In part of her introductory essay on non-binary gender in SF/F, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote about Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, noting that it has become the, “go-to book for mind-blowing gender in SF, despite being written in 1968. Nothing written in the decades since has got the same traction.” Le Guin herself has written about her choices in that novel, and acknowledged that there are ways in which she fell short of her goal and failed to create a truly agender society.
Bookseller Morgan Dambergs talks about the very few books that acknowledge non-binary gender at all, and reiterates that what they are asking for isn’t to be included in Every Single Story, but simply to be acknowledged, and for the genre “to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien.”
I am genderqueer—agender, specifically—and at thirty-one, I have yet to read a novel that features an agender character. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising to me: in the last decade or so, I’ve read more than two hundred science fiction and fantasy books, and only three have included non-binary characters at all. I think that lack of representation has a lot to do with why it took me twenty-one years to find out that non-binary identities exist, and why it’s only been in the last six months that I’ve finally accepted my own genderqueer identity as real and something I’m allowed to express.
When I was nineteen, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I remember being very interested in the Gethenians, a species of humanoids that spend most of their lives sexless and genderless. But a mild fascination was as far as it ever went for me; there was never any sense of identification. There are two reasons why The Left Hand of Darkness failed to resonate with me. First, when I read the book, I had never yet heard the words “genderqueer” or “non-binary” or even “genderfuck,” or heard of anyone who identified as anything other than binary male or female. I had no lexicon to help me drawn a connection between the genderless Gethenians and my lifelong discomfort at with treated as either purely female or purely male. As far as I knew, there was no human experience comparable to how the Gethenians lived. For example, except during their monthly breeding period called kemmer, Gethenians don’t have any genitalia, so they’re not assigned a gender at birth. Our world, on the other hand, had made it clear that because I was assigned female at birth, I had two options: “stay” female (I didn’t have the word “cisgender” yet either) or “become” a transgender man. Since my biology and society were not and could never be like the Gethenians, the genderlessness of Gethen life never amounted to more than a pleasant thought experiment for me.
My second issue with the book was the human protagonist, Genly Ai. Genly is a cisgender male who finds the genderless Gethenians completely baffling, and spends much of the novel arbitrarily labelling them masculine or feminine to make himself more comfortable. I realize that Le Guin was trying to use Genly’s prejudices to point out the arbitrariness of that kind of labelling. But like the human protagonists in many SF and F stories, Genly is also intended to be the readers’ entry point into Le Guin’s speculative world. His point of view is the one meant to ease us into and explain the stranger aspects of the Gethenians—not least their lack of gender. When you’re a human being who is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having to choose between being exclusively male or exclusively female, and your first introduction to the idea of a genderless society is from the point of view of a human who can’t wrap his head around how anyone could ever be truly genderless, it’s pretty, well, alienating.
And then there are the other two books I mentioned. The first is Valentine by S. P. Somtow, the second book in one of my favourite horror trilogies. The book’s non-binary character is named PJ Gallagher. He identifies as cisgender male in the first and third books of the trilogy, but becomes temporarily (and mystically) non-binary as part of the plot of Valentine. PJ accepts his transformation gracefully, as do his fellow protagonists, and he’s not treated like a freak. But he does ultimately identify as a cisgender man, not as a non-binary and/or genderqueer person, so there’s little about his experience of non-binariness that matches up with mine. PJ’s non-binariness is fleeting, not a journey and a struggle he’s been going through all his life. Also, PJ is from a half-Shoshone background, and Somtow misappropriates a real non-binary Shoshone identity, called “berdache,” to describe PJ. My understanding is that being berdache is a lifelong identity, not a temporary one. I can only imagine that PJ’s portrayal must be infuriating and hurtful to anyone who identifies as berdache in real life.
The second book is Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi, which is no less problematic. The non-binary characters are based on the Hijra, a real third sex—neither male nor female—that has long existed in parts of the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan. My understanding is that, like Somtow’s misuse of “berdache,” Thompson’s idea of what it means to be Hijra has little to do with the lives of real Hijra people, especially in the modern day.
The Hijra in Habibi take in Zam, an adolescent boy who is one of the book’s two protagonists. Under their care, Zam becomes a eunuch (a practice that is not especially common amongst real-life Hijra) and is taught how to live and work within their communal home. When Zam eventually rejects them and runs away, he talks about feeling disgusted and regretful that he “ruined” his body in trying to become one of them.
It’s hard to put into words just how much that bothered me—and again, the portrayal must be so much more hurtful to anyone who self-identifies as Hijra. I can’t speak as a Hijra; but I can say as an agender person that, although I don’t deny being genderqueer has made my life more difficult, I also don’t regret growing up to be the person I am. I definitely don’t pine for the cisgender woman I could maybe, potentially, have been. And I’ve read nothing that implies the average Hijra feels any less comfortable with their non-binariness than I do with mine. That makes Zam’s arc little more than a twist on the old “gay recruitment” scare story: an innocent young boy becomes trapped in the clutches of the twisted Hijra, who coerce him into becoming one of them—and it ruins his life forever!!! (Yeah, ’cause that’s not horrible or marginalizing or written from a place of extreme cis privilege.)
So let’s recap real quick. Of the three books I’ve read in the last eleven years that include non-binary characters, one features non-binary aliens who are painted as too alien for me to find identifiable; one has a character who self-identifies as cisgender male but becomes non-binary very briefly for a specific, mystical purpose; and the third treats its non-binary characters as manipulative, pathetic and/or self-hating.
Not much to work with, really, is it?
I followed the comments on Alex Dally MacFarlane’s introductory post for her Tor.com series on non-binary characters closely. One of the most frustrating arguments I encountered is that because some SF and F stories featuring non-binary characters have already been written, there’s no need to spend time talking about them. The people making that argument seem to feel that all the books need to do is exist and the people who need them most will find them somehow. But I’ve been in need of those stories for as long as I can remember and have been actively searching for them for close to a decade. So far, with no resources at all to point me in the right direction, The Left Hand of Darkness, Valentine and Habibi are all I’ve managed to turn up.
When I was younger, reading about shy and introverted characters helped me feel like I wasn’t the only shy, introverted person alive in the world, and like those traits were just personality differences, not flaws I had to fix. I have every reason to believe that, if I’d had the chance to read more books about non-binary characters as a teen or young adult, I could have understood and accepted my agender identity many years ago. That’s why the discussion of non-binary genders in the science fiction and fantasy community is so important to me. Drawing attention to—maybe even inspiring authors to write more—SF and F novels that include non-binary characters can potentially change the lives of real non-binary people for the better. We’re not demanding to be included in every single science fiction and fantasy story ever written from now on. But asking the science fiction and fantasy community to acknowledge our existence, to no longer assume the gender binary is the default, to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien—I don’t think that’s really so much to ask.
Morgan Dambergs runs a very small used bookstore in their hometown of Halifax, Canada. They spend much (though never enough) of their free time reading and writing speculative fiction. They hope to someday publish some fantasy and horror novels, which will, naturally, include both non-binary and binary characters.