Into the forest

Many people in the non-binary gender community pooh-pooh the mainstream idea of a gender “spectrum” as being way too flat and linear in its perception/conception of how gender works; that is, the metaphor you often see for there being a “line” running from male to female, with everyone’s gender being somewhere along that line.

There’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek image a lot of people talk about instead, which is the unicorn forest. Personally, I like to keep things simple and just think of it as The Forest. A vast expanse of possibility, in which you’ll find nomads, recluses, villagers – and a load of people who’ve confined themselves to a couple of walled cities (and are unaware of the forest beyond).

As someone who’s experienced both my gender and my sexuality as way more fluid than I was led to expect either could be, I’m very fond of this model (because for me, the forest has always been a place of refuge).

Yesterday, I was writing about fictional women characters who were my clandestine heroines when I was growing up. Today, I want to write about a few fictional forest-dwellers who have always been meaningful to me.

Philos – one of the Ledom from Venus Plus X, by Theodore Sturgeon, in which a mid-20th century average American bloke finds himself in a futuristic civilisation where everyone is both sexes. Philos is his main guide/teacher/friend as he learns about their culture, and is the one he encounters who seems to have the most sense of humour (and iconoclastic tendency). When the Ledom mate, they impregnate each other and bear children together. For some reason, I always found this deeply moving (I first read this book when I was around 10, I think).

Therem – from The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin, in which (again) an envoy finds himself among a society… well, in fact, an entire planet of beings who are neither gender. The people there go into kemmer a few days a month (like going into heat), and if they connect with someone else in kemmer, they will “genderise”, one into male, the other into female (there’s no mention of variations on that restrictive theme, mind you). If the one who is currently female conceives, she stays female until she’s finished breast-feeding the baby, and then reverts to neutral. Through the eyes of Genly Ai, the offworld envoy, there is a very moving birth of understanding of what it might be like not to be gendered most of the time. And Therem helps him in an extraordinary escape across ice, during which they both learn much about themselves and each other, and Therem sacrifices much (this one, I first read this when I was around 11).

Soren – one of the J’naii, from The Outcast, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Soren was played by Melinda Culea) – another planet of people who are neither male nor female. What makes this story unusual is that there is an oppressed minority of people on their planet who are drawn to being gendered, either as male or female, and Soren is one such. She is discovered to have been forming a relationship with Commander Riker, and is forced to undergo therapy that makes her lose her attraction to being female. This story affects me on many levels at once. It was intended as a homophobia metaphor, though it also stands as a transphobia metaphor in a way. But for me, the most significant aspect was Soren, who appears as an androgynous being who nonetheless has clear sexual/romantic preferences. I think she was really beautiful. Of course, I didn’t see this until I was in my 30’s, but I’ve kept going back to watch it again.

There it is – I’ve always been drawn to androgynous people, for reasons of resonance. My jury is still out (believe it or not) on how much I am just a tomboyish woman, and how much I am in fact more androgynous than that – and what the difference is anyway. It amuses me that somewhere not-so-deep within my psyche is a woman who wants to play Principle Boy in a pantomime :).

I leave you with a picture of Soren, whose lovely smile still makes me… want to be her.

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