“I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter” is a transphobic internet meme that became popular around 2014, where movements for trans rights were gaining full tilt in the western world. It was a post made on a Team Fortress 2 forum, where a user mocked the demand for diverse gender recognition. It became a ‘copypasta’ (a chunk of text that has been repeatedly copied and pasted in social media and internet forum posts), and spread like wildfire on the internet. It was used as a way to discredit any comment made by trans people on their gender identity, flipping it to be merely trivial and not something that is usually a matter of life and death.
So Isabel Fall, an amateur author, decided she wanted to reclaim the meme. She wanted to explore transness by making it uncomfortable, and identifying the place trans people have within the American empire. The story, titled the same as the meme, follows a story of Barb, who was formerly a woman known as Seo Ji Hee. Barb’s gender identity was medically changed to an “attack helicopter”, to make her a better pilot. The story is a recollection of flashbacks to her life as woman, and how she and her partner, the gunner Axis, have sex through the acts of flying and violence. It is a deeply moving story, by the end of which Axis breaks down at the horrifying acts they commit, and Barb tries to console her by claiming that this is the queerness that is being realized now, and it is necessary.
The book is a direct indictment of the American military-industrial complex, and an extremely dark look at the ways identities, and especially queerness, are assimilated into the mainstream. It was a fantastic story, and well deserving of its Hugo 2021 nomination. But it was taken down by its publisher, Clarkesworld magazine, on the request of the author herself. Soon after the event, she checked into a psychiatric ward. The editor, Neil Clarke, said in a note, “The recent barrage of attacks on Isabel have taken a toll and I ask that even if you disagree with the decision, that you respect it. This is not censorship. She needed this to be done for her own personal safety and health.”
That the article was titled over a transphobic meme and that Isabel Fall had no online footprint at all got a lot of people worried if the story was just a front for a right-wing group. They worried that it was written by someone who was not trans, and that it was a reactionary story. It was the internet’s critique that the story was “problematic”. However, Isabel Fall is a trans woman. And the amount of abuse she garnered from the seemingly progressive parts of the internet led her to make a decision. A decision that she would not exist anymore. She stopped her transition, and went back to living with a masculine presentation. She stopped trying to be a woman, because to her, the hurt was not worth it. In this hyper aware culture we live in, where each and every action, especially of a person from a marginalized community, is so heavily scrutinised, you are not allowed to make mistakes. Isabel Fall did not even make mistakes. She just wrote a brilliant story which people could not fathom because it did not fit their extremely narrow definition of being trans.
Being trans on the internet is as tough as being trans in real life. Trans people cannot escape on the internet. They are subject to the same standards that gender essentialists hold cis people to. Isabel Fall’s story is an exercise in caution. The need to verify that every story, every tale can be told by someone with the correct identity will deprive us in the long run of the joy of fiction, the fearlessness of stories like Attack Helicopter. Isabel Fall was not out as a trans person yet. And our online queer communities, which are increasingly dominated by TERFS and puritans, are not safe havens for trans people. Hence, she kept her identity secret, and was punished for it. One criticism particularly, got to her. From an article by Emily VanDerWerff:
Fall must be a cis man, because no woman would ever write in the way she did.
And because this criticism was so often leveled by cis women, Fall felt her gender dysphoria (the gap between her gender and her gender assigned at birth) increasing. In Fall’s story, Barb and Axis destroy the lives of people they cannot even see. Now, in a bitterly ironic twist, the same was happening to her.
Transness on the internet does not go unpunished. You have to bare your entire life to unknown people to be treated like a human being. Isabel Fall got pushed back into the closet. And it breaks my heart thinking about her.