¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Can contemporary readers understand The Left Hand of Darkness as a transgender text? If so, how? As the text is often described as feminist, I want to bring a consideration of transfeminism and trans of color feminism to the table.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Le Guin imagines a world without rape, or war. Given the November 2016 election of Donald Trump, who has openly boasted about sexually assaulting women, and been accused by over ten women of sexual assault, her vision is particularly relevant (Cut, 2016). Trump’s repealing of the Affordable Care Act, changes to Title IX interpretations and mass deportations are already having a a detrimental impact on many, many trans people of color.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 By envisioning a world where gender transition is normal and having a stable gender is perverse, Le Guin created a strong challenge to cisnormativity, or the assumption that living in accordance with the gender one was assigned was at birth is, or should be, normal. Her idea is still incredibly visionary. Today, many people identify with a gender known as “genderqueer,” which seems to parallel her idea of being androgynous, as genderqueer people reject identification as male or female and often prefer the pronoun “they.” I have many friends, students and colleagues who are genderqueer, and have for years. Yet a world where gender transition is the norm is still a distant future.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In some ways, though, the book is an example of the deep divisions between 1960s feminists and communities which may now be described as queer and trans, although the language they usd to described themselves then differed from today. To imagine people who change genders, Le Guin had to imagine another world. Did she know that trans people received hormone treatments that resemble some of the processes she described as early as the 1920’s (Stryker, Whittle, 2006)? Did she consult them or their doctors on the effects of those treatments? What was her thought experiment shaped by? She states in her 1988 essay “Is Gender Necessary: Redux?” that “it is hard for us to see clearly what, besides purely physiological form and function, truly differentiates men and women… the only going social experiments that are truly relevant are the kibbutzim and Chinese communes” (159). This leads me to believe that she did not consult transgender people for the writing of The Left Hand of Darkness, because many people in 1969 were living their lives outside of the binary genders assigned to them at birth. One way to consider a possible reading of the book as a transgender text is to try to understand the author’s attitudes towards trans people and her intent in writing it. Le Guin says in an interview with Vice Magazine that she didn’t know any transgender people and that the word was not in use at the time, but what about popular media representations or general knowledge (Lafreniere, 2008)?
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 For historical context, we could look to many examples of gender transition in mythology and religion, as well as centuries-old traditions of indigenous two spirit people, some of whom have genders that might be described as transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer or gender fluid (Feinberg, 1996). But as far as biological gender transformations like those described in The Left Hand of Darkness, sex change surgeries were first performed in Germany in 1931 (Stryker, 39). In Austria, early hormone treatments for gender transition people began in the 1910’s and in 1950 there were documented cases of people of both sexes requesting hormone treatment at a clinic at University of California San Francisco (Stryker, 41). In 1953, Christine Jorgensen made headlines with her medical gender transition and was featured on television and radio and went on to tour universities in the 1970’s and 80’s (Stryker, 49). In her book Transgender History, transgender studies scholar and historian Susan Stryker describes three very public incidents in which “transgender and gay resentment of police oppression erupted into collective resistance” by hundreds of people at Cooper’s donuts in 1959 in Los Angeles, at Dewey’s lunch counter in Philadelphia in 1965, and at the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 in San Francisco (60-63). In 1973, a few years after The Left Hand of Darkness, Sylvia Rivera stormed the stage at the Christopher Street gay pride rally to speak about years of organizing being done by Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to improve the lives of trans women and queer people who were sex workers and formerly incarcerated (Calpernia, 2014).
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Transfeminism, as proposed by Emi Koyama, demands that the needs of trans women be understood as significant concerns for feminists (Koyama, 2003). Many intersectional feminists today consider analyses of cisgender privilege, and accountability to trans women, to be important parts of feminist political action. I worry that describing The Left Hand of Darkness as a trans text may continue a trend of scholars and feminists making trans lives and trans cultural production invisible, as Viviane Namaste has described in her book Invisible Lives (2000). I call on all of those who would act in solidarity with trans people to continue to work against this exclusion by including transgender authors in our collections and our panels, as well as looking to historical examples of transgender science fiction authors. James Tiptree Jr. is an inspiring example of an early science fiction author who may be described as trans (Samer, forthcoming). Also, looking to trans women authors for example of trans science fiction challenges trans-misogyny, or the ways that misogyny is multiply compounded against trans women. Trans women such as Rachel Pollack were publishing science fiction writing as early as 1971, such as her short story “Pandora’s Bust” (Moorcock, 1971). From 1973 to 1975, Jessica Salmonson was one of the editors of The Literary Magazine of Fantasy and Terror, and she openly documented her coming out as a transgender woman in this journal. The work being done by the Motherboard of the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Council is important work in the right direction. Members of the board organized the panel in which this paper was first presented, and have awarded Tiptree Fellowships to trans women, including myself. I am grateful for this work and hope to see it continue!
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Le Guin is an early visionary in a line of theorists that includes Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble, where she said that to end gender based oppression, the feminist movement should move on from its illusion that the gender of woman exists as a material substance (2006). Her work also resonates with feminist theorists such as Monique Wittig, whose 1969 book Les Guérrilères imagined new possibilities for language to describe gender. The Left Hand of Darkness opens a space of imagination that can be seen in the queer and transgender movement that demands space in the present for embodiments beyond cisgender assignments, beyond binary genders as the only option, and beyond a heterosexual matrix of power predicated on that binary.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 My own artwork resonates with Le Guin’s close consideration of moments of hormone-induced bodily changes. In my project Pregnancy, I sought to bring attention to the reproductive rights of trans women. In many places in the US, including prisons, the only way for trans women to have safety, to be treated in accordance with their genders, is to get permanently sterilizing surgery. Trans women in the US are frequently told that the only way for them to have reproductive rights is to pay for exorbitantly expensive cryogenic banking of their sperm. This process costs thousands of dollars in the long run.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Additionally, many doctors and published pieces of literature on hormone treatment tell trans women that once hormone treatment has begun, they will no longer be able to have children. My personal experience, as well as the experience of other trans women I have met, as documented in Pregnancy, show that this is a lie. I understand it as a form of punishment of trans women and a way of making life saving gender related medical treatments more difficult to access.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Wanting children of my own, I sought out other trans women who have had children in the year before my gender confirmation surgery. I found a group of women on social media who had stopped their hormone treatments temporarily, long enough to begin producing sperm again. These women taught me how they did it. They also taught me the DIY science of identifying sperm morphology and motility at home with an inexpensive microscope.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 I have long been inspired by bioartists who challenge the boundaries between life and art, scientist and layperson, body and art object, by creating art from biological materials. These artists include the Tissue Culture and Art Project, Stelarc, Orlan and Shannon Bell. Bell worked with a bioart lab called Symbiotica and created a female phallus out of genetically engineered tissue (Symbiotica, 2011).
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In my project Pregnancy, I documented the changes in my biology over a period of months in which I had stopped my hormone treatment. I documented the changes with poems as well as with photos and video. The video focuses on my biological material to call into question any simple notion of transgender visibility as a political goal. The poems reference do-it-yourself science and the usage of biological material as a medium, both aspects of the genre of bioart. Pregnancy imagines a trans woman as a scientist in a cold, icy terrain keeping timestamped scientific records. It also places the viewer in the position of the scientist or doctor, looking through the microscope.
A blizzard of hormones, for months, undersea volcanoes spewing hot affects tectonic emotional swings intense food cravings my body is foreign to me it’s changing, in ways I don’t like, shape, texture and so many little black hairs coming back, despite being tortured out of existence, on my cheeks, in my cleavage, I have to wear baggy clothes, all my underwear was too tight for gamete making temperatures, I have to take my vitamins every day, all to make a baby. I’m a trans woman and I’m pregnant.
While I once thought taking hormones was a good experiment an ethico-aesthetic experimental life act in the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari, now I realize what a masculinist, colonialist dream that was, and I don’t like that old self of mine. Some of us write out of need, for some of us, this is not a luxury, as Lorde said. Now, after so many years of taking them, I realize that in these pills there is a home for me, these pills, and all the changes they’ve brought to my body and life, have brought me to a place of commitment to building a home and a family, to heal the deepest wounds in myself, to care for myself and those I love, by creating stability, by being careful with our hearts and our lives. Funny that my Colombian father’s whole way of raising me, was to teach me to be the man, the breadwinner, and it didn’t work at all, but absolutely rejecting man in the deepest way I could brought me full circle to want to create and protect my family, in a way that dad will one day appreciate. They told me I would be sterile, the doctors and brochures, that I couldn’t do this, what I’m doing. But they don’t know, and they lied to me, and other trans women have done it. I mourned the loss of my children and family, and I’ve heard my friends mourning them too, but the truth is that even after 8 years on estrogen and t blockers, you only have to go off your hormones for a few months to make gametes. Other trans women taught me how to do it. Sadie said, get a microscope, don’t pay hundreds of dollars for doctor visits to check your semen, with a $50 kids microscope, you can see sperm, morphology and motility. I did, I can and I do, see hundreds of sperm squirming their way across the field of view, clearly swimming in a line, I shared with the other women a short video I made, and they exclaimed: you’ve got swimmers!
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Often, cisgender viewers of trans art want to look so closely, to know the truth of the trans person’s life so intimately, that the viewing becomes a form of voyeurism, a form of violence. Often my work challenges that desire to see the truth of the transgender body or life. In this work, the intimate details of my life and body are literally under the microscope, but I literally use a poetic lens to subvert the power of the cisgender gaze. In other works, I have used science fiction as a means to subvert that gaze. The project for which I was awarded the Tiptree Fellowship, Redshift and Portalmetal, is an interactive story in a style I refer to as transreal, blending fiction and non-fiction to tell a story of how femme science can open portals in time and space, and how a trans woman on a dying planet uses these portals to escape and to stay in touch with her lover while on the run (Redshift and Portalmetal, 2016).
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Lastly, a note on language. Le Guin describes many of the characteristics of Gethenians that change as they go through estrus and pregnancy. One characteristic of my own that I explore in Pregnancy is the way my language changed. One of the poems asks, “whose language is this, the logos of cis-heteropatriarchy,” as I identify that my poetry has changed, my sentence structures, my word choices. I did not edit the poems after going back on my hormones, and my mind changed back to what I know to be my mind, which I understand as female. In that sense, Pregnancy is a material experiment of some of the issues that Le Guin’s thought experiment in Left Hand of Darkness explores. I wanted to record how even my language and thought changed when my hormone levels changed.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Le Guin’s act of imagination, conjuring a world where gender is temporary and in permanent flux, where having a single, stable gender is described as perversion, is brilliant and powerful. In a way, Le Guin imagined a trans world through the character of a cisgender observer on that world. Still, I encourage readers to look to the writings of transgender authors for examples of transgender science fiction, alongside Le Guin’s work, and to research actual trans people’s lives when writing stories about transgender experiences. The embodiments and cultures she imagined on other planets have clear precursors throughout history, and are becoming increasingly visible today, in popular media and art.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Calpernia. Trans Activist Sylvia Rivera at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, April 7, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lD75vnGc-E.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 “Here Are All of the Accusations Women Have Made Against Donald Trump.” The Cut. Accessed May 21, 2017. http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/10/all-the-women-accusing-trump-of-rape-sexual-assault.html.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Koyama, Emi. “The Transfeminist Manifesto.” in Dicker, Rory, and Alison Piepmeier, eds. Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century. Boston: Northeastern, 2003.