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Le Guin, Ursula K. (b. 1929)  

Although Ursula Le Guin does not address homosexual issues directly, she includes homosexuals as minor characters in works that cause readers to reexamine their assumptions about sex roles and stereotypes.

Le Guin was born October 21, 1929, in Berkeley, California, the daughter of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the writer Theodora Kroeber. She was educated at Radcliffe and Columbia, married the historian Charles Le Guin, and now lives in Portland, Oregon.

She has been considered one of the so-called New Wave of science fiction writers who arose in the 1960s, though her work is by no means confined to that genre. Informed partly by her interest in Taoism, her fiction is notable for the purity and directness of its style, for the originality of its concepts, and for its air of solid wisdom. She has won a number of Hugo and Nebula Awards and a National Book Award.

Le Guin has written poetry, criticism, several volumes of short stories, and some sixteen novels, but she rarely deals directly with issues of homosexuality. (An exception is the short story "Quoits" in the collection Searoads, 1991, in which a middle-aged woman copes with the death of her lesbian partner.)

In Le Guin's fiction, male beauty receives its due tribute, minor characters who happen to be homosexual are not unknown, and male rapacity and female uselessness figure in several imperfect societies. But Le Guin deals with sexuality itself in her best- known novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), whereas her more recent work, such as Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990), evinces a subtly articulated feminism.

The Left Hand of Darkness posits a world, Gethen, whose natives are human in every respect except that they are and mostly sexually neuter; for a few days each month, they enter a period of intense sexual activity during which they can become either male or female.

This potentiality forces Earth-bound readers to reexamine their assumptions about sex roles and stereotypes, achievement of sexual fulfillment, modes of parenting, and structures of family life. The frigid climate of Gethen only enriches these complexities: Whether shaped by its holistic sexuality or by the need to survive, Gethenian society has never known war.

The story is told largely by a young black man from Terra, serving as first envoy of an interplanetary union that Gethen has been invited to join. His mission becomes a cause of conflict among Gethenian nations, and he is forced to flee for his life across a great ice sheet, accompanied by a Gethenian friend.

The envoy has to learn first to deal with his friend's sexuality as the latter comes inevitably into estrus, and beyond that he has to learn to see his friend not as a sexual oddity but as an individual and a fellow human being.

Le Guin herself has several times discussed the problems of her tour de force. She notes the male bias of English pronouns and her failure to dramatize fully the feminine side of her Gethenians. In her collection of criticism, The Language of the Night, she also admits to a kind of shortfall of imagination in The Left Hand of Darkness whereby she "quite unnecessarily locked the Gethenians into heterosexuality ... the omission [of the homosexual option] implies that sexuality is heterosexuality. I regret this very much."

In 1969, Le Guin was less consciously a feminist than she later became. Her evolving feminism eventually presented her with Tehanu, the fourth book of the classic Earthsea fantasy series. Ged the archmage-hero of the earlier books has returned home shorn of his power, but the heart of the novel is with Tenar, once the priestess of Atuan, now a farmer's widow, and the disfigured girl-child Therru.

Tehanu is a novel about pain and learning, about what one does when the great male fantasy, the heroic quest, is over and it is time to start living within a merely human community.

Le Guin's work is not addressed specifically to gay or lesbian matters, but to the need to prize human individuality in every form. Her subjects are various, but her themes are strongly continuous: Against the value of uniqueness is set the need for community--what binds these seeming polarities is the enabling power of love.

Michael N. Stanton


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Ursula Le Guin at an informal discussion in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2004.
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Bucknall, Barbara. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Ungar, 1981.

Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Rev. ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Olander, Joseph D. and Martin H. Greenberg, eds. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Taplinger, 1979.

Selinger, Bernard. Le Guin and Identity in Contemporary Fiction. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

Spivak, Charlotte, Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.


    Citation Information
    Author: Stanton, Michael N.  
    Entry Title: Le Guin, Ursula K.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 12, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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