The Trope of Non-Binary Aliens: An Examination of Galactic Gender
Chances are, if you’ve read science fiction with non-binary characters, you’ve come across the idea of non-binary aliens. While on the surface it may seem harmless to write non-binary aliens in fiction, it tends to signal an issue when no human non-binary characters exist in the work(although this is only applicable when binary-gender humans are in the work).
There are various examples of this trope, ranging from somewhat problematic to trans-affirming. One of the examples that comes to mind is Ursula K. Le Guin’s book The Left Hand of Darkness, in which there is a species of humanoid aliens known as the Gethenians, who switch biological sexes from time to time and have an androgynous sense of gender. What I initially found problematic about this is that the story is told from the perspective of a cis earthman who, at first, regards the gender of the Gethenians as appalling and difficult to comprehend, but eventually comes to understand the way the Gethenians engage with gender.
Although I did not read the book, the description struck me as appeasing cis people who find trans identities ‘confusing’ or difficult to digest, pandering to the cis view of trans people as strange. Even if at the end, the protagonist accepts the Gethenians as they are, it’s still a cis narrative that uses trans identities as a plot device to symbolize coming to have compassion for people who are different from oneself rather than feeling contempt towards them.
In beginning of the book Adaptation by Malinda Lo, a character, David Li, is reading Le Guin’s aforementioned book. As a literary device, it very likely foreshadows the events of the Adaptation book. In this work as well, there is a race of non-binary aliens(known as the Imria), and no human non-binary character in sight despite binary humans existing in-universe. Similar to Le Guin’s book, albeit briefer, in the second book, Inheritance, there is a conflict in which the main (cis) character, Reese, ridicules the existence of an Imrian character who is described as having ‘surpassed gender’, and also claims that the Imrians have deceived the people of earth by not being open about the fact that they don’t have binary gender in their society, even though non-binary people are not seen as valid by many people on earth to begin with.
I read the book before I even knew I was non-binary, but the main character acting this way towards non-binary identities did not sit well with me. It was a minor appeasement that the character David who had read Le Guin’s book later tells Reese that it doesn’t matter that the character (who later teaches David and Reese to control and channel the alien telepathy-adjacent powers the two acquired) doesn’t have binary gender, even if Reese’s views don’t necessarily change much. Additionally, I found it strange that despite taking place in San Francisco and having multiple cis LGBT+ characters, not a single human character was mentioned to be non-binary.
In general, I have found that this trope tends to be far less problematic when written by non-binary or trans creators, or cis creators who at least affirm non-binary identities. There are a few examples of this trope in the Star Wars franchise, albeit not in any major movies. In Claudia Gray’s book Leia: Princess of Alderaan, a background alien species is described as having complex genders that are not necessarily male or female, and using gender-neutral terms and pronouns for the most part. This gender variance is accepted by the main characters, which is an improvement from the previous narratives I have described. There are also other Star Wars books with similar alien characters(although arguably, all stars wars characters are aliens), but I am not familiar enough with those to discuss them.
There was also a non-binary character, Keo, in the Star Wars: Squadrons game, which I heard about through a twitter post. Their pronouns and gender are respected in-game, despite the many incels on that post thread screaming ‘sjw propaganda’ and refusing to respect non-binary identities. This is more of a case of transphobes on twitter reacting negatively to relatively good non-binary representation. The only thing that seems off to me about Star Wars’ nonbinary characters is that they tend to look less humanoid and often have a ‘alien culture’ explanation for their gender, as main characters of the franchise who look the most human are always of a binary gender and do not seem to recognize non-binary identities within their own culture.
Another non-binary alien character is Double Trouble from the 2018 tv series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Worth mentioning is that the showrunner, Noelle Stevenson, is also non-binary and uses any pronouns(Although they came out in 2020, after Double Trouble’s first appearance in the series in 2019). Double trouble’s gender is not explained away as an alien culture quirk, and is instead just respected, along with the singular they/them pronouns they use, in the show, and in the fandom. I find that this casual approach signals how well this fictional world accepts non-binary people. Although they appear less humanoid than binary characters of the show(but still, how humanoid are the colorful hair and supernatural powers of those characters really?), it doesn’t bother me because the narrative does not make it seem like less-humanoid aliens are more likely to be non-binary in-universe.
Also worth mentioning is the webcomic Crash and Burn, which is a space opera set in the future, created by Finn Lucullan(non-binary illustrator), Kate Larking, and hannah Bradshaw Lozier, and has many LGBT+ main characters. In this narrative, there is a non-binary alien species known as the Orno, as well as a human non-binary character with plant superpowers named Ash. The main character, who is an ace woman with pyrokinetic superpowers, calls out another human, who misgenders the Orno and ridicules their non-binary gender, and the main characters(some of whom are non-binary) respect the gender and pronouns of non-binary characters.
There is also an upcoming 2021 sci-fi-fantasy book, Pheonix Extravagant by trans author Yoon Ha Lee. Based on reviews I’ve read, the way non-binary identities and queerness in general are incorporated into the fictional world he has created in Phoenix Extravagant is progressive and accepting of diverse identities. The main, character, Jebi, is a non-binary painter, and the book also explores issues such as colonization and modernization. I look forward to reading Phoenix Extravagant when it releases, and hope that non-binary representation not only in science fiction but also in other genres continues to expand.
Overall, non-binary representation in science fiction varies from cis people treating non-binary gender as an ‘alien thing’ to non-binary and trans people who create worlds that are more accepting of non-binary and trans identities. Like many things in media, non-binary representation is still in the works, and I appreciate good non-binary and trans representation in media, although it tends to be rare. The future of non-binary representation lies in the hands of writers and other creators, especially non-binary people like me, and I hope that the presence of non-binary representation in media improves.