¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Winter is starting in Minnesota when I reread The Left Hand of Darkness this time. Late November: snow on the streets and ice in my nostrils and the world becoming internal, contracting to splendid isolation in small warm rooms. Winter reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s invention, the planet Gethen, and the intimate space of the tent in which Genly and Estraven care for each other across the Gobrin Ice. Ursula Le Guin herself has opinions about what Left Hand of Darkness is about, but one thing that strikes me is its treatment of how climates—cold climates in particular—influence and shape culture and politics.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Reading Left Hand, I realize it is exactly two years since I gave birth to my daughter Kit, in the dining-room of our house in Minneapolis. This is a story that bears some importance in my reading of the novel, and thus I tell it here. But before I launch into the story, some necessary background information: prior to getting pregnant I had been on testosterone for 12 years. I was a “pregnant man,” although “man” is not something I necessarily identify with strongly. Kit calls me Dada and my partner Emmett Papa. She knows that I gave birth to her, but she is only just beginning to recognize how different most other families are from our configuration. She doesn’t seem yet to have a concept of sex or gender as a binary logic containing only “women” and “men,” in which women perform gestation and caring, and we hope she never does.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But back to the story: around 1 am on the night I went into labor, Emmett and I went for a walk outside. The snow sparkled, as if someone had glitterbombed the neighborhood. It was a pleasure to be outside and walking, striding really, through contractions that weren’t painful so much as druggy and exhilarating and ferocious. Labor got really painful later on, but just then everything felt like magic. Back at our house, the heat was turned up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the midwives kept pouring hot water into the birthing pool to keep it warm. I didn’t want be in a warm room. All through summer and fall I had been nauseous, often puking multiple times a day: what doctors call hyperemesis gravidarum, and the ensuing dehydration made me extremely sensitive to cold. I wore cashmere sweaters through mild summer days and laid on blankets at night. But by December, the time I actually gave birth, I was overheating: so much so that our cat, who had never been a lap-sitter, installed herself to sleep on my belly as often as she could.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 All through that winter I sat in different rocking chairs around our house and held Kit as she slept and fed. I read The Left Hand of Darkness to prepare for a seminar on feminist science fiction I was teaching the next fall. I read and noticed that the Ekumen’s alien Envoy to Gethen, Genly Ai, also found himself extremely sensitive to cold. He shivers in the frosty living-spaces of Karhide, but on his arrival in Orgoreyn, his host gives him extra furs for his bed and has the heat in his room turned up. “They told me, keep the Envoy warm… Treat him as if he were pregnant!” the Orgota host explains. And Genly is pathetically grateful. As I read, certain things fell into place about my identification with and feelings about the utopian vision of the novel, even as in every day life a certain utopian vision of parenting was gradually splitting apart.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 What was the vision? I thought that parenting as a transgender person with another transgender person would radically transform the gendered division of labor, or ideally result in no division of labor at all. We had both grown up with feminist mothers who encountered the structural limits of “modern life” in the family forms they inhabited, which demanded that they be the main emotional carers for husbands and children. No: we wanted to parent as true equals, bringing all the knowledge of and commitment to our decolonial, anarcho-communist-flavored feminism and queer politics. That vision had sustained me through the embodied work of pregnancy, during which the labor of reproducing ourselves really had divided. My role was to sit on the couch, do as little as possible, and let myself be the host for the parasitic body erupting with life inside me. Emmett’s role was to make frantic last-minute remodels to our new house, prepare meals (I couldn’t countenance cooking, let alone eating), drop me off at the university to teach my classes, and do pretty much everything. In those months he became a devoted yet manic chauffeur/nurse/valet, and one of his key roles was listening to me moan: about pregnancy; about the odor of cooking meat (I could smell a barbeque happening a mile away, and it made me gag); about being misgendered; about having to teach, think, and write when all my physical energy went to my uterus; about the ridiculous lack of masculine or even “androgynous” pregnancy clothing. He moaned too, about many things. But we thought that by the time the baby was on the outside, everything would even out. We intended to bottle feed and split feeding equally: I knew that my surgically modified chest and nipples wouldn’t supply Kit with nearly enough milk, although I intended to chestfeed—have her nurse on my nipples—as a bonding ritual. (Emmett might chestfeed her too, although he decided he didn’t want to.) Because, or in spite of, how the biological fact of pregnancy itself had forced us to take different roles, we were committed to splitting the labor and the care and the love of parenting 50/50.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 I’m sure you’re waiting now to hear how this relates to Left Hand of Darkness. This involves invoking a question: what is Le Guin’s utopian vision in the novel? There are so many things to talk about in Left Hand: its allegory about the violence of nationalism (one of the things that is so apparent again, reading as Donald Trump was elected U.S. President). Also, the instructive questions it asks about liberal visions of self-professedly “benign” imperialism, including the imperialism of anthropology itself, even within a such a decolonial world-making as the Hainish Ekumen. But the utopian vision I am talking about here is how Le Guin envisions gender on Gethen: the fact that Gethenians have “no” gender. They are androgynous most of the time, and spend around a week out of every month in kemmer. All Gethenians can gravitate towards “male” or “female” hormonal and anatomical embodiment during kemmer; pregnancy and birth can happen to anyone. Everyone gets time off to have sex.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 What are the political consequences of envisioning this arrangement? To me, Left Hand attempts to create a line of flight out of the normativity of the 1960s American Dream and propel us toward another place entirely. Sometimes this attempt works, and sometimes the book (and we as its readers) remain stuck. Often these two things happen at the same time, and thus they are difficult to distinguish from each other. One good example is the ambivalence and ambiguity of the novel in regard to sex, genitals, and embodiment. Sex—the act of having sex—isn’t mentioned much in Left Hand. Le Guin keeps a slightly aloof distance from the business of how bodies get and give pleasure from other bodies. When it does happen, it’s described in a distinctly heterosexual way: according to the Hainish Investigator’s notes, sex happens between female and male, although we never know if this is meant to be true or an ethnographic assumption of universalism on the part of the Hainish Investigator. This is where Le Guin’s habit of revisiting the same world and rewriting it becomes very useful: Le Guin revisits and disrupts the heteronormativity of Gethenian sex in the 1995 “Coming of Age in Karhide.” But in the novel, Genly and Estraven don’t ever have sex (although in my opinion, they should).
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 But that’s not what interests me most. What interests me is how the gendered division of labor is ruptured on Gethen. The female Ekumen Investigator’s notes, which in the book function to make Gethen intelligible for readers, read thus: “Consider: anyone can turn his hand to anything. That sounds very simple, but its effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be… ‘tied down to childbearing,’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be—psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore no-one is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.”
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 To me, this passage stands as a fundamental critique of modern gendered and racialized divisions of sexual labor, emotional labor, and caring labor. This is what makes me return to Left Hand of Darkness as a utopian text: the idea that biological or anatomical reproductive differentiation is fundamentally transitory and so the whole division of labor changes. But Le Guin does this with one key difference to many other utopian visions of shared work (including some of her own). Unlike in some other feminist utopias, people do not transcend care and bodily labor here, or outsource reproduction to machines. Technology doesn’t transcend embodiment or the messy interdependency of interpersonal interaction: bodies are still fundamentally needy things. And the work of caring itself is not devalued, or, not entirely. For example, for all his unreconstructed masculine individualism, Genly clearly has needs. (As in the need for more warmth.) While he himself tends to devalue such needs, many of the Gethenians he meets accept them as a reality. As Estraven and Genly cross the Gobrin Ice, they have to cooperate and work together—pull the sledge in harness, literally—in order to survive. In fact the whole plot turns on Genly’s inability to understand Estraven, or their altruism. On the Gobrin Ice Genly learns how to understand and love Estraven, but also how to think beyond masculinist individuation. Paradoxically in these passages—stuck in heteronormativity even as we move someplace else—Estraven and Genly’s relationship seems homoerotic, but when you look at how they describe each other, they understand themselves as polarized and opposite, “differentiated”. This maps onto some form of sexualized difference: Genly thinks Estraven is inscrutably feminine; Estraven thinks Genly is masculinely fragile but also strong and fierce. Contra Le Guin’s own statement, maybe there is indeed gender on Gethen.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 There are also limitations to the vision of flattening the division of labor, even as the “indisputable reality” of anatomical difference isn’t an issue. For example, I read Estraven as a career politician who has left their own hearth, their kemmering Arek, and their children. Arek clearly took on the burden of childrearing; Estraven clearly does not, or we do not see them worrying about their children in a way that reflects parental anxiety.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In the essay “Is Gender Necessary, Redux,” Le Guin says that she was not “recommending the Gethenian sexual set-up” when she wrote Left Hand of Darkness, but doing a thought experiment to discover what “truly” differentiates men and women.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 This brings me to the final part of what I want to say, which is that in contemporary times queer and trans culture is defying some of the heteronormative structures that maintain the division of labor just as Gethen does. Sometimes this is because of the reality of trans body modification. For instance, Gethenians sometimes feel as if they are me because in a material way, I have strategically embodied both biological “femaleness” and “maleness” at different times, and I can choose to ovulate or not by taking or not taking testosterone.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 But when we had Kit, I realized that some parts of our own queer and trans utopian vision were fundamentally flawed. I learnt that care is never “50/50”, because care isn’t quantifiable; and also that we still had to earn money somehow and the easiest way to do it was for one person to have a fulltime job. That was, and still is, me. As a visual artist, my partner can get some teaching work, and some arts funding, but his career is differently valued to mine and so he simply doesn’t have the capacity to earn the income that I do as a tenure-track professor. As a consequence, he now takes on much more of the work of parenting, and of reproducing our daily lives.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 However much we can mess with our individual bodies, and genders, we’re still stuck within a structurally-mandated division of labor. The institutions governing how we live and work function to reward the traditional splitting of work into valorized “worker” and unpaid, undervalued houseworker. I see this in the different conditions, pay, benefits, health insurance, and access to parental leave we are offered as adjunct/part-time and fulltime workers. Our situation is one small part of the differential value of work within racial capitalism: childcare, service work, and reproductive work is generally low-paid and performed by people of color. These structures are gendered and racialized: they privilege professional, “individualist” white-collar work and they actively devalue care work by making it low-paid, or unpaid. This work is understood as “easy” and “natural” for women and racialized populations, creating more barriers to struggles for higher pay and better working conditions. Meanwhile, structural penalties exist for engaging in reproductive labor outside the formal workforce: criminalization, profiling, and “rescue” sex work or other informalized forms of work. Some of the things that might help—racial justice, a universal living wage, the end of capitalism altogether—seem now as impossibly utopian as gender on Gethen. Having come part of the way, revolutionized gender roles, I think it’s important to acknowledge that merely revolutionizing gender embodiment won’t change a thing. The structural change is up to us. Le Guin’s work reminds me to put the care of all bodies—in all our marvelous difference—and of the planet itself at the forefront of that struggle.