Last week I attended the talk given on the incarceration and criminalization of LGBT communities and there were several parallels I was able to draw between the topics discussed and Lilith’s Brood, which I was in the process of reading, especially in regards to gender identity. For example, one topic that was brought up in the presentation is that the New York State Department of Correctional Services places inmates in correctional facilities based on their gender assigned at birth with no regard for their gender identity, even if they have been taking hormones to transition. In Lilith’s Brood, such issues of gender identity are central, and the emphasis humans, especially the resisters, place on being visually appealing in the traditional sense is highlighted throughout. For instance, in describing Akin’s tongue—which acts as a sensory tentacle and is hidden from sight inside his mouth, unlike the tentacles of most oankali and constructs, which are more visible—it’s said, “Resisters liked it because they did not have to look at it…” At the same time, however, “…it inhibited communication with oankali and constructs,” something that can be inconvenient and uncomfortable for Akin (434).
It is noted, “Humans were genetically inclined to be intolerant of difference,” and this is only one example from Lilith’s Brood that demonstrates human aversion to difference, an inheritance that makes it much more difficult for trans people in our world than a construct like Akin in Butler’s fictional world because of the oankali’s acceptance and willingness to work around the constraints of Akin’s atypical aesthetic (710). In this circumstance, in which Akin considers the pros and cons of his tentacle being inside his mouth and feels left out for not being able to connect with Ayre in the same way his sibling Tiikuchahk can, “Ayre, being Ayre, simply took him under one arm and pulled him against her so that it was easy for him to link with her…” (434). Instances such as these, in which the oankali are shown to be accommodating and accepting, highlight human tendencies towards intolerance, stubbornness, and inflexibility.
Also significant, is the way in which a construct child’s gender is not determined until it reaches metamorphosis, before which it can choose how it wants to be thought of and think about what gender it might want to become, as desire does play into the eventual gender a construct will develop. In spite of this biological fact of construct composition, human resisters in Lilith’s Brood continue to base all of their assumptions on appearance and have a hard time understanding or acknowledging the existence of a third gender at all. For example, when Jodahs’ family rescues a captured woman named Marina, at first she is resistant to let it touch her even though she is welcoming to Aaor, Jodahs’ female looking sibling. When Jodahs tries to lie down next to her she says to it, “You look too much like a man.” It attempts to tell her it isn’t male, and she responds “I don’t care. You look male” (582). This seems analogous to the way in which the Department of Correctional Services fails to recognize that some may not seem to be, based on their appearance alone, the gender that they actually are.
On the other hand, one interesting aspect of Lilith’s Brood is that the oankali aren’t perfect either, in spite of the contrast they provide to the destructive, intolerant humans. For instance, oankali also can be prone to deciding ones gender prematurely based on appearance, and Jodahs itself admits to falling into this trap. It says, “Oni was Human-born, and so deceptively Human-looking that I had gone on thinking of her as female—though it would be more than ten years before she would have any sex at all” (562). Oankali imperfection is especially apparent, however, when Jodahs and Aaor become ooloi, a development that is (at least initially) seen as a mistake on Nikanj’s part and seen as a potential danger to the planet. In expressing its frustration at not being able to find mates Aaor says, “I’m one more mistake!…One more ooloi who shouldn’t exist” (665). There is no positive way to spin a child feeling wrong about what is perfectly natural about who they were born, and Trans poet Alok Vaid-Menon from the poetry group DarkMatter expresses a similar sentiment to Aaor in the poem, “the bible belt,” saying “…the only accident in my life was when they/ proclaimed me both ‘boy’ and ‘brown’ at my birth.”
The same poem also exposes parental resistance to a child identifying with a gender that is viewed as unusual or undesirable. Vaid-Menon writes, “this past year i have publically started identifying as trans./ my doctor does not know this. but my mother does./ though, if she could use denial as a pronoun for me she would.” Nikanj reveals his own denial as a parent when he first learns Jodahs is ooloi, despite the fact that “all [its] life [it] had been referred to as “he” and treated as male by [its] Human parents, by all the Humans in Lo,” and even some Oankali (536). Nikanj tells its child, Jodahs, “I deceived myself into carelessness and blindness,” just like the mother in Vaid-Memon’s poem.
This comparison illustrates that while the oankali criticize the humans close-mindedness, stubbornness, and seeming inability to embrace difference, the oankali themselves are scared by ooloi constructs solely because they are new and different. Jodahs acknowledges that he and Aaor “represented the premature adulthood of a new species…true independence—reproductive independence—for that species and this frightened both Oankali and constructs” (742). Perhaps surprisingly, one of the few citizens of Lo who does advocate against Jodahs being exiled is Wray Ordway, a human (although, not a resister, of course), who says, “A child is a child. There more you treat it like a freak, the more it will behave like one” (587).