The Contagious Human Act of Gendering

I started writing this as my one-page reflection for the “Trans? Fine by me.”  panel, though once I got into it, I discovered it might work better as a blog post in conversation with Linda’s post about the Oankali’s greater freedom of gender ( Linda discusses the Oankali’s enhanced understanding of sex, and freedom of gender, through a conversation between Jodahs, and its same-sex parent Nikanj. Nikanj shows great understanding as Jodahs grapples with its own gender identity while surprisingly becoming ooloi instead of male. I also found this conversation extremely inspirational, though I noticed a specific line that made me think, especially after the “Trans? Fine by me.” panel discussion.

Jodahs reflects on its upbringing before metamorphosis, “All my life, I had been referred to as “he” by my Human parents, by all the Humans in Lo. Even Oankali sometimes said “he” (536, Imago).” This addition, that even Oankali sometimes called Jodahs, “he” really stood out to me. It is known that humans, especially in our own society, tend to assign gender to individuals based on their apparent sex, but the Oankali had so far shown to have a greater understanding that until metamorphosis, children remain sex-less, and thereby, genderless. This makes the revelation that Oankali, too, are prone to the very same pronoun slip-ups that humans are, at least when living in close contact with humans.

This made me think of something that one of the panel members at “Trans? Fine by me.” Offered as an answer to the question, “Do you find it hurtful when people use the wrong pronoun for you?” The panel member responded that they do find it hurtful, sometimes more than others. That when it’s deliberate or from ignorance, that is obviously hurtful, but when it comes from someone who is expected to be an ally, even when good-intentioned, it can be especially hurtful. This came as a surprise to me. I always imagined that ignorance and bigotry were the biggest dangers to LGBTQ+ individuals, and they definitely can be, but I never thought that the accidental slip-ups of allies could be so harmful. They went on to explain that it’s those people that they expect the most from, that they become most comfortable being their true selves with, making it especially hurtful when they slip-up and mis-gender them.

For much of the Lilith’s Brood Trilogy, Oankali have been characterized as individuals who are especially thoughtful about how they speak, making them difficult to catch in a lie, as well as bluntly honest. This makes it particularly surprising that the Oankali, too, mis-gender children, who they know are both sexless and genderless. Perhaps even the most thoughtful, or well-intentioned beings are subject to the larger power structures in our language. Countless times in our class, thoughtful students, even Dr. McCoy, have mistaken ooloi’s pronouns for “he” as well. Maybe Butler added this note about the Oankali to give us break, even the Oankali sometimes slip-up. But if it’s hurtful to people, it can’t be forgiven each and every time. In that respect, maybe it’s a reflection of the way that human beings are so prone to gendering and misgendering that the hurtful act is powerful enough to bleed into Oankali culture as well.

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