bodies.
Szpara uses vampirism as a tool to elaborate on how difficult medical transition can be. In this world, transgender, intersex, disabled, and neuroatypical folks are not permitted to undergo vampirification by the government. A doctor that Finley goes to see when he starts getting his period again says, “We don’t have conclusive studies on how vampirification affects atypical bodies,” (49) before Finley elaborates on who those “atypical bodies” belong to. This parallels what I personally have witnessed with medical transition: people can be denied treatment (both HRT and various surgeries) for all sorts of reasons. Having a disability, testing HIV positive, and being over a certain weight are top contenders. And with the old-school transphobic “Standard of Care” still in effect in many medical practices, people with mental illnesses often can’t get the psychiatric letters of recommendation needed to medically transition. It’s all done in the name of “safety” and making sure they don’t “make a mistake,” but at the end of the day, it’s cisgender people making these decisions. Oftentimes, they’re blatantly transphobic while they’re at it. We see that Finley, himself, experienced this transphobia in the medical sphere, when he says, “‘You know how many doctors I’ve met who are just doing their jobs?’ The one who asked if I was really, really sure, because I didn’t seem very masculine. The one who suggested psycho-sexual therapy as if my kinks disqualified me. The one who told me no cis gay men would want to sleep with me.” (50) I can’t help but recall the nurse who refused to use my correct pronouns while I was on the table just after top surgery. I thought to myself, “Can’t you see what lengths I’m going to just to be seen as myself? And you can’t even bring yourself to say ‘he’?” Reading that same kind of suffering in this short story was both affirming–because I knew I wasn’t alone–and also incredibly saddening–because I knew I wasn’t alone.
On top of these unfortunate emotions welling up, Szpara also reminds his readers of the horror side of gothic fantasy through Finley’s potential forced-detransition due to the rapid regeneration of vampire bodies. As much as I joked at the beginning of this that I had daydreamed about what would happen if I were bitten by a werewolf a la Teen Wolf, I was often terrified of the thought that I would never be able to take testosterone or have surgery to make my body feel right. (This was, of course, before I had taken any steps to medically transition.) When Finley started his period again after being bitten, my stomach twisted, thinking about how afraid I would be if I were in his position. That doesn’t even compare to the anxiety I felt for our protagonist when he started growing breasts again. While I don’t think my breast tissue is going to grow back anytime soon, there are cases where transgender people taking testosterone start their period again because of fluctuations in their hormones. Forced or accidental detransition is a fear that is very real to many transgender people; it is very fitting for the horror genre. While I previously spoke about transgender sex and the horror genre in my review of “Death You Deserve” by Ryley Knowles, “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” frightened me in a way I had not expected: I actually felt nauseous. Gore and body horror don’t often get to me (I grew up watching my grandma do frog dissections on her kitchen table; I don’t exactly get squeamish), but Szpara’s writing made it happen.
Outside of the medical issues Finley faces, both Finley’s relationship with Andreas and a prematurely-ended sexual encounter with a man named Bradley highlight issues of transphobia within the cisgender, gay community. When Andreas finds out that Finley is trans, he responds by saying, “‘I thought you smelled different. Not enough to deter me. Actually, not bad at all. Just different,’” which Finley rightly reads as “the vampire equivalent of ‘Wow, I’d never have guessed you were trans,’ or ‘But you look so normal.’” (51) From the beginning of their dynamic, we see Andreas is not well-versed with trans people and is not going to be equipped to deal with the problems that come up between Finley’s transness and his new vampirism. Interestingly, this same statement is echoed later when Bradley (a brief and unfulfilled hookup) says about Finley’s skin, “No, no, no… I like it. It’s just… different. You’re cold.” (62) The difference between transness and vampirism though? Transness is othered, oppressed, and not a choice. Vampirism is considered a normal part of this society and is almost always (in this world, at least) a consensual decision. Szpara highlights this dichotomy through Bradley’s separate reactions to Finley’s vampirism and his transness: he likes the idea of trying something new when it comes to the vampirism, but is a completely transphobic asshole. The parallel set up between Bradley and Andreas, though, brings to the foreground both the patent and latent transphobia in the cis, gay community. On the one hand, we have Bradley, who does not accept transgender folks’ identities, but is willing to fetishize vampires for a good time. On the other, we have Andreas, who has likely experienced that vampire-fetishization, but hasn’t taken the time in his very long life to educate himself on trans experiences. It’s difficult to tell who is more harmful in this story, because–while Bradley is just sent away after spewing transphobic comments–Andreas sticks around. He even tries to convince Finley it’s not worth it to go out and get hormones. (60) Andreas says he wants to “help” Finley, which makes our protagonist think “Help me. How is an old cis vampire supposed to help me when he doesn’t understand the first thing about my body? My eternity?” (64) Who is more dangerous to trans people: the outright transphobe who can be ignored, or the fake ally who isn’t willing to put in the work to actually help trans people?
Now that I’ve gone at length about “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” (and lbr, I could definitely keep going) let’s get on to my recommendation. I one hundred percent would recommend this to trans people to read. It resonated with me so much and made me feel incredibly proud of Finley by the end of the terrible journey he had to experience. As for cis people, my first thought while reading it, was one of caution. There’s a running theme in the story where Finley talks about how he stopped being able to cry after he came out and begins to cry again at the end of the story. Although I completely understood that this inability to cry was wrapped up more in the gender dysphoria and transphobia Finley experienced, and that his re-attainment of autonomy by the end of the work let him cry once again, I thought that a cis reader might misunderstand. While I was immersed in the story, taking notes on what I would write about in this review, I worried that a cis reader might incorrectly think that the inability to cry was caused by his medical transition in the first place, and that he began to cry again because of his partial detransition. Now, though, since I’ve had time to breathe and step away, I realize I was too caught up in my own fears brought under the lamplight in this story. I do not believe a cisgender person who goes out of their way to read this blog and read works written by trans people would not have those thoughts. I think my fears just go to show how Szpara did a great job getting at the anxious reality of medically transitioning in our era. I would definitely recommend this work to any of my readers.
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K. M. Szpara from Transcendent 3 by Bogi Takács
Publisher: Lethe Press (2018)
Paperback: Around $17
Number of Pages: 41-64 of 249
Content Warnings: Transphobia, sex, vaginal intercourse, blood, violence, vampirism, forced detransition, alcohol, being buried alive. Trans people technically don’t die in this, Finley just “un-dies”, so to speak.
Note: This is the second of a series of posts examining some of the many short stories in Transcendent 3, edited by Bogi Takács. There are nineteen short stories from 2017 in total, so I cannot review them all before the fourth volume is released in Summer of 2019 [Edit: You can pre-order Transcendent 4 here!] , especially when I will also be reviewing some other transgender works and writing on other topics in between. In light of that, I’ve decided to just pick out a few that stand out to me. I encourage you to get the anthology, because Takàcs is also incredibly up-to-date on all things trans lit, so it’s a great starting place both for short stories and longer-form writing.