Straight as a Circle

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Fanfiction
Title: Straight as a Circle
Author(s): toomuchplor
Date(s): posted March 29, 2007
Length: 20 500 words
Genre:
Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
External Links: online here

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Straight as a Circle is a Stargate SG-1 John/Rodney, John/Kate, John/OFC by toomuchplor.

Summary: John Sheppard wakes up straight. No, really, that's pretty much it. One day, about two months ago, I thought, "John Sheppard is *so gay* that he couldn't be in a 'woke up gay' story. He'd have to wake up straight instead." And that is what happened here.

There are 305 comments on its LiveJournal post.

Reactions and Reviews

Okay, I'm sure you remember all those So-And-So Woke Up Gay! fics. This is a brilliant twist on that premise, because, as the author herself says: "John Sheppard wakes up straight. No, really, that's pretty much it. One day, about two months ago, I thought, "John Sheppard is *so gay* that he couldn't be in a 'woke up gay' story. He'd have to wake up straight instead." Love this one.[1]
Why this must be read: In a clever subversion of the classic "woke up gay" plot, one day John Sheppard wakes up straight. John's sudden onset of straightness throws a curveball into his existing sexual relationship with Rodney and forces him to reevaluate both his feelings for Rodney and his conflicting feelings about his own sexuality. It's a meta-commentary on a classic slash trope, a compellidng exploration of the issues of sexuality and self-identity that are central to much slash and a remarkably plausible extrapolation of John Sheppard's personal history and internal struggles. And, oh yes, a rather fabulously unconventional romance too. toomuchplor ties them together into a fresh and intriguing story that is an absolute delight to read and will give you lots to think about when you're thru.[2]

The One That Proves That Ancient Technology Is Hard on the Repressed. And Even Harder on Sudden Inexplicable Frogs. Straight As a Circle, by toomuchplor. Stargate: Atlantis, John Sheppard/Rodney McKay, John Sheppard/Kate Heightmeyer. (Warning: minor squicks for embarrassment and animal harm. People, I promise you, you won't care. It's that awesome. Also, you'll know when to skim, if need be.)

I'm pretty sure everyone even remotely interested in this fandom has already read this, but I had to recommend it anyway, because this is the most awesome cliche use in the whole history of fandom. John Sheppard wakes up straight. I mean, if that doesn't make you clap your hands and squeal like a little girl, then - hey, there's medication that can help you. Look into it.

It's got everything an SGA fangirl could want: John Sheppard being repressed and very, very gay, Ancient technology being obstreperous and very, very difficult, and native persons being inscrutable and very, very stubborn. Plus Rodney McKay being, you know, Rodney. And also handling a difficult situation with surprising grace, which is something I love about him that doesn't get showcased too often. (Yes, he also fucks up difficult situations sometimes. But it's not like that is rare in this canon.) I think my favorite part of this, though, is - well. Okay. You know how genderswap stories often have, at least in part, a "Hey, human sexuality really is much more of a continuum than I'd previously imagined!" resolution? This totally turns that on its head, and I just love how this whole concept forces John to - well, deal with his issues.

And, yes. I firmly believe it would take a massive lifestyle change, meddling Ancient technology, and a skilled psychiatrist - plus a lot of patience on everyone's part - for him to begin to do that. He's not, as far as I can tell, exactly the "I enjoy processing my issues to achieve a higher state of consciousness" kind of guy. More of a "Let's just repress this and with any luck I'll die before I have to think about it, okay?" guy. And I love that. But I also love the sneaky things fan fiction writers do to get him past that. And this - this is gorgeous sneakiness of a very high and refined order.[3]

A 2007 Discussion

This story was discussed at great length at The Cutting Board by cathexys in 2007 in the essay gender and sexuality in three SGA stories, original link now offline; archive link to LiveJournal post; archive link to Dreamwidth mirrored post. The other two stories discussed in the essay are always should be someone you really love and You're Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl).

Part of the essay, gender and sexuality in three SGA stories, by cathexys at The Cutting Board:

Straight as a Circle as gay romance

Likewise, "Straight As a Circle" draws on the WNG trope yet complicates and inverts it in really interesting ways. Here we do not switch genders as much as orientation in the subversion of yet another trope, namely the "X woke up gay" one. John, happily gay and partnered with Rodney8 encounters an ancient technology that makes him straight. Here biology overrides their love, but it is the juxtaposition of the two that evokes WNG in this story. If the underlying impetus for WNG is indeed the true love that leads to them having sex even as they may have not thought of other men/may not have found somone who was worth it before, in "Straight," we find a John who loves Rodney so much, he desperately wants to overcome the biological impreative that keeps him from Rodney. In fact, he has sex with him a few times even as it repulses him, *because* he loves Rodney. The disconnect between love and sexual desire undermines WNG whereas the love that makes John willing to overcome it moves it closer. In fact, in the sex scenes it's made very clear that the only thing that potentially begins to overcome John's non-reaction to Rodney *is* his love: he comes, for example in their first "straight" encounter when Rodney tells him he loves him and the comfort he takes in it being Rodney who blows him: a blowjob is a good thing, no matter who’s giving it. // And it’s Rodney, John thinks brokenly, reaching down to pat at the short soft hair, all his instincts flooded and submerged. It’s Rodney, thank fuck. Moreover, it is his separation of emotion and bodily responses that makes him more aware of his own and Rodney's feelings: Rodney obliges, determined now. John closes his eyes shut and feels a great warmth blooming in his chest, struck suddenly by how much Rodney wants to make John feel good, how important this is to him. How had he never realized it before? In fact, much of John's realizations are indeed about the depth of his feelings: Then it strikes John that he never has kissed Rodney’s jaw, not the way he wants to now -- just a touch of lips, careful like the placement has to be perfect, holding Rodney steady with John’s hand carded through the hair at the nape of his neck. Three years, and John is only now realizing that he never took as much time as he should have..

community and identity

At the same time, just like in Trin's story, John's gayness is not just about biology but is also a cultural identity. Unlike Trin's John, who is well aware of the fact that he purposefully, consciously, and happily self-identifies as gay, this John only comes to understand that his identity truly is *his* when he gets a chance to experience "normal" desires, to not have to hide any more. There's a strong motif of secrets and hiding throughout the story, and it is both John's sense that he's still hiding a secret (albeit a slightly different one) when turned straight as well as his relief and acknowledgment of himself and his love for Rodney when turned gay again that functions as an interesting symbolic inversion. And the dream becomes a nightmare, both because it is on some fundamental level not him but also, it seems, in part because of Rodney. So while sexuality here is almost exclusively biological, identities and desires are a bit more complicated, and love is transcendent even when it's counter to actual biological responses. As such, "Straight as a Circle" is not truly WNG, but its foregrounding of John's love above and beyond biological and social demands draws from similar underlying tropes, which made this story immensely satisfying for my WNG taste :) In fact, in response to my reading, ] graycastle suggests that "Straight" ilustrates a powerful description of where-the-queer-goes in those narratives of choice and fixing, AND of where-the-queer-goes in those narratives of biological determinism. Which is to say, it doesn't go away, it keeps leaving troubling little remnants behind. As a recovered Lacanian,9 I love the fact that possibly the remainder/reminder of the Real of what gets excluded in a thoroughly constructivist model of choice may be the very things that haunt John in this story.

we've come a long way, baby

While these three stories explore different aspects of sexual identity and object choice and situate themselves in different places in regards to the role of biological hardwiring vs constructed desires for either, what they clearly share is a sense of awareness that none of these things are simple, that bodies and desires, gender and sexuality are more than binary and rarely simply constituted. Moreover, what all three stories share is an awareness and an engagement with fannish history and fannish tropes, a playful repetition with a difference that to me testifies to the vibrancy of fan fiction, where even the most tired cliche doesn't need to get dismissed but instead can be taken up and reinvigorated, and where stories participate as much in meta discussions as theoretical analyses do. WNG gets rediscovered and inverted; waking up straight gets played with; gender and body swaps become the premise on which these fascinating explorations into our characters' identities and sexualitis takes place. thingswithwings's male lesbians, trinityofone's genderqueer Cadman and politically queer John, and toomuchploor's John who ultimately chooses his queerness as much for himself as for Rodney all are examples of queer identities that do not align neatly along gender and identity lines, that are not biologically predetermined exclusively but always already exist in the interplay between nature and culture, sex and gender, bodies and cultural constructions--they are truly queer subjects!

A short time later, the fic's author commented on comments in this essay, and other fans joined in the conversation.

The entire post is here; archive link; WebCite.

Excerpts:

In response to the original essay, the author of "Straight as a Circle" wrote:
This is just hugely interesting to me -- and not just the bit about my fic! Straight As a Circle was my way of working through a lot of the fannish tropes you mention, and I can never seem to do that without wanting to turn a lot of them on their heads. Though I didn't start out with any idea of the story being comparable to a genderswap fic, I did read thingswithwings's story around the time SAAC was coming together, so I think it impacted with me on a subconscious level. I get tired of the WNG idea, and even more so, of the 'Gay Only For You' idea, and I wrote around those two conventions as much as possible.

What jumped out at me, reading the analysis, was cathexys's phrase 'John, happily gay and partnered with Rodney' -- because, in all honesty, I never intended that to be the way John came across at the beginning of the story. The plot, as well as John's preexisting relationship with Rodney, mutated a little as I wrote the story, so maybe that's to blame; but in my mind, John would never describe himself as either happily gay, nor partnered with Rodney, at least at the start of the narrative. He could barely even manage 'gay', in fact. The first overt acknowledgment in the narrative (possibly even in his life) of his orientation, comes not as a positive statement, but as a realization that he is no longer what he was-- the spoken absence of his gayness is the unspoken acknowledgment that he was gay to begin with. As for being partnered with Rodney, the John whose POV I was writing would probably describe their relationship as mostly about sex and convenience, and as being somewhat sordid. This is the John who, though in an uneasy truce of maturity about the fact that he does men and likes it, has never yet let himself think of a sexual relationship as being about anything more than physical gratification. He dislikes Rodney's attempts at closeness and actively rebuffs them.

Of course, it's obvious from this reading (and, in fact, at least a couple other comments I've gotten) that not all of this necessarily comes across as I might have intended. It's interesting, how differently people can interpret character motivations.
She also addressed another fan's comments off the bat:
I loved Straight As A Circle for finally letting someone in a genderswap story be really, really on one end of the Kinsey scale or another in a way that was not mutable.

This was really great to hear. While I appreciate the idea of a flexible sexual orientation (and not just for plot purposes!) I really also like the concept of a John Sheppard who is just plain gay. In a way, it's the same as the 'Woke Up Gay' concept, in that John's not meant to slowly discover his straightness (because, for example, Rodney turned into a woman), or to realize that love transcends the level of 'bits'. Bits matter to John, they just *do*, and there's no getting around that. In fact, before the transformation, John would probably say that bits were *all* that mattered; and in a military world, where John's orientation and its expression have meant the difference between success and disgrace, I can really see why John might start to see sex and sexuality as being far more important than the person whose bits you happen to be fondling.

That black & white structure, created by John's psychology and enforced by the magic gay-reversing machine, let me play around with the forced separation of desire and love. I never intended to get into what cathexys calls the 'WNG' (we're not gay, we just love each other) territory, but I guess it was almost inevitable, at least from John's perspective. Once he loses the physical desire to be with Rodney, he's forced to face up to the emotional desire that didn't go along with it after all. At first, John tries to chalk this up to psychological conditioning -- his body doesn't want it, but his mind hasn't caught up yet -- but gradually he's forced to admit that it goes deeper than that.

If the story had gone into even more detail, or gone on longer, I might have let Rodney's orientation get 'flipped' too -- only to discover that the device didn't dequeer so much as reverse polarities -- i.e., that Rodney's bisexuality wouldn't be affected very much at all. I also wonder (and I don't have an answer for this) what would have happened if John's sexuality had been flipped at a time when he wasn't in love with another man. Would he have gone along with it, just as he thinks? Or would he have found himself still rearing back against the change? I almost wish I could write the story again, sans Rodney, to see how differently it might play out. John might be forced to face the fact that he doesn't want to be gay just for the sake of Rodney, but for his own sake, that his gayness is important to him and him alone. Or maybe he'd be straight and never look back, just as he thinks he would have done, only to find that his straight-wired body isn't a matched set with his gay-wired psychology. Maybe he'd still fall for Rodney, and wish he had his gay back. Hmm, wouldn't that turn the WNG trope on its head? Hee.

Fan comments in response:

[minotuar]: John would never describe himself as either happily gay, nor partnered with Rodney - this is very much the impression I got, with John suspended in that limbo between his sexual urges and his social identity.
[the story's author]: That's cool! I'm a composer in another life, and I think it's there that I've come to accept that once you release something creative into the universe -- music or writing, or anything else I suppose -- it's inevitable that people are going to see it differently, interpret it differently, and appreciate it differently. I've actually come to look forward to that aspect of the creative process, because it's like what we'd call an aleatoric element in music -- an element that's controlled not by the composer or the writer, but by the performer or reader. It's so interesting!
[Carolyn Claire]: I didn't see John being "happily gay and with Rodney", either--I saw the conflicts that you meant to incorporate, so you did get that across well, I think. John's conflicts about his sexuality and how he works through them in the course of being 'cured' are an important part of the story, or at least they were for me. And his realization that, once the physical desire was gone, there was still affection and connectedness and that that was significant was wonderful and, yes, very romantic. *g*

I love the questions you pose about 'what if there was no Rodney', and I like to believe that John would have felt less than whole and wanted to be who he was born to be, anyway. Having Rodney around to angst over (I loved his trying to be sexual with Rodney, both for what it said about his wanting to regain his 'normal' sexuality and wanting to have that with Rodney, again) probably sped up the process and made things more clear to him, but I like to imagine that the ending would have been the same. And the idea that Rodney would have ended up still bisexual is a hoot! I almost wish you could have worked that in. *g*

It's locked, now, due to some temporary RL journal outage things, but I recced this story right after reading it because I absolutely ADORE it. The way you played with the tropes and worked on our hearts was faboo. :)
[the story's author]: Having Rodney around to angst over (I loved his trying to be sexual with Rodney, both for what it said about his wanting to regain his 'normal' sexuality and wanting to have that with Rodney, again) probably sped up the process and made things more clear to him, but I like to imagine that the ending would have been the same. *nods* I think so, too. As I was telling cathexys below, I think that John's still using Rodney as a bit of a convenience at the end of this story, if only because it's easier to lean on Rodney and 'blame' him for John's attempt to change back than to take ownership of his queerness and admit that it's something he wants for himself. As for the bits where straight!John tries to be sexual with Rodney -- I had so much fun writing those sections, and I'm not even sure I can explain why. Partly I guess it's almost a kink -- the way that John can narrate the sexual encounter in almost a clinical way, which he couldn't have managed before -- and partly it's just so different to get to write a slash story in which the protagonist isn't going, "Oh, wow, I never realized how great cock is!" -- instead, he's going, "Oh, wow, I never realized how disgusting cock is!" It turns the cliche on its head, which always makes me happy.
[eleveninches]: Of course, it's obvious from this reading (and, in fact, at least a couple other comments I've gotten) that not all of this necessarily comes across as I might have intended. It's interesting, how differently people can interpret character motivations.

That's totally what I got from this fic.

I liked the story because of the reasons you stated above, and especially because WNG gets really, really old after a while. I actually found Straight as a Circle to be a more realistic portrayal of sexuality and relationships than a lot of other fics that have tried similar ideas. My favourite part of the story is how John comes to realize being gay is not bad, it's part of who he is. There have been a lot of genderfuck fics recently that haven't done this to a degree that's satisfied me. (There's also one popular genderfuck fic written in the last few months that offended me a great deal, but I think it was one of those situations where my personal experiences came into conflict with the message the author was trying to get across.)
[the story's author]: WNG gets really, really old after a while.
  • nods vigorously* Partly, I think it's so ubiquitous in slash fandoms because it's hard for writers to reconcile (usually) canonically straight characters with the gay love they're writing about, and the WNG is a bit of writerly phlebotnum to get around those nasty canonical corners. And, partly, (and I guess this is the bit I don't like) I think it's almost a -- I want to say 'immature', but I guess it's more like 'naive' -- response from writers who might not know (or even care to know!) any real live gay men. Some of the men in WNG stories, while possibly engagingly written, come off as sixteen-year-old girls trapped in hot men's bodies -- complete with the weird sexual innocence and the need to call each other cute.
Glad you liked it, and found it realistic, in other words!
[eleveninches]: Yes! Exactly! I've read a number of fics in SGA fandom that have come off as borderline homophobic IMO -- "We can't be GAY, I'm not a HOMOSEXUAL," which makes me think, "Because there's something wrong with being gay?" People have successfully written stories that make me believe John and/or Rodney doesn't believe they're gay (but still are) or only realize they're gay/bi later in life, but that's really different from stories where the author insists her characters are 100% heterosexual and don't find any man attractive other than Rodney or John.

Apparently WNG is some people's kink or something? I think it's one of those things -- like mpreg and amnesia -- I'll just never really understand.

[loligo]: that's really different from stories where the author insists her characters are 100% heterosexual and don't find any man attractive other than Rodney or John.

People are still writing this? In SGA, even? Blergh. Overall, though, I find that SGA fandom has more, and more realistic, exploration of gay social identity & political issues than any other slash fandom I've been involved in. I think in part this is overall societal progress, and in part due to my choice of fandoms (the others were all more fantastical or stylized, where that kind of present-day real world concern doesn't fit as organically).

Anyway, John's complicated issues before, during, and after the change really made the story for me. When the canon portrayal of John is so all over the map, it forces fanfic to find this delicate balance between giving him some deep-seated personal problems, yet having him still be a very competent professional and generally contented person. Most stories seem to lean in one direction or another, but this one just nails that balance.
[eveningblue]: People are still writing this? In SGA, even? Blergh. (Ha! That was my reaction, too! Luckily I haven't come across any of it.)
[cathexys]: I clearly overstated with the happily gay and partnered :) But the impression I got was that he'd somehow made some version of peace with himself and he was in a mutually satisfying relationship with Rodney (as opposed to traditional WNG).

And, see, the last questions are what was really at the heart of my reading it as WNG, b/c I saw too much of John's desire to go back as being driven by his love for Rodney and not the recognition that this gay elf was really his true identity so to speak.

But it was these moments (esp. in discussion with Kate) where a John glimpsed through who wasn't doing it for Rodney but for himself that really fascinated me and made me like the story on the theoretical level where I fell for it emotionally *because* of the OTP return to gay for Rodneyness ;)
[geeklite]: Yeah, I pretty much got from your fic that John was convinced he and Rodney were just fuckbuddies before the transformation. Watching him work out that that wasn't all it was was the best part of the story for me. (and that sentence might possibly be the most awkward sentence I've ever typed ;
[kyuuketsukirui]: I had this fic bookmarked to read and cathexys's post has prompted me to get around to doing so quicker than I otherwise might have, but I'm still just a third of the way through, so I don't have much to comment on as of yet, but add me to the list of people who didn't read him as happily gay and partnered with Rodney. I think the problem is not in the writing at all, but rather with fandom assumptions. People clicking on a John/Rodney fic are generally primed to read them as OTP/meant for each other/in love, etc. so sometimes even when they're not, they read it as if they were. I've written quite a few fics like that myself, and I don't really think there's anything to be done about it. Generally I don't mind, either. People who want an interesting story can be happy and people who want OPTOMGYAY can be happy, too. They're basically reading it with their own subtext.
[eveningblue]: I'm in agreement with geeklite above; what made the story unputdownable for me was, first of all, John's pov, which I think you did perfectly, and the fact that he was coming to this very interesting realization that, even when the sexual desire was taken away from him, he still wanted to be close to Rodney.

In fact, and I hope you don't mind my saying this, but I think this made it a very romantic story, though not necessarily OTPish. Instead of the Aliens (or Alien Devices) Made Them Do It, you wrote Alien Devices Made Them Stop Doing It, and yet they didn't stop caring for each other. So John realizes that his sexual desire is tied up in his orientation but his love is not. His head still wanted what his body didn't.

I think it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he couldn't be changed back, but I'm glad you gave the story a happy ending. I loved the relief John has at the end, when his "normal" desire comes back and all is right with the world again.
[anonymous]: I think that the problem of writing John without Rodney evaluating his sexuality is that in general John is very pragmatic. I'm not sure you can have that kind of A costs X, but gives me 2Z; B costs 3X, but gives me 3Z psychology and believe in the kind of peace/happily ever after that writers especially love to create.

John seems to LOVE belonging, enough that he's willing to hide an intellectual streak wide enough to put him in the science (or at least MATH)department, not to mention a love of literature (seriously, War & Peace is not most people's choice of sleep aid for a reason), and enough black ops training to single handily kill a small invading army.

"Or maybe he'd be straight and never look back, just as he thinks he would have done, only to find that his straight-wired body isn't a matched set with his gay-wired psychology"

But I think he could live with that cost.

References

  1. ^ from Merelyn at Massive SGA Recs Set, July 25, 2007
  2. ^ rec at Crack Van, June 2007
  3. ^ rec by thefourthvine at When I Find Myself in Times of Trouble, Crack and Cliches Comfort Me, May 19, 2007