Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Compulsory Heterosexuality Reinforces Gender Dualism

Ursula K. Le Guin begins The Left Hand of Darkness with a defensive introduction: “I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing” (xv). She labels the novel as a “thought experiment.” At certain moments, Le Guin asserts, we can see that people are already androgynous. But (and I think that Jasmine’s post on this is completely on point) Le Guin's thought problem does not present true “androgyny” or create a full spectrum of gender expression; in creating a balance of “yin and yang,” “masculine and feminine,” Le Guin only reinforces and exaggerates gender duality without questioning it.

Genly Ai identifies the difference in biological sex and the dualism it creates as “the heaviest single factor in one’s life” (234). And when that “divisive” factor is removed, Le Guin still only writes about Gethenians’ heterosexual kemmer encounters. When she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, Le Guin was certainly “aware” of same sex encounters; Genly claims that “perverts” in Gethenian society (people who have hormonal imblances that make them more “male” or more “female”) “are not excluded from society, but they are tolerated with some disdain, as homosexuals are in many bisexual societies. The Karhidish slang for them is halfdeads” (63). “Bisexual,” in this context, means “heterosexual” rather than what we think of as “bisexual” today. It fascinates me that Le Guin would explore a world of “ambisexual” beings as necessarily heterosexual, even as she explores polyamorous (“promiscuous”) kemmerhouses. That, to me, emphasizes one of the main ways in which Le Guin does not make it beyond the gender binary or the concept that biological sex dictates gender expression.

Le Guin notices this in her 1987 of “Is Gender Necessary?” (I’m also quite surprised that this didn’t occur to her in the 1976 edition.) Not only does she finally figure out how to refer to the Gethenians without gendered pronouns (there are some “they” revisions), she also chides herself for “unnecessarily lock[ing] the Gethenians into heterosexuality…. In any kemmer-house homosexual practice would, of course, be possible and acceptable and welcomed - but I never thought to explore this option; and the omission, alas, implies that sexuality is heterosexuality” (14). STILL, even decades later, Le Guin assumes that homosexuality only occurs in kemmerhouses- the sites of indiscriminate, “promiscuous” sexual encounters. Did it occur to her that when Gethenians vowed kemmering, at some point in their many kemmering cycles together, both of them might develop the same sexual organs?

I tried to make sense of this compulsory heterosexuality by placing it within Le Guin’s thought problem - if the only point of kemmer is to reproduce, then perhaps there is no evolutionary “need” for same sex encounters. This doesn’t work, though, because Le Guin describes kemmer as a sexual compulsion - the Gethenians feel the need to have sexual encounters even if they use contraceptives. It could be argued that any given Gethenian can develop either male or female sex organs during kemmer, so they all have bisexual or “ambisexual” sexual experiences - but I’m interested in the fact that Le Guin writes that someone who becomes “male” after kemmer must find “female” sexual partners, or that she labels them as "male" and "female" after these sexual organs develop (was that necessary?). Because she is locked into these concepts of sexual interdependence, balance, dualism, she falls into traps of sexual essentialism - “male” means “masculine” means “seeks female”; “female” means “feminine” means “seeks male” - which, in turn, produces some disturbing false dichotomies* throughout the novel, which Le Guin seems to unquestioningly support in “Is Gender Necessary?” I love that the novel aims to praise gender interdependence and equality of the sexes (especially during a time where an increasingly radical feminist movement often advocated for sexual difference and separatism), but she unnecessarily approaches that goal by assuming that there are only two biological sexes, only two genders to blend equally rather than a spectrum of gender expression, and that only heterosexual encounters are key to this interdependency.

*(example of a false gender dichotomy: Woman who investigated Gethenian sexual practices - “did [the Hainish who she believes genetically engineered the ambisexual Gethenians] consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped?” (96) - in a 100% heterosexual society, perhaps it would be true that masculinity/male rapes and femininity/female is raped)


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