I’ve just come back from a trip to Gethen – a cold place, with beautiful glaciers and a society of people that are devoid of sex and gender for most of the time.

They are simply *people*, undefined by what they have in between their legs or whether they can carry a child or not. Once a month, they go into kemmer and become either male or female for that one time. They can switch the following month. During kemmer they get to stay off work and concentrate on themselves. Whatever happens during kemmer does not affect their standing in society.


Can you imagine?!

When I wrote about how I would love a gender-free environment for my own child’s upbringing, I was met by a lot of resistance from several members of The Correspondent. Despite killing a story I was going to write about how much sex-at-birth affects brain development, the idea of how our sex at birth affects us has not left me. I simply can’t stop thinking about all the ways it affected me as I was growing up.

That is why I decided to travel to Gethen, the planet masterfully depicted in The Left Hand of Darkness, a 1969 science fiction book by Ursula K Le Guin. I discovered the planet, also known as Winter, first through the manly eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from Terra, ie a human being from the same planet I am born on. His foreign view of Gethenian attitudes is full of stereotypes and misogyny. Just check out what Ai says about Estraven, a Gethenian politician.

“Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own. Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him?”

You can see that Ai uses the masculine pronouns as the gender-free version. (Le Guin was criticised for this choice and she later changed that up.) He also often uses the word “soft” to describe what he dislikes of Gethenians.

What strikes me is that Ai may well be a regular guy in this very world of ours these days referring to a trans person, maybe, or anyone else that does not fit our binary vision of the world.

(Let me add a disclaimer: I don’t find Winter an ideal planet. I don’t like the idea of a world in which all is determined by your biology at birth, and nothing changes through the environment or personal choices. An imaginary world that is very much like what a lot of us think of our very own world.)

Unknown worlds

Another book has recently taken me on a trip to another unknown world. 

Camila Sosa Villada’s Las Malas (roughly translated as Bad Girls) is an autobiographical story of a young trans woman who moves to Córdoba, Argentina’s second-largest city, and joins a group of trans sex workers. Sosa Villada’s story goes into painful details about her childhood as a boy in a small town, with an abusive, homophobic father whose main comeback to his child was that he would end up dead on the side of a street one day because all a trans person could ever aspire to was to work as a prostitute.

As Sosa Villada herself points out in a deeply moving TED Talk, her dad was partly right. In Argentina and worldwide trans people are significantly more likely to be victims of crime, often because of the dangers of sex work, but also because of hate crimes.

I have rarely read a prose so vivid and funny as Sosa Villada’s. There is a beautiful part that describes how Tía Encarna, the eldest trans sex worker who acts as a supervisor and protector of the younger ones, finds an abandoned baby in the park and takes him in – hiding him from the authorities.

Tía Encarna attaches the baby to her breasts. “I am not less than your mother for not having an open wound in between my legs,” she says. (This is my own rough translation, but I really hope the book gets a proper English translation soon so that you can all read it too!)

Sosa Villada’s book has two people on a horse on the cover, and my copy of it somehow ended up among my child’s books once. Lorenzo spotted it immediately. Like other children, he loves animals. Every morning he goes through all the animals he knows and imitates their sounds. So now he’s constantly drawn to Sosa Villada’s book, and demands me to read it to him. So far I’ve managed to tell him that it’s the story of a boy who feels like a girl and struggles to become one, but eventually does.

In a recent interview, Sosa Villada said this about trans literature: “What happens when writing appears that runs counter to the established canon? A kind of rupture takes place from the peace promised by the rules of good writing … You have the opportunity to read something unexpected, about unknown worlds and knowledge you never imagined.”

I really hope that when the time comes for Lorenzo to read this book, Sosa Villada’s world will be less of an imaginary, unexpected universe.

Why this matters

If you’re wondering why any of this matters at all, read this beautiful essay by trans writer Valentijn De Hingh, one of my Dutch colleagues.

“All throughout my teenage years, I tried to change my identity to fit into a world that is fundamentally not designed with me in mind. And just when I thought we were finally getting somewhere, a movement stands up and claims that I endanger women by simply being who I am and fighting for a dignified existence,” writes Valentijn about JK Rowling’s statements about trans people.

This is the bottom line: if the sex you’re born with affects how well (or badly) other people treat you, and how they think you should operate and simply be, I just don’t stand by it.

Pro tip: If you’re into audio, listen to Valentijn reading out the story herself: it’s audio at its best!

And an extra (Dutch) tip! Whenever I feel low about how unaccepting we are, I love going through Hilde Atalanta’s You’re Welcome Club
It is beautifully detailed, quirky and diverse. 

Let me throw the ball in your court: What have you read lately that has taken you to a different world? I would love to hear from you.

Until next week,


P.S. I’ve shared before my love for Quino, an Argentine illustrator who became famous for drawing wise, funny, feminist Mafalda in the 1960s. Quino died on 30 September, but Mafalda – thankfully – is immortal.

This article first appeared in The Correspondent, the member-funded platform that shut down on 1 January 2021.

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