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The Gender of Aliens: why can’t authors write genderless humans?

Read Monday, 13 Jul 2015

Popular culture heavily influences the way we understand gender. But for agender people – that is, people who don’t feel any active identification with gender at all – pop culture role models are scarce. Well, human pop culture role models are scarce, anyway, writes Andy Connor.

Cover detail: Ursula Le Guin’s <em>The Left Hand of Darkness</em>, 1984 Ace Books edition
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Still from <em>Star Trek: The Next Generation</em>, featuring the J’naii – an androgynous humanoid race

The history of agender characters is largely, and tellingly, a history of aliens. Examples of agender extra-terrestrials aren’t too hard to come by: Ursula Le Guin’s revered 1968 novel The Left Hand of Darkness features an entire species of genderless ambisexual aliens, who only acquire sexed characteristics during a monthly period of high fertility, while an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation depicts a blandly androgynous alien race who claim to have ‘evolved beyond gender’. (This is later revealed to be a conformist lie which they maintain through oppressive conversion therapies, but still.)

Still from <em>Star Trek: The Next Generation</em>

This isn’t close to a complete history of agender representation, but it is a complete history of every depiction that I – a real-life agender person – had come across before this year. For those who are new to the idea: agender means, more or less, ‘no gender’. It’s not about genitals, appearances, or social roles; it’s about who a person understands themselves to be. Some agender people use the word to mean ‘no gender at all’, while others see it more as a distinct gender of its own. Either way, it’s a word a person can use to describe the experience of not actively identifying with gender. It’s that absence, named and felt as a kind of presence.

My question is: how come the only agender characters I ever encountered were aliens?

To be clear: I love science fiction, and I love its ability to use imagined species to explore human ideas and possibilities. I am truly grateful to people like Ursula Le Guin and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for even countenancing the possibility of life without gender. But it says something about the way we understand gender that even in the vanishingly rare instances where a genderless character does appear in fiction, we seem to be more comfortable when it isn’t actually a person. Aliens, robots, or preternatural beings can safely be written without gender, but an agender human is seemingly harder to comprehend. 

Like pretty much all of us, I grew up with the idea of binary gender. ‘Humans are boys or girls’ – it’s so boiled in to the way most human lives are organised, it rarely even needs to be said. We mould kids into one of two basic shapes, dividing up the range of human traits and interests and capacities in a way that’s as unequal as it is damaging, and as damaging as it is false. So, if you’re a kid who’s neither a boy nor a girl – if you’re genderfluid or agender or have any other kind of non-binary experience of your own gender – the message received is that you’re not properly human. You are, in some secret and humiliating sense, alien. Sci-fi depictions of genderless aliens can unwittingly play into that notion (making the ‘alienation’ uncomfortably literal), but the real damage is done elsewhere: by the glaring absence of non-binary humans in pretty much any media, and more broadly, by an imprinting of binary gender so pervasive that this kind of absence seems totally unremarkable.

Cover detail: Ursula Le Guin’s <em>The Left Hand of Darkness</em>, 1992 Orbit paperback

So how do you write an agender character and not play into this stigma? Making the character human is a good start, and that means more than just being physiologically part of the species. You don’t need a gender to be a person. You don’t need a gender to have desires, flaws, idiosyncrasies and interests. There are so many factors that weave together to form who a character is: their relationships, their values, their upbringing, their needs, their ambitions, their class, their race, their feelings about their class or race, their sense of humour, their beliefs, their virtues, their failings. Having empty space in the box marked ‘gender’ doesn’t mean that someone lacks personhood; that empty space is part of the person they are.

Cover detail: Ursula Le Guin’s <em>The Left Hand of Darkness</em>, 1981 Futura paperback

These conversations about representation aren’t about an abstract sense of fairness; they’re about letting people, kids especially, know that they’re human, that they’re okay, and that the person they want to be is alive inside them. Clearly, a character doesn’t need to be your own gender for you to relate to them. My whole childhood was spent getting wrapped up in characters. Between Matilda’s unbridled curiosity, Manny Calavera’s wry mordancy, Hermione Granger’s stubborn humaneness, and around a thousand others, I gradually mapped out the rough contours of the person I wanted to be. That mapping is part of what good characters can do. At the same time, seeing my (lack of) gender depicted as a genuine possibility – a difference, not a flaw; something to be experienced, not repressed – would have helped me immeasurably.

As time goes on, I hope that more and more writers and creators become willing to get creative with the box marked ‘gender’. I hope they will be willing to put something other than ‘male’ or ‘female’ in that box, and to follow that through. I hope that they become willing to honour the incredible diversity and complexity of people’s experiences of gender, and to sometimes – like a musician becoming comfortable with leaving empty space between notes – not put anything in the box at all.

Because when it comes to all of the incredible complexity of people’s experiences of gender, empty space is itself something rich, unexplored, and worthy of respect. Empty space is its own kind of presence. It isn’t just where aliens live.

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