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Books about sex and gender
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Books about sex and gender
I 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:
Books about sex and gender
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.
Books about sex and gender
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....
Books about sex and gender
I've read her poetry before, and I believe she's a good short story writer too.
Books about sex and gender
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
she shouldn’t.)
(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.
Books about sex and gender
Thanks for drawing my attention to Ali Smith's book.
Books about sex and gender
I enjoyed it a lot. Made me curious to read other things - Ali Smith's other books, but mainly Ovid...
Books about sex and gender
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.
Books about sex and gender
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.
Books about sex and gender
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.
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