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Seven Sexes?

I first read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five at some point in college.  Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five is commonly lauded as one of the top 100 literary works of the 20th century. Billy Pilgrim is a man who has come unstuck in time, bouncing through episodes of his past, the present, and even to his death in the future.  Abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore for a display in their zoo, Billy learns that while human beings experience time in a linear fashion, the Tralfamadorians perceive all of time at once.  This provides them with some interesting insights into the divisions of the sexes:

Tralfamadorian

Tralfamadorians have 5 sexes

There were five sexes on Tralfamadore, each of them performing a step necessary in the creation of a new individual.  They looked identical to Billy–because their sex differences were all in the fourth dimension.

One of the biggest moral bombshells handed to Billy by the Tralfamadorians, incidentally had to do with sex on Earth.  They said their flying-saucer crews had identified no fewer than seven sexes on Earth, each essential to reproduction.  Again:  Billy couldn’t possibly imagine what five of those seven sexes had to do with the making of a baby, since they were sexually active only in the fourth dimension.

The Tralfamadorians tried to give Billy clues that would help him imagine sex in the invisible dimension.  They told him that there could be no Earthing babies without male homosexuals.  There could be babies without female homosexuals.  There couldn’t be babies without women over sixty-five years old.  There could be babies without men over sixty-five.  There couldn’t be babies without other babies who had lived an hour or less after birth.  And so on. It was gibberish to Billy. Slaughterhouse-Five: Or The Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death pp. 145-146

By the time I read the book again in the 90s, I was fully aware of my own attractions.  And the idea of sexes beyond the binary and a role for homosexual men to play in procreation was exhilarating!  No, I couldn’t seriously consider something outside the facts I’d learned from my parents during "the talk" and the reinforcements received in school.  But through the Tralfamadorians’ observations, I felt myself seen for the first time in a piece of literature.  No longer just an anomaly in the medical encyclopedia, homosexuals in Billy Pilgrim’s world were validated in the fourth dimension for their role in making babies… 🙂 Slaughterhouse-Five was also one of the first works to acknowledge the treatment of homosexuals in the Nazi concentration camps during WWII. In a brief allusion to the atrocities of the camps, Vonnegut notes the similarity between the candles and the soap produced by the Germans:

They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State. So it goes.

Human soap introduced at the Nuremberg trials

I’m grateful to Vonnegut for his his mention of holocaust victims singled out for their transgression of heteronormativity. And lest anyone be upset with his vernacular, I think the juxtaposition of "fairies" with "enemies of the State" is pretty queer in itself, pointing out the wild contradiction between the characterization of gay men as effeminate creatures and the awesome power predicated to us to bring civilization to its knees… 😉

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