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How does The Left Hand of Darkness explore the journey of acceptance of the non-binary gender?

Posted on:October 29, 2023 at 12:00 PM

In a 1976 essay entitled “Is Gender Necessary?”, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that in writing The Left Hand of Darkness she “eliminated gender to find out what was left.” She envisioned for the Gethenians a society of androgynous human beings who only develop sexual organs once a month during their oestrus cycle. If this sounds strange to you, it certainly sounded strange to Genly Ai, the protagonist of this novel and envoy of the interplanetary trade coalition Ekumen, who is from a universe where a male-female duality is accepted as the norm. There are various moments throughout Genly’s journey where, though he is seemingly open-minded, his lived preconceptions of gender are continually challenged and stretched. Moreover, Le Guin writes Genly as a rhetorical stand-in for the reader, challenging them to break their own subtle biases in order to truly accept the existence of the non-binary gender.

At the onset of the story, Genly has already been on Winter for two years, but has still not been able to empathize with the inhabitants of the world. Though he tries, he recounts: “…my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own” (Chapter 1). He continues to note his reactions to “womanly” characteristics, initially characterizing Estraven, the soon-to-be disgraced prime minister of the world, as “all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit,” qualities he found he “disliked and distrusted.” As he wonders about the masculinity or femininity of Estraven’s voice, we see the conflict that Genly initially deals with: can he trust someone when their existence, or their qualities, breaks some ground truth that he has believed in all his life? In these few lines, Le Guin is able to set up a conflict that Genly continues to navigate throughout the course of the book.

Leading up to his journey to Orgoreyn, Genly sheds his hesitancy and boldly describes the Karhidish, usually ending up ridiculing or dismissing them by associating them with his idea of feminine characteristics. He describes the superintendent of the island he stays on “as [his] landlady, for he had fat buttocks that wagged as he walked, and a soft fat face, and a prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature” (Chapter 5). In addition, in response to the new prime minister’s efforts to press the country’s claims to a disputed region, he dismisses this action that, “on any other world at this stage of civilization, would lead to war” because he believes that the Karhidish, unlike men or ants, lack the capacity to mobilize like animals or women do. Conversely, he believes the Orgoreyn nation to have become “an increasingly mobilizable society, a real nation-state,” unconsciously associating them with being a more masculine society than Karhide and thereby motivating his journey to the land. In the face of the unrecognizable, Genly seems to be more and more drawn to the familiarity of masculinity, and seems to trust the Orgoreyn nation despite his lived experience within Karhide and the lack of it in Orgoreyn.

Indeed, as the story progresses we see that Genly becomes quite comfortable among the commensals of Orgoreyn, but is ultimately betrayed by them and taken to prison. It is likely here that Genly reaches a turning point in his notions of gender because he witnesses the inhumanity of the anti-kemmer drugs used to keep prisoners at bay. He reflects: “They were as sexless as steers. They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire” (Chapter 13). Additionally, he connects with Asra, a fellow prisoner and former carpenter. While Genly has consistently been taunted as “the Pervert” among Gethenians for his physiological differences with respect to this world, Asra did not make any attempt to do so: “…where there is no desire and no shame no one, however anomalous, is singled out; and I think Asra made no connection of this notion with myself and my peculiarities.” The traumatic experience and Asra’s kindness changes Genly and pushes him to recognize a basic humanity in everyone, for he has seen the case when that humanity is stripped away. Though Le Guin presumably does not endorse suffering through trauma as a means to change one’s world views, this chapter serves as an allegory to one questioning their basic views in the face of some act of kindness or some proof of one’s humanity; one begins to believe in and accept a non-binary gender when one can accept their basic humanity.

Following Genly’s prison breakout courtesy of Estraven, the two set out on a journey back to the safety of Karhide. Along this journey, Genly’s distrust of Estraven begins to break down and evolves into deep friendship, admiration and hints of attraction. In the accounts of their journey, Genly acknowledges that one is no more an oddity than the other: “up here on the Ice each of us is singular, isolate, I as cut off from those like me, from my society and its rules, as he from his… We are equals at last, equal, alien, alone” (Chapter 16). Genly’s descriptions of Estraven are still rooted in the ambiguity of androgyny, and for lack of a better representation he still continues to describe Estraven with feminine qualities: “built more like a woman than a man, more fat than muscle; when we hauled together I had to shorten my pace to his, hold in my strength so as not to out-pull him: a stallion in harness with a mule.” Eventually, he realizes how futile it is to do so when he is unable to explain women to Estraven through his old conceptions of gender, as he exclaims, “God!—by now I’ve practically forgotten. I’ve been here two years… You don’t know. In a sense, women are more alien to me than you are.” Genly’s conflict comes full circle when he sees Estraven in kemmering as a woman: “I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was” (Chapter 18) With the loss of this fear of the non-binary, Genly expresses the sexual tension between the two characters as a pivotal moment in their friendship, where he realized that the differences between the two ultimately brought them together even though it was the thing keeping them apart.

In exploring the journey of acceptance of the non-binary gender, Le Guin sets up Genly Ai as a vehicle through which readers can start to examine their own biases. Initially uneducated but open to learn, Genly is tentative at the beginning of the story in Karhide but still makes certain judgements and assumptions based on his personal biases. As he learns more about society without truly trying to engage on a human scale with anyone, he doubles down on his biases and illogically trusts masculine characteristics of the world even though he had not yet experienced them. When this backfires, he experiences a pivotal moment in his development where he recognizes the basic humanity of individuals that transcends their perceived gender. With this illuminating experience, Genly’s interactions going forward, while not perfectly unbiased, show that he finally accepts the concept of a non-binary gender and redefines his relationship with an individual he had mistrusted based on that characteristic. Genly represents an audience looking to navigate the unknowns of an alien world, an unfamiliar social phenomena, only to realize that said world is rooted in humanity more than initially imagined.