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Making An Effort: Queer (Trans) Masculinity in the Ethereal & Occult Beings of Good Omens

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How should we, as readers, look at and understand the gender and sex of ethereal and occult beings in Good Omens? Both Aziraphale and Crowley make continual, repeated “efforts” to not only assimilate into human society, but also to specifically exist in the socially-constructed genders of the society in which they live. More specifically, they exist and experience the world as men. That conscious choice to express their identity should be acknowledged and respected.

In the discussion of Aziraphale, Crowley, gender, and sexuality, readers would do well to consider that if their argument boils down to “Aziraphale and Crowley can’t technically be considered gay men; they’re just loose approximations thereof, because they and other angels weren’t gendered, or biologically sexed, or imbued with the capacity to experience sexual attraction at the time of their creation,” while not taking all of Aziraphale’s and Crowley’s efforts toward being men into account, they risk repeating the same transphobic arguments people have been using against (gay) transmasculine people forever.

Such historical figures as James Barry, Dante Gill, Thomas(ine) Hall, Casimir Pulaski, and Billy Tipton have all made similar efforts in the same direction.  Their designations at birth and/or creation do not change the men they were in life.   In this essay, we will argue that, in the same vein, both Aziraphale and Crowley make an effort to be gendered as, and should be considered, men—and, furthermore, in 21st-century language and terms, should even be considered trans men.

Gender is socially constructed.  It’s not an innate quality of a person.  Rather, it requires an effort by everyone: cis, trans, and otherwise. Within a society, gender exists as a complex set of rules and subtleties that are either followed or broken, performed or subverted, by the individuals within that society.  It requires all members of a society to make an effort. When we gender, or transgender, or ungender ourselves, we are all making an effort: through our clothes, our bodies, our actions, and so forth. They’re all efforts in a particular direction, and that direction is toward shaping both the way we want to define ourselves and the way we want to be perceived by others.

As Gaiman and Pratchett point out, “[f]or those of angel stock or demon breed, size, and shape, and composition are merely options.” Aziraphale and Crowley are both fully capable of altering their physical forms, and their male forms are a conscious choice.  They have gendered their appearances and their actions to such a degree that others see them and refer to them as men (and, in Aziraphale’s case, a gay man). These male bodies are the bodies in which they want to exist.

Crowley’s narration explicitly calls his human male form his “favorite shape” immediately after changing briefly into “something dreadful” to scare one of the corporate paintballers at Tadfield Manor. Not only that, but he says to Aziraphale that he hates doing that because he’s “always afraid [he’ll] forget how to change back.” His form as it has existed at a baseline for quite some time now, i.e. a man, is exceptionally important him. Being taken out of it is a source of anxiety for him, and even a source of dysphoria.  During the scenes in which he’s exerting sheer force of will to prevent his beloved Bentley from falling to pieces as it burns, the text highlights with disconcerting regularity the physical and psychological effects of said exertion: “It was the effort of holding it together that was causing Crowley to grit his teeth, and the biospatial feedback that was causing the bright red eyes.”  With alarming regularity, the narration demonstrates that any kind of physical transformation taking Crowley outside his preferred parameters is a source of intense discomfort—“[b]eneath the ash and soot that flaked his face, he looked very tired, and very pale, and very scared.” Through this lens, the telephone-wires chase with Hastur is horrifying to consider; Crowley reduces himself to little more than static in order to accomplish it, another act of unsettling self-discorporation.

While Aziraphale’s relationship with his gender is far more internalized than Crowley’s, his actions and presentation speak to the same end. Like Crowley, his physical form is a conscious choice: these beings have the option to look like and exist as any possible gender, and yet they still exist as men. They are men by virtue of the fact that they use their abilities to embody their gender. According to the text, creatures of angel stock were created wholly outside current human concepts of gender and sex.  They don’t inherently have gender or biological sex, but they’re complex and self-aware enough that they’re not blank slates, either. It’s difficult to conceptualize, because gender is so ingrained in our culture.  However, it’s not ingrained for angels—or for Fallen angels, at that. Religious writing generally makes reference to angels taking the form of humans in an illusory context when they speak to mortals, but Aziraphale clearly goes beyond that.  He has made an effort to exist as a (gay) man. He’s a man when he’s interacting with humans, he’s a man when he’s hanging out in the bookshop back room with Crowley, and he doesn’t change anything when he’s sitting alone (reading, neglecting his cocoa, gathering dust). He never drops any illusion, because his physical form is not illusory.  He never stops being a man. This is a difficult thing for cis individuals to understand: even when trans individuals are alone in our rooms, we are still, in a way, consciously aware of and performing our genders.  Even though there’s no one to perform for, it’s still something that we do.

It is also extremely significant that everyone who meets Aziraphale assumes that he’s a gay man.  These are technically two separate assumptions that, while correct about him today, were not technically correct at that the moment of his creation. However, they are correct now, because Aziraphale’s sense of identity has evolved.  He’s making an effort to make it correct, make it match up as closely as possible with how he perceives himself. Aziraphale’s masculinity is indivisible from his queerness, which is to say: his identity is not just A Man, but A Gay Man. The masculinity he has created for himself, which he performs and inhabits, is a queer one.

Aziraphale’s masculine identity is not what is considered traditionally masculine for his culture: England in 1990. Shadwell describes him as soft, as his hands are “elegantly manicured.” He freely touches other men (in 1990, which was a very different time for the way men interacted with other men), and several of the homophobic insults used against him specifically invoke concepts on effeminacy. Aziraphale doesn’t just default to a stereotypical masculine existence; rather, he constructs his masculinity based on what aligns with his identity. It’s a choice that stands in defiance of what his society’s norms demand, in defiance of what would be easier, and that makes it all the more significant.

Furthermore, Aziraphale is both aware and proud of his queer masculine identity. He is aware of how humans perceive him; he leans into that both individually and in collaboration with Crowley. As a specific example, consider the scene where Crowley hits Anathema with the Bentley. Crowley and Aziraphale both know full well what a human is going to think about the way they interact with each other. Crowley makes an incredibly conscious choice to say “Get in [the car], angel” to Aziraphale, and Anathema draws the expected conclusion (i.e. that this is a kindly gay couple and that she’s “perfectly safe after all”). The fact that Aziraphale and Crowley have both made the effort to perform this identity, to perform it together, is telling. They have made not only individual efforts, but a joint one.  This performance permeates every moment they’re together in public. When they meet in the British Museum café, Aziraphale even goes so far as to comfortably eat off Crowley’s plate (the bit where he helps himself to what’s left of Crowley’s angel-food cake).  Just imagine being somebody on the Ritz staff who’s been watching these two finish each other’s wine, coffee, and desserts on their regular lunch jaunts there for decades.  And then there’s the beauty of it carrying into private spheres: bickering in the Bentley when nobody else is there to see, getting drunk together in the bookshop back room, and so forth.  These two couldn’t be gayer if they tried, and the wonder of it is that they are trying.

Simply put, this is who Aziraphale is —and, for that matter, who Crowley is as well.  They don’t change the way they perform their masculinity and their relationship because of the way they’re perceived, even though it would likely make their lives easier (or at least make humans behave less rudely). Their queer masculinity and their relationship are that important to them, even to such an extent that they’re demonstrably more physical with each other than any other set of characters in the novel. They have nearly three times as many physical interactions as Newt and Anathema have with each other—and around 47% of all physical interactions, period—in the text.  Right from the Beginning, during the Eden scene, snake Crowley “nudges” Aziraphale to make his point.  For the next 6,000 years and change, they comfortably go right on nudging, grabbing, and all-around touching each other—arguably more than is strictly necessary for so-called enemies turned friends. Once again, Good Omens was published in 1990, which remained a vastly different time as far as the expectations surrounding expressions of physical affection between men.

On the subject of human rudeness, no fewer than four different slurs and insults used for gay men are leveled against Aziraphale in the text—for the way he dresses, the way he behaves, or the way he speaks. He is aware that these words are used against him and aware of both the meaning and cruelty behind them.  While he easily brushes off Warlock’s heckling of his stage magic, after one of Warlock’s friends calls him a f****t, he decides that Warlock is “obviously infernally tainted.” This slur’s sting is subtle, as are most of Aziraphale’s displays of emotion, but it is pervasive. Still, Aziraphale remains comfortable with his identity as a gay man and proudly reclaims the insults people have used against him; he’s not just A Southern Pansy, he’s THE Southern Pansy.  His identity is important to him, and it matters—to such an extent that he does continually “make an effort” as the text memorably suggests.

With regard to the inherent trans-ness of ethereal and occult creatures inhabiting human genders, already examined earlier to an extent in the section on Crowley’s transformation-related dysphoria, another item from the novel needs to be addressed. It has been broadly assumed that Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s designation of “sexless” should be read as a euphemism for “without genitalia.”  While the original intention of the line cannot be inferred from the text, it should be acknowledged that if that was what the authors meant, it still doesn’t change any of the previous points in our argument. On the off-chance that the bodies Aziraphale and Crowley inhabit are, indeed, lacking genitalia, they’re nonetheless still making an effort to exist as and be seen as men. A man without a penis is still a man, and when he makes an effort to exist as and be seen as a man, the validity of his gender should be acknowledged. Therefore, regardless what genitalia they have (or do not have), the same acknowledgement should be unequivocally extended to Aziraphale and Crowley.

In conclusion, Aziraphale and Crowley are men: gay men specifically, and trans men in light of how they experience and relate to their preferred, inhabited human bodies.  Their shared identity should be acknowledged and respected, as should the nature of their relationship to each other.