The Tiptree Award is becoming the Otherwise Award
October 15, 2019 9:51 AM   Subscribe

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.
The Tiptree Motherboard has renamed the Tiptree to the Otherwise Award.

After Jeanette Ng Kicked off her John W. Campbell Award acceptance speech with "John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fucking fascist" and the administrators of the reward reacting by changing its name, the pressure was on for the Tiptree Award to do the same.

The reasons for why this name should be changed were laid out by the foundation itself in a post last month:
In recent days, we’ve seen questions raised on social media about whether the name of the Tiptree Award should be reconsidered. The Award was named after James Tiptree, Jr., the persona under which Alice Sheldon published. The questions relate to Alice Sheldon’s actions at the end of her life. On May 19, 1987, she shot first her husband, Huntington Sheldon, and then herself.
We on the Motherboard, those who remember Alice Sheldon and those who do not, have long known the story of how she and her husband, Huntington Sheldon (known as Ting), died.

Friends and family — and the science fiction community at the time — viewed this tragedy as resulting from a suicide pact: the desperate and tragic result of a combination of physical and mental illness and the Sheldons’ desire to die on their own terms. He was 84 years old; she was 71.

However, some who have read accounts of the Sheldon’s deaths more recently have pointed out a different interpretation. The story can also be seen as an act of caregiver murder: where a disabled person is killed by the person, usually a close family member, who is responsible for their support.
At the time they held off on changing the name immediately, arguing that:
We have been, before this current conversation, asking ourselves some questions. What would an Award look like, Tiptree or otherwise, that honored what we want to honor now, the complex and overlapping intersections through which gender is lived? That’s a question we can’t answer in one single burst of sustained self-reflection. We believe it is far more important to make the right decisions than to make decisions quickly.
Clearly, the support for an arguments in favour of a name change have been so overwhelming that barely a month later the Motherboard felt confident announcing that it would indeed happen.

Ending on a positive note, the Motherboard also sees this as a possibility for a new start:
At the heart of the creative work this award has honored for the last 28 years is the act of imagining gender otherwise. We have honored those who expand or explore gender by imagining the world otherwise. Over the next 28 years and more, we expect people’s lived experiences of gender to shift, change, and multiply in ways we can’t possibly imagine. But whatever happens, writers and artists will make sense of it, and push at the limits, by imagining otherwise.
posted by MartinWisse (29 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
An essay linked in the first link, M.L. Clark's Letting Go of Our “Heroes”: Ongoing Humanist Training and the (Ex-)James Tiptree, Jr. Award, is really thoughtful and interesting.
posted by mediareport at 10:13 AM on October 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

I think this is a good idea.

I also like the "let's not name an award after a person" angle in the post - obviously, sometimes people turn out to be really unequivocally terrible, but regardless holding individual people up as timeless heroes isn't a good idea.

I also liked how they acknowledge that absent some hitherto hidden information, we really can't know what happened - but the point isn't that we must establish precisely what happened, the point is to have an award whose name doesn't call up the specter of caregiver murder.

On another note, can I just stan for Jeanette Ng's Under The Pendulum Sun? All the primary criticisms of it are true - the pacing is uneven, the conflict doesn't totally gel, the pastiche language fails here and there, there is a Very Victorian Family And Sexuality plot thread that may not be your deal - but it is extremely vivid, memorable, sad and weird. I've read it twice, will probably eventually read it again and do not generally reread a lot of contemporary fantasy.
posted by Frowner at 10:31 AM on October 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

I'm all in favor of renaming the award, but nonbinary people (of which I am one) already have to deal with being defined in terms of what we are not. I would hope that an award for people pushing the gender envelope in their writing—which includes many of us who push that envelope with our lives—would think more in terms of what we are, what we do, what we envision. "Otherwise" sounds dismissive, like the Afterthought Award, and it is, quite literally, othering.

I hate the term "gender creative" (which a lot of well-meaning cis parents apply to their trans and gender non-conforming kids) and I would still prefer the Gender Creative Award to this. "Otherwise" makes more sense once they note the inspiration for it, but no sense without that context, and an award name can't need to be contextualized.

In addition, from a PR standpoint, it's totally un-Google-able and bland. It doesn't stay in the mind. It will become "that other award".

I think it's not a good choice and I hope they reconsider.
posted by rosefox at 10:33 AM on October 15, 2019 [25 favorites]

+1 to rosefox

I am glad they changed it though, even if I don't like the new name. I think it's generally a mistake to name an award after a person. Best SF award name is still the Nebula.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:53 AM on October 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Suicide pact sounds more likely in Sheldon's case given...well, if one knows anything about her. But that is just my perspective from someone who has always held her as an idol. Still, I am all for just not naming awards after people when their original influence has faded with time simply to prevent this sort of thing in the future.

I also agree that the new name is unfortunate.
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:55 AM on October 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah I'd have preferred something like the "Infinities Award" or whatever to point out that there's a lot more out there than the binary, or even one axis, or even a bounded set of orthogonal axes.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:22 AM on October 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

James Tiptree Jr. had now officially moved into the zone, the Twilight Zone.
posted by sammyo at 11:26 AM on October 15, 2019

I guess the thing that makes me feel relatively comfortable with it is that it isn't and isn't intended to be an award for nonbinary speculative fiction. If anything, in 2019, writing about characters who are nonbinary and/or transgender should not be something that makes a thing speculative fiction and should not actually be itself the sort of thing you'd get the award for writing. Speculative fiction is supposed to be writing about things that relate to but are not our everyday lives. It's supposed to be some variety of other. Real people are not.
posted by Sequence at 11:29 AM on October 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best SF award name is still the Nebula.

I dread the inevitable revelation that nebulous behavior is problematic.
posted by otherchaz at 11:29 AM on October 15, 2019 [17 favorites]

I think it's a tragedy that the name of the award was changed, but I bear no animosity towards the board members who felt obligated to make this decision. The only villain here is the existence-fetishizing culture into which we are all born without consent, and which causes people's minds to leap immediately to suspicions of murder when confronted with the prospect of a rationally thinking couple who chose to terminate their own lives on their own terms.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:42 AM on October 15, 2019 [13 favorites]

In case it may be relevant or of interest, here are some resources from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network on filicide.

(Latin roots notwithstanding, ASAN's definition of "filicide" as "disabled people murdered by their family members or caregivers" appears to be synonymous with "caregiver murder" in the OP; both terms obviously leave some potential for confusion as to scope.)

See also Disability Day of Mourning.
posted by Not A Thing at 11:57 AM on October 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

Hi everyone. I am a member of the was-Tiptree Motherboard. Wanted to briefly mention this bit of the post:
For the next two weeks, we’re going to hold off on making any permanent changes while we listen to responses from you – just in case there are any compelling reasons not to use Otherwise that we have missed. You can reach us at if you would like to share your thoughts.
posted by brainwane at 11:58 AM on October 15, 2019 [38 favorites]

The Canadians have a SF award that's named after Phyllis Gottlieb's Sunburst, which reads like a eugenics textbook. They should be next to change.
posted by goatdog at 12:00 PM on October 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am increasingly against naming awards after people. Not so much because they may turn out to be horrible, although they may, but because hardly anyone does everything in the field. So the World Fantasy Award needed to stop using Lovecraft, not because he was a huge racist (although he was), but because he didn’t do all the things fantasy can do. Same for Campbell. Tiptree was writing in the 70s, when the gender landscape was very different. Writers, however much we might love or abhor them, move into the past while an award, if it is going to be relevant, has to stay current.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:52 PM on October 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

All awards should be named after arms manufacturers.
That way the award name is pre-loaded with the maximum possible controversy and everyone can move on to worrying about the bone-headed selections the panels keep making.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:57 PM on October 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

I guess the thing that makes me feel relatively comfortable with it is that it isn't and isn't intended to be an award for nonbinary speculative fiction.

Except the subtitle "An award encouraging the exploration & expansion of gender" is more or less code for "trans people". Maybe also feminist sci-fi. Gender diversity can be explored and celebrated in speculative fiction without making us "not real".

Tiptree is a name I know only because I'm trans. I don't know there's particular evidence Sheldon's gender was anything other than 'woman', but you took what you could get in terms of transmasculine representation. So, no, it doesn't feel great to say "Let's swap for a name that doesn't suggest anything in particular, except maybe an afterthought", like rosefox said.
posted by hoyland at 6:27 PM on October 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I saw in the recent neurodiversity MeTa that some folks mentioned how hard it is to click through and read the linked posts on front page posts unless there's a strong narrative or structure to the linked document, and/or when the document is long. In case you are such a person, the Motherboard's explanation of the renaming decision has the following table of contents:
The name of the Award: if you want to know why it’s changing

What we heard from you: if you want to understand how we came to this decision

What we’ve come to realize: if you want a short, snappy summary

What we feel: if you’d like to contemplate love, care, and tradition with us

So… the name? If you want to know how and why we chose Otherwise

What is not changing, and what happens next: if you’re curious about plans and timelines

A little help from our friends: if you want to support us through this transition
posted by brainwane at 7:17 PM on October 15, 2019 [12 favorites]

Except the subtitle "An award encouraging the exploration & expansion of gender" is more or less code for "trans people". Maybe also feminist sci-fi. Gender diversity can be explored and celebrated in speculative fiction without making us "not real".

Except it's not exploring and expanding the current definition of gender if it's covering the way people currently experience gender! Something isn't speculative fiction if it doesn't go above and beyond that. We are real. The necessary thing to be eligible for something like this is to do something beyond what is actually really possible. That may involve some characters who are trans or nonbinary humans, and it should--in the sense that there should be representation, not that "some people don't experience gender in a binary way" should be regarded as exploratory or expansive in 2019. If they're just handing out cookies to people who meet basic representation goals, I would feel really gross about there being an award for that at all.
posted by Sequence at 8:36 PM on October 15, 2019

My choir, which has been around for decades, and has over a hundred queer people in, does a couple songs each concert which feature either the Tenors & Basses, or the Altos & Sopranos. Sounds like a typical gender split? Except in our choir no one says you have to sit anywhere based on anything other than vocal range. So there's a lot of women tenors and quite a few trans bass/baris. I'm going somewhere with this, trust me.

Anyway, I'm the only person who looks like a dude who's on the SA side, because 1) I've got the range -- there's an F if I want it, though I'm sticking with Alto for clarity of tone, but more importantly 2) representation. If one 6'4 person with a beard can sing on the SA -- high voices -- side and hold their own, I think maybe there could be others who might not have beards or might be shorter but might not think to apply. Because while it's great that there's lots of gender/sex diversity in the lower voices, it kind of rankles me that higher voices are much less so. I'll get there, bear with me.

Anyway, so the featured song for the SAs this term is a song about missing your partner and counting days until they'll be home. Except in the original lyrics, the gendered term for the partner is masculine. Of course that got changed right away; now all the SAs in the queer choir are singing about missing their gendered-female partner. Which, okay, sure, that fits the relationship styles of the majority of the SAs.

But, you know, it's not a big deal in 2019. It's not a fight, a struggle, a big flag for representation. In 1970 it might have been. People will just smile, yes of course, all these queer women are singing about missing their queer woman partner.

I'm going to ask them to change it to "they/them" instead. Which is much more inclusive -- for me, even, both me and my partner prefer they -- but I'm sure for others as well. I mean specifying gender is so ... binary. It would be nice to move away from it. Let's just not bring up the subject when it doesn't matter.

That's the big fight for 2019, I think. Making sex and gender basically irrelevant in conversation except when there's a situation that needs to specifically talk about it.

So I guess my feeling is that if there's an award that looks at fiction through a lens of questioning gender, I'd want that award and that lens and that fiction to be enthusiastic about the essential irrelevance of gender, except in the extremely narrow circumstances when it is relevant.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:21 AM on October 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I don’t like this.

Alice Sheldon’s work and story are amazing and inspiring and I guess they always will be whether the award is named after her or not. It seems that all the evidence is on the side of the end of her life being part of a suicide pact and recasting that as a caregiver murder seems bizarre and weirdly phobic of mental illness.

So I don’t know why the committee that runs this award is changing the name from something that has name recognition and conveys immediately what the goals of the award are to something that has no name recognition (thus making it almost entirely useless for authors and readers) and no meaning. It would be better to call it something extremely explicit like ‘Gender Fiction Award’. I mean, clearly it’s bad for the award to change the name, so they just have thought they had good reason, but having read all the attached, I just don’t see it as justified.

I also can’t help but think that this kind of public commentary and speculation on her life would have been profoundly distasteful to both her and her husband who were apparently very private people. So that’s kind of sad.
posted by bq at 9:48 AM on October 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

It seems that all the evidence is on the side of the end of her life being part of a suicide pact and recasting that as a caregiver murder seems bizarre and weirdly phobic of mental illness.

Did you read the essay linked in the first comment? It includes this passage, which takes a very different interpretation:

A “suicide pact”? That’s what lots of family and others close to them claimed, and Sheldon’s own journals showed a great deal of discussion about the possibility of a suicide pact in their increasing age and fragility. But… we have no confirmation that her husband, “Ting”, had actually agreed to it that night–if ever.

For 32 years, then–almost my entire life–Sheldon’s achievements have been celebrated with that final, violent act set to one side. And why set to one side? Why brushed off as merely unfortunate? In large part, because in our culture there is a tremendous amount of what’s now called “ableism” and “ageism”: the tacit valuation of able bodies over disabled bodies, that is, and of young bodies over old. So when Sheldon’s version of the story argued that her husband was losing his sight and becoming fully dependent upon her for survival in his older years, this broader social cushioning for prejudice against more dependent bodies made it easier for many folks in dominant social positions to sympathize with her making no more than a “hard decision” for the couple on whole.

posted by showbiz_liz at 10:48 AM on October 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yes, I read everything linked more than once, I read a couple of links deep, and I waited a day to think about what I had read.

The passage you quoted explicitly says ‘there is no evidence that Ting agreed.’ Is that actually true? There’s no signed suicide note in his hand, but there are other types of evidence.

There is practically a mountain of evidence that supports the idea that the couple had explicitly discussed a suicide pact and that their family believed this to be what happened: “those closest to the Sheldons all told me that they had a pact and that Ting's health was failing.” “one of Ting's closest friends, told me that Ting didn't have long to live, and that they chose suicide together.” Another said “they were very open with me about their pact.” “They had a firm agreement with the lawyer as part of it.” “ Ting’s son Peter Sheldon also said there was a pact”.

That’s a lot.

It seems to me that this event has been incorrectly portrayed for years as a caregiver murder because to a mainstream audience that made Sheldon’s choices more palatable, not less, while in reality the physical evidence and hearsay evidence from friends and family *all* points to this being a case of a couple struggling with depression and addiction for decades who succumbed to their illnesses in a classic *folie a deux*. But there was such a stigma against suicide at the time that Ting’s disability was played up in order to give Sheldon a justification for her shocking actions.

Now that people are realizing that it’s not OK to murder disabled people those incorrect portrayals are creating a backlash instead of an excuse.

So from where I’m standing this award is being renamed because the author committed suicide because she was mentally ill. If depression counts as a disability, which I think it should, renaming the award is itself ableist. I’m not being flippant when I say that. It feels like the award is being renamed because of her mental illness and that feels *bad*.

And I really don’t like the way this essay conflates the controversy about the murder/suicide pact with the themes of depression and pain in her work.
posted by bq at 12:00 PM on October 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

Having reviewed the available evidence, I'm fairly convinced they had a suicide pact, and that recasting it as a caregiver murder is a mistake.

However, I'm also starting to come around to the opinion that awards should simply not be named after people.
posted by kyrademon at 1:35 PM on October 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

So from where I’m standing this award is being renamed because the author committed suicide because she was mentally ill. If depression counts as a disability, which I think it should, renaming the award is itself ableist. I’m not being flippant when I say that. It feels like the award is being renamed because of her mental illness and that feels *bad*.

I have not read anyone who said that her suicide should be a factor in the renaming. The whole discussion is about her killing Ting, which no one says she did not do, and which you do not mention in this entire paragraph. Please listen to the many disabled voices who are concerned that caregiver murder often plays out exactly like this scenario, and yes, depression or other disability often factor into that. But if you assign no possibility of culpability to Sheldon, then you reduce her to an automaton.
posted by Etrigan at 1:46 PM on October 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

Please don’t make assumptions about my disability status.
posted by bq at 1:58 PM on October 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

The existence of disabled people who disagree with you does not constitute an assumption of your disability status.
posted by Etrigan at 6:02 PM on October 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

And my disagreement with them doesn’t mean I haven’t listened to them in good faith.
posted by bq at 9:03 PM on October 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think it should be renamed. But I also wish the decision, and many of the essays I've seen supporting a change, would be a bit more explicit about the fact that, even though this may be the right decision in the end, either way significant communities will be hurt and erased. Tiptree is not just a revered figure, she was a beacon and inspiration for a large community within SF for decades, and to pretty literally erase that name is a blow to one group in the name of helping another. That doesn't mean it's not on balance correct, but I would have liked a bit more explicit acknowledgement of those who are hurt, and not just "we're sorry for your hurt feelings." The other harm I think is how this decision does seem to stigmatize assisted suicide. I have known many folks who hope/d to exit with the help of others, and whenever this is called outright a "murder" or "killing" with almost no caveats of uncertainty, it makes it seem like there are lots of people eager to call our loved ones murderers if the letters aren't written exactly right. Again, the harm done to these folks (or to me as an indirect participant in both of these communities) is probably less than the harm done to others by preserving the name. But just because it's the right decision doesn't mean it's a perfect decision, and a bit more discussion of the unavoidable harms done would also have been appreciated.
posted by chortly at 8:33 AM on October 17, 2019 [8 favorites]

I only just became aware of this controversy. While I am sympathetic to the notion that awards should not be named after mere fallible humans, I have found the leaps and assumptions about Sheldon and her motivations and actions pretty disturbing.

I understand that the human need to fill in blanks in knowledge of tragic events with dubious claims, and then to judge people based on the resulting house of factual and fictional cards, is pervasive and upsetting generally. Equally so in this example.
posted by aught at 8:46 AM on October 18, 2019

« Older Democracy At Work   |   Let The Arguing Begin! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments