|Archive for Big Readers A place for discussing books and all things bookish.
Books about sex and genderI thought I'd start a new thread. I'm reading a lot about gender at the moment, mainly non-fiction (gender theory/queer theory) but also fiction too, and thought I'd establish a place to dump my thoughts so that a) they're all together and b) they don't clutter up the monthly read threads. Some people might easily want to avoid these things for reasons of lack of interest (which is fine) or misguided notions of morality (though I hope not).
Finished last night, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives by Judith Halberstam, published in 2005. Halberstam goes by Jack more often than Judith now, and I think favours male pronouns (I went to see him give a talk a few months ago while he had a visiting lectureship here, and my friend went to meet him to discuss research afterwards and took the opportunity of asking him about pronouns), so I'll do that here. But he's definitely somewhere in the middle, gender-wise. If this is troubling to get your head around, the important thing to remember is that someone else's gender is not your call, it is what they say it is, even if their appearance may seem at odds with what you expect.
At the most basic level I can't write anything meaningful about this book. I came close, I think, to understanding Halberstam's concepts of queer temporality and queer space as I read about them, but they didn't stay in my brain, perhaps because they aren't drummed into you throughout, and so I didn't grasp the book's central thesis properly. There are many diversions along the way. As already documented, I'm not a good reader of postmodern theory because a) I'm ignorant, as everyone is when they start reading this sort of thing, and b) I'm lazy, and when I get to a bit I don't understand I don't make the effort to reread and absorb it, but simply move on. Life's too short, I think, whereas if I were serious about internalising this stuff I'd take my time, construct theories of my own, approach it as though I had to write an undergraduate essay on it afterwards and not just this half-arsed book report. I could look up words like etiology and epistemology and hegemony in the dictionary, but what would be the point when I'd have forgotten them five seconds later? This attitude may change, and I find I'm not discouraged by not understanding stuff. I will persevere and something will eventually stick.
It's a good book for an ignoramus to read, though, because there are many accessible ways into the discussion of broader themes, particularly the narratives of Brandon Teena, the trans man whose tragic story was told in the film Boys Don't Cry, and Billy Tipton, the male jazz musician who was revealed after his death to have been biologically female, a story that inspired Jackie Kay's novel Trumpet. Halberstam discusses their relationships with the societies they chose to live in, and their life stories permit interesting exploration of, for instance, the biography of trans people. Where do the biographer's sympathies lie, who is the audience? Halberstam writes critically of Diane Middlebrook's biography of Tipton that her audience wants to be 'fascinated but not challenged, provoked but not transformed'. Although I suspect more people are open to being educated now than they were, I'm sure that's still the case for many consumers of the media reportage of the transitions of the likes of Kellie Maloney and Bruce Jenner in recent months. Transgender won't stop being a freakshow to the masses until they allow themselves to fit into the latter categories identified by Halberstam. I hope we're getting over the idea, which will be familiar to gay people, that transgender stories are only palatable if they have an unhappy ending.
Much of the book consists of analyses of films. I'm keen to revisit The Crying Game, which I liked a great deal when I first saw it. It gets a negative assessment from Halberstam, critical of the character of Dil being robbed of her own narrative. I fear I'll come to think the same. Boys Don't Cry, which I remember coming out but always thought I'd find too upsetting to watch, is more successful in its establishment of the transgender gaze (a phrase likely to confuse people in conversation) but still flawed. This is a book that makes you want to read and watch lots more stuff. Eddie Redmayne is playing a transgender woman in a film being made at present, which has come under criticism from some transgender commentators. Why not use a trans actress who knows what the transgender experience is like, rather than a cis (non-trans) actor, regardless of gender? I'm sure Redmayne's done his research, but I sympathise with them. It raises the question that has sometimes occurred to me, why can we accept actors playing against type in some circumstances but not others? We accept gay actors playing straights and vice versa; never blacks playing whites or whites playing blacks. For transgender it's a grey area, perhaps because it involves transgression of the binary, and because the cases are so few that there's no rulebook, at least not yet.
Anyway, just some thinking out loud. More shortly, I'm sure. I enjoyed the book, especially the bits I understood, some of which reinforced things I knew instinctively to be right but perhaps hadn't thought about yet, and the bits that changed my viewpoint slightly. I expect this will become a regular thought, but I did wonder at some points, how useful is a book like this? Theory is all well and good, but does it help us to live? But just to read about this stuff is useful, because it can help you to realise the fact that there are seven billion life stories in the world, and because we can never know another person's life experience our default position should be to treat everyone with respect and compassion, and acknowledge our own ignorance. That's tough, but it's something to aspire to.
Interview with Jack Halberstam here: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/int...-create-better-models-of-success/
I've been reading Jackie Kay's novel Trumpet, which was inspired by the Billy Tipton story mentioned above.
Joss Moody is a Scottish mixed-race jazz trumpeter, happily married to Millie for many years with an adopted son, Colman, now grown up. On his death, it is discovered that Joss's body is female (apologies to those who object to the gendering of bodies for using this convenient shorthand), a secret known only to his wife. The book shows a number of people -- Millie, Colman, Moody's drummer, his unscrupulous biographer Sophie Stones, and the professionals who come after death (the doctor, the undertaker, the registrar) -- trying to make sense of a life that to some of them now seems to have been built on a lie. A 'patchwork of memories', Halberstam calls it in his book.
It's an interesting exploration of gender, with a wide variety of attitudes exposed. Colman's emotions are raw. He didn't know his father had lived as a girl in childhood, and the realisation is a harsh one, coming as it does on the occasion of his visit to the undertaker. Although Colman doesn't disown his father, he doesn't know how to come to terms with things. To begin with it often seems to be the biology that freaks him out -- having had a father who didn't have male genitals, a father who menstruated (as though the most important thing about any father is the absence of these things...) -- but the more he thinks about his father in the weeks after his death, and the more tender his memories become, the more he comes to realise that his father's life was not a lie, and that he cannot collaborate with Sophie Stones on her book, which seeks to desecrate his father's memory.
Colman remembers Joss quoting Oscar Wilde: 'Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography.' Stones, the biographer, is the villain of the piece, and a rather identikit one. A journalist with an inferiority complex, convinced her sister is the favourite of her parents and determined to outshine her, venal and immoral and crass, she consistently and aggressively misgenders Joss as 'she' (such a small thing, you might think, but one of the most gratuitously offensive things you can do, to strip someone of their gender -- hardly better than calling them 'it'), and deludes herself into believing that she is performing a public service by exposing Joss as a fraud. A stereotype, but then I imagine people like this do exist.
Thank goodness for the anchoring presence of Millie, the only person left, it seems, who knew the real Joss, who saw him for the person he was, who loved him. She escapes to the coast to avoid the press and seeks consolation in her memories of their shared life. Only it's not just Millie. It's true that she was the only person who shared the secret of Joss's gender, but there are others he leaves behind for whom gender is simply not a consideration -- his drummer, Big Red McCall, and his schoolfriend, May Hart, both of whom find their love and admiration for Joss undiminished by the revelation, perhaps even strengthened in some ways.
Although the blurb on the back of the edition I read mostly avoids sensationalism, it still talks of an 'intricate lie'. In fact a bigger lie would have been for Joss to have continued living as a woman. Our gender expression (and we all have one, even if we aren't aware of it) is more valid than our physical sex. Perhaps one of the reasons people feel so scandalised by the revelation about Joss is that he hasn't had reassignment surgery. That, their small minds could understand; this, they can't. We might be a lot less hung up about gender if we could get over the idea that a person's body determines their life. Kay gets this, I think, and I welled up at the end of her book.
I think I have a copy of this somewhere. I know I've got Jackie Kay's poems. I think she used to be Carol Ann Duffy's partner I think....
I've read her poetry before, and I believe she's a good short story writer too.
Read yesterday: Ali Smith's short novel Girl Meets Boy. It's one of a series of books commissioned by Canongate taking ancient myths as their starting point, in this case one of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the story of Iphis and Ianthe. Iphis is a girl, but has to be brought up as a boy because otherwise she will be put to death, girls being an expendable commodity in her society. She then falls in love with her female friend Ianthe, becomes betrothed to her, and is transformed by the gods into a boy just in time for the wedding.
Smith's book isn't a retelling of this story, Ovid's just the starting point. It's about two sisters from Inverness, Anthea and Midge (Imogen), who are both working for a bottled water company. They share the narrative between them. Although they're both sympathetic in different ways, Anthea is feckless and directionless, Midge simple and naive and bigoted. Anthea falls for Robin, an androgynous crusader against the water company, which upsets Midge. She hasn't met any lesbians before, and hadn't thought her sister was capable of being one.
(Gay people are just the same as heterosexual people, except for
the being gay, of course.)
(They were holding hands at the front door.)
(I should have known. She always was weird. She always was
different. She always was contrary. She always did what she knew
(It is the fault of the Spice Girls.)
(She chose the video of Spiceworld with Sporty Spice on the
limited edition tin.)
Quite a lot of Midge's narrative is in this internal monologue style, which lets you get very close to her, enables you to sympathise -- because although she's awful, she's basically like us, full of neuroses and uncertainties, and by the end, following a road-to-Damascus-style epiphany (well, road to Milton Keynes), she seems to have learned some self-awareness and become magically empowered. I'm not sure this transformation quite convinced me, but I went with it because it's a book in which magic and mythology and mutability and various other M words feel an intrinsic part of the world, even the modern world of the book, the world we live in.
Not that the theme of mutability of gender, which interests me a lot, is as strong here as it is in Ovid, though the opening sentence promises a lot:
Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.
The grandparents assume the status of mythic beings, not least because of their having gone to Greece and been swallowed up by the water. Are they the gods of the piece? Most of the mutability comes from the character of Robin, who is read as boy and girl alternately (and simultaneously). The description of Anthea's discovery of Robin's in-betweenness I found beautiful:
It had been exciting, first the not knowing what Robin was, then the
finding out. The grey area, I’d discovered, had been misnamed: really
the grey area was a whole other spectrum of colours new to the eye.
She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s
toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl.
She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and
rough as a girl. She was as pretty and delicate and dainty as a boy.
She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girls’ heads like a boy.
She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so
boyish it was girlish, so girlish it was boyish, she made me want to
rove the world writing our names on every tree. I had simply never
found anyone so right. Sometimes this shocked me so much that I
was unable to speak. Sometimes when I looked at her, I had to look
away. Already she was like no one else to me. Already I was fearful
she would go. I was used to people being snatched away. I was used
to the changes that came out of the blue. The old blue, that is. The
blue that belonged to the old spectrum.
I'm not sure that passage has the same power shorn of its context: it really needs the sea of myth that surrounds it. The power of possibility is strong in this book, the possibility of change, changing our lives, changing the world. It's less wishy-washy than I've made it sound. At times I'd have welcomed more discipline. I found myself longing for Graham Greene. But it's not that kind of book. Exuberant, says a quote on the cover, and that's about right.
Thanks for drawing my attention to Ali Smith's book.
I enjoyed it a lot. Made me curious to read other things - Ali Smith's other books, but mainly Ovid...
One is spoiled for choice when deciding on a translation ov Ovid. I have the one Shakespeare would have read by Arthur Golding, and Ted Hughes' versions, and I've got a couple of others but can't remember which. You can't enjoy Shakespeare fully if you aren't aware of your Ovid. Especially Pyramus and Thisbe. Somewhere I have a version for children by James Reeves illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. I think my favourite is Baucis & Philemon.
A bit about Julia Serano's book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. If the title sounds offputtingly angry and/or sado-masochistic, that's a shame, because it is angry in places, and rightly so, but it's also thoughtful, and incisive, and frankly brilliant. I hope I'd feel blown away by it even if it didn't corroborate my own views and feelings to the extent that it does. (There's no bondage in it, incidentally. I miss the Baron.)
Serano is a male-to-female transsexual, and her book is about all sorts of aspects of the transgender experience but mainly focuses on misogyny and transmisogyny (misogyny directed at transgender women, who seem to get a rougher deal in society than other trans people, not that it's a competition), which Serano argues convincingly is for reasons of Western society's continued disdain for feminity.
I imagine a lot of people (a lot of men, I suppose I mean) reading a blurb of the book will think, I've got her number. A lot of stuff about male privilege and female empowerment. It doesn't apply to me. I mean, I can see I'm privileged in lots of ways, but I can't help that, I don't use it to bring women down, I don't catcall them in the street. Some men do, but NOT ALL OF US. I listen when they're speaking most of the time, I open doors for them, or are we even allowed to do that nowadays? It's political correctness gone mad. This is the kind of mindset that leads to comments below online news stories claiming middle-aged white men are the most discriminated-against demographic in the UK. Open your mind, own your privilege and see if there are things about yourself and about others you've been taking for granted, I would say, patronisingly.
Privilege is a concept Serano treats at length and with great eloquence and understanding. After all, regardless of her female gender identity ('subconscious sex', to use her own term) she has lived as both male and female, and has experienced the privilege that goes with being read as either. I acknowledge that I'm privileged in almost every way there is: I'm white, young(ish), middle-class, university-educated, I live in a developed country, I've got a job, I'm not rich but I'm not poor. I have it easy. I also have cis privilege, a privilege most people don't even realise they have. It means my gender is never questioned, least of all by me. People read me as a man, and I am a man. If I weren't, I can fully imagine being misread as male might be a painful experience. People also read me as straight, I imagine, because heterosexuality is seen as the default position in our society. It's not really up to them to decide, though, is it, just as it's not up to any individual to be the gatekeeper of gender. We are enormously privileged, the majority of us, not to have experienced gender dissonance, and partly as a result of that we generally, automatically, assign everyone a gender when we meet them, before that, even. We bring many assumptions, many preconceptions, along with that gendering, and we don't always get it right.
Serano writes of the differences in the way people act towards her when they find out she's trans. The only thing different is that they know a piece of information about her they hadn't previously known, there is no difference in her, and yet the change is startling. I thought several times of one of the many memorable passages in Shaw's Pygmalion:
PICKERING. You mustnt mind that. Higgins takes off his
boots all over the place.
LIZA. I know. I am not blaming him. It is his way, isnt it?
But it made such a difference to me that you didnt do it.
You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone
can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking,
and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl
is not how she behaves, but how she's treated. I shall
always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he
always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I
know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat
me as a lady, and always will.
MRS HIGGINS. Please dont grind your teeth, Henry.
I wish I had the power to make a book like this required reading for people. Sorry to keep beating the gender drum, but when you see people you care for and people like them being shut out of society, when you see ignorance and pig-headedness all around, you want to do something to help eradicate it. I wonder what I can do that's not simply telling people to read books. I may have to go out and get involved.
But I'm not reading this book so that I can tell people it's good, I'm reading it to educate myself. I've still got a long way to go. There are brief analyses in this book of the portrayal of gender-variant people in fiction and films, and it's disappointing to see that Transamerica, a film I liked a great deal when I watched it several years ago, buys into the mystification of transgender women, through the depiction of its protagonist, Bree, 'performing' her gender, putting on her make-up, the implication being that it's an act, that it's inauthentic. Not that that makes it a bad film (I don't think it is), but it's interesting and sobering to have things pointed out that as a cis person I wouldn't have picked up on myself, at least not at the time. Similarly, the erasure of Cal's teenage trauma in Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex. It's a good and moving story, but has Eugenides co-opted intersex to suit his own ends? I can believe it. I'd have to read it again (have been meaning to, as it happens).
A criticism: Serano's book is a bit too long, and inclined to be repetitive. Perhaps an editor could have done something for it. But that's a small price to pay when there were so many times when I cried out YES inside and thought, I must make a note of this passage, which is so unimpeachable and so well expressed.
Chib, I think you are doing a great job in educating people who have no idea about sexuality except the ‘normal’ kind. If we want to know more all we have to do is read books and learn from them. One query – you mention ‘cis’ privilege and a ‘cis’ person. I must have missed something in your reviews so could you tell me what cis means? And thank you for the pleasure you’ve given with all the excellent reviews you’ve written over the years.
I forget what I've written here and what I've written elsewhere, Castorboy - apologies for not being clear. Cis means not trans, so a cis person is someone who identifies by what we might for convenience call their 'birth gender' (though that's a phrase some people find objectionable for various reasons I won't go into here). The word 'cisgender' has just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, so it's something of a buzzword over here at the moment. Thanks enormously for your kind words
'CIS' is new to me too. I'm getting out of touch.........
I hadn't heard of cis before either, or if I had I had ignored it or forgotten. I thought I might not reply here for fear (certainty really) of seeming ignorant or judgemental. I wonder how people without such a defined gender as most of us managed in the past. It seems to be a very strong movement at the moment.
But I came here today to mention that NZ has become the first country in the world apparently to put this on its national statistics records (I presume that will include the next census, not due for a while); there will be a third category - "gender diverse". http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1507/S00152/gender-identity-standard-world-first-in-new-zealand.htm
NZ is no longer, I think, generally very advanced in social issues, but for some reason gender and sex has always been one where we kept on top of the play. First country to have votes for women, first to have a transexual elected MP, now first for this.
I second Castorboy's thanks for your reviews, Gareth - they are always thoughtful and accessible and often of books I at least otherwise would know nothing of.
It does seem a strong movement, doesn't it, Caro, partly because the rise in understanding of transgender issues in the past couple of decades means more trans people feel able to be open about their gender, and the increased visibility means increased advocacy. Not that the struggle for gay rights is over, far from it, but now that LGB people are much more widely accepted than they were a generation ago perhaps the public focus has shifted to groups who are still widely misunderstood and oppressed, even by those who mean well.
I don't put links to my external blog here often, but related to this discussion I wrote a sort of introduction to transgender stuff a few weeks ago, in case anyone's interested: https://somewhereboy.wordpress.co...06/14/thinking-about-transgender/
Finished today: Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality by Susan McClary. I shrank from musicology in student days when I was supposed to be reading it, but I seem to have had a change of heart.
First published in 1991, this is one of the seminal texts of feminist musicology, a genre still in its infancy. It's probably as controversial now as it was when it came out. McClary's description (not in this book) of the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony no. 9 as 'one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release' is one of several statements that I imagine people like to use to paint her as an irrational and hysterical woman, and perhaps there was a time when I (as a man) would have taken some of what she writes as a personal affront (though actually I think not; if I liked Beethoven's 9th, on the other hand, I might have bristled). The thing to do is to grow a thicker skin, look beyond your affrontedness, and consider whether there is any truth in what is written.
In a lot of cases, there is. Whether or not you agree with her individual analyses of pieces (and there's a lot of analysis, especially of tonal relationships, so it may not be a book for the layperson), and everything from Monteverdi to Madonna comes under her microscope, it's not difficult to find her central theses of, say, the gendering of musical analysis into masculine and feminine binaries, outlined in the opening chapter, compelling and convincing.
If you have any sense of propriety then please stop reading now. I'm sure the analogy of music and the sexual act has been made many times before, it seems so intuitive, but I hadn't thought of it in any depth until now. The build-up of tension, the eventual climax. Ravel's Bolero is an obvious example, though not used by McClary. You don't have to be a sensualist like Ravel or Richard Strauss to use the formula. Bach and Mozart do it too. It's ingrained in Western musical forms. Wagner comes along and shakes things up. The Prelude to Act 1 of Tristan is 10 minutes of writhing with every opportunity for a cadence shunned, then the climax doesn't arrive for another four hours. Watch Bernstein explaining Tchaikovsky 4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQ3GpUldYvE If he didn't have an audience full of children he'd be able to explain what the music's really about. It's not hard to see the subtext.
McClary's not as obsessed by sex as my last paragraph suggests. She's very good at showing how social constructions of gender influence the way we hear music. I think this book is best read (at least to the beginner, i.e. me) as an introduction to thinking about hitherto unexplored ideas. I'm sure it will inform the way I listen to music, and it was useful to be able to read it in conjunction with recordings of some of the music discussed. I'm starting to understand words like hegemony and semiotics without having to look them up. Be afraid.
One thing that has interested me for years is why I respond to certain types of music the way I do. As a boy my favourite composer was Ravel. A more stereotypically feminine composer you couldn't wish to find. (He was a dandy who had no documented relationships with women, so many people over the years have tried to claim him as gay; I'm undecided.) Not that there's nothing below the surface, but there's such attention paid to the sheen of his music that it masks the substance. He favours harmonic lushness over contrapuntal rigour. The anti-Bach. I didn't like Bach either when I was little. I favoured the sensual -- Ravel, Respighi, Poulenc. At some point in my teens, a sea change. I suddenly got masculine music. The muscularity of Bach and Beethoven and Brahms, academic Teutons to a man. That's not to say that the likes of Bach don't have their sensitive side.
Why these stereotypes? What truth is in them, and what purpose do they serve? In Kate Bornstein's My Gender Workbook, which I skim-read a few months ago, ze (gender-neutral pronoun alert) asks the reader to come up with a definition of a 'real man'. I think what ze's getting at is that there is a stereotypical macho man. (My definition would have been that a real man is anyone who says they're a man; I wasn't going to play ball with hir.) Ze then says, if you yourself are a man, in what ways do you fail to conform to your image of a 'real man'? Well, I'm not muscular, I don't give a damn about cars, etc. etc. To what extent are these stereotypes innate, to what extent are they constructed? How do we quantify masculinity and femininity, and why do I like Schubert more than Beethoven? I haven't worked any of this stuff out, it's just what I've been thinking about. I liked McClary's book a great deal.
Oh dear, Gareth, what with Himadri's thoughtful analysis of everything he reads, and the linguistic knowledge of someone on another board, and the serious religious musings of someone else, and now you! I am starting to feel out of my depth, with my rather ordinary brain thinking rather ordinary thoughts. People (some people at least - others are amazing for their lack of anything but the most shallow sentimental thoughts) are so thoughtful and careful in their reading and study.
I have out the library a book called Why We Like Music by Silvia Bencivelli translated by Stephen Thomson Moore, which I thought would be interesting, but I have found that it is an extension of a university thesis, and so far I have found it rather daunting, with a bit of history from Pythagoras, Plato, the importance of the flute, encoding music, changing tonalities. I did study the piano for a fair number of years, and was quite good at theory, but it's a long time ago now, and I have never got to understand or really like classical music. As for finding Ravel feminine (though I do like Bolero), and Bach masculine! Goodness, I have never thought of such things. Though because my grandmother didn't like Bach, I have never taken to him all that well either. Mozart and Chopin for me, perhaps. (Though I'd struggle to actually name a piece of music by either of them, or recognise them especially.)
Anyway thanks, Gareth, for opening our eyes to things we might otherwise have gone through life not knowing existed. And keep it up.
I wish I were really the egghead you paint me, Caro. It's all an illusion. The only thing that's changed in me is that I'm straying outside my comfort zone. I wouldn't have read these books in the past, and there's a great deal in them that I simply don't understand (or, as may be the case, could perhaps understand if I really put in a lot of effort but at the time of writing am too lazy to bother about), but I'm not letting that put me off now as it once would have. I'd put Mozart roughly in the middle of the masc/fem spectrum, Chopin a bit further to the feminine side.
More of the same from me. I'm all too aware that I'm becoming a bore on the subject. I suppose it isn't as if I'm forcing you to read this stuff; still, I feel a bit guilty. Don't feel obliged to wade through it, I write this so I can remind myself in the future what I've read in the past.
Today I finished Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green. It's an overview of the female-to-male (FTM) transsexual experience, with illuminating personal anecdotes from the author's own life. When a couple of nights ago I told a friend I was reading this book she said, Don't you get bored of it? and it's true that now I have a more solid footing in this world I feel like I'm retreading some old ground with my reading. Why keep reading books on the same subject, then? Well, for new insights, because it's good to read many individual perspectives to get a more rounded picture of something I will never experience first-hand; to absorb ideas better through greater exposure to them; to develop arguments I can employ when talking with people who think of transgender as a joke, or as something they have only thought about in abstract terms or as an exotic idea, rather than as something that might directly affect them or people they care about.
This book, though it's barely ten years old, is perhaps slightly dated now in terms of terminology and attitudes. That's because understanding of trans issues advances so quickly, and many people still disagree on the matters of a) which words should be used (e.g. 'transsexual' vs 'transgender'; Green calls himself a transsexual) and b) what they even mean, what the nuances of difference between such terms are. It's not worth getting too hung up on vocabulary, but Green writes of 'female' and 'male' bodies, which is problematic to people (like me) who can see value in getting away from the gendering of bodies, on account of our gender being determined more by what we feel than what we look like. If you object to that, though, you come across as an agitator. What's objectionable about referring to someone as 'male-bodied'? one might reasonably ask. (Well, quite a lot, it turns out; a discussion for another time.) Green also tends to view things in binary terms, and writes very little about people who identify as neither male nor female. Perhaps, given his book is a FTM story, that's understandable.
It's a wise and eloquent book, readable and informative and emotive. I was particularly moved by a section telling of Green's acceptance into a cis men's group after his coming out as trans, and by his related musings on the nature of manhood, and felt inspired by the story of his part in the organisation of the first American FTM conference. The fact that there is now a transgender movement that can exert pressure on governments to change their outdated laws to accommodate the needs of people who are still badly discriminated against is down to people like Green, pioneers in creating communities and forming individuals into small local groups and small local groups into something bigger.
It makes me think, as several books I've read this year have, that I ought to take some kind of positive action myself. Not just reading books, but something practical. This paragraph relates to the trans person's voyage along the spectrum of gender in a search for identity, but I felt it also applied to me, to the way my attitudes are changing through exposure to new ideas:
Identity has often been a powerful organizing tool, but it should not be mistaken
for the ideal model of community. Identity is not a rigid, monolithic psychosocial
box into which we can each place ourselves, where we'll permanently remain.
We are all becoming something, and we can strongly identify with different
aspects of our lives at different times, or new elements may be introduced into
our lives that we must integrate into our identity, such as parenthood, chronic
illness or sudden disability, falling in love with a person we wouldn't have
imagined being with, or finding a new career. These evolutionary events often
draw us into new communities and new identities. The tendency to 'fix' people's
identities as encompassing only one aspect of themselves, or as being
unchanging in their various aspects, is equivalent to expecting a person to only
eat apples because he or she was eating an apple when you met.
There were places where I was mightily impressed at Green's succinct and pithy way of expressing thoughts. I would like to have this gift myself, but it's hard to be a good advocate of any view unless you know from personal experience what it means to be oppressed by the things you're fighting against.
What makes a man a man? His penis? His beard? His receding hairline? His
lack of breasts? His sense of himself as a man? Some men have no beard,
some have no penis, some never lose their hair, some have breasts; all have a
sense of themselves as men. Transsexual men are also men. Transsexual
men are men who have lived in female bodies. Transsexual men may appear
feminine, androgynous or masculine. Any man may appear feminine,
androgynous, or masculine.
My uniqueness is the same difference that each man has from any other man.
If transsexual men want to disappear, to not be seen, it is because they are
afraid of not being seen as men, of being told they are not men, and of being
unable to refute the assertion that they are not men. All men fear this, deep
down, just as all women who know they are women would – at some level – be
pained by an assertion that they are not women or a refusal to acknowledge
their feminineness. In this way, all men – trans and non-trans – are the same.
All men would cling tenaciously to their self-concept as men, even if they lost
their penis (though the loss of this unique organ would very likely be a serious
threat to a man who had not examined his sense of self). One thing all men
understand is that they are not women. This is also true for transsexual men,
even though they have lived in female bodies. As soon as a transsexual man
reveals his trans status, he is examined for vestiges of 'woman' that may then
be used to invalidate his maleness, his authenticity.
This speech incorporates much of the closing section of the book. I think it's well worth reading: http://www.donnarose.com/Becoming_Visible.html
I find your thoughts and extracts about these issues most interesting G. Thanks for posting them.
I find them interesting, too. Thank you for educating me.
Aw, you guys.
Last night I finished The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, edited by Tom Léger & Riley MacLeod, an anthology of 28 short stories written by US and Canadian trans writers and featuring trans characters. It won a Lambda Award (I think I was vaguely aware of these – they're the major US awards for LGBT+ books) in 2013, and I thought it would provide a good way of getting into transgender fiction. I've been reading it slowly for the past three or four months.
Predictably, it's a mixed bag, but about half of the stories impressed me enough to make me think I'd read them again, and a handful of them really got to me. Stories of small acts making a big difference, like R. Drew's 'The Café', about a trans man, Sam, often misgendered by people because of his high voice, who is heartened when a patron of the café where he works steps in to correct someone about his gender; or 'Tammy Faye' by A. Raymond Johnson, where a letter written in kindness gives consolation to a woman who has been cut out of her young niece's life.
There's quite a bit of science fiction, some of it excellent. It's not a genre I naturally gravitate towards, but superhero stories give a lot of scope for exploration of the identity shifts that trans people experience in real life. 'Masks of a Hero' by Mikki Whitworth was good in this respect, and I especially loved 'Ramona's Demons' by Susan Jane Bigelow, a mystical, mythical story of a trans woman who believes her power to hunt demons has been diminished by her gender transition. Like the best science fiction, it holds a mirror up to our own world. Also, 'War with Waking Up' by Noel Arthur Heimpel, a powerful, fantastical story about a medical student haunted by an apparition – a body dissected in class? his ex-girlfriend? or is it his other self, discarded in transition? It's rich with metaphor, and quite beautiful.
My favourites, though, tended to be the stories grounded in reality and the everyday, about human relationships, with all their pain and tenderness: 'Saving' by Carter Sickels, 'To the New World' by Ryka Aoki, 'To Do List for Morning' by Stephen Ira, and 'Ride Home Under a Thunderstorm' by Oliver Pickle, which I read last night and immediately read all over again, I identified so strongly with its narrator's neuroses and felt so moved by its cautiously optimistic ending.
Eddie Redmayne as transgender Lili Elbe in his new film 'The Danish Girl'.
I suppose I'll watch the film eventually (it's not out for a few months), but at the moment I have mixed feelings about it. Redmayne was cast as Lili Elbe after Rachel Weisz dropped out. People have asked, with some justification, why a transgender actress couldn't have been cast in the role. There's a very interesting article about it here, which suggests the cis people making the film are approaching it with sensitivity: http://thinkprogress.org/culture/...-behind-eddie-redmaynes-new-role/
I fear that it will turn out to be sensitive to trans people but not that good. And of course Eddie Redmayne will get lots of plaudits from the Daily Mail etc. for his bravery in taking on the role, unlike the trans women who live these lives full time, not just for a few weeks on a closed set. Oh dear, I'm becoming so militant.
I read The Danish Girl a while ago and wrote about it here. Who knows where - the trouble with writing about things in the What Am I Reading threads it is very hard to find them again. Hopefully I wrote about it in a monthly thread. I thought it was very good. Found it, read in March 2012.
I finally finished the book I have been reading and enjoying today. It is The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff. I thought, because I hadn't heard of it or him, that it must be a recent book, but it's over ten years old. The front page says 'homesexuality - fiction' and neither of these is quite correct. The book is based on a real person in the 1920s who was transexual, if I have the term right. Einar Wegener was a married man who realised he was meant to be a woman and becomes Lili Elbe, first through his clothing and feelings, then through surgery.
This book concentrates more on his wife, Greta, who supports him and his changes and loves him both as a man and then as Lili. It is a story of two people who love each other and care for each other, through very difficult circumstances, and who have to learn to grow apart from each other. A book of relationships and identity and place. Greta is a young American widow and artist who rejects her American background and settles in Europe, marrying a Dane. We see her keen on Einar and then she is forced to leave during the war, and for the rest of the book they are married, with no explanation of how this came about, since Einar thought it for the best they didn't see each other.
A very carefully written and constructed book, whose language is descriptive and sensuous. Clothing, bodies, rivers, towns, passing strangers are all filled out with adjectives, colours, textures. "The rest LIli could imagine: the first kidd in the back room; the gentle tumble into the bowl of the stainless-steel vat; the passion in the middle of the night when the chocolate house lay still, when all the mixing arms hung motionless; the sobs of love. How very sad, Lili thought, sitting in her metal chair as the affternoon sun hit the Elbe. Despite Ursula's current predicament Lili longer for something similar to happen to her. Yes, she told herself. It will be like that with me: instant love, helpless, regrettable passion." The contrast between the confused and awkward Einar and his alter-ego Lili who appears much younger - naive and eager in her emotions - is definite, and means that the portrayal of them as separate people seems quite real.
Interesting book in both its subject matter and its style.
Somewhere else I called it sensitive and sensuous.
It does sound interesting, Caro. I wasn't really aware of it. I'll add it to the TBR.
Be MILITANT, Gareth. I used to be but now I haven't the necessary energy.
This long article from the Sydney Morning Herald was printed in the online news site for most of NZ newspapers. I see from a couple of comments below that not everyone would be happy to see this sort of story. I suppose there is an element of it saying that people are not always clear about their sexuality or the choices they make.
Finished this evening, after a few weeks: Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach. It's an anthology of fifty pieces (well, more than that, in fact, but only fifty are numbered) by women about various aspects of feminism, most of them taking the tack of writing about what feminism means to them. The contributors are a broad selection, with plenty of diversity of age, race and social background, but (getting briefly on my particular hobby horse once more) although a couple of the writers refer to transgender issues, all of them are cisgender, and some make casual references to their bodies in a biologically reductive way, i.e. 'I'm a woman because I happen to have been born with a vagina', which is a way of thinking I find increasingly troublesome, though I know they mean no harm.
It's a great idea for an anthology, but the mini-essays tend to be three or four pages in length, and that really isn't enough space for most of the writers to produce anything meaty enough to get your teeth into. That's frustrating in the case of, for instance, composer Shirley J. Thompson, who only has space to write banal generalities and not to explore her subject in greater depth. While many of the essays for this reason blur into one another in the memory, there's a decent hit rate, and only a handful of duds. The worst offender is Kathy Lette's grossly sexist attempt at humour that falls embarrassingly flat. It reminded me of my mother's indignation at finding a book of 'bloke jokes' in a bookshop, dumb blonde jokes with the genders switched. When I thought about it, I came to feel the same way, and appreciated her anger on behalf of my gender. Still, men hardly get a raw deal in the wide world.
The pieces that stand out are those that offer a perspective strikingly different from the others: Sayantani DasGupta's eloquently expressed essay on the Western perception of womanhood in developing countries; Sharon Haywood's piece about how she only came to own her own feminism when she saw a society (in this case Argentina) as an outsider; Natalie Haynes' investigation of the persistence of an ancient joke; Rachel Holmes' letter to Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl; Helena Kennedy's and Josie Rourke's expressions of how their womanhood informs their careers, in law and theatre respectively. Sandi Toksvig's essay also stands out simply on account of her being a good writer, sharp and funny. Writers of other pieces I liked: Jane Czyzselska, Laura Dockrill, Lennie Goodings, Linda Grant, Nathalie Handal. There's a piece by Bee Rowlatt on Mary Wollstonecraft that is exasperatingly flippant in tone but makes me think I ought to read MW.
Between every two or three essays there is a little aperçu from a woman writer. Simone de Beauvoir's 'One is not born a woman, one becomes one' is one that pleased me a lot, partly because it feels so relevant to modern gender theory, but by and large they feel desperately empty divorced from their context.
A mixed bag, then. Why did I want to read the book in the first place? Because, as mentioned elsewhere, I am coming to realise that not catcalling women in the street doesn't absolve me of complicity in their systematic oppression. Because although I don't know, in spite of my approving of the basic tenets of feminism, whether I will ever feel I have the right to call myself a feminist, it's important to learn about the ways in which women are treated as an underclass so that I can work out the things I can do, however slight, to help turn the tide. This all sounds po-faced and humourless, doesn't it. So be it. It's not all grim. The best thing that's come out of my reading the book is that it's made me acknowledge the strong female role models I have in my own family: my mother, whose kindness and goodness have influenced me all my life, a creative person, a musician and an artist and a teacher and a carer; my grandmothers, career women both, one a teacher, the other a doctor; my aunt, a National Trust property manager. And of course, teachers, friends, colleagues. How grim my life would have been without them.
Most interesting, Gareth. Your postings on Feminism and transgender issues are keeping me on my radical toes. I've met a lot of active Feminists in my time, mostly Lesbians, especially when I was a regular attender at meetings of Northern Gay Writers in Manchester. They were great fun, and kept my radical self bubbling. Now it barely simmers.
I'm looking forward to seeing you marching with a banner one of tnese days.
Do people still do that? I suppose they do. I just never imagined I'd be one of them.
Gay Pride marches are great fun.
I find anthologies do tend to be a bit of a mixed bag generally, and usually slightly disappointing. I read a little while ago for our book club an anthology of well-known, achieving older women talking about their lives, their forthcoming deaths, their influences etc. And by the end I was a bit sick of it, really, and it didn't rate all that highly with our book club generally.
But Gareth, while I accept that women in some societies are very oppressed, I don't feel specially oppressed in my life, or patronised usually. I feel privileged too - living in an easy country, also well educated, healthy, with no money problems, etc. I don't envy men at all - they all seem to be obliged to work and provide for their family, even if they would prefer to have the homemaker role. I admit that in my life I have been constantly protected by others and it may not have been good for me. But it's been nice for me. And presumably what I wanted.
And I'm sure it's not a fashionable thought but I was thrilled when I got my first catcall aged 13! No doubt also embarrassed at the attention, but it is not always bad to be admired. Doesn't seem much different than being called 'hot' which always seems a much more sexualised term than a catcall. (The difference I suppose is that it is applied to male and female. And non cis people?)
Caro, I thought you might offer a corrective to my portrait of women as universally oppressed
I'm very glad you don't feel oppressed. I think my mother claims the same. Not that she resents feminism or feminists, but she enjoys motherhood and food preparation and things like that (though would probably like it if other people cooked a bit more often), and sometimes says she was happiest in the early years of my life, spending time with me while my father went out to work. Not that she hasn't worked too, but written down it looks like a traditional life in terms of gender roles. And she's been saddled (not that it's a trial exactly, but it takes an enormous amount of time and effort) with looking after her infirm mother, which seems to be a task undertaken more often by women than by men. I went to see three of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads at the theatre last night. Doris in 'A Cream Cracker Under the Settee': 'Daughters are best. They don't migrate.'
I would describe people of all genders and gender orientations (i.e. cis or trans) as 'hot', though would be inclined to keep it to myself.
There's a small stink being kicked up by some people over here at present about the Edexcel Anthology for A Level Music, which features 63 musical excerpts in various genres, all by men. In my day we used its predecessor, the London Anthology. 120 excerpts, same story. (One was by Andrea Gabrieli, but in spite of the name he was male.) It's hard to walk the line between equality and tokenism. Of course women should be represented, but for all sorts of social reasons we now see as stupid they didn't compose music as widely as men did (and still don't, probably a hangover from the bad old days). Should Robert Schumann be sacrificed to accommodate Clara, or Felix Mendelssohn for Fanny? Pre-1900, I can't think of any female composer worthy of being ranked as the equal of the greatest male ones (save perhaps for Hildegard of Bingen, though my own musical knowledge doesn't go back that far). That's hardly surprising: the sheer numbers make it so. But there are tons of modern female composers (Lutyens, Maconchy, Weir, etc. etc. to name only British ones) who should be studied, and exactly why the anthology omits women even in genres like popular music and jazz is baffling.
Latest read: Real Man Adventures by T Cooper. I started this book intending to read it slowly, but ended up wolfing it down in three or four days. It's not unlike The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman, which I wrote about here last year, in that it's an anecdotal anthology, but Bergman's book you need to take time out between essays to absorb, whereas this is more of a ragbag, including not just essays on many different aspects of transness – disclosure of trans status, doctors, using public toilets, fear of being assaulted, support (or lack thereof) from family and friends – but also pictures, miniature stories, lists, and perhaps most interestingly a series of interviews, with the author's wife and brother, with his friends and acquaintances, with the parents of other trans friends. The variety means you can gorge on it without feeling full. (As compliments go I suspect that's a guarded one. I didn't feel Cooper went as deep as Bergman goes; Bergman's more focused and punchier, his essays acute, often dazzlingly so. But there's a virtue in Cooper's approach too, and I felt as I read it that if I were a person who marked important passages in books with a pencil then my copy would be heavy with marginalia.)
This bit made me nod or stamp my foot or whatever it is I do when I approve of something strongly:
At a certain point I'm just a man who writes books, advocates for pit bulls, likes
both early-twentieth-century jazz and hip-hop, digs old airplanes, has a lovely
wife and two kids—and not a transman who is all these things. Transgender
is a term that implies an identity forever in transition. But I cannot think of a
single person who is not in transition to some extent, regardless of gender.
That’s what we do as humans: we evolve constantly. Or, as Foucault has
suggested, "I don't feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The
main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in
Whatever our gender identity or expression or orientation, we all share a common humanity, we're all working out how to live.
One reason I'm reading these books is so I can be a better advocate for my trans friends. I was pleased to come across this bit:
A common complaint against trans people goes something like, "Well, I could
wake up one morning and decide I'm Marie Antoinette, but that doesn't make
me Marie Antoinette, now does it?" People are going to decide what they decide,
think what they think, assign whatever identity to me they desire: what they see
in front of them at any given time, a perspective that has as many iterations as
pairs of eyes taking it in.
A few months ago I encountered a variation of this at work. Our College was holding its annual Women's Dinner, which is open to all 'self-defining' women. Self-definition is an important distinction to make. It means that all women can attend, even if they identified as male in the past. By the same token, those who identified as female when they were students, say, but no longer do, are not eligible to attend. Simple enough. Only a colleague, not meaning to say anything offensive I'm sure (offensive people rarely do), trotted out the old line, 'But that means any bloke could turn up and say, I'm a woman.' I kicked myself for not having the nerve to call him out on his crassness, but I'd just have ended up getting in a muddle, as I usually do when I talk about anything that makes me get emotional, and at the time I wouldn't have had the eloquence to say what I wanted to. Still don't, perhaps, but if I read enough of these books and absorb enough information, I'll eventually be able to.
Cooper writes about how crass newspaper and magazine profiles of trans people still are, about how his trans status seems to give writers licence for prurience in a way that no other aspect of his life would. Transgender is still exotic to a lot of people, apparently, not something that's just another fact of life. It's mortifying that trans people are still met with questions about genital surgery, say, from people they've only just been introduced to. What makes anyone think that's OK?
It would be great if the growing interest in transgender stuff all around at the moment led to an increase in sensitivity, but I suspect most people don't scratch below the surface. I watched the first episode of the BBC's new sitcom Boy Meets Girl recently, about a romance between a cis man and a trans woman, and thought the central relationship was sweet and funny and well handled, though I didn't much care for some of the supporting cast; I'll stick with it for a while. But in so many previews and reviews of the programme you come across the same references to a woman who 'used to be a man'. It's a bit disheartening. I know I must seem smug and condescending, not least because I'd probably have made the same mistake until recently, but you don't need to think about gender in too much depth before you realise why so many people find it offensive to think of things in those terms. The programme itself isn't absolved entirely: Judy (Rebecca Root) admits to having been 'born in the wrong body', a cliché that is far from universal. It was a pleasure to read Cooper: 'I actually think I was born in the right body, my body.' Right on.
Perhaps it's pernickety to get hung up on language. Better to get on with life and stop worrying about what we call things. But I find the nuances of language interesting. Because so much trans terminology is relatively new, there isn't a consensus about what to call things. I had a discussion this week about what the best noun was to use for transgender as a concept. 'Transgenderism' feels too clinical to me, and I tend now to use 'transgender' on its own (as I did two paragraphs ago), though the word doesn't quite feel complete. Cooper calls himself a 'transman'. I suspect most people favour 'trans man' as two words, the reason perhaps being that 'transman' almost looks like another species, whereas 'trans man' is a man with an adjective tacked on. Strange, the difference a space can make.
Goodness, this was long. Sorry.
Long, but very good and interesting, Gareth. Your postings on this subject are opening my mind.........
Thanks, Mike, I'm very gratified
Don't bother reading this post, it's a bit dull.
My latest read is Gender in World Perspective by Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse (the third edition from 2014, published in the Polity Press 'Short Introductions' series). It was a bit of a trudge, which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it, parts of it at least. It's essentially a gender theory primer, and attracted me especially because of the world perspective bit. A lot of our Western hang-ups about gender aren't shared by other societies. There's a lot we can learn from them, and this book, written by two Australian sociologists, provides a multitude of illustrative examples, and approaches the subject from various directions. There are chapters on approaches to gender research, sex differences, gender theory, gender politics, gender in personal life, gender and environmentalism... (The environmentalism stuff was a bit lost on me, I must confess.)
Many sensible people confronted with this book would say, what's this got to do with the real world? They might have a point. I remember on my first day at university being told by my Director of Studies that people would question the point of studying a subject like music – what good is a music degree to anyone, anyway? (though it has helped me get a job, for which many thanks) – and that we should be prepared to defend ourselves against their facile arguments. I think he told us why studying music was worthwhile, though I can't recall what he said and I've never been sure myself. I did it because I loved music. Why should anyone do anything? And no one ever did question the validity of my degree, at least not to my face. They were all too polite. But now I've read this book, will it affect the way I live, the way I think about things, or is it all too theoretical? Hard to say. Perhaps it will act on my brain while I'm busy doing other things.
Here are some generalities I liked, firstly from the opening chapter:
In talking about gender, we are not talking about simple differences or fixed
categories. We are talking about relationships, boundaries, practices,
identities and images that are actively created in social processes. They
come into existence in particular historical circumstances, shape the lives
of people in profound and often contradictory ways, and are subject to
historical struggle and change.
And a nice summation of early 1990s gender theory, which appeals to me, so much so that I'm on the verge of reading Judith Butler:
The most widely influential approach was work that re-examined the
founding categories of feminism. Feminist sociologists explored the micro-
foundations of the gender order, looking at the way gender categories were
created and affirmed in everyday interaction ... Feminist philosophers
reconsidered the relationship of the body to gender categories ... The most
influential approach emphasized the fragility of all identity categories, and
saw gender as, in principle, fluid rather than fixed. A new wave in lesbian
and gay thought, which became known as queer theory, took up this idea.
Its core was a critique of the cultural constraints, summed up in the word
'heteronormativity', that pushed people into fixed identities within gender
binaries ... [Judith] Butler's Gender Trouble became an icon for this whole
I've said this before about other books on the subject, but part of what I liked about it was that it seemed to codify or at least validate things I think I already knew or felt innately. There are interesting discussions of the fact that sex similarities are far more striking and numerous than differences, though we tend to focus on the differences; and of the idea of socialisation, that children start from the same place, gender-wise, but are 'socialised' male or female, according to their bodies. There are a lot of problems with a theory like that, but it's interesting to explore it. It's impossible to read this book and not to acknowledge that systems of gender are constructed, that the idea of men being from Mars and women from Venus is a big lie that we all buy into to some extent, that nothing and everything is universal. Anyway, decent book, roll on something more straightforward.
I've read Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler, a modern classic of gender theory, first published 25 years ago. That is to say, I've read the words, but I'm so far from comprehending their meaning that I wonder if I can justify using the word read.
That's not to say it isn't an exciting book to read, even if I did get bogged down in words like epistemology and ontology and reification, and not quite understand why, for instance, man has a phallus but woman is a phallus, and so on. I didn't really expect to understand it, and I now see that you can't appreciate what Butler's getting at until you've read e.g. Foucault, and you probably can't appreciate Foucault until you've read e.g. Nietzsche, and so on. There isn't enough time in the world if, like me, you'd generally rather read a novel, so you might as well get on with it. I took the tried and tested academic approach of performing a close reading of the book alongside its Wikipedia article, which was tremendously helpful.
Butler's central thesis is to do with 'gender performativity', the idea that our gender is constructed through repeated acts. I can't explain it properly, and there's a hell of a lot more to it than that, but I found it an interesting new way of looking at things. Essentially, the purpose of Butler's book is to challenge the preconceptions about gender that we have. A simple thought that pops up near the start: if men and women define themselves by opposition to one another rather than by their own essence (whatever that may be), what is the use of having the often unsatisfactory categories?
This radical splitting of the gendered subject poses yet another set of
problems. Can we refer to a “given” sex or a “given” gender without first
inquiring into how sex and/or gender is given, through what means? And
what is “sex” anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or
hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses
which purport to establish such “facts” for us? Does sex have a history?
Does each sex have a different history, or histories? Is there a history of
how the duality of sex was established, a genealogy that might expose
the binary options as a variable construction? Are the ostensibly natural
facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the
service of other political and social interests? If the immutable character
of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally
constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender,
with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns
out to be no distinction at all.
If this seems complicated, well, it is. (It's one of the more approachable passages.) At least, having got through it alive, I can approach the likes of Ulysses with a bit less fear now.
There were sections, generally those focusing on human experiences (like Foucault's writings about the intersex Herculine Barbin) rather than abstract theory, where I felt like I was on the verge of getting what was going on, and moments where I recognised my own thoughts in what Butler wrote, which had the effect of making me want to jump up and shout hooray, to endorse both her writing and my understanding it.
Occasionally (but not often) I was pleasantly surprised by how approachable it was. Here's the opening part of the section on Monique Wittig, a writer I am now interested in reading:
Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that “one is not born a
woman, but rather becomes one.” The phrase is odd, even nonsensical,
for how can one become a woman if one wasn’t a woman all along? And
who is this “one” who does the becoming? Is there some human who
becomes its gender at some point in time? Is it fair to assume that this
human was not its gender before it became its gender? How does one
“become” a gender? What is the moment or mechanism of gender
construction? And, perhaps most pertinently, when does this mechanism
arrive on the cultural scene to transform the human subject into a
Are there ever humans who are not, as it were, always already
gendered? The mark of gender appears to “qualify” bodies as human
bodies; the moment in which an infant becomes humanized is when the
question, “is it a boy or girl?” is answered. Those bodily figures who do
not fit into either gender fall outside the human, indeed, constitute the
domain of the dehumanized and the abject against which the human
itself is constituted. If gender is always there, delimiting in advance what
qualifies as the human, how can we speak of a human who becomes its
gender, as if gender were a postscript or a cultural afterthought?
Beauvoir, of course, meant merely to suggest that the category of
women is a variable cultural accomplishment, a set of meanings that are
taken on or taken up within a cultural field, and that no one is born with a
gender—gender is always acquired. On the other hand, Beauvoir was
willing to affirm that one is born with a sex, as a sex, sexed, and that
being sexed and being human are coextensive and simultaneous; sex is
an analytic attribute of the human; there is no human who is not sexed;
sex qualifies the human as a necessary attribute. But sex does not
cause gender, and gender cannot be understood to reflect or express
sex; indeed, for Beauvoir, sex is immutably factic, but gender acquired,
and whereas sex cannot be changed—or so she thought—gender is the
variable cultural construction of sex, the myriad and open possibilities of
cultural meaning occasioned by a sexed body.
Beauvoir’s theory implied seemingly radical consequences, ones that
she herself did not entertain. For instance, if sex and gender are
radically distinct, then it does not follow that to be a given sex is to
become a given gender; in other words, “woman” need not be the cultural
construction of the female body, and “man” need not interpret male
bodies. This radical formulation of the sex/gender distinction suggests
that sexed bodies can be the occasion for a number of different genders,
and further, that gender itself need not be restricted to the usual two. If
sex does not limit gender, then perhaps there are genders, ways of
culturally interpreting the sexed body, that are in no way restricted by
the apparent duality of sex. Consider the further consequence that if
gender is something that one becomes—but can never be—then gender
is itself a kind of becoming or activity, and that gender ought not to be
conceived as a noun or a substantial thing or a static cultural marker, but
rather as an incessant and repeated action of some sort. If gender is not
tied to sex, either causally or expressively, then gender is a kind of
action that can potentially proliferate beyond the binary limits imposed
by the apparent binary of sex. Indeed, gender would be a kind of
cultural/corporeal action that requires a new vocabulary that institutes
and proliferates present participles of various kinds, resignifiable and
expansive categories that resist both the binary and substantializing
grammatical restrictions on gender.
Sorry for quoting at length, but there's no point me trying to paraphrase. I'm just noting down bits I liked, really. From Butler's conclusion:
Wittig understands gender as the workings of "sex," where "sex" is an
obligatory injunction for the body to become a cultural sign, to
materialize itself in obedience to a historically delimited possibility, and
to do this, not once or twice, but as a sustained and repeated corporeal
project. The notion of a "project," however, suggests the originating force
of a radical will, and because gender is a project which has cultural
survival as its end, the term strategy better suggests the situation of
duress under which gender performance always and variously occurs.
Hence, as a strategy of survival within compulsory systems, gender is a
performance with clearly punitive consequences. Discrete genders are
part of what "humanizes" individuals within contemporary culture; indeed,
we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right. Because there
is neither an "essence" that gender expresses or externalizes nor an
objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a
fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without
those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a
construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective
agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders
as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions—
and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the
construction "compels" our belief in its necessity and naturalness. The
historical possibilities materialized through various corporeal styles are
nothing other than those punitively regulated cultural fictions alternately
embodied and deflected under duress.
I get that for most people this will seem like gobbledegook, and probably needlessly complicated, but I enjoyed it, albeit masochistically at times. Gender Trouble doesn't really look at transgender identities, and sometimes Butler's theory of gender performativity has been criticised as transphobic, I think wrongly, because of the false equation of 'performance' with inauthenticity; but the passage above seems relevant to modern thinking about the non-binariness of gender. I like this recent interview with Judith Butler very much: http://www.transadvocate.com/gend...erviews-judith-butler_n_13652.htm
Reading complicated gender theory is not going to become a habit with me. I just don't get enough out of it for it to be worthwhile. But once in a while it's nice to take a walk on the wild side. Sooner or later I'll return to Jack Halberstam, who uses pop culture references and is therefore a bit less formidable than Butler.
Well, I read all that, but I suspect that your reading stamina is greater than mine.
I don't think I'd read a novel by a trans writer before, but last night I finished Nevada by Imogen Binnie. It's a road novel of sorts, set half in New York and half in Nevada. The protagonist is Maria, a trans woman working in a bookshop whose life reaches crisis point when firstly her girlfriend Steph claims to have been unfaithful and secondly she loses her job. She 'borrows' Steph's car and drives across the country where she meets James, a 20-year-old not completely happy with his life. She senses James is also trans, though he doesn't admit it, and sets out to do him a good deed by outing him to himself. Things don't quite go to plan, but she sows seeds that, you sense, will be harvested later.
The great virtue of this book is the narrative voice, which is in the third person (other than in one passage where a slip into the first person, missed by the proof-readers, is perhaps telling) but lets you get right inside the character and feel exactly what it's like to live her life from minute to minute. I haven't read many books this year that transported me in this way. At the end I skipped back through the book to see if I could find a passage to quote, but it all seemed so banal out of context, partly as a result of Maria's voice, which is full of the vernacular, including the ubiquitous 'like'. That it's banal is not a criticism, far from it: it's just life. A faithful representation of a life should be banal. But between (or maybe above) the banalities there is something greater at work, some intangible transformation going on, a journey at any rate. It's a portrait of a person, and a credible and sympathetic and lovable person, for all her flaws.
I read one of the author's short stories in an anthology earlier in the year and wasn't crazy about it, so I can't remember what made me keen to read this book, or why it was on my radar at all really. Anyway, my kind mother gave it to me for my birthday earlier in the year, and I'm very glad she did.
Did you hear Germaine Greer on transgender today?
Her views are well known to me, so I generally try not to listen
More rambling. I'll probably shut up about this stuff one day.
I've just read Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques, published last month. I confess Jacques wasn't really on my radar until I read a review of her book, but a few years ago she wrote a blog for the Guardian documenting her transition that was very well received. The only other memoir of a trans woman I'd read was Jan Morris's Conundrum, which is a great book but now dated, and I was particularly interested to read an account of transitioning in the UK today.
The book intersperses autobiography with short sections on trans history, and the history is more consistently interesting. The autobiography, by contrast, is fascinating when it deals with Jacques' emotional life and her transition, but a struggle when it comes down to mundanities. She moves to this job and that, and friends flit in and out of her life and one simply can't keep track of who they are because of their not being fleshed out, and so at times it becomes a trudge.
By and large, though, I enjoyed it. It probably helped that, being the same age, give or take a couple of years, we share reference points. Our taste in music is different, but we were both teenagers when Dana International won Eurovision and Queer as Folk came out, not that I paid much attention to either, and we both grew up in the shadow of Section 28. There was a computer program used in schools called Kudos that was supposed to tell you, on answering a series of multiple-choice questions, what was the best career for you. I suppose it was a way of saving money on human careers advisers. It told me I should be either a film editor or a bilingual secretary; it told Jacques, 'THERE ARE NO SUITABLE JOBS FOR YOU', which made me smile.
If the best sections involve the social (the anxiety surrounding her coming out, the heartening evolution of her relationship with her parents) and, for me especially, given how little I know about it, the medical (her Gender Identity Clinic appointments, her final stay in hospital for surgery) aspects of her transition, my interest was never prurient. Jacques is essentially a private person, not clubbable, not establishment, in spite of her transition being chronicled in public, and her emotional honesty in laying bare her struggles with gender identity, anxiety and depression leads you to feel a genuine concern for her wellbeing.
There are bits that are hard to read. A section about Jacques meeting Roger Crouch, for instance, whose story I knew already. His teenage son Dominic committed suicide having been the victim of a homophobic bullying campaign, and Roger devoted the next year and a half to fighting bullying, being named Hero of the Year by Stonewall in 2011, before taking his own life, unable to cope any longer with the tragedy. Or the reminder of the story of Lucy Meadows, a transgender teacher who committed suicide following a bitterly cruel campaign led by a journalist I won't name whose existence brings shame on the whole human race. The senseless loss of life almost made me weep as I thought about it. (Without wanting to appear opportunistic, but what the hell, this seems a good place to mention that I'm raising money myself to combat bullying. Details here.)
Some of the harassment Jacques suffers, though not surprising, is still shocking. I kept thinking back to Julia Serano's Whipping Girl, where a distinction is drawn between transphobia and transmisogyny. How much of the stick that Serano gets in the street is because she's trans, and how much is because she's a woman? I've seen discussions online recently where people have contended that 'transmisandry', i.e. the hatred of trans men, doesn't exist. They say trans men are discriminated against because they're trans, but not because they're men. It's an interesting notion, but at a certain point I think, who gives a damn what it's called, let's just stop it happening and quibble over semantics when it's sorted out, right? Playing 'I'm more oppressed than you' does nobody any favours.
Latest book down: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano. Her Whipping Girl is one of the best books I've read this year, and if this book suffers from its piecemeal composition (the first part consists of ostensibly unrelated but sometimes overlapping essays written over a period of several years, the second of a manifesto for a 'holistic view of gender and sexuality' that badly needs trimming) then it contains at least flashes of brilliance (a section on double standards is particularly incisive). I bought it some time ago, and last month I read this review that persuaded me to read it soonest: https://translucidity.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/excluded/
The book deals with lots of binaries, not debunking them necessarily but certainly exploring them. One is the artifactualism/determinism dichotomy (I can tell you're asleep already), the former school proposing that gender is all constructed, the latter that it's all determined by biology, neither of which is a satisfactory model.
As they are most commonly practiced, both gender artifactualism and determinism
are homogenizing models, in that they attempt to explain why the majority of people
tend to gravitate toward typical genders and sexualities: Gender determinists claim
that we are all biologically programmed to be heterosexual and cisgender, whereas
gender artifactualists claim that we live under a hegemonic gender system that
socializes and coerces us into becoming heterosexual and cisgender. However, the
homogenizing nature of these models fails to account for the vast diversity in
genders and sexualities that actually exist. After all, if biology naturally determines
that everyone should be heterosexual masculine men and feminine women, then
how do you explain that existence of fabulous bisexual femme-tomboy transsexual
women such as myself? I can most certainly assure you I was not socialized to
become a bisexual femme-tomboy transsexual woman. And as a biologist, I feel
confident in saying that there is no such thing as a bisexual-femme-tomboy-
transsexual-woman gene that made me this way.
(Serano's a biologist by profession, and there's a lot of biology in this book. She knows the importance of accuracy in language, which is why it's irritating when she uses 'purposefully' to mean 'on purpose', which she does frequently. I have a friend who used to use 'purposarily', under the impression that it was a real word; I would certainly favour that over a real word used wrongly. Mini rant over.)
Serano's 200-page manifesto (not that it's a call to arms throughout, which would be exhausting, though it's undoubtedly both too repetitive, too long, and too repetitive) boils down to a plea for nuance, for us to acknowledge that things aren't black and white, that we are ignorant. She observes that as groups grow in size and evolve, people on the margins get excluded, and that is something to fight against. We need to be conscious of the existence of multiple simultaneous prejudices, including those we can't see. Whether we can act on this as individuals to become more inclusive, and whether that inclusiveness can affect society at large, I don't know; but it's worth a try. I don't know what reasonable person could argue with Serano's recommendations.
I believe that the suggestions that I have offered here are all quite reasonable. But
I'll be the first to admit that reasonable solutions only work if everyone who
participates also happens to be reasonable. Some people are unapologetically
sexist and marginalizing, and are unwilling to change their ways, and they should
certainly be taken to task for their behavior. Some people are know-it-alls who are
convinced that they are always right, and that there is no reason for them to listen
to or consider what other people are saying. Such people should be called out for
being arrogant and entitled. But sometimes, the thing that thwarts reasonable
cross-community dialogues is our own anger.
I could write an entire book about anger. My anger at all the cisgender, heterosexual,
and monosexual people who have made me feel so small, or tried to erase my
identity. My anger at all the feminists and queer activists who have deemed my
perspective irrelevant, or tried to exclude me from their movements. My anger at all
the men and masculine folks who have presumed that my body, femininity, and
person were theirs to freely comment upon, critique, harass, and touch without my
consent. To be honest, it was my anger (rather than my reason) that drove me to
activism in the first place. I was pissed off, and I wanted to change everything. Back
then, I was scared of men. I was suspicious of cis lesbians (due to the long history of
blatant trans-misogyny in lesbian communities). Upon reflection, I probably wouldn't
have made a good intersectional activist back then, as I was too concerned with my
own fears, wounds, struggles, and sorrows.
I am in a different place now. I still hurt, but I've done a lot of self-healing. And I still
feel anger, it's just not my primary motivation anymore. I used to be a singularly
focused trans activist, but these days, I am more interested in being a holistic
feminist. Don't get me wrong: I am not trying to say that anger is bad, or that it is
simply a phase that we need to get over. Some people never get over the anger, and
others maybe never feel it so intensely, or let it spill into their activism. As I said in
the beginning of this chapter, activism can (and should) occur in a multiplicity of
forms: both angry and reasonable, both radical and reformist, both group-only and
cross-community, both single issue and holistic. All are important. If we acknowledge
this multiplicity (rather than thinking of activism as being "my way or the highway"),
then maybe we can each figure out for ourselves where we are at personally, what we
are most passionate about, and what our place in the movement(s) should be.
Legitimate anger has its place in activism, provided that we realize that there are
other legitimate ways to be.
I returned to Jack (Judith) Halberstam, having enjoyed his (her) In a Queer Time and Place earlier in the year. This time I read his earlier book, Female Masculinity (published 1998), hoping for a pop-culture trawl through the subject, which is pretty much what I got. His introduction expresses best what the book's about.
There is something all too obvious about the concept "female masculinity."
When people have asked me over the last few years what I am working on, I
have explained quickly to them the concept of this book. Usually I can do it in
one or two sentences. I will say, perhaps, "I am writing about women who feel
themselves to be more masculine than feminine, and I am trying to explain
why, as a culture, we seem to take so little interest in female masculinity and
yet pay a considerable amount of attention to male femininity." People tend to
nod and say, "Yes, of course, female masculinity," as if this is a concept they
have grown up with and use every day. In actual fact, there is remarkably little
written about masculinity in women, and this culture generally evinces
considerable anxiety about even the prospect of manly women. I hope that
this book opens discussion on masculinity for women in such a way that
masculine girls and women do not have to wear their masculinity as a stigma
but can infuse it with a sense of pride and indeed power.
Halberstam generally goes by male pronouns and the forename Jack nowadays, but is happy to be called different things by different people. Whether he identifies as 'transgender' or not, I don't know. It feels supremely unimportant. This book is explicitly about masculine girls and women, not transgender or transsexual men (though that topic is treated at length in one chapter).
The most pleasing sections are the introduction and conclusion. That's because in the chapters that focus closely on individual aspects of female masculinity (drag kings, depictions of masculine women in films, etc.) I occasionally felt I couldn't see the wood for the trees, was almost too close to be able to absorb what Halberstam was writing about; whereas the chapters dealing with generalities are incisive and punchy (literally, in the case of the conclusion, which looks at women's boxing and Raging Bull). The section in the introduction on the 'bathroom problem', a site of seemingly constant litigation in the US nowadays, is particularly good.
Having said I struggled a bit with the other chapters, I felt quite assured in the one treating Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness, having read the book a few years ago. Halberstam makes the good point that it's not appropriate to call RH a 'lesbian' or her book a 'lesbian novel', as the terminology is anachronistic. RH's protagonist Stephen calls herself an 'invert', and nowadays her identity might be closer to that of a trans man than that of a lesbian. When I read the novel, trans things weren't really on my radar, but I can see it's a book that might benefit from a rereading with that in mind (if only I felt like it; but it's not very good...).
That chapter is confusing because Halberstam refers to single people by multiple names (not surprising, given they often have multiple names that they use themselves) and even multiple pronouns, and isn't consistent in the application. The book is less than twenty years old, and yet in some ways it feels very dated. Halberstam makes good points at the start about the silliness of the gender binary, but still refers to people of unknown gender as either he or she or s/he, but never using gender-neutral pronouns (i.e. they) as, I suspect, he would today.
On that note, it's interesting to note how much language matters, for all that one tries not to get hung up on it. I flinched slightly to read Halberstam referring to 'transgendered' people (rather than 'transgender', the now standard adjective). At first I thought, this is not a reasonable reaction for me to have. He is after all writing in the late 1990s, and it's a book of its time. Our way of thinking and talking about gender has changed since then. But I now see that it's not wholly silly of me to feel uncomfortable, because a word like 'transgendered' has become a weapon for oppressors to use to bully and delegitimise trans people. The slightest of nuances, perhaps, but it's there. The insidious usage of dated terminology.
The chapter that treated trans identities was the one that annoyed me most, primarily I suspect because the discourse (I use words like this as though I know what they mean) has moved on since Halberstam was writing, but also because of the cropping up of phrases like 'the border wars between transgender butches and FTMs'. Do these theorists have lives, do they not realise that in the real world it's not necessary to deal in absolutes, that we can celebrate the blurriness of categories? In all fairness there is some acknowledgement of this by Halberstam, and at the end he does write one sentence that I especially liked: 'Specificity is all.'
Just a note to say I've read Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue by Nicholas M. Teich, published by Columbia University Press in 2012. Teich is a trans man and his purpose in writing this book is to provide a concise transgender handbook for a wide audience.
My reading has gone deep enough now that this book feels like a step backwards. It's important not to fall into complacency, not to think 'I know all this', and perhaps a year ago when I was still comparatively clueless I'd have been more receptive to it; but more numerous than the times I nodded at things I agreed with (though had perhaps seen better expressed elsewhere) were the times I felt annoyed at things that missed the mark slightly.
A few grumbles: Teich, I'm not sure why, writes clunkily of 'transpeople and nontranspeople', but isn't consistent 100% of the time. He also uses 'transgenderism', a term that feels increasingly dated (though what to put in its place? I discussed this in a previous post). A straightforward statement like 'Gender is a construction' would generally get my hackles up, especially now I've read Julia Serano and come to see that there's a bit more nuance to it than that. Perhaps you sacrifice nuance at the altar of concision. There's too much 'what we've learned in this chapter'-style patronisation of the reader in the book's early stages. I'm surprised an academic publisher would put out a book like this. It's very US-centric, which isn't necessarily a criticism, and quite Western-centric, which probably is. At one point he writes of there being no consensus on the number of trans people in the world. Well, a lot of people we would call transgender wouldn't choose the term for themselves. Our society is not the only one.
But by and large the things that irritated me about certain sections were addressed more satisfactorily in other ones, and it's essentially a competently written, good-natured, understanding book that a lot of people will (and clearly do) find useful. I found S. Bear Bergman's book a much easier way into thinking about gender, though, and will keep recommending it to people (and giving it as a Christmas present).
My latest read is a poetry book, Meant to Wake Up Feeling by Aimee Herman. Although Herman is described with 'she' pronouns in quotes from other writers at the start of the book, I think they identify as non-binary/genderqueer and go by 'they', so that's what I'll use here.
How they came on to my radar in the first place I can't remember, but I needed something cheap to add to my A****n order to get free postage and their book was only £1.18 for some reason and it seemed meant to be.
The suspicion I sometimes feel about modern poetry is the same as other people's suspicion of modern art. They don't understand it, so they start mumbling things about the Emperor's New Clothes, whether justifiably or not. Just as people will say Tracey Emin can't call herself an artist until she's a decent draughtswoman (though I confess I rather like some of her drawings), I sometimes feel (though my head rebels against this) that poets should have to prove they can write in classical metres and forms before they can publish free verse.
Many of Aimee Herman's poems are not poems as Wordsworth would have recognised them. Several feel deliberately oblique and recondite, and consist of fragments or splinters of thought dotted about the page. Others are more like prose meditations, with the words going (to use Himadri's daughter's definition of what poetry isn't) all the way to the edge of the page. At their worst (and I stress this is a subjective viewpoint) they read like overwrought performance poetry that anyone could parody, that might even be parodies themselves.
The moments I found unintelligible and/or embarrassing got fewer and farther between as I progressed through the book. Mainly I was just relieved to find sentiments I understood, or sentences that made sense. This, say:
I am in-between the sentence-structure
of my body ; two
independent clauses ; flattened raw on
one side and hairy and grey
and elephant and embodied
and wouldn't it be easier if the forms
were less con- constructed
and wouldn't it be best if we could just
exist within the ellipses of our bones.
masculinity is aromatic and may be derived from flattening or
freshly-shaved haircut. it is sexy in the way that it touches and
the way that it questions and the way that it challenges who can
Leaves are pressed between pages because we just cannot handle
saying goodbye to them even if just for a winter. So we thin them
out and capture the red or green which turns brown and the ends
perm but even in February you can visit that leaf and touch its
skin and tell it about the time you found it on a sidewalk so calmly
sleeping beside an ant and chicken wing and you will tell it that it
looked like a dream you once had about spider webs in bathtubs and
a sun dripping from a tattooed sky and in your hand, it looked like
it was smiling.
There are quite a few poems that deal with the notion of body dysphoria, and with the absurdity of the human body and society's expectations of people's bodies, that get nearer the point than most things I've read on the subject. And occasionally you meet an expression like 'the sky is made of blue due to weeping planets', pleasing without really meaning anything but at least suggesting some imagination. I rather liked it; the last two poems I loved.
More gender theory: Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (Chicago University Press, 2000) by Viviane K. Namaste. I'm starting to feel sated by this kind of book. I know what to expect: a bunch of familiar arguments that I've now pretty much absorbed, and a lot of theory that I will probably never understand. I think I wanted to read it because it was referenced in other books I've read (Jack Halberstam, probably – I wished it were Halberstam at times, he's pithier and easier to follow) and came across as an important work of scholarship. At the time I'm sure it was, with a lot of the topics discussed being new and unfamiliar to readers. The vocab (transgenderists!) is what dates the book more than anything, but a lot of what it relates is still (sadly) relevant.
It's my own shortcoming, not the book's, but the theory made it a trudge to begin with. It wasn't until the final, most substantial section, which draws on original research made by the author, that it turned into the book I wanted it to be, a sociological study of trans life with testimonial evidence. It's ironic that the early chapters boil down to an argument against theory that has no practical application (a frustration I share) while paradoxically embodying it. (An aside – Namaste at one point criticises Susan Stryker for her US-centrism among other things, but she often seems somewhat parochial herself, the recurring theme being the lives of trans people in Quebec. It can't be helped, we can all only write from personal experience, but it does make the book feel skewed. The focus is more often than not on MTF transsexuals, of whom the author is one. Little mention of non-binary identities, which is a sign of the times.)
The 'erasure' of the title means lots of things, for instance the slipping through the cracks of trans people because of institutions only recognising two genders and not acknowledging those who have transitioned from one to the other, or those who fit neither. The most readable bits, sadly, tend to be the stories of the ways in which Gender Identity Clinics and other official establishments fail trans people, by (for instance) insisting on the 'real life test', that a trans person must live for a year in their gender before receiving treatment, without appreciating that for a trans woman to present as female without the aid of hormones can make her a target for violence. (One of innumerable examples.) There are other horror stories, of Canadian trans people being required to have genital surgery before they can so much as change their name, which seems unspeakably monstrous. Never mind living memory, this was as recently as 20 years ago. Presumably things have changed. Namaste is very perceptive about the way trans sex workers are marginalised and erased by different establishments.
Self-determination of gender is a talking point at the moment, with the report of the recent parliamentary Trans Inquiry published a couple of days ago and equality crusader Maria Miller MP (...) advocating reform of the gender marker on UK passports. This is probably the best time ever to be trans, and yet it feels like trans people are where gays were in the 1980s. Acceptance is growing, but a lot of the acceptance is theoretical. As more trans people feel able to be out, and more of the rest of us get to know them personally, things will improve. And hopefully I will stop writing these boring screeds. I hope the consolation I draw from my presumption that no one else is reading them is not misplaced.
I've read graphic novels before, but no manga – until now, that is. It's basically your standard comic book only everyone has abnormally large and unattractive eyes and you read it from right to left (which is surprisingly easy to adapt to). Anyway, what I read was Wandering Son, Volume One by Takako Shimura, translated by Matt Thorn. Wandering Son is a manga series published in the USA by Fantagraphics, whose production standards (familiar to me from their Complete Peanuts series) are superb. The hardest thing is telling one character from another, but plotwise it's straightforward enough, a story of a boy, Shuichu Nitori, who finds he wants to be a girl, and a girl, Yoshino Takatsuki, who finds she wants to be a boy. Exchange of clothes, school play with gender roles switched, the onset of adolescence with its awkwardness and bodily changes. There were moments I found tender and moving, but I'm not sure I have the patience (or the money) to persevere with the remaining 14 (!) volumes, not all yet published, though I suspect it gets more interesting as it progresses. I fear I'm just not the intended audience for this type of book, and I can't get easily into the mindset of someone who cares about the characters. I needed more words and fewer pictures.
I'm still on the gender books, though the latest is a different beast to most of the others I've read: Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling (Basic Books, 2000). Fausto-Sterling is a biologist, and most of her focus is on biological subjects. It's interesting that some of the most readable and convincing books about gender I have read have been by biologists (thinking also here of Julia Serano) who aren't devotees of the gender-as-societal-construct model beloved of some theorists, but acknowledge that sex and gender do not exist in a vacuum, and that neither biology nor society alone can help us to make sense of gender.
At around 500 pages this book is a daunting prospect, but the main text covers only about 250 pages, the rest consisting largely of notes. This, Fausto-Sterling says, is deliberate, so that the lay reader can read the book without notes if desired, while the specialist can delve further into her sources. It's ingenious and well achieved.
The book's scope is catholic, and I confess that for most of the second half, particularly as it dealt more and more with rodent hormones, my eyes glazed over; but the earlier sections, investigating the classification of intersex bodies and their pathologisation over the centuries, were fascinating. For a period during the twentieth century, once surgery had become sufficiently sophisticated to permit operation on sex organs, it was common practice to 'fix' intersex children to help them fit into a binary gender, keeping their intersexuality secret from them. One imagines that as often as not this created untold problems when adolescence arrived. Well meant, perhaps, but monstrous. The practice, thankfully, is dying out.
Fausto-Sterling finds interesting real-life cases to illustrate her points, such as the case of Maria Martínez-Patiño, an athlete who was found to have androgen insensitivity syndrome when she failed a gender test in 1986 and was thereby disqualified from the Spanish Olympic team. A more recent example (more recent than the book) is that of the South African runner Caster Semenya. Two instances where the superficialities of the gender binary are exposed. (Within the last few days, new international rulings have been announced that permit transgender athletes to compete in their correct gender class, with certain restrictions – progress, I suppose.)
Fausto-Sterling's discussion of transgender is restricted to a handful of pages, but what she writes is sympathetic and nuanced.
Given the discrimination and violence faced by those whose cultural and
physical genitals don't match, legal protections are needed during the
transition to a gender-diverse utopia. It would help to eliminate the 'gender'
category from licenses, passports, and the like. The transgender activist
Leslie Feinberg writes: 'Sex categories should be removed from all basic
identification papers—from driver's licenses to passports—and since the
right of each person to define their own sex is so basic, it should be
eliminated from birth certificates as well.' Indeed, why are physical genitals
necessary for identification? Surely attributes both more visible (such as
height, build, and eye color) and less visible (fingerprints and DNA profiles)
would be of greater use.
If I got lost in the neuroscience of the book's later chapters, it was for want of trying. Fausto-Sterling's debunking of tired masculine/feminine brain theories to do with the corpus callosum reminded me of Ben
Goldacre's writing. Her clarity of expression is very pleasing. Another bit I liked:
Development, to paraphrase the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, is a
moving target. As an organism emerges from a single fertilized egg cell, it
builds on what has gone before. By analogy, consider how a forest grows
back in an empty, unmowed field. At first annuals, grasses, and woody
shrubs appear, then a few years later scattered cedars, willows, hawthorns,
and locusts. These trees need full sun to grow, so as they get larger, they
create so much shade that their own seedlings cannot survive. But the
white poplar does well under the conditions created by the cedar and its
companions. Eventually, the poplar and other trees create a cool, leaf-
covered forest floor on which the seedlings of hemlock, spruce, red maple,
and oak thrive. Finally these create conditions for hemlock, beech, and
sugar maple to grow. These new trees, in turn, create a microclimate under
which their own seedlings thrive, and a stable constellation of trees, called
a climax forest, finally develops. The regularity of such a succession of
growth does not result from some ecological programfound in the genes of
cedar, hawthorn, and willow trees, 'rather it arises via a historical cascade
of complex stochastic [random processes that can be studied statistically]
interactions between various' living organisms.
My latest read is a memoir, The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male by Max Wolf Valerio.
"Anita is a real tomboy," my mother announces to people regularly by
the time I am eight. She is amused, not overly alarmed. My parents,
aunts, and uncles all think that I will grow out of this "tomboy phase"
and magically become the feminine young lady that they envision me to
be deep down. Somewhere, beneath that surface, that subterfuge of
riotous boy play and tough boy talk, is a real, genuine girl. I'm told over
and over that it's a "phase." "Don't worry," my aunt Florence says,
"you'll change your mind about getting married." I'm not worried, and
this unsolicited reassurance irritates me. To back up these claims, my
mother and aunt declare that they too were tomboys, as many Indian
girls are – riding horses, barrel racing, ice skating – active, athletic,
free-spirited. Even as I hear them talk about their childhoods, I know
without being able to articulate it that my feelings are different in
dimension, in texture, in meaning. I know, somehow, deep down, that I
will never grow out of it, and furthermore, I don't want to.
I identified with this quite strongly, the sensation of being misread by adults and not being able to set them right because of my conviction being so instinctive, not reasoned. I suppose I felt different – why? because I thought I was gay? which I did from the age of about 8, though it didn't really last, and I think I was as much attracted to the idea of being different as I was to other boys. (Sorry for being even more than usually self-indulgent. You don't need to know this stuff. It's cheaper than therapy, that's all.)
I've been disappointed in myself recently. An excellent university-wide photo campaign called 'I Don't Exist' has just started, its aim to highlight the lack of legal recognition in the UK of those whose gender is neither male nor female. I think I've still got a way to go before I get to grips with the concept of permanent non-binary gender. I've come to think of non-binary gender as a useful thing for people at the start of a transition – they can try out a new gender as a middle ground between male and female as a first tentative step in the other direction – after all, it's a brave step to start a transition – but occasionally I find myself thinking something like, well, isn't it time you decided? It's an unwelcome reminder of my conservatism. Body gender isn't binary, that much is obvious (see Anne Fausto-Sterling above – it's only recently that surgeons have started 'fixing' intersex people so they confirm to the imaginary binary), so why should societal gender be? I never had much homophobia in me – after all, I had in myself the evidence that homosexuality both existed and was OK – but I have 30 years of transphobia that I've internalised without realising it that still needs dismantling if I'm to treat other people with the respect they deserve. Diversity of gender should seem as natural as diversity of sexuality. I'm not beating myself up about it, I'm just conscious that I've still got work to do (and need to reread S. Bear Bergman, who is quite the best writer I've read on the topic).
As for Valerio, I liked his company (though the sex and drugs and counterculture and so on made me think we wouldn't have a great deal in common), and his book is pleasingly catholic in scope, a memoir but not a handbook, and clearly the perspective of just one man. That makes it easier to tolerate the bits where I rebelled quite strongly against what he wrote. His sympathy (or so it seemed) for men in the thrall of testosterone, unable to control themselves around women. He never condones rape or anything like that, but he is alarmed at the power of his sexual urges during his transition. Aggression and violence too. His masculinity feels so far removed from my own, and I don't know if that's because I've been brought up not to grope strangers or what, but it did feel alienating to me at times. You don't speak for me, I wanted to shout. That said, the most interesting bits of the book relate to the ways in which he experiences things differently post-transition, which he is in a unique position to be able to relate, having lived as both female and male. The change of perspective.
The copy I read is a library one I catalogued myself several years ago, having bought it for a student, who was presumably doing their dissertation. What did the marginal annotations mean to them, the underlinings and bullet points? Things that were useful to their essay, or things they identified with personally? I wondered.
Finally, after six years on testosterone, I got my chest surgery. The
money I received as the advance to write this book is actually what
made that possible, a surprise solution that I had not anticipated. With
the chest surgery, I now experience a feeling of completion, of
newfound comfort in my body that has made my life more satisfying.
The sensation of having a flat chest is liberating. And is it ever flat!
When I first got the surgery, I was amazed at just how flat I felt.
Walking down the street, I realized that this was a new and entirely
different sensation from what I had been used to. Even when I was
binding, and my breasts were flattened out and virtually undetectable
(so convincing that many people thought I had gotten the surgery
already), my chest felt weighty, with a fullness in front. Now it's like
being a knife in the breeze. My body has a compact lightness, which
undoubtedly makes me feel more complete as a man. It's a relief to be
able to take off my shirt with lovers; I even walk around shirtless in the
house or outdoors. Initially, if the doorbell rang or a housemate's friend
or lover was over and I hadn't yet gotten dressed for the day or had just
gotten out of the shower, I would instinctively cover my chest with a
towel. Or wonder, Where is my binder? before I went out for the day.
A wave of relief would come over me when I looked down and
remembered that I didn't need one anymore. And a smile.
Most interesting post, Gareth. Thanks for making me aware, more aware, of this subect. Did you catch Rebecca Root on 'A Good Read' recently? She chose a graphic novel the name of which escapes me.
Rebecca Root's great, she was in the best play I saw last year, a verbatim piece called Trans Scripts at the Edinburgh Festival. I saw she'd been on A Good Read but haven't heard it yet. Discussions of graphic novels on that programme haven't been wholly successful. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home was chosen a short while ago on an episode that unfortunately featured Rod Liddle. He didn't like it at all, which is a blazon of honour. They could quote him proudly on the cover of future printings. I looked up Rebecca Root's programme and her choice was Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I know of Chris Ware's work but haven't read any myself. His Building Stories looks beautiful (http://www.parkablogs.com/picture/building-stories-chris-ware), but I suspect the concern of spoiling it somehow would make it a trial to read. Some books are so carefully assembled you hardly like to touch them. I like books as objects, but I'd rather read a battered old Penguin copy of Jane Austen than a Folio Society edition.
I will be reading 'The Last Chronicle..' in a Folio Society edition. I've got hundreds of FS books in this house. I joined in 1958. There are so many books here. They're crowding me out.....
Among the most attractive FS editions I have are 'Mistress Masham's Repose' by T.H. White, 'Journey to the Moon' by Cyrano de Bergerac illustrated by Quentin Blake.....
Read this week: Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera, edited by Mary Ann Smart. It's a selection of papers given at a September 1995 conference at SUNY (the State University of New York). I didn't realise until after I'd finished it that only a lunatic would read such a book cover to cover. You ought to read the article on Don Carlo only if you're doing an essay on Don Carlo, and say to hell with the rest. But as a complement to Susan McClary's book Feminine Endings, which I read last year and which clearly influenced many of the contributors to this book, I thought it might be interesting.
It wasn't, really. I was handicapped by not knowing well enough most of the operas under discussion, and didn't have the patience to follow the authors' arguments. These academics love to hook you at the start with an anecdote about, say, the Metropolitan Opera Quiz, and then lose you just as quickly with paragraphs of theoryese. I made the right decision not to go into musicology; that is to say, it made the decision that it wasn't for me. I couldn't have coped.
That's not to say that I didn't like bits of it. Philip Brett on Britten is always readable (probably because in this case I did know the source material, Peter Grimes), and I managed not merely to follow but even to enjoy Linda and Michael Hutcheon's chapter on Salome. In some cases I felt gender and sexuality were a secondary consideration, which might explain why the book felt like there was no unifying theme. (The fact that it was by many different authors with many different research interests and perspectives may also have had something to do with it.)
Lawrence Kramer's article 'Opera: Two or Three Things I Know About Her' stood out for being more bizarre than the rest, couched in the theory of Derrida and Freud. I couldn't say if it was coherent or not as I didn't understand it, and the handful of bits I did seemed either laughable (intentionally so in the case of a sentiment like 'Poor Siegfried: he can't hold on to the phallus because his penis keeps getting in the way', but more often not) or offensive (some crass stuff about autism in particular). Remind me not to read him again in a hurry.
Not because I've run out of books to read about trans stuff but because I felt I needed to, for a reminder of what was so great and revolutionary about it, I reread The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman. I think what sets this apart from almost all the other books I've read on the subject is its positivity. Most books focus, understandably, on the hardship of living in a gender that confuses and upsets a lot of people, on various difficulties with bureaucracy, healthcare, society generally. It's good to get angry about this sort of thing, and it gets results – only 24 hours ago the Republican Governor of South Dakota, having been petitioned by thousands of people and having listened to trans people's testimonies in person, vetoed a bill that would have forced trans schoolchildren to use toilet facilities inconsistent with their lived gender, a small but significant victory over ignorance and paranoia – but it's also good to read about the joys of being trans, the liberation afforded by transition, the perspectives it provides that cis people like me aren't generally aware of.
This book is a collection of essays, and best read slowly, not raced through as I did on this occasion. Some favourites: 'When Will You Be Having the Surgery?' which smartly inverts the familiar question that trans people are asked by strangers with disturbing regularity; 'The Velveteen Tranny', which includes thought-provoking email correspondence between Bergman and a friend discussing things like authenticity; 'Getting Myself Home', about a stay in hospital where the consideration of the staff both delights Bergman and makes him conscious of his luck in having had such a positive experience; 'The Field Guide to Transmasculine Creatures', on the stupidity of classifying gender into binaries.
There are more locations than girl and boy, man and woman. Decamping
from one does not have to mean climbing into another. There's plenty of
space in between, or beyond the bounds, or all along and across the
plane or sphere or whatever of gender, and it is entirely okay to say, "I do
not like being a girl, and so I shall be a boy." But it must also be okay to
say, "I do not like being a girl, so I shall set about changing what it
means to be a girl," and yes, okay to say, "I do not like being a girl, and
so I shan’t." Totally okay. Not always easy, not always tidy, not always
something one can briefly explain – but can you say it? Of course you
can. Of course.
But would it be nice to have a destination? Well, yes.
Another of the many essays that I would dearly like to quote in full: 'Not Getting Killed, With Kindness', which sheds light on (for instance) the way in which Bergman, read more often now as male since his transition, as well as embodying masculinity somehow subverts it by being courteous to people who more often expect men to be rude and aggressive.
This book more than any other I've read brings home the importance not only of acknowledging the diversity of gender but of celebrating it in all of its forms and shades, and gives hope, not just to trans people but to everyone, that it can be done, and somehow achieves it without becoming unpleasantly self-helpy or wishy-washy (though there are fleeting moments of soppiness I could have done without, because of being British). I love it and will read and reread it.
I can't remember the last Young Adult novel I read. It's a genre the mere contemplation of which bores me, and did so even when I was of an age to read it (issues – eurgh), but I've read a handful of YA books that are impressive, and I Am J by Cris Beam falls into that category. Beam is a cis woman, but has a trans partner and trans foster child, and her work with trans children seems to have been her motivation for writing this and other related books.
J is a teenager on the brink of adulthood who has known innately for some time that he is trans. Following a concatenation of circumstances that makes his life unbearable (parents he can't talk to, a friend who lets him down), he seeks to emancipate himself, starts dressing as male, and goes in search of testosterone, which he has decided will be the solution to his problems. Transition turns out not to be as straightforward as he hopes, especially in terms of bureaucracy, and over the course of the book he finds that people he might have expected to help him out let him down, and that support and guidance sometimes come from unexpected sources. It's not as simplistic a life lesson as that sounds; if it had been, I don't think I'd have found myself sitting at a bus stop on the verge of tears because of a friend of J's mother being suddenly revealed as an unexpected ally.
And yet for all its virtues, and there are several, it's hamstrung by its genre. Because Beam is writing for an imagined audience of teenage trans boys who are undergoing similar experiences, the story she presents has to be a worst-case scenario, in order that her readers can draw comfort from the fact that they're comparatively OK. J's parents are pathetic excuses for human beings (that's a way of saying simply that they're people, I suppose), not abusive but certainly far from supportive. If (as must happen increasingly in real life) J came out as trans and his parents reacted with kindness and understanding, would the book have been published, or simply rejected as a non-story? I want everyone to get along, that's my problem.
These grumbles aside, I admired I Am J. It's not a book a grown-up would want to read more than once, but it's sensitive and credible and occasionally exhilarating. I loved the passages showing J's delight at being correctly gendered – at being called dude or man, or being accorded the right pronoun. J is referred to throughout as he, him, his, even in discussions of his pre-transitional self. It's an important point, as it reinforces the authenticity of his gender to the sceptical reader (not that this is a book a sceptic would be likely to pick up in a month of Sundays).
I'm supposed to be writing about how to be a girl. I don't know how to be a
girl. And I sure don't know how to be a boy. And after thirty-seven years of
trying to be male and over eight years of trying to be female, I've come to
the conclusion that neither is really worth all the trouble. And that made me
think. A lot of people think it is worth the trouble. And that made me think.
Why? Why do people think it's worth all that trouble to be a man? Why do
people think it's worth all that trouble to be a woman? And hey, I'm not just
talking about transsexuals here. I'm talking about men and women, maybe
Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, first published in 1994, is a modern classic of its type, and certainly one of the best books on gender variance that I've read. The mark of that is that there were bits I felt a desire to absorb, to quote, on almost every page. It contains biographical information, but it's not a memoir (that role is filled by hir recent publication, A Queer and Pleasant Danger – Bornstein uses the gender-neutral pronouns ze and hir), more an exploration of gender through the example of Bornstein's own life.
One thing that's particularly impressive is how dated it isn't. From the book's prelude, a short section about the construction of identity through fashion:
I identify as neither male nor female, and now that my lover is going through
his gender change, it turns out I'm neither straight nor gay. What I've found
as a result of this borderline life is that the more fluid my identity has
become, and the less demanding my own need to belong to the camps of
male, female, gay or straight, the more playful and less dictatorial my
fashion has become – as well as my style of self-expression.
These ideas about the unsatisfactoriness of a binary system of gender (and it is a system, a model – the fact that other non-Western cultures have different ones makes that evident enough) are becoming more and more widespread. Time and again Bornstein is ahead of the curve. Ze writes of being at the start of a transgender movement. Well, the movement has progressed quite a bit since 1994, but many of the ideas and arguments Bornstein propounds in this book are still at its forefront.
Perhaps the book's greatest virtue is Bornstein's humour, and hir good humour. Sparkiness and jokiness are the order of the day, with the eccentric presentation of the book, peppered with quotations from others, blank spaces here and there, and a variety of typefaces, adding to the effect. Most people would get angry about the indignities Bornstein faces every day, but hir reaction is generally one of amusement (or bemusement). Ze faces challenges with a can-do attitude that is infectious and an unusual lack of political correctness in hir language and hir general approach. Most people, trans or not, if you asked them a blunt question about their genitals, would rightly tell you it was none of your business. Bornstein, you get the impression, would chuckle and sit you down for a chat. Ze's a hard person to offend.
I think anger and activism mix about as well as drinking and driving. When
I'm angry, I don't have the judgment to select a correct target to hit out
against. I do believe that anger is healthy, that it can lead to a recognition
of the need for action, but activism itself is best accomplished by level
heads who can help steer others' anger toward correct targets.
I didn't love it without reservation. Sometimes a word will cause my mind to close down, and one of those words is shaman, which appears in this book with rather more regularity than desirable. But that's Bornstein, you have to take the whole package, warts and all – spirituality, Scientology, queer theatre and performance art. A sizeable chunk of the book consists of the text of hir play Hidden: A Gender, which draws parallels between hir own life and that of the intersex Herculine Barbin (1838-1868), whose case was publicised by Michel Foucault. It's bold and entertaining, though you'd need good actors to make the Marx Brothers skit work...
As I approached the end of the book, I thought about the phrase 'gender variant'. It's a polite, acceptable term used to refer to the people Kate Bornstein would gleefully call freaks (and include hirself among their ranks), but it's just as unacceptable in its way as the bald insults. Variant from what? 'Real' men and 'real' women, I suppose. It's a term rooted, invested in the binary. But gender is a multifaceted thing, and it may be that each of our genders is as variant in its own way from every other. Several weeks ago I read a thought-provoking interview with Bornstein in which ze rejected the idea of gender as a 'spectrum', which is one I rather like, on the basis that it was still rooted in the idea of binary gender, with male at one pole and female at the other. I don't think this was Bornstein's image, but I pictured as hir preferred model a scattergraph, with genders dotted all about the place. Whether or not it's convincing, I feel more and more strongly that an enforced binary system of gender does no one any favours. I doubt it will be completely disestablished while this civilisation lasts, but as more varieties of gender become visible I suspect it will become less rigidly policed. Progress generally wins in the end.
Yesterday I read a shortish book (around 160 pages), Understanding Asexuality by Anthony F. Bogaert. Bogaert is an academic/sexologist with a particular interest in asexuality, and I hoped his book might make me better informed about a subject that's sometimes on my mind. Whenever the subject of asexuality comes into the news, a study (Bogaert's own) putting the amount of asexuals in the population at roughly 1% is cited. Putting oneself in the position of an asexual person, the world can seem an odd place, sometimes an unwelcoming one. Whenever someone on TV says 'Well, I'm a man with the normal sexual urges,' for instance, it invalidates those who don't feel sexual attraction. Sexual (or at any rate romantic) relationships are the cornerstone of not merely most novels, songs, films and TV dramas, but most people's lives. You might easily feel a freak for not being part of this world that, if you believe the media, everyone but you inhabits.
Given Bogaert is an academic and his publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, a respected one, I was surprised at the jokiness of his tone. This is a book for the general reader, but still. It makes you wonder if he takes his subject seriously. His quip about the evolution of sexual from asexual reproduction being called the 'little bang theory' is a typical example. I wasn't offended until he devoted a whole chapter to humour, starting with a dull joke about Viagra and then spending several pages wondering whether an asexual person would get this joke, and if not, why not? before a final paragraph admitting the whole chapter was based on unscientific supposition.
I'm convinced Bogaert means well, hints of creepiness/sexism aside, and he covers many interesting topics – the distinction between sexuality and romance, which is increasingly common (with plenty of people identifying as asexual but not aromantic, for instance), the link between (a)sexuality and gender, the problem of an asexual movement (it's strange to be united with others because of something you don't do, rather than something you do), the medicalisation/pathologisation of asexuality (doctors thinking of it as a disorder, which is much more common since the postwar sexual revolution), causes of asexuality (the insulting idea that if you're not into sleeping with other people there must be some vital part of your humanity missing, that perhaps the root is in childhood sexual trauma, say) – it's just that, as he admits himself, this stuff is only starting to be studied now, asexual people having been ignored for so long, and so there is little evidence to go on, and not much that can be said conclusively. Hence slightly comical stuff like this, the concluding sentence of his section on asexual attitudes towards art and food:
One thing is for sure, though, regarding eating habits and asexuality:
Our planet would likely be a better place, ecologically speaking, if
more people were asexual, because asexual people are not likely to
hunt down animals to consume them for their real or imagined effect
on increasing libido and potency.
The truest sentence in the book comes in a chapter about masturbation (perhaps I'm lacking the prurience gene, but I think I could have made it through this life without reading someone's theories about whether Emily Brontë masturbated or not, regardless of her (a)sexuality):
In other words, there are different types of asexual people.
The best bits of all, scattered sparsely through the book, are the testimonies from asexual people themselves, who speak more eloquently and insightfully about their lives than any theorist can:
I don't really consciously think of myself as asexual ... The label is
mostly a useful marker. So, my asexual identity is important in
certain contexts, and I can't imagine my life if I weren't asexual,
but it is not specifically important to me.
Perhaps that's the lesson to learn. We're all made up of different stuff, and sex drive (or lack of it) is just one part of ourselves. I was wrong to expect a book to answer the mysteries of life.
In the years I grew up gay there was nothing for me to relate to. Everything was happy bell-ringing endings for heterosexuals. I had to be content with being secretly in love with Farley Granger who got the girl in films, although he was gay in real-life - something I didn't know at the time. I persuaded myself I fancied Claire Bloom!!
Funny you should mention Claire Bloom - I've just moved on to Philip Roth. From no sex whatsoever to the most sex-obsessed writer of them all...
I thought that title was held by Henry Miller! I read the two Tropics in my youth but I could never work out why there was such a fuss about them. In general the aftermath of the 1960 Chatterley trial certainly released far more explicit and graphic material.
I must read Henry Miller. Much loved of E/V, sometimes of this board. I remember she liked Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.
More of the same: a slim volume, The Lives of Transgender People by Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin (Columbia University Press, 2011). Actually, not quite the same: this is a study of transgender people that differs from previous ones on account of its inclusivity. Its scope is not restricted to clearly delineated demographics, but includes all manner of different identities, many of them non-binary. Its basis is an online survey of 41 questions that was completed by around 3,500 US residents and followed up in some cases by interviews with the respondents. From their statistics Beemyn and Rankin aim to build up a more accurate portrait of modern transgender life than has hitherto been published.
It's a good book and an important book, but you have to wade through quite a bit of boggy statistical analysis before you get to the most interesting parts, which as ever are the personal testimonies. The large data sets permit generalisations that may be useful, but generalisations just aren't as involving to the lay reader as specifics. The trends are as you might expect: people identifying as 'cross-dressers' as opposed to trans women tend to be older; female-assigned people have more leeway for exploring their gender as children because of the sexism ingrained in society (girly boys have to be put a stop to because they might turn out gay, shock horror; boyish girls are tolerated because after all it's only natural to want to be male); younger people are finding it easier to come out because of the increase in trans visibility; it can be terrifying going out dressed in women's clothes for the first time but also exciting; children are more accepting of mutability of gender than adults, and it's when we grow up that the rot sets in. This is a simplistic condensation of some of the things that I recognised in the book. But you can do all the analysis you want, it basically boils down to: being nice to each other is cool.
Another cross-dressing interviewee, Donna, related the following story.
'I once asked my eight-year-old if it bothered her that I was different.
She replied – with a wisdom beyond her young age – [by] telling me
that being different was okay and that people should be able to be
whoever they want to be. It was all I could do to keep from crying. I
can only hope that she never loses that view of the world.'
Something the best books about gender I've read have in common is that they come from a single perspective. Julia Serano and Kate Bornstein, S. Bear Bergman and T Cooper. And most of all, as I read this one, I thought of Jamison Green, who is cited once or twice. It's nice to spend time with individuals who give you a new perspective on life, as all of these writers do. I think my reading on this subject, assuming it continues, will probably gravitate away from social science and towards personal memoirs. This book is balanced and thorough and often enjoyable, but I didn't get a great deal out of it that I hadn't read elsewhere.
This week I've been reading an often fun academic book, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages by Robert Mills, published last year by the University of Chicago Press and reviewed to great acclaim. It explores depictions of various deviant behaviours in medieval literature, art and manuscript illustrations. You might think that sodomy = bum sex (excuse my jargon), but this is not invariably the case. Eleventh-century oddball Peter Damian's definition of the term, quite new at the time, split it into four categories:
These were, in ascending order of sinfulness, self-pollution,
mutual rubbing of manly parts (virilia), pollution between the
thighs (inter femora), and fornication in the rear (in terga).
If I didn't follow the book very well it's mostly because I'm a lazy reader, but also because I don't have the breadth of knowledge to understand a book with such a wide scope, that looks at art and literature and constructions of gender, often through the prism of postmodern theory and modern categories of gender and sexuality (which practice Mills defends eloquently in his conclusion) that I don't always understand, a book that attempts to build a picture of the social attitudes of the Middle Ages on the basis of artefacts. But I kept reading because I was often fascinated by his observations on, for instance, the frequent personification of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as female in illustrated Bibles, or the many different ways in which Orpheus's sodomy post-Eurydice (as related in Ovid) is variously justified, condemned or omitted in translations of the text, or the usefulness of knowing about French kissing customs in reading medieval illustrations, and so on. His examples are engrossing:
In the Old French biblical paraphrases on fol. 36r of Vienna 2554,
the Philistines have been rendered Sarrazin – Saracens – who
are depicted in the accompanying miniatures (a) setting up the
ark before their god Dagon; (b) returning to find Dagon fallen to
the ground; (c) being beset by rats who devour their genitals as
a sign of God's anger; (d) repenting of their misdeeds and making
offerings of gold pieces and 'raz dor' (gold rats).
Predictably I found the chapter called 'Transgender Time', which has been the most remarked upon part of the book, particularly interesting. When dealing with texts or artworks where deviant behaviour is associated with men becoming feminine/passive and women becoming masculine/active, modern ideas about gender can shed new light. Mills looks at Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe, and at Ali Smith's interesting take on the story, Girl Meets Boy, already discussed on these pages.
I'm not sure much of it went in, but I enjoyed it. Here's a video of Bob Mills discussing his research: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrHameoh-Mk
I read Dazzling Darkness: Gender, Sexuality, Illness & God by Rachel Mann. Mann is a trans woman who is a musician, poet and priest, and this book is what in an online interview (http://theheroines.blogspot.co.uk...6/interview-with-rachel-mann.html) she refers to as a 'spiritual autobiography or theological memoir'.
Mann transitioned from male to female in her mid 20s, and came to Christianity around the same time. In her late 20s she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, which continues to be periodically debilitating. The book explores the ways in which she has reconciled (reconciliation is the single word I've written down most in making notes about this book) her faith with her gender and her chronic illness, and the complementary relationships between these superficially unrelated things.
I sometimes wonder how gay Christians of my acquaintance can bear to remain part of an instutition that, to a large extent, enshrines homophobia (though individual practitioners seem more progressive than the Church as an entity, and certain denominations more progressive than others). By the same token, I imagine Christians can feel like outsiders within gay communities. Substitute trans for gay, and it's the same story. Or so you'd think; but just as S. Bear Bergman argues that in job interviews trans people ought to be able to claim their transgender status as an asset, since if a person can cope with transition they can cope with anything, the things Rachel Mann writes suggest that transition can affirm a person's faith, bring them closer to God. She writes of sitting through an evangelical priest's homophobic sermon in tears, and realising that God was present in the church, not in the preacher's ignorant words of hate but in herself, in the pity she felt at his wrong-headedness. Throughout the book God is personified as 'she' or 'her'. If at first that feels somewhat wilful to the conservative, hidebound reader, it comes to feel appropriate, as Mann's God is a part of herself.
'I do not think we should be afraid of the thought that there are circumstances in which reconciliation cannot avoid violence', she writes. Although her transition involved violence (in the sense of hurt and upheaval) to her family and to her relationships, it also involved violence to her body. A lot of trans writers shy away from the idea of surgery as 'violence', as it's an argument that others (many Christians included) employ to try and persuade trans people against the necessity of surgery ('mutilation!' they cry, that ugly, manipulative word). The vast majority of trans people who have surgery say it's not a choice, it's something they have to do to mitigate their dysphoria and affirm their gender (an effect Mann says it had on her).
Still, she writes, transition was a choice, and not an easy one, a 'choice between two goods'. It's taken some time for her to reconcile (that word again) her current and past selves, to accept that there were things about being a boy and a young man that she loved, and that being a woman now does not mean the necessary eradication of her past identity. Life's always more complex than it seems. A friend of mine has written perceptively of the need that many medical professionals seem to have to fit transitioning people into a recognisable narrative. You're supposed to have felt 'different' from early childhood, to have felt at odds with your assigned gender all your life, and if your own story doesn't fit that model then you're less likely to be given credence. In the past, and perhaps still now, trans people had a much better chance of being treated if they told their doctor that the result of changing gender would be to make them heterosexual, such was the desire of medics to 'normalise' patients. Well, balls to that, balls to fitting into boxes, balls to pretending you're something you're not in order to avoid challenging the prejudices of other people.
I was interested in the sections where Mann discussed her illness. I haven't experienced gender dysphoria, but I do know first-hand, sadly, about inflammatory bowel disease (yeuch). How do you reconcile a belief in God with God's unmerited cruelty to others and to yourself? I was surprised to find a memory from many years ago returning to me, of praying to be killed. A nice corrective to my default mode of nostalgia. Sometimes the future's better than the past.
For a taste of Rachel Mann's writing, try this version of her excellent prologue, published anonymously in another book: https://books.google.co.uk/books?...A62&dq=%22tonka+toy+christmas
Thanks for that analysis - and all the others giving us more understanding of transgender issues, and the people they affect. (I am being careful about the words I choose and I am not sure that 'affect' is the right one here.)
But I came here to talk about the NZ honours list. Among the sportspeople and judges etc honoured and the ordinary people doing extraordinary things for their communities, there were two honoured for their "services to the gay, lesbian, transgender, bi-sexual and intersex communities". I don't think that has ever been honoured before, at least not in that form.
I think you're fine using 'affect', Caro Good news about the honours. Over here, I'm particularly delighted to see the actress Penelope Wilton made a dame. I've loved her since I was about six years old, I think.
My latest book is Becoming Nicole: The Extraordinary Transformation of an Ordinary Family by Amy Ellis Nutt. I cast my eye over the nominees in the Lambda Awards which were awarded earlier this month to see if any of them looked interesting, and this one, nominated in the Transgender Non-Fiction category, happened to be in the public library. The author, the cover announces, won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
The book's about eighteen years in the life of a family from Maine. In 1997 Wayne and Kelly Maines, unable to have biological children, adopt twin boys, Wyatt and Jonas, but from an early age Wyatt has a liking for girly things and announces himself a girl. The book follows the family through the troubles and joys of Wyatt's transition into Nicole – rejection and acceptance from other people, bullying and support at school, legal challenges, openness and stealth, friendships, medical transition.
The book's called Becoming Nicole, but the subtitle is more telling. It really is a portrait of a family, and the family unit is the hero, with father Wayne as inspirational a figure in his way as Nicole is in hers. Nicole has her transition to make, but so does Wayne, as he learns to unlearn the prejudices and preconceptions that he has held most of his life. It gives one hope for the rest of humanity: if this man can change for the better, so can any of us.
Amy Ellis Nutt writes very sensitively, I think, and with the collaboration of the Maines family. One of the first things you learn when trying to find out ways to be a good ally to trans people is that dead-naming (using a person's former name) is a complete no-no. But I don't think you could write about Nicole's pre-transition self without doing that, or without using male pronouns. Nutt does this as respectfully as possible, and the occasional insertion of chapters looking more widely at aspects of gender, without specific reference to Nicole, is wise. She doesn't dwell too much on prurient detail, and altogether does a good job.
The twin aspect is an interesting one. There can't be many sets of identical twins who have different genders. Nicole and Jonas have their disagreements, but they love each other dearly, and Jonas always sees Nicole as female, supports her, looks out for her at school, without question.
At other times, however, the differences in their personalities erupted in fights,
usually with Wyatt lashing out at Jonas. When Kelly or Wayne separated them
and asked Wyatt why he was so angry, he'd tell them he didn't know. And he
really didn't seem to know, because it would happen so suddenly. Looking at
Jonas, he saw himself, but also 'not' himself. The cognitive dissonance must
have rankled. It was as if his own image mocked him at every turn. Wyatt didn't
know why he and Jonas both looked like boys but only he felt like a girl. Once,
when Wyatt was asked yet again why he had hit his brother, he finally gave an
answer: 'Because he gets to be who he is and I don't.'
Amid the awfulness of world and UK events this week, the awfulness of the introduction of 'bathroom bills' all over the USA, which have gained momentum in recent months, this book has given me some much needed encouragement. Gender considerations aside, it's a delightful and moving story of two thoughtful, eloquent children growing up. A universal story.
Your postings on your readings in this subject are always interesting and educational. Thanks.
A note about Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock, another memoir. Janet Mock is an American journalist, and this book will probably be more affecting to people who have read her writing and seen her on TV. I approached it knowing nothing of her life. Mock grew up in Hawaii, the child of a Hawaiian mother and black father, both feckless, yet supportive of their daughter when she came out as trans in her teens. Mock was an academic child, a winner of scholarships, but that didn't stop her drifting into sex work to raise money for hormones and for her transition. It's a sad but familiar story, and ends happily. Having moved to New York and lived 'stealth' for a few years among her new acquaintances, Mock came out publicly as trans in the hope of using her story to support people in similar circumstances and to educate others. As a story it's inspirational; as a book it's less impressive than (for instance) Julia Serano's Whipping Girl, which is less of a memoir and more of a manifesto. I'm probably more attracted by the latter.
OUT IN THE ARMY (My Life as a Gay Soldier) an autobiography by James Wharton is a very interesting and informative book and I read it quickly - whizzed through it. Wharton, from Wrexham, joined the army at age 16, realising that he was gay. The book tells of his experiences on 'coming out', how the news was received by fellow soldiers and the army hierarchy. The gradual changing of army homophobia and prejudices. The story of his gay life runs in parallel with his army career, there's a lot of interesting stuff about daily life in the Household Cavalry - his time in Afghanistan - his friendship with Prince Harry, his first experience of Gay Pride, his becoming virtually a poster boy for Gay Rights and Same-Sex marriage. His becoming famous and appearing on TV. He's invited to 10 Downing Street and meets lots of famous people. This is all fascinating and inspiring stuff. And alongside we read of his varied sex-life and relationship with Thom, the love of his life. I'm sure any gay person would thoroughly enjoy this book, and straight people might gain an insight how the other half (well, ten percent) love. And how much work still needs to be done in spite of wonderful advances in LGBT rights in the last forty years.
Recommended by Stephen Fry
Sounds interesting, Mike - I'll look out for it.
Finished today: The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century by Kathryn Bond Stockton. I wish I could say I understood it, but I came away from it thinking that perhaps I should stop reading so many trendy academic texts when I don't get much out of them, not even the illusion that reading such books means I'm smart, as in fact they make me feel stupider than ever, or at any rate tired and confused.
Stockton's concept of 'growing sideways' is quite attractive. Children are innocent to begin with; they have to lose their innocence at some point, as we all know; still we try to preserve their innocence as long as possible, but in doing so suppress their natural growing up, and so they grow sideways. This growing sideways isn't expressed in concrete terms (can't be, I suspect), but Stockton gets some mileage out of it in looking at books and films that fit her theories: Henry James' short story 'The Pupil', which sounds excellent, Mrs Dalloway (Mrs D's objection to her daughter's love for the tutor Miss Kilman, and how that relates to her own youthful dalliances with Sally Seton), Lolita, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Wonka queering Charlie with his sideways-moving elevator). If I didn't get much of it, I did enjoy the explorations of the things I knew. I was very grateful for the occasional ejaculation joke, though I wondered if the glib witticisms like 'where there's Haze there's fire' (in reference to Lolita) were there to mask an emptiness of thought, probably because that was usually my intention when I dropped similar jokes into my own academic writing.
Not happy about the phrase 'losing one's innocence'. It suggests that then you become guilty of something. The story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge has a lot to answer for.............
Losing one's ignorance, then, if you prefer.
Yesterday I finished reading an anthology from 2002, GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell and Riki Wilchins. Although ostensibly about people who fall outside the confines of binary gender, some of the writers are cis and/or binary, and the unifying theme seems to be the transgression of gender norms generally.
It begins with four essays by Riki Wilchins that are enjoyably punchy, treating different aspects of gender. Her first one is very good on the difficulty of approaching thinking about gender in new ways:
In the introduction to Sexual Politics, one of feminism’s earliest manifestos,
Kate Millett complained that analyzing the patriarchy was so difficult
because there was no alternative system to which it might be compared.
Her comment could well apply to trying to analyze the gender system. The
problem is not that we don’t know the gender system well enough but that
we know it all too well and can’t envision any alternative. Thus, trying to
understand gender sometimes feels like trying to take in the Empire State
Building while standing only three inches away: It’s at once so big, so
overwhelming, and so close that we can’t see it all at once or conceptualize
Gender is like a lens through which we’ve not yet learned to see. Or, more
accurately, like glasses worn from childhood, it’s like a lens through which
we’ve always seen and can’t remember how the world looked before. And
this lens is strictly bifocal. It strangely shows us only black and white in a
Technicolor world so that … there may certainly be more than two genders,
but two genders is all we’ve named, all we know, and all we’ll see.
At times they're really a lot of fun:
But in the 1800s scientists produced a new catalog of disease based on
sex. It included: gerontophiles (old people turn you on), pedophiles (young
people turn you on), onanophiles (you turn you on), zoophiles (Mr. Ed turns
you on), masochists (a little pain won't hurt), sadists (especially if it's
someone else's), necrophiles (don't ask), and of course the homosexual
The rest of the book consists of a mix of memoirs, interviews, and stories that might be fictional but have their roots in personal experience. They're from a diverse range of voices, and cover a lot of ground, so one doesn't get bored. Pieces I liked: two by Joan Nestle, basically porn, and 'Do Your Ears?' by Peggy Munson, playfully erotic; Allie Lie's piece with its smart interchangeable I/he/she pronouns, and Lucas Dzmura's self-portrait as a shadow; Ethan Zimmerman's 'Transie', a sweet, sad catalogue of things people say publicly and think privately about gender; Stacey Montgomery's 'Passings', twenty little affirmations, positive and negative. Some of the best pieces are the ones that are deliberately and determinedly funny. I loved L. Maurer's 'Story of a Preadolescent Drag King', a vignette of a bizarre childhood incident where a teacher tries to expunge the writer's masculine tendencies through a crusade about penmanship, and the absurdity of Wally Baird's 'Disorderly Fashion', in which Baird, diagnosed with breast cancer and in need of a mastectomy, finds doctors dragging their heels about creating a masculine chest for her without the approval of a therapist. A handful I disliked (an alienatingly aggressive piece by Allen James about guns), but by and large it's a successful and thought-provoking collection.
Finished last night: Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England by Stephen Orgel. It's a slim book (about 150 pages) and is more entertaining than an academic book has any right to be. I came across it while writing an obituary of Lisa Jardine last month (as you do) – it was cited in a LRB article as a good book; so it proved.
An academic review I read after finishing the book said 'Orgel's aim ... is not to answer questions but to raise them,' which is very much the case. So the book is an exploration of facets of gender in Shakespeare's England, with particular reference to the matter of why women were not allowed on the Elizabethan stage when there were no such prohibitions in continental Europe, and when theatre audiences were by no means exclusively male. Some of the reasons: fears about women being corrupted by actors and turned into whores (in spite of the fact that acting was frequently equated with sodomy, as some would say it still is); fears about women corrupting the male actors with their voracious sexuality... At the same time, there was some angst about young boys being turned into pansies by acting companies, and there are fantastic stories Orgel tells of boys being effectively press-ganged into enlisting. Boys weren't chosen because they were good actors, or because they were being groomed to become actors when grown (this happened only rarely), but rather in order to serve as apprentices to the grown-up actors, who were often members of guilds (Ben Jonson, for instance, was apprenticed to a bricklayer).
Homosexuality and heterosexuality were not categories that Elizabethans would have recognised, and sodomy was rarely punished in England (unlike in Italy, for instance, where the penalty was death). It was the case, though, that same-sex relationships were generally pederastic. Two men of the same age getting it on would have been anathema to Shakespeare's public. That's another reason boys flourished on the stage: boys and women were credible objects of desire for adult men; other adult men less so. Never mind sexuality, even gender wasn't regimented as it is today. There are interesting examples of passages from sources where he/she pronouns are interchangeable for characters in drag, and some great case studies of women who shook up gender politics and transgressed gender norms (Bess of Hardwick and Mary Frith, i.e. Moll Cutpurse, for example).
It's very readable and great fun. It makes me keen to read the plays again. Troilus and Cressida which I don't think I've ever read but certainly loved in performance; and The Roaring Girl and Edward II and Barnabe Rich and so on.
Sounds very good...........
If you're not a fan of vaginas, give this post a miss.
In a few weeks some students in Cambridge are putting on The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, and I read it today to find out whether or not it was worth going to see. I'll probably go, primarily because I suspect it works a lot better on stage than on the printed page.
Not having looked into it much before (ahem), I'd imagined it was about the experience of being a woman generally, but no: it's about vaginas. Well, about genitalia at any rate. The use of vagina (internal) to mean vulva (external) is something that irritates me, but I don't complain about it much when I'm talking to people because it makes you look like a pervert (not to mention a pedant). As indeed will much of this post.
A recurring theme is that of 'connecting' with your vagina, a concept I was familiar with from quite an early age. I must have been ten or eleven when I first saw Fried Green Tomatoes, in which Kathy Bates, the housewife trying to emancipate herself, wails 'Ah cain't even look at mah own vajahna!' (The southern accent may be an embellishment of my memory; it's been a long time.) It's pleasing to read of women getting to know and enjoy the capabilities of their bodies, however belatedly, overcoming the shame that surrounds discussion of vaginas (and even possession of them).
To write the play (I suppose you'd call it a play – it's something intended to be read out loud, anyway) Ensler interviewed many women, and then transformed their words into a series of monologues. The play feels structureless and messy, and it isn't clear whether it's meant to be performed from beginning to end or whether you should pick and choose, randomise the order, leave bits out. I strongly suspect the latter.
Some of the individual monologues amount to little more than lists of answers to Ensler's facile questions: If your vagina could talk, what would it say? and so on. I suspect they're funny in performance; written down they're not, really. Elsewhere, the testimonies come thick and fast, single lines from voices piled one on another. I thought of Under Milk Wood (the bit below in particular), but Dylan Thomas is somehow more poetic than a load of vaginas, and you may quote me on that.
FIRST DROWNED: How's it above?
SECOND DROWNED: Is there rum and laverbread?
THIRD DROWNED: Bosoms and robins?
FOURTH DROWNED: Concertinas?
FIFTH DROWNED: Ebenezer's bell?
FIRST DROWNED: Fighting and onions?
SECOND DROWNED: And sparrows and daisies?
THIRD DROWNED: Tiddlers in a jamjar?
FOURTH DROWNED: Buttermilk and whippets?
I was tempted to scoff at some passages (no pun intended), but was taken aback by a short but powerful section that draws on testimonies related to the rape of girls and women in the Bosnian War.
The Vagina Monologues is twenty years old now and starting to show its age. A production was cancelled last year because it was thought that the piece's scope was limited (which is a fair criticism) and, in particular, that it failed to take into account transgender people. It's not a transphobic play, and as Ensler rightly said, 'The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman, it is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.' Still, reducing people to their body parts, though it may make us aware of absurdities in the ways we treat human bodies, often doesn't do much more than that. There have been productions of The Vagina Monologues done by trans casts, with the participation of Ensler herself. I was intrigued. Casts of trans women? The relationship of a trans woman to her surgically constructed vagina is presumably quite a lot different to the relationship of a cis woman to the vagina she's had all her life. Why not include trans men in a production? They have vaginas too. I'm simultaneously intrigued by the possibilities of the play and frustrated by its limitations.
The Virago edition I read contained various appendices related to V-Day, an annual event pioneered by Ensler where performances are staged to raise money to combat violence against women. A wholly praiseworthy enterprise, but reading forty or fifty pages about it, including umpteen letters from male and female participants ('I must say that if I died tomorrow, after participating in such a wonderful event, I would be able to say that I lived a meaningful life. I of course hope that I don't die tomorrow so that I can continue to be a part of this wondrous movement' and so on), made it seem tediously self-indulgent and self-congratulatory. I suppose it was included as padding to make the book a bit more substantial; it would have been better omitted.
I read a book of poetry by the American writer Joy Ladin called Transmigration, the first collection she published following her transition from male to female. It's split into four sections, the first of which treats the ending of her marriage. A favourite poem from that section:
I never meant to live.
I stayed silent as the Void
Summoned my atoms together.
The void remains
Silent at my center.
I never meant to live. The steam above the teacup's lip
Doesn't mean to curl
Around your neck. Amino acids do not mean
To twist into spiral steps. Your shadow didn't mean
To fall at the top of the stairs.
I never meant to live
To become the flesh
Of disappointment groping toward you
From the empty side of the bed,
The life you won't believe
I never meant to live,
But before I disappear
Like the steam that twists
Around your neck, I mean you
The word transmigration makes me think of the journey of the soul, and the soul is the recurring theme of the second section. The third section deals with death and rebirth. There's a lot of 'as death kisses your neck' and so on, which is the kind of phrase prepubescent girls in my class at school used to use a lot in their poetry, but here it feels justified, not overwrought. If the temptation is to call it adolescent, gender transition is after all a second adolescence. I wish I were a more patient reader of poetry. A book like this shouldn't be gulped down, but that is how I read it, racing from one poem to another, occasionally going back to the beginning of a poem if I either liked it or didn't get it at all. The final section ('composed entirely of disparate words found in the Dec. 2006/Jan. 2007 issue of Cosmo Girl') is tentatively celebratory. This is how it ends:
New Year, New Body
Something you’re born with.
You have to decide.
New year, new body, girl, guy…
Love tattoos your insides
With humiliating stories,
Teen angst, breakouts and blemishes,
In vitro antagonism toward your skin.
You look in the mirror
And freeze on the verge of tears. You aren’t trying
To be sexy. A tentacle of suicide
You thought you’d hidden
Hangs from the hide
That hides you. You thought
Your death would soon be over.
You did the routine for years:
Hiding in a complete stranger,
Trying to choose to survive.
Girl, the information is out there:
Are not supposed to die
Of the birth of their lives. You
Are an episode
You haven’t been watching.
Sometimes you scare, sometimes you inspire,
Sometimes you buy the myth
Of your early demise. Physically, mentally, socially stripped,
You wake up sad every day,
Too nervous to make conversation, poorly equipped
To grow up as a girl, stranded
At body central. Whether or not
You change your appearance, this is your chance
To get what you want.
You have that light in your eyes. Radiant hints
Awaken in your spirit,
The tears streaming down your cheeks
Together form one big shine.
You’ve lost yourself, your babies, your marriage,
In the name of a blank canvas,
An innate connection that can’t be explained,
A wave secured with pins, approaching yourself
From every angle, wishing
For that inner wisdom, wild and desirable,
That will transform you
You feel your body
Is in the way. Your body
Is the way. Exuberant, luscious,
Young along the cheekbones,
Proud of what you are becoming,
Your skin speaks of singing,
Taking on tough roles, swapping lives
With the girl you couldn’t down,
A hybrid of myth and fact,
Identity and kindness,
A new year, a new body
Lifting your roots to your crown.
My latest read is a book called Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities by Ken Corbett, which I noticed in Bluestockings bookstore in New York, made a note of, and borrowed from the library on my return. Corbett is a psychoanalyst and in this book he treats the subject of masculinity and femininity in several of his patients, typically young boys but also some adult men and fathers of boys.
The introduction, rather beautiful in its way, sets the tone:
The sights and sounds of boys at play have correlated with my efforts to capture
the lives of boys, in particular the movement, the aggression, the competition,
the rivalries, the friendships, and the muscular eroticism that inform boys' lives.
Over time, these boys have seeped, settled, and overlapped in my mind. Even
though I sometimes focus on individual players, they collect as a pattern – as
Walt Whitman might have it, "Every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme."
They fade and reconfigure. They disperse, only to return. The residue etches a
pattern of perpetual dynamism (imagine writing – over and over again – on a
chalkboard that is never fully erased).
Although I don't think it's controversial to suggest children have a sense of the sensual, it's difficult to write about their eroticism nowadays without arousing suspicions of something unsavoury below the surface. Corbett confronts the matter head-on at one point, mentioning that one boy's father wrongly assumed him (Corbett) to be a paedophile because of his equation of homosexuality with pederasty, but I'm not sure he confronts it very effectively. He ends the book with a light-hearted anecdote about a three-year-old boy noticing his (Corbett's) penis. I'm sure it's quite innocent, but I felt uncomfortable. It doubtless says more about me than it does about him.
It doesn't help that so much of his writing is couched in Freudian psychoanalysis, where (as far as I can discern) the phallus is more often symbolic than actual. Hence a question like 'Who among us has not been charmed by the phallic posturing of young boys?' is, I imagine, meant to be rhetorical, not meant to make you think, er, what? It's not that I don't respect Freud (though I don't, particularly), but I can't read a phrase like 'the phallomanic onus of sustaining aim over object' or (the best one) 'I began to think of his penis as a paternal ghost' without amusement being my primary reaction. For stretches of several pages I was completely lost.
The case studies, though, are fascinating, and treat a wide variety of personalities. I liked the case of Andy, where Corbett looks at how the boy creates his own notions of gender growing up in a family of two mothers. Elsewhere there's stuff about boys with anger issues and cross-gender identification (which Corbett seems sympathetic towards, if sceptical, which is probably a good thing up to a point). It prompted me frequently to think of my own feigned masculinity. As early as six or seven, I'd worked out it was a good thing to pretend to be interested in e.g. football even if you weren't. I didn't actively lie, but I never let on how boring I found it. If I had, I'd have been an easy target. I once tried to watch a televised match between Manchester United and Liverpool as an experiment (it might have been the League Cup match on 31 October 1990), but it was among the most tedious things I'd ever witnessed. By the time I suddenly got into football, aged 13, I'd got used to not being an alpha male. There were times, reading this book, when I caught myself thinking, therapy sounds both useful and fun, and perhaps I should try it out just to see what it's like; but as things stand I've not got many neuroses (that I know of), and I think if I started to analyse everything about my life I'd soon be a nervous wreck.
It's odd that the eroticism of Corbett's writing should recall Michael Cunningham, especially his novel By Nightfall, because Cunningham was Corbett's partner for several years, and is the dedicatee of this book. I don't think I deliberately engineered this, but the next book I'm going to read is by Cunningham. Small world.
Interesting comments about a book on a fascinating subject but which I'm unlikely to read I think....
Finished yesterday: Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote, another book I noticed in a New York bookshop and thought looked fun. I've just read a book dedicated to Michael Cunningham and a book written by Michael Cunningham, and I wanted something different. Some hope: this book opens with an epigraph from Cunningham's novel A Home at the End of the World. Thereafter it's a memoir of the life of a writer who doesn't fit into conventional gender boxes, told through vignettes and sketches. If I wanted to recommend a book to someone who's interested in gender diversity, this would be near the top of the list, a book about someone with a non-binary gender that focuses on the wider picture, not exclusively on gender issues. At times the gender aspect appeared to be an afterthought, though I suspect that was an illusion.
More than anything else I smiled as I read it, finding lots to identify and empathise with. The joy of being in a wind band, for instance; loving John Wyndham's The Chrysalids (this mentioned in a superb piece about the author's childhood friendship with a girl that falls away when she suddenly discovers boys). There are brilliant commonsensical pieces about pronouns, changing room indignities and the like, topics that by now are familiar but still evoke sympathy and anger. Best of all, I thought, was the book's cautious optimism, something it has in common with the writing of S. Bear Bergman, who shares Coyote's Canadian publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press. The piece that impressed me most was one about an talk Coyote gave at an Oregon high school that was picketed by conservative parents. The story doesn't turn out as expected, and the eventual outcome is inspiring. Altogether a lovely book. The text is interspersed with attractive technical drawings by an artist who ought to be identified (perhaps they are recycled from old books or manuals).
I'm on the phone with a credit card customer service woman:
'Royal Bank Visa, and how may I help you?'
'I have legally changed my name and I want to update my credit card,' I tell her.
'What is the reason for the name change?'
I pause for a minute, considering. 'I'm transgender.'
'Okay!' she exclaims, like I just told her I had a baby or got married. 'That's excellent.'
'Most days it really is.'
'I learn something new here every day,' she says. I like the sound of her voice.
'Do you really?' I ask.
'Well, no, not really. But I'm going to today.'
Thanks for all your writing on transgender issues, Gareth. Sometimes I feel a bit inundated with it all, especially talk of not referring to anyone by their gender - was it here that I read about some Scandinavian people not allowing their children to refer to themselves as boys/girls, or somewhere else?
But then I read with great dismay the news item here in socially liberal NZ, where a young girl, no doubt egged on by her parents and Family First, a very conservative group, is objecting to a transgender girl being allowed to attend the all-girls' school, on the grounds that she doesn't want to go to the toilet with a "boy"!!
It made me despair for humanity's inhumanity.
I haven't read of people being discouraged from referring to boys and girls, Caro - it sounds like the kind of thing one might read in a sensationalist newspaper article... Most trans people don't want the complete abolition of gender, just a bit more understanding for those who don't fit society's narrow definition of what a man or a woman is.
'Egged on by her parents' is the nub of it - we aren't born to be sexist, racist, etc., it's bred in us (by peers, by parents, by the world we live in). One of the encouraging things about the book I wrote about above is that it suggests people are capable of overcoming their prejudices. Well, I know it's possible because I can see it in myself. The answer is almost always education. Trump's recent anti-trans bathroom legislation has been supported by conservative education groups. My brother's just told me that he's been on one of their websites and there's a hell of a lot about gender and nothing about education. Make of that what you will...