The Left Hand of Darkness

By Legal Eagle

The other day I was reading Ursula Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. I hadn’t read it for 10 or so years; I had forgotten what an excellent book it was.

Shortly, the book involves a male human diplomat and explorer arriving in a world, Gethen, where the sentient inhabitants are humanoid androgynes. For 24 of the 26 days of the month, the Gethenians are neuter, but for the last 2 days of their cycle they enter into a phase where they become sexually active (kemmer). During this phase, they can either become a male or a female, and their sexual partner will become the other gender. This means both partners can bear or sire children. In most other ways, however, they are very similar to humans and are probably a related species. The human explorer, Genly Ai, finds this very challenging. He automatically thinks of Gethenians as one gender or another. Similarly, the Gethenians generally find the arrival of a human male to be very challenging to their belief system, and consider him to be “perverted”.

The concept has always fascinated me. Our entire social strata is predicated on a dual sexuality. An androgynous society would be entirely different in so many ways, with both advantages and disadvantages arising from that. Although, as the book explores, humans have the same frailties and strengths, regardless of gender. The Gethenian world is certainly no utopia, with cruelty, oppression and violence prevalent, but also love and kindness, just as in our world.

The Earth man explains to his Gethenian friend:

…But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. …

The first thing we want to know about a human child is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” It is a pivotal part of our identity and role in society. But the line between male and female is not always easy to draw. Yesterday I was reading about an application by a 12 year old girl to the Family Court to be given permission to begin hormone treatment in preparation for a gender reassignment operation when s/he is over 18 years of age. The girl is apparently suicidal at the thought of undergoing puberty, and hormone therapy will prevent her from developing breasts or menstruating. The hormone therapy at this stage is not permanent, and can be reversed if s/he changes her mind. The Family Court application is necessary because the girl’s parents are separated and the father does not wish her to get hormone therapy. The AMA has said that the Court would have had to consider extensive medical evidence, and it has probably made the right decision in the circumstances of the case.

Perhaps if one has never come across anyone who has had doubts about their gender, it would be easy to brush this case off as “ridiculous”. But a case like this is not just a case of a “tomboyish girl”. It is about someone who has not believed that they are a girl from a very, very early age, and has never behaved as one. A friend was telling me of her cousin’s child, a girl who refuses to dress in girl’s clothes, and refuses to answer to her female name. She has behaved in this way since the age of about three (ie, since she was old enough to express a firm preference). She is now about 9 or 10 years old. The girl’s parents are treating it as something that the girl will “grow out of”, and as a bit of a joke, but my friend and I suspect that there is something much more serious going on, and that the girl will “never grow out of it”. We looked up some internet articles on gender dysphoria, and my friend wondered whether she should send them to her cousin.

I grew up with a girl who arguably had issues of this sort, although she answered to a female name and wore a school dress when required (reluctantly). I’m still not sure whether she had gender dysphoria, sexuality issues or whether she just plain hated her sexuality and preferred to be asexual. Perhaps a bit of all three? I don’t know. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell what a person’s issues are.

While I have sympathy for the girl who made the Family Court application, I am glad that her initial treatment will not be irreversible, and that she can make a final decision as to whether to undergo permanent gender reassignment surgery when she is an adult. She may change her mind as she grows.

It is true that some people get a great benefit out of gender reassignment surgery; however, it is also true that some people bitterly regret “changing” afterwards. For example, the case of Alan Finch shows some of the pitfalls. He had gender reassignment surgery at the age of 19, but later regretted it, and subsequently had surgery to restore himself to the male gender. When researching this post, I also came across a site with some case studies of men who regretted their gender reassignment surgery. Obviously, for some people, gender is more complex than just mental belief or external genitalia.

Human sexuality is a complex topic. What makes us male or female? We don’t need to go to an alien planet to see that the answer is not always straightforward. After thinking about all this, I feel very fortunate that I have always been happy with being a woman!

Update: For more on these matters, see the case of Anne-Maree/Paul Hurst, who was refused entry to Star City casino because s/he was inappropriately dressed (in a red sequined dress). S/he is suing the casino for discrimination.

See Zoe Brain’s post on the issue and her discussion about what “transgender” means for the purposes of s 38A of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW).


  1. Jamie
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I had SRS, from male to female, almost a year ago (June 19, 2007), and it was the best thing that I can imagine for me.

    I’ve known since my earliest memories that I was not the right physical gender. I hid it much of my childhood and adolescence because I come from a conservative family. Later, I acknowledged it openly, but opted not to transition because my partner was not comfortable with it.

    The day came where her comfort levels and my needs reached a balance, and I began the process. It is not, in any way, an easy one. Living in Brisbane, I was blessed with an amazing gender clinic, but most people don’t have access to such a thing, let alone for free.

    I see a lot of anti-trans people who talk about people ‘casually swapping genders’, and I want to laugh in their faces. Casually? There is nothing casual about it. We are a middle class, singe income family with two children. Hormones and antiandrogens cost me $60 a month. Hair removal? I’ve put thousands of dollars into it, and it’s still imperfect.

    A whole new wardfrobe? Again, thousands of dollars. And I don’t have much, really, compared to most people.

    Then there is the surgery itself. We were lucky to have family support, and my wife works for a bank, so we were able to get a mortgage on our home that included the costs for it. All told, though, just my surgery cost us close to AU$40,000.

    So, no, there is nothing casual about it. It was a hard, long decision, with huge impact on me, on my partner, on our children, and on everyone around us.

    But it was very right.

    I am very happy for that young man, and for all the articles that say he is a girl who wants to be a boy, he is not, he /IS/ a boy and is fixing a birth defect. I wish I had had the courage and resources he does, and I celebrate that his family, and the Australian courts, have made the right decision for him.

  2. Jamie
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    For me, it was a lot like how I have heard phantom limb syndrome be described. Sensations and feelings in body parts that just weren’t where they should be.

    I was not, lest it sound like it, criticizing your article at all. Far from it! I thought it was very accurate and insightful. 🙂

  3. Posted May 26, 2008 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    There’s a brilliant Ozblogger who’s documented her surgery and transition. Link is here:

  4. Posted May 26, 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for the kind words, they were really appreciated.

    Finding myself drafted into an objectively persecuted minority has been *most* educational, and I think in many ways, was the best thing that could have happened to me from that standpoint alone.

    I’m also… happy. It’s my default state these days. I keep on thinking the euphoria must wear off eventually, but so far it’s shown no signs of doing.

    I hope my amateur and amateurish legal analysis wasn’t too far off the mark. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then I’m a positive menace, for I’ve had no legal training, I suppose that’s glaringly obvious!

    All the best, Zoe

  5. TerjeP
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Some people have real difficulty accepting the way they are. Then there are people that have real difficulty accepting the way that other people are. I suppose for some of the later group transgenders represent a phantom limb that shouldn’t be. It’s all a bit sad really. Personally I like people being quirky and different and surprising.

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