'Ender's Game And Philosophy,' New Book, Asks: 'How Queer Is Ender?'

Sure, 'Ender's Game' Author May Be Anti-Gay, But How Queer Is The Book Itself?

The upcoming film adaptation of the bestselling novel, Ender's Game has received a lot of attention, not for finally adapting the sci-fi classic into a blockbuster movie, but instead due to the book's author, Orson Scott Card, and his virulently anti-gay opinions.

Card, whose views on gay marriage have long been publicly known, first came under attack from earlier this year when DC Comics hired him to write a new digital Superman comic series, which ended with the illustrator leaving the comic over Card's views and a petition being signed by thousands of readers calling for Card's firing.

The adaptation of Card's book is slated for a tentpole November release, and now with the cast and director doing the press rounds for the movie at places such as Comic-Con, they are having to field questions about the author's anti-gay statements, and the controversy is poised to take the hype away from the film itself.

While the author himself may be anti-gay marriage, a book hitting store shelves in October, Ender's Game and Philosophy asks in one of its chapters, "How Queer is Ender?" A detailed look into the gay themes of the book, reveals that Ender may more queer than the reader might think. Below is the chapter which details how one of the great science fiction books of our time, written by an outspoken gay marriage critic, may just be more queer than originally thought.

"How Queer Is Ender?" from Ender's Game and Philosophy published by Open Court Publishing

"Furor over Orson Scott Card's anti-gay views drives 'Superman' illustrator to leave comic," reads a recent headline on "Entertainment Weekly’s" website.

Artist Chris Sprouse stepped down as the illustrator working with Card. The author of Ender’s Game is not shy about his anti-gay-marriage stance, and because of that many people protest his work. Card, who serves on the board of the National Organization of Marriage (a group that works to advocate against gay marriage) does not just believe gay marriage is wrong, but that homosexuality itself is an immoral danger to society and the soul.

As virulent as Card’s anti-homosexuality stance is, it seems there’s a good chance that we can find anti-gay messages in "Ender’s Game!" It’s not a stretch, as the main bad guys are the “buggers,” which is a term often used for gay men. But we think there may be more beneath the surface of the story. Interestingly, we’ve found that Ender’s Game may actually be very sympathetic to forbidden male love . . .

There are many who argue that Orson Scott Card is in fact homophobic, and whether he is or not, we can say that he certainly is a proponent of heteronormativity, the idea and tendency towards treating heterosexuality as normal and homosexuality as odd, wrong, or queer. In Kate Bonin’s “Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card,” Card is quoted as having said: “Gay rights is a collective delusion that’s being attempted.”

how queer is ender

It’s queerness that is our focus here, because calling someone “queer” has its roots in calling someone “weird,” making him or her an outsider or “Other.” The term has been used derogatorily against gays, but recently over the last couple of decades the term is now also used to describe a philosophical movement called “Queer Theory.” And it helps us understand how books like Ender’s Game create gender, sexual, and identity categories that don’t exist biologically. In fact, if the queer theorists are right, then it seems as a society we create our own “buggers”—scapegoats; people we can treat like insects, to help us establish our place on the “inside,” solidifying our traditions, roles, and hierarchies.

Identifying the Enemy

Imagine that a father and son are on a ship that is attacked by a horde of Buggers. Both men are horribly injured. Luckily, Ender is not far from the scene and, in another bout of heroic violence, makes quick work of the Buggers and rescues the hapless victims. Finally, after a tragically long time, Ender gets them to a hospital. They are both rolled into the emergency room at once. The doctor walks into the room, looks down, and pronounces the father dead. Looking at the boy, however, the doctor says, “I cannot operate on him; he’s my son.”

How is this possible? . . . Think on it for a moment.

Do you find the answer comes to you easily? The doctor is the boy’s mother. Most people struggle with the answer. We’ve heard many interesting answers ranging from, “Was the doctor Jesus?” to “Was the doctor the father’s clone?” But by far the rarest answer is, “The doctor is the boy’s mom.” Why? Well, the answer is one that has motivated a great deal of feminist and queer theoretical thought. Queer theory actually has its beginnings in feminism — not just the political feminism that tells us that women are equal to men, but in the feminist insight that our society, language, and norms all work to repress women. That’s why the doctor riddle is one many people find impossible to solve.

Haven’t you ever noticed that, when it comes to many professions, the respected ones are imagined as male? What do you imagine when you imagine a doctor? How about a nurse? Who do we think of when we think of a pilot? How about a flight attendant? Professor? Teacher? Notice that over and over again in the highest level professions we imagine men, but the lowly ones . . . women. What about a Major, or Admiral? When you think of the military, does a woman come to mind in any rank? We bet that we could have changed our riddle some so that its focus was an Admiral, rather than a doctor, and it would have the same result. . . .

Almost all of the terms we use to describe something posi- tive have a masculine connotation and all of the weak and negative terms have a feminine connotation. “He runs like a girl,” and “He throws like a girl,” are examples of the fact that it’s part of our linguistic and social psychology to believe women are inferior. And our language helps maintain that Otherness. Our female author has even been told (and not just by men), “Don’t be such a girl” which is not just impossible but really, really offensive and it is not accidental that there is no feminine equivalent of “manning up” to something. So the short story is that our society has a deep disrespect for women, and it isn’t their intellectual or physical inferiority that results in only one girl attending Battle School, but the fact that society purposefully keeps them down.

This Othering has led many thinkers to consider the ways we identify a person or a group of persons as others. Gay men, for example, are treated very much as Others in our society. Consider how often gay men, especially, are in danger of violence and abuse. Generally, we applaud masculinity as the best characteristic a person can have. Much in the way that Rose the Nose (commander of Rat Army) waggles a massive virtual penis in front of the boys, our society seems to say, “Be in awe of this, but don’t like it! If you do, then you are queer.” What we begin to realize is that if we have a deep disrespect for women in our society—as evidenced by our language—then part of the reason we have such deep disrespect of homosexuality, especially on the part of men, is because they are “choosing” to be feminine. In other words, we treat them as people who must want to be abused because they could be on the “inside”—men who are proud of their masculinity—but instead choose to be outsiders. They disgrace the awesomeness of being a man by choosing to indulge in the lesser, the Other, the feminine.

It is not uncommon for ancient texts to admonish men for reducing themselves to “womanliness” while praising the virtues of being a man. We often read those texts as making statements about homosexuality, but the idea “homosexuality” is new, while hatred for the feminine is very old. In fact, one verse from the Bible’s book of Leviticus, (18:22 “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable”) is often used by opponents of gay marriage to indicate that homosexuality is sinful, but, historically, it is more likely a condemnation of men willingly taking on a subservient—women’s—role.

When we consider the historical context, we realize that ancient cultures differentiated between the “right” way for a man to have sex with a man and the “right” way for him to have sex with a woman. Sex between two men was common and respected in ancient Greece, but this sex usually occurred while both men were standing, facing one another as equals. This differed greatly from the subservient, bent-over position women (who could not be citizens) were expected to take during sex. So, the admonition is against men who willingly play the role of the lesser (the woman), rather than against sharing their bodies or their love with other men.[1]

Being a Bugger

What is important to realize, from a queer theory perspective, is that man and woman, and heterosexual and homosexual are not clear biological categories. We are of course taught that boys have a penis and girls don’t. (In other words, the boys have something special that the Other, the girls, lack.) We’re also taught that there is a clear line between straight and gay. This is especially true for men. We have some acceptance for bisexual women, but any man who claims attraction to men is immediately, and permanently, placed in the category, “gay.”

Firstly, let’s look at why queer theorists think those distinctions make no sense. Well, obviously there are more “sexes” than male and female. There are, of course, hermaphrodites, for instance. And do you really want to say “having a penis” or “having testicles” makes someone a man? Are all men who have had their penises or testicles removed no longer men, even if it was in some sort of military accident? What about men who have been castrated due to cancer or illness?

We might argue what makes male-female is having either XY or XX chromosomes. But there are people who have XXY or XXX chromosomes. There are even cases in which someone has a penis and looks like what most of us would consider a “man” but has no Y chromosome! So how the heck are we supposed to divide the sexes into just two when there are so many different phenotypes (people who have one penis, a vagina, or two penises, or a penis and a vagina and so on) or different genotypes (people who have XX, or XY, or XXX, or XXY, or XYY)!?

Secondly, can we really be sure that there are just “straight” and “gay”? Sure, there are bisexuals, but even the whole idea that there are “homosexuals” is a relatively new one. During ancient times, there was no real idea of homosexuality. People were attracted to different people. It was not unusual for a man to engage in a same-sex relationship in his youth and then go on to marry a woman and have children later on. Even during the middle ages there was no clear concept of sexuality as we view it now. The distinction was mostly between “sin” and “not sin.” Sodomy (also, interestingly, called buggery) was pretty much any sexual action that was sinful, which was not specific to homosexual relationships.

Although laws against sodomy (those sexual practices deemed to be deviant, often including sex between two men) became common by the middle ages, laws against being gay really don’t become common practice until the nineteenth century, as is the case with the Labouchere Amendment of 1885, which made it possible to prosecute a man for homosexuality even if sodomy could not be proven by making a vaguely defined idea of “gross indecency” illegal. As a result, the amendment made it, by default, grossly indecent to be homosexual, regardless of sodomy. Famously, this act was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde (author of A Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest whose “love that dare not speak its name” can be found in many theorists’ interpretations of A Picture of Dorian Gray).

If queer theorists and current scientific theories are correct, we all exist not as heterosexual or homosexual, but on a spectrum from preferring same-sex sexuality to opposite-sex sexuality.

(Queer theorists would even complain about categorizing people as being “same” sex or “opposite” sex, but for the sake of concise communication, we’ll stick with those terms). Some people are biologically predisposed to being interested in the same sex and some the opposite sex, but there would also be many people in between—not just bisexual people, but people who mostly prefer men or mostly prefer women. In our society, we’re terrified to think that many of us are born somewhere on the middle of this spectrum, because we’ve been taught to hate and fear same-sex relationships, so we cannot even think about it!

Books like Ender’s Game are part of what defines our gender roles for us. Philosophers like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick help us understand how literature and language help define and express gender and sexual roles. We read Ender’s Game and learn that most women don’t belong in Battle School. They should be empathetic, like Valentine and to a lesser degree like Petra, and love us and support us in our violent (even genocidal) rages. And we learn that even if we like to look at male bodies, that we gotta be strong, deal with it, and be men! Kate Bonin, in her essay “Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card,” makes it clear that such self-control is essential: “Though gay sex is figured as intensely appealing, it is a resolutely forbidden fruit. Characters who ‘give in’ to homosexual impulses are punished.”[2] Ender’s Game teaches us to suppress our own bisexual or homosexual feelings and biology.

How Gay Is Ender?

Sedgwick points out in her book Between Men how almost impossible it is for men to have any kind of bonding with, or desire for bonding with, other men in our society. We have very little allowance for any kind of male relationship that doesn’t involve a woman. She describes the “homosocial” desire as meaning the desire for men to have relationships, of any kind, with other men. And a homosocial environment is one that is exclusively or largely exclusive to males (and often hostile to homosexuality). With only one exception in the form of Petra, the entire Battle School experience is homosocial. Boys live together, shower together, sleep together, and plan and execute battles together. Consider the Battle School. Analyzing it through language, subtext, and imagery, we see a great deal of homosocial, as well as potentially homosexual, implications. James Campbell, in his article “Kill the Bugger: Ender’s Game and the Question of Heteronormativity,” comments thus on the boys’ characters and stations:

They are libidinal animals in a highly structured homosocial environment. Reading the novel for sexuality, then, is not merely a matter of discovering (or imposing) some wink-wink-nudge-nudge allegory on the text, but rather eliciting the patterns of desire that emanate from its characters as sexual agents. (Science Fiction Studies 36:3, 2009, p. 494)
Remember Rose the Nose’s first interaction with Ender? On Rose’s lap sits his computer display of a larger-than-life phallus, while he has forbidden Ender the use of his computer out right. Sure, this may be a simple childish tease, but it is also a sexualized symbolic display of dominance.

The power struggles between the boys often take on sexual meaning, imagery, and language. Computer desks again feature in a later power struggle when Ender learns how to hack the computer of Bernard, another boy threatened Ender, to send everyone messages saying, “Cover your butt. Bernard is watching,” and later, after Bernard’s cronies attack Ender, “I love your butt. Let me kiss it.” These accusations of homosexual attraction embarrass and degrade Bernard. Even the official battles themselves—the primary focus of education at the Battle School—are homosexual in nature: they are bat- tles between male participants, in which one side “wins” by penetrating the corridor protected by the other team.

Sedgwick would likely point out how very sexual the imagery is here and notice that it is males who are engaging in that sexuality with each other. Someone might argue that these battles are not truly homosexual because the thing the boys are competing to penetrate is the entrance to a corridor, and so it seems they are fighting over a feminine symbol rather than a masculine one. At best, though, this means the battle fought by all male participants is a macho war over who gets to possess a woman’s body!

Male-male attraction is as significant a theme as male-male violence in the book. When Ender meets his first commander, he was overwhelmed by his appearance: “A boy stood there, tall and slender, with beautiful black eyes and slender hips that hinted at refinement. I would follow such beauty anywhere, said something inside Ender.” There is no way to describe this passage without having to account for an attraction. Something in Ender wants to follow Bonzo. Card makes no attempt to shelter us from males finding other males beautiful.

But, it doesn’t take long, however, for violence to emerge out of that homosocial relationship. Bonzo threatens that he will “have” Ender’s “ass someday.” Later, Bonzo and several friends approach Ender to attack him in the shower. The pages of descriptions of the scene paint a picture that is more than vaguely homoerotic: Bonzo strips naked to fight naked one-on- one with Ender in a hot, steamy, slippery battle that is finalized when Ender connects “hard and sure” with Bonzo’s groin. Sedgwick would see here the fact that in "Ender’s Game," homo- erotic interactions almost always result in punishment. These sexual encounters—or even the suggestion of such—are “punished” by demoting, degrading, or killing the transgressors.

Not all homoamorous (love or affection between same-sex persons) relationships in the book are characterized by vio- lence in Ender’s Game. Many are characterized by forbidden-ness, regret, or dissatisfaction. Alai, Ender’s first friend at Battle School, sends him in to his first battle with a kiss, which Ender guessed was “somehow forbidden.” The kiss was accompanied by the word “Salaam,” which is Arabic for peace and which is commonly used with brief kisses between men sharing the greeting, so the kiss may have meant nothing sexual- sexual at all. It is interesting, then, how Western readers— indeed, perhaps even our Western characters, like Ender himself—may immediately assume that it does mean something sexual! In fact, among queer theorists, there is some contro- versy over whether queer theory itself assumes a common Western, white cultural backdrop. Either way, what we do see is affection between men that is forbidden—they want to be close—emotionally or physically, but can’t!

In what seems like it must be a purposeful move, Card creates a Greek-style mentorship between Ender and Mazer Rackham, Earth’s hero of the previous Bugger war. Greek mentorships usually involved an older man and a young man who engaged in a learning relationship that often also involved sexuality. For his training, Ender and Mazer share a bedroom while they work together to learn to think the way the Buggers think. Keep in mind that “Bugger” has been used, for a long time, as derogatory slang for a man who engages in sexual deviance. And this is on the asteroid Eros, named for the Greek god of love! A man and a boy are sharing a bedroom on Eros so they can learn how to think like Buggers. We don’t have to read deeply into this to see that something very homosocial, if not homosexual, is happening.

When Ender gets transferred from the Battle School, his close friendship with Bean—a promising child who serves as one of Ender’s toon leaders—is interrupted, and readers are provided a window to Bean’s secret heart, which is tender and full of a possibly forbidden love for Ender. Because Ender’s news was delivered just before lights out, Bean must undress in the dark and crawl into bed. He begins to sob, then turns to self-inflicted pain to control his agony. Bean first “tried to put a name on the feeling that put a lump in his throat and made him sob silently,” for “once he named the feeling, he could con- trol it.” We are left with the question, ‘What is the feeling?’, because Bean falls asleep before our narrator gives us a clue.

In these relationships, it seems as if Card paints a beautiful and tragic tale of lust and love between men. Card details those relationships according to a clear pattern: male acknowledgement of, and even love of, male beauty is acceptable—though never rewarded—as long as males do not take the step toward sexualizing that beauty. When they do, they are punished by humiliation, degradation, violence, and even death.

Tainted Love

So. Ender’s Game is rife with male sexuality, and it normalizes for us the idea that men are beautiful and that other men may love them from a distance, but any notion or expression of sexuality toward them should not exist. We end up back were we started. What is treated with the deepest loathing? Not the male body or deep (even forbidden) love between men. What seems to be truly judged and warned against is the feminization of any of these males; the sexual act in which one male supposedly feminizes himself by engaging with another sexually or by expressing his love outwardly (unlike Bean, who, in manly fashion, stifles and hides his love of Ender).

What if it is actually the feminine that Ender’s Game is the most “phobic” about? There certainly is evidence in the Ender’s Game that women are not thought of particularly highly. We have only two developed female characters—a soldier in the Battle School, and a sister who later philosophizes (in Children of the Mind) that women are simple creatures who cannot really love men fully.

So from a queer theoretical perspective, Ender’s Game may not suffer from a violent fear of male bodies or male love, but instead from a fear of those things which we deem to be female. Perhaps Ender’s Game, and the Enderverse in general, aren’t so much homophobic as they are sexist . . . expressing the yearning and suffering of a deep unrequited love between men, which can never really be eased by the inferior love of women.


[1] Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (Norton, 1994), p. 41.

[2] Kate Bonin, “Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card,” New York Review of Science Fiction 15:4 (2002), p. 21.

Ender's Game and Philosophy will be available October 15 from Open Court Publishing. You can pre-order the book here.

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