Tom Moylan’s criticism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, The Dispossessed, concentrates on the contradictions that Le Guin’s utopia faces against her own ideologies. The pro-feminist and pro-sexual liberation notions were presented well, yet instead of putting emphasis on these two, cast them aside into the margins in order for Shevek to take his place as “hero” and “leader” of the revolutionary path. In hindsight, pointing out Le Guin’s focus on a male-dominant attitude may seem arbitrary but does not ignore the fact that characters such as Bedap, as Moylan dubbed “the token homosexual,” had been “devalued” and never transcended from his restrictions as a minor character. (I might as well be reiterating parts of my E5 in this blog post, so sorry, Gerry, if this gets rather redundant.)

When The Dispossessed was published in 1973, homosexual acceptance was becoming more apparent, yet only reluctantly so. Despite the prevalence of opposition, the GLBT movement in America continued to confront its obstacles—Sodomy laws adhered by numerous states, discrimination, condemnation from various religious sects, and hate crimes—and has had its victories: The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders on December 15, 1973. A week later a United States federal judge promotes a ban to discriminate sexual orientation of employees. The removal represents a deviation from previous notions of homosexuality being “a psychological abnormality” and allowed limited acceptance for same-sex relations. Moreover, the gay culture stepped further into the public eye when gay political figures were elected into office and when more celebrities “came out.” In its social and political context, Le Guin’s novel may have portrayed America’s ostensible acceptance to sexual preference. Anarres culture did not frown upon on homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual relationships; sexual experimentation was of the norm.

So why does Moylan scrutinize Le Guin’s presentation of the GLBT characters like Bedap? Bedap expresses regret for his lifestyle or that he can never experience “the hardest and deepest, the intimacy of pain” (Le Guin 370). The implication is that Bedap’s homosexuality is the cause for regret, the reason why he cannot share the joys, the pains, of parenthood, cannot share the sufferings of others because “he never took the time” (Le Guin 370). His self-pity, his sense of uselessness prompts the assumption that offspring defines and fulfills a person’s purpose, betraying the ideology of sexual tolerance Le Guin contends in her works (this may be an outstretched presumption of mine… And I may be emulating Moylan’s tone. Sorry for that). Ironically, Bedap is the one who pushes Shevek towards the revolution, the catalyst that opens Shevek’s minds to the various flaws littered in Anarresti institution and administration. He never achieves complete happiness by the end of the novel, and is never mentioned again after he leaves Shevek and Sadik alone, an unfortunate and unexpected ending for someone who lives in a gay-friendly society. This ambiguity may just be a by-product of the novel.

I agree with Hunter’s suggestion of an unreached utopia being the reason for Bedap’s unhappiness. Yet, I still feel unsatisfied with that reason. There could have been some closure on Bedap and his endeavors (which I would assume include a family unit), but the open ending and the lack of any other mention of this character seems to again imply that Bedap is not part of the greater scheme of things like Shevek, who is the protagonist, the “important one.”

1) What do you think of Moylan’s criticism of Le Guin’s presentation of GLBT characters? Agree? Disagree?

2) Do you think Bedap’s treatment was a reflection of America’s reluctance to wholly accept homosexuals during the 1970’s?

3) Would a short epilogue detailing the marginalized characters like Bedap, or even Takver, suffice people such as Moylan? Or would it detract from the ambiguity that is The Dispossessed?

4 Responses to “Sexual Liberation Not So Liberating”

  1.   Haley Barrier Says:

    Hey Sara,

    To answer your second question, I would like to believe that Bedap’s unfair treatment is simply a reflection of the American reluctance to accept homosexuality in 1970′s. As Moylan suggests, however, it is quite strange that Le Guin would allow marginalized characters to hold the predominant revolutionary powers while focusing on a male protagonist. Therefore, I am unsure of Le Guin’s intentions but feel that the subtle shifts of power to Bedap and Takver would represent a pending change in society, masked by the American Dream and the ideal nuclear family.

    It is interesting that you focused your blog post on the not-so-liberating qualities of sexual liberation. In my women’s studies course, we learned that for women, sexual liberation was a particular danger, meaning that, while she was able to wantonly have sexual relations, she was denied the old excuses of saying no (essentially, she couldn’t use “purity” or “pregnancy” as a reason for not copulating). For women that still chose not to be sexually active (with men) after the liberation, ridicule and homophobic name-calling were the order of the day. For gay men, I imagine that the 1970′s form of sexual liberation was particular dangerous. Yes, liberation freed one from the bonds of necessary societal monogamy, but I feel that unfortunate homosexual men who did decide to enjoy their right to copulate with whomever, whenever, were literally punished. Perhaps Bedap was not able to have a long-lasting, monogamous relationship in Le Guin’s ambiguous utopia because the American image of the homosexual male of the period was that of a man based on sexual gratification, not long-term love and relationships (due to the sexual liberation and dangerous stereotyping/over-generalizations).

    Finally, I feel that a short epilogue would be more of an insult to readers looking to hear the story of the real revolutionaries than a welcomed addition. Moylan seems to address Le Guin’s oversight–be it personal or societal–in terms that would not be assuaged by a paragraph, or possibly even additional chapter, at the end of the novel. Although I wrote almost all of my essays about Le Guin’s feminist stances, reading Moylan’s piece has forced me to re-examine the methods in which these stances were presented. Why does Takver have to be left on the sidelines of the prose while the ideas she represents resound throughout both the plot and the time period in which Le Guin wrote the book. The same goes for Bedap, his actions and implications speak much louder than the words used to describe him.

  2.   mvn3 Says:

    I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this criticism surrounding Bedap, and I’ve been trouble finding an answer that can’t be extended to make Le Guin out as some sort of bigot. There’s a lot of talk about her dealings with Bedap just mirroring her society at the time, and this certainly would provide some comfort. However, I really don’t want to accept that such a renown author would be so “unimaginative”. Thus I am left to conclude that The Dispossessed, has an essentialist ideology, where the only way to find true happiness is through the “essential” things like making babies. But why is it so essential that Shevek must have a child, especially in an age in which communication occurs faster then light? This is where I think a non-literal reading of the sexual dynamic might help a lot. We already know that sex on Annares is not the same as on earth, so how can we assume that homosexuality and heterosexual monogamy operate the same way, and mean the same things? Here’s the kicker: Le Guin’s focus is upon the power of individual possession. An excellent symbol for the the triumph of the individual identity is the child, it represents the locus that connects one human being for another. She picks heterosexual monogamy not because it is “normal” and “clean” as it is labeled in our society, but because it is a rebellious individual statement. On Annares promiscuous sexuality, hetero and homosexual is “normal” and “clean”, and at the same time a sacrifice of self identity. Thus, while Le Guin seems to spurn homosexuals by making Bedap incomplete, I think we need to be cautious when trying to extend this judgment into our society. It is more important that the child represents a truly intimate, possessive connection between two human beings. And while it certainly does not look good that Bedap is homosexual, how can we be sure that Le Guin is not making a judgement on homosexuals in general, but just upon the man himself? Yes, he may not be able to feel what Shevek does, but there are many other factors that make Bedap himself besides him homosexuality, and perhaps these are what hold him back.

  3.   Cedric Says:

    On Anarres, is goes against the Odonian way to keep possessions. It should be out of their believes to want to care for their children as their own. On Anarres, all children should be raised by the community. Of course, Shevek and Takvar don’t agree with this, but when looking at the relationship between Shevek and his mother, one would think that most relationships would be like this. There does not need to be the deep bond between parents and children because every adult is every child’s parent. Now taking a step back, we look at the fact that Bedap is unhappy because he can’t have children and can never have the ultimate bond. He blames this on his homosexuality. But because he is Anarresti shouldn’t he not be as affected by this fact? I’m sure there have been other homosexuals before Bedap on Anarres and they didn’t have children. I agree with Mike in that I think Le Guin was not being “unimaginative” with the way she handled the concept of homosexuality, but rather that she was trying to show the difference in levels of happiness in a utopian world. Anarres was supposed to fix any problems people had on Urras and that’s why Odo moved her followers to this moon. They could form a new community with their own rules, rules that would make them happier. But Bedap is still unhappy because he can’t get the ultimate bond. I think Le Guin was actually imaginative in creating a society where sexuality doesn’t matter. Yes Bedap is unhappy that he can’t have children, but if he was put into the United States 1970s, that would have been the least of his problems. Le Guin describes a future where everyone is equal. There are still problems, but they are not problems that can be solved by society. Yes Bedap could adopt children if he lived on Earth, but Anarres he’ll have to live childless. There will never be a way for him to procreate. Le Guin shows here that there are problems, but one needs to be tackled first. Le Guin completely gets rid of prejudice. From there, we can move on to other problems.

  4.   eloriane Says:

    “There will never be a way for him to procreate”? First off, he and his male partner may be unable to have children carrying both their genes, but they can still each procreate with the help of a surrogate mother quite easily. Second, this is science fiction. These kinds of technologies might not be part of LeGuin’s world, but plenty of novels include cloning or artificial wombs that allow for reproduction without the involvement of a woman. In novels that posit far more advanced DNA manipulation, Bedap could even have a child that shared his genes with his partner’s. LeGuin chose not to include these technologies.

    To be fair, I think the more SF solutions to gay male reproduction were excluded not because of prejudice, but because they require a far more propertarian attitude towards one’s genes and one’s children than is supposed to be present on Anarres. If one thinks that the elimination of the nuclear family structure is one of the ways that Odonianism is ambiguous, rather than utopic, then I could buy the happy Shevek/ sad Bedap binary as a representation of the idea that a little propertarianism towards one’s family is necessary for happiness. I would want to ask why propertarianism is acceptable towards people but not towards actual property, but I would no longer have such a serious problem with Bedap’s portrayal. If the whole idea of raising children communally is flawed, that would also explain why Shevek was so “rightfully” angry at his parents’ lack of involvement in his childhood, and why he and Takver end up taking Sadik out of the nursery.

    However, a more effective way to criticize the nursery system would have been to contrast Shevek and Takver not with childless Bedap, but with another heterosexual couple who did have children, but who raised them the Odonian way. Bedap is actually better served by a nursery system than by a nuclear family system, because if raising children doesn’t require the lifetime commitment of both parents, and bearing children doesn’t require a lifetime romantic bond, Bedap could find a platonic female friend who was interested in children, and have a child via artificial insemination. If lifetime partnership is unusual on Anarres, there should be plenty of women who want to have children fairly casually, making the location of a mother far easier than on Earth, where women are more invested in the childbearing process. So, if the goal was to show that the nursery system makes people sad and unfulfilled by depriving of the deep bond of parents and children… Bedap wasn’t the way to go.

    Overall, I think the question of Bedap is complicated, but no matter how many different directions I look at it from, I’m just not happy with it. I know people thought the term “failure of imagination” was harsh, but I think the problem here is that it never occurred to LeGuin that a gay man could have a different ending. It’s like she looked at LGBT activism, said, “OK, so in a utopic future, we no longer kill or ostracize people for being queer. Check!” and failed to imagine anything further, so that stereotypes and biases (gay men are promiscuous, nuclear family structures are the best) still inform the events of the book. I’ve read books that go much, much farther– even older books, and even books by LeGuin herself– so I just keep coming back to that same idea: failure of imagination.

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