Through most of The Left Hand of Darkness, I found I had constructed Estraven as a man in my mind, even though it’s made clear relatively early on in the novel (Chapter 7) that Gethenians are ambisexual. In the article, “Is Gender Necessary?: Redux” Le Guin acknowledges the difficulty in choosing to stick with male pronouns and that the choice ultimately influences the conception of Gethenian characters (169-70). I agree that beyond pronoun choices the action is narrated in such a way to reinforce the masculine identity rather than the ambisexual. For example, this excerpt comes near the end of the novel, and is said by King Argaven, a Gethenian and ambisexual himself:
“Estraven would be a good man to pull with, on a crazy trek like that. He was tough as iron. And never lost his temper. I’m sorry he’s dead” (294).
Argaven calls her/him a “man,” values his/her iron-like toughness, and recognizes her/ his restraint when others might be prone to aggression or emotion. This description reinforces Estraven’s maleness as much of the novel does. The moments in the narration that give Estraven and other Gethenians feminine qualities are too few to heavily influence the conception of these characters. Le Guin mentions this in the article as well. This masculine-normativity created by the language of the novel also frames Ai and Estraven’s relationship as a male homosexual one, rather than the intended queer encounter when Estraven enters kemmer. Perhaps conceptualizing an abundance of maleness into Estraven is a result of the hesitance to acknowledge and conceive of ambisexuality. Homosexuality might appear more normal (less queer) than appearing /disappearing genitals and the psychological presence of both sexes, so it becomes the comfortable misreading of the text.
The moment Ai is able to see Estraven as both man and woman, and recognizes that she/he has been denying him/her that reality (248-9), serves as a comparable moment in the mind of the reader. Reading homosexuality into their relationship is denying Estraven’s femaleness. Ai says, “I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man” (248). Ai’s reluctance was my own as the reader. The invisibility of Estraven’s femaleness, as Wendy Gay Pearson describes in the other article for this week, “passes” for maleness. Estraven’s own words to describe the highly bureaucratic Orgota directly address how fear and cultural conditioning create invisibility: “Fear undoes his mission and my hope, once more. Not fear of the alien, the unearthly, not here. These Orgota have not the wits nor size of spirit to fear what is truly and immensely strange. They cannot even see it. They look at the man from another world and see what? A spy from Karhide, a pervert, an agent…” (159). Just as the Orgota see Genly Ai as something more comfortable, a pervert spy, so had I allowed cultural conditioning to conceal Estraven for most of the novel.