Of Pregnant Kings and Manly Landladies: Negotiating Intersex in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Abstract: This essay examines narrative negotiations of intersex in contemporary US science fiction literature. Intersex is understood as a highly contested concept as well as the lived realities of intersex people. The intelligibility of intersex people is constantly negotiated in and through cultural norms and practices, with literature serving as one major cultural playing field of renegotiation. This article seeks to close a perceived gap in the analysis of literary representations of intersex: Discussions so far have focused solely on realist fiction; science fiction has hitherto not been included. I am therefore going to analyze Ursula K. Le Guin’s seminal novel The Left Hand of Darkness in search for instances in which intersex intelligibility is prohibited, interrupted, or challenged in ways distinctive of the novel’s genre. In this contribution, I argue that intersex is a productive, yet previously neglected term of analysis that lays open conceptualizations of sex, gender, and sexuality in Le Guin’s science fiction novel.

Intersex is a term of great contention among those who are labeled by it as well as those using it to label others. Intersex people are generally understood to be “born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies” (United Nations). The birth of an intersex child appears to be a disruption of the all-pervasive binary opened up in the question of ‘Is it a boy or is it a girl?’ For the parents of an intersex infant, this initially unambiguous question becomes unexpectedly problematic. In order to deal with a deviation from the ‘norm,’ parents as well as doctors follow specific lines of argumentation to arrange themselves with a situation that is often utterly confusing to them. More often than not, parents and doctors subject intersex children to normalizing procedures to erase their ‘abnormal’ sex characteristics rather than to embrace their difference (Holmes, Introduction 8). The most extreme measurements taken are sex-reassignment surgeries performed on children under the age of consent. It needs to be stressed that in the majority of cases these surgeries are unnecessary regarding the health of the intersex child (Human Rights Watch 108). The necessity to comply to the male-female binary—in other words, the underlying normative gender structures—are seldom questioned. Only over the past three decades has resistance against the normalizing practices gained more widespread support in the form of a strong intersex rights movement in the United States and beyond. Simultaneously, an interest in the narrative structures that underlie the pathologizing of intersex arose. Narratives of intersex not only have found expression in the very personal experience of the birth of an intersex individual but are furthermore perpetuated in cultural productions such as literature and film. This essay is particularly interested in how intersexuality and intersex individuals are represented in fictional texts.

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