At 18, Warreven was presented with an offer most men would have gladly accepted: Marriage to the only child of the Most Important Man on the planet Hara. The problem was, Warreven wasn't "most men." In fact, he wasn't a man at all, but a herm or, as Haran slang went, a "halving." And Temelathe's only child, Tendelathe, was a man.
For the Most Important Man, Warreven's sex was a non-issue: Warreven would simply classify himself as a woman and become Tendelathe's wife. This was a common arrangement, as herms did not live their lives as herms, but as men or women. It was up to them to choose. Warren would not choose, however; while he would willingly have married his long-time friend, he refused to be forced into declaring himself female. He was comfortable living as a man and that's how he wanted it to stay. He refused the offer. The decision ultimately changed his life.
The story point is one of the keystones in Melissa Scott's 1995 novel Shadow Man, a book which explores human gender and what life might be like if things were not as "simple" as we (perhaps wrongly) view them today.
The planet Hara, where Warreven, the Most Important Man and his son live is one of countless human colonies founded at a point in the future when humans have mastered faster-than-light (FTL) travel and have spread across the galaxy. As the story opens, Hara is in the process of slowly but surely being re-connected with the colonial network, after a few hundred years' separation.
The reason Hara was cut off is the same reason it's now so different from other human colonies. FTL travel, as boundary-breaking as it was, was in large part made possible by the development of specialized drugs, which prevented the side effects of the travel, keeping humans healthy and sane. However, these drugs themselves had a major side effect, one which no one had expected or even noticed under it was too late: The drugs affected human DNA and caused a large upswing (as high as 25%) in intersex births. There were no longer men and women, but men, women... and several other sexes. This discovery was so shocking and devastating to the human space colonization movement that all FTL travel was put on hold. Chaos erupted, arguments ensued, and it was during this time that the group making its way to the planet known as Hara were cut off.
People on hara developed the same genetic"abnormalities" as the rest of those who had taken FTL drugs. Not only their children, but their children's children, and on down the line, were born into one of five gender categories: woman, fem, herm, men, or man. The crucial difference on Hara, as opposed to within the human colonization effort and humanity as a whole (the "Concord"), was that the people on Hara chose to deny that this change had occurred. Almost all Concord humans had finally embraced the sexual differences and all the new sexual orientations and identities that came with it. They "moved on " with the change and re-started FTL travel. Harans were different. Fiercely traditional, they clung to concepts of men and women, and those who did not fit those categories were, officially, made to fit.
Despite the decision he made at 18, Warreven has made a good life for himself. He's got a job as something like an attorney, part of a three-person team. One of his partners is a man, the other a herm, like himself, only more politically outspoken (having fought a court battle to have legal status as "herm," not one sex or the other). Their firm often handles cases involving the "odd-bodied," those Harans who do not conform to Haran sexual standards. Warren is a skilled negotiator, and thanks to his continuing friendship with the Most Important Man (who still talks wistfully of his would-have-been "daughter-in-law"), he has a comfortable life. In his off time, Warreven's life isn't quite the savory life of a lawyer, however. He enjoys going to "wrangwys" bars, where fems, herms and mems mix amongst themselves, along with men and women who come to experiment in ways which are, officially, either forbidden or strongly frowned upon. In these bars, "wrangwys" become "trade"; Warreven has been "trade" himself.
In Shadow Man, we see Warreven's life change from something mostly stable and secure, where he is happy to remain within the status quo, to one in which his entire life is turned upside down and Hara is on the verge of a minor revolution. The story takes off when one day Warreven meets an offworlder named Tatian. The offworlder has come on an assignment from one of the big pharmaceutical companies trading with Hara, and at first he's strictly business. But after he meets Warreven and is introduced to Haran's rather different social set-up, he can't seem to get himself untangled from a budding revolution among society's oppressed. He finds himself encouraging Warreven and eventually assisting him. It's hard for him to believe the "odd-bodied" have allowed themselves to be oppressed at all, and even harder for him as he watches Warreven struggle with his role in the new revolution, especially when things get out of control, with attacks on bars, beatings, and riot police.
One of the things Scott does in Shadow Man is set up an allegory for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights movement, and one of the things that makes the book work is that this allegory isn't done in a heavy-handed way, but one that makes you understand the nature of social movements and those caught in the crossfire. Warreven doesn't want to be a revolutionary. He doesn't want to be a hero. He doesn't really want to be a herm -- not the way humans on Concord are herms. He doesn't know what any of that is about. However, the way events unfold, he has no choice, morally, but to press on and become a revolutionary, become a hero, and eventually, to become a herm. Change has to start somewhere and it just so happens that it starts with him.
Shadow Man is a wonderful, thought-provoking book which, although somewhat dissatisfying in the fact that it doesn't tie up the book's conflicts in a neat bow, makes you wonder about the nature of being human and being part of society, whether accepted or not.