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Book Review: trans like me – a journey for all of us, by CN Lester

I was honoured to be asked by CN to offer a round of feedback on the manuscript for this book prior to publication (with Virago Press). I inhaled the text in a single evening, despite generally dragging my feet when reading longer pieces on my computer screen. The research was incredibly thorough, but at no point did this become dry or stuffy. This book isn’t an academic text in the traditional sense, but it’s certainly a very educational one – I’ve already cited it in my own academic writing.

Once I got my hard copy of the book, I felt it had been a long enough time since that editing process that I should really read it again before reviewing – plus, it wouldn’t be fair to assess a pre-final version. Generally I struggle with re-reading books, as my attention often wanes as a result of half-remembering what I’m encountering and having to fight the urge to skim. I was surprised with trans like me, that I was touched more deeply second time around than the first. Divided into 15 chapters over 214 pages, Lester’s conversational style creates an intimate and effective sense of a meaningful conversation over coffee with a friend. Before the journey has really begun, they explain how “to learn how to learn about trans people, about the ways in which what we know about gender is shifting and growing, we must first unlearn” (p. 5); their experience as a teacher comes through (which we are explicitly told about later, through their careful threading of personal anecdote through the narrative), and an attentive, skilled one at that.

Lester effectively conjures compassion in their audience through beginning by engaging with the worst exploitation of the tabloid press. Their points are consistently reasonable, relatable, and simple. There is no sense of polemic, only kindness. They give of their personal experiences and history generously, but without allowing any reader to fall into voyeurism. Lester gets us thinking about who has the power to tell stories, helping the reader to understand the incredibly invasive expectations, demands, and groping hands trans people can by explicitly targeted with. While there is a partial element of autobiography, trans like me reads as a collection of interrogative, well-evidenced essays that are absolutely committed to an empathetic and intersectional appreciation of many of the central discussions and concerns that come up when trans is on the discussion table. How race and class are profoundly relevant and necessary in any understanding of trans people is also not lost or buried.

It wasn’t far into the book that I started marking ‘wow moments’ in my margins. Brilliant, succinct ripostes to some of the most dangerous and disingenuous (yet pervasive) myths about trans people and communities. These are not incinerated in a blaze of adjectives, but quietly and decisively collapsed. The book manages to do this in a way that is not only affirming to those already familiar with the subject matter, but accessible to those who are not. Lester’s anger is something that one would hope everyone can agree with – anger about bigotry, injustice, violence, callousness, unequal rights, access, and experience. Lester hits the nail on the head by centring empathy in their education and discussion.

I mentioned that I was touched more deeply second time around. For me, this was most profound on page 35: “a question I am often asked is why, as someone who wants to subvert gender norms, i would want or need an additional gendered label. Couldn’t I simply refuse all descriptors? Or, failing that, call myself a feminine man or a masculine woman?”. This made me think of a line from Alan Bennett’s History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”. Now I knew this wasn’t unique to me, but I remembered being asked by an exceptionally well-informed and sensitive friend “but aren’t you just a feminist man?” in relation to my own non-binary experience. The discussion that Lester unfolds in response to the rhetorical questions they use is far more helpful (and humble) than a discrete, essential ‘answer’. It made me feel better equipped to have these conversations when (and it is when, not if) they come about.

There’s no such thing as a perfect book. However from my perspective, any critiques feel embarrassingly trivial or unnecessary. When discussing how trans women have been portrayed in popular culture (“the victim, the freak, the joke, the threat” – p. 29) I felt a mention of Julia Serano as quite a marked absence – albeit undoubtedly many of the readers of this book wouldn’t be familiar with Serano’s work. Further, as an academic, while I was glad to see extensive references in the endnotes, I found the system of links listed by page a bit imprecise. These things say much more about me than about the book, and most certainly don’t detract.

CN Lester is one of quite a small handful of people capable of introducing so many aspects of trans lives so well. Doing so to a heterogeneous popular audience is doubly difficult. I can only echo Shami Chakrabarti’s back-cover comment that “I challenge anyone not to have both heart and mind a little more open after reading this book”. This is a book for everyone, living up to the title’s implication of ‘a journey for all of us’. I believe this book can make its readers both wiser and kinder, and makes an incredibly important contribution as a result, that I enthusiastically recommend.

Book Review: Everything Must Go by LaJohn Joseph

Hello kind readers, this installation of GenderBen! Sees a new book review – though somewhat different to the usual fare. Firstly rather than one of the usual academic-y books I normally cover, today’s page-turner is a novel, and quite a new one. Everything Must Go is the debut novel of La JohnJoseph, who from what I can tell is a tour de fource of queer, campy, radical, postmodern dadaism – reminding me in some ways of a modern day Rose Sélavy (though this comparison in no way means to collapse Joseph’s gender identity to the cis crossdressing of Duchamp). Supporting an artist whose work (and perhaps existance?) explores and fucks with gender is the reason why I accepted the offer of reviewing this work, and felt it would be relevant to your interests, dear readers.

Everything Must Go was released on the 25th March by ITNA press, and you can buy the kindle edition here and the paperback here.

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If you’ll forgive me by opening my review with a quotation from the work I’m meant to be reviewing, I think it sets the stage incredibly well in appreciating what you’re in for when you open this book:
“If you go about looking for sense, asking for logic, and putting your faith in reason, then you are asking for trouble and you will deserve it when two big thugs named Senseless Violence and Why God Why? drag you down and alley and beat you up.”

The narrative is tolld first person by the protagonist, Diana, and her journey to go about ending the world. How, why, and who with might be less important than you may think as this story is much less about what is said than how it is said. Diana and their view of the world is the grand constant. Practically any rule about time, space, place and possibility is broken, bent, or queered at some point along the line. Sex and violence are likewise turned inside out and upside down – queering morality as much as reality, so brace yourself if shockable.

This book has a surrealist streak unlike anything I’ve ever read before, which made it both interesting and memorable. However this does necessitate letting go of some of the fundamental qualities one may usually expect from a narrative, with little to no explanation of the surreal aspects of the story’s reality. This became one of the things I liked most however, as the casual, blasé way in which fantastical happenings were dropped into the descriptions of every scene added an additional cheeky, self-aware dimension to the (abyssally black) humour. This also made me all the more willing to utterly suspend reality, though this wasn’t for the sake of intrigues with the plot or the substance of the characters, but chiefly due to the beautiful use of language. Even when discussing rape and murder with a nonchalant ennui so confounding you can only smirk. Gobs of historical and cultural trivia are scattered around quite naturally that helped connect the world of the book to the recognisable. This was also aided by the delightful depth and variety in the descriptions throughout. I never felt like the range of situations and descriptions were self indulgent or random for randomness’ sake, which is impressive given how out there much of the content is.

On the back of the book, one of the comments reads “my brain feels completely sullied and violated. Do it again please!” Which is bizarrely accurate. Whilst still reading I felt like the experience that was this book might be somewhere between a stroke and an orgasm. It’s certainly horizon-expanding. Totally bewildering, definitely. I think it’s fair to say as well that a good number of people may hate this book. However, I imagine that the people who love it are amongst the most interesting, queer, and fabulous. This book was indulgent and a joy to read, if sometimes unbridled and uncomfortable!

Book Review: Scapegoat – Why we are failing disabled people by Katharine Quarmby

(Trigger warning: disability hate crime)

Whilst not explicitly about gender, I consider reviewing this book (and others that deal with issues of discrimination of various types) important due to the importance of intersectionality. How could I, as a writer who engages with a broad cross section of material claim (implicitly, by writing) to be in any way enlightened about, for instance, the experiences of a disabled queer person? Gendered analysis cannot exist in a vaccum, otherwise it rapidly and depressingly can lose its relevance for a great deal of people, and potentially erase their experiences in the process. I consider books addressing disability, class, race, and culture to be important parts of the educational diet of those developing their understanding of gender.

I was excited to read this book, and purchased it based simply on its importance highlighted by the title. It’s undeniable that ableism (discrimination and prejudice against disabled people) is rife, as highlighted by some of the facts on the back cover of the book. Only two out of ten disabled people have non-disabled friends, and nearly 50% of disabled people have recently experienced or witnessed physical abuse? Seems like something the privileged, able bodied population should be asking themselves ‘why?’ about, and also offers some juicy insights into how prejudice can infiltrate society.

Overall, my feelings on this book were mixed. It is clear from the narrative that the author, Katharine Quarmby, has invested a great deal of time and effort in researching the topic of the book. Some very important and disturbing examples of disability hate crime are recounted in great detail, and used to illustrate problems with housing policy, police responses, and considerations (or lack thereof) of disability in court cases. The structure was clear, and points poignant. I felt however that each time a particularly heinous crime was described to prepare for these salient and enlightening points, it was done so in a frustrating way. Often the environment was painted like poor dramatic fiction – ideas like ‘you’d never have thought such a terrible thing could happen in such a peaceful neighbourhood’. It made me imagine a spun-out Daily Mail article, but without the offensive bits. Irrelevant details about the origins of a town where a particular hate crime happened didn’t serve to enrich; only to make me ask ‘is this filler’? I was also left with my eyebrows raised that the author included very questionable paragraphs concerning the murder of one man, Brent Martin:

Brenda knew that something was wrong. ‘When they came for me, at half past three in the morning, with me daughter Tracey7, I’d had me coat on, I was out of me mind.’ She had had two premonitions, she said, that something was going to happen to Brent. In bed, a few days earlier, her body had been twisted and pulled by invisible forces. […] Brenda feels Brent’s presence still, as well of that of her dead husband Alec. She talks to them downstairs, she told me, and tells them: ‘I know you’re waiting up for me, but it’ll be a few years yet!’

This bizarre nod of legitimization toward’s this poor woman’s supernatural beliefs only served to undermine the legitimacy of the useful discussion in the book. I believe the quality of the writing would have been vastly improved had the author distanced herself from the tabloid-esque style which I suspect she may employ quite successfully in her work, even as a Sunday Times, Telegraph, and Guardian writer. I also felt that elements of the book were under-referenced, with sentences such as:

Research shows that children and young people are overwhelmingly involved in antisocial behaviour around disabled peoples’ homes, on the buses and on the streets.

…then with no reference whatsoever. A very large number of the book’s references are URLs to BBC news stories. I have some sympathy regarding the fact that this author may be regarded as a pioneer in disability hate crime research (as an activist rather than an academic, at least) but some discussion of these limitations would have been well warranted.

Despite these problems, I am still glad to have read this book. The few chapters that provide some basic history on the treatment of disabled people through witch hunts and freak shows offers some intriguing historical context, and the progression from asylums to ‘care in the community’ is definitely an interesting journey that is examined in a manner that remains entirely accessible.

Quarmby also recognises the importance of intersectionality in her writing, which is certainly not to be undervalued. As well as giving some helpful discourse on the early origins of ‘hate crime’ within UK legal systems and social consciousness, gender, race, and religious intolerance also all feature in her discussions. Here is a powerful example concerning gender, also highlighting potential system flaws:

The council has confirmed that a team social worker who visited Steven Gale , after he jumped from a third-floor window to escape what was said to be a domestic row, found him ‘to be very capable, apparently happy, and he was adamant he didn’t want any help or services from us’. Further information I have obtained denies, however, that the council had decided not to intervene, saying instead, in double-speak: ‘No decision had therefore been made not to give Mr Gale any extra support.’ Steven Gale starved to death a few months after he threw himself from the window. He was described by a social worker as ‘reluctant to engage’. I suspect that if a woman had thrown herself out of a window after a domestic row, police and social workers would not describe her as ‘reluctant to engage’ but would conclude, instead, that she was living in fear of her life and was a ‘vulnerable and intimidated witness’.

Adequate space is given to allow the read to easily explore the ideas and social commentary that are presented. Whilst a powerful resource for those who may have little to no contact with the prejudices that disabled people face, it may be obvious or upsetting in many ways to the individuals who deal with physical or mental disability.

Despite its imperfections, this book has a great deal to give. It was somewhat surprising how little disability hate crime has been recognised, and the extent of social failure that still occurs by gatekeepers, caregivers, and the public. Maybe this book will be eventually overshadowed when this field of inquiry receives the attention it certainly deserves, but I don’t recommend you wait. This book deserves your time.

Book review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender is an excellent book. From a neuroscientific perspective, Cordelia Fine meticulously unpicks prevalent gender stereotypes we’re all very familiar with, and lays out a detailed and well researched critique of the (often shoddy) research and writings that have propped these beliefs up.

The book is divided into three sections – ‘half changed world, half changed minds’, ‘neurosexism’, and ‘recycling gender’. Whilst I didn’t feel this sectioning was strictly necessary due to how all of the subject material and arguments are interlinked and related, they do help maintain a sense of ‘detailed introduction’, ‘analysis of scientific claims’, ‘detailed conclusion’, which is helpful. I felt that Fine draws the reader in from the start – with pithy, acerbically satirical (but importantly, inoffensive) humour on the very first page of the introduction. By page 9 of the first chapter, one is drawn in by proclamations such as the familiar ‘male/female’ check-boxes at the start of many forms in fact ‘priming gender’ and influencing how one then answers the form. Fine expertly achieves what is necessary for any popular science book – getting people interested in the questions, without scaring them off with the technical aspects. No biological background is needed to appreciate the critiques that Fine structures throughout the book.

I feel the concept of ‘neurosexism’ is a valuable one, which Fine has coined in this work. All too often, the prejudices of researchers can leak into supposedly objective work, because there is a prevalent attitude that scientific methodologies allows researchers to successfully remove themselves from influencing their results, even when undertaking interpretations – rather than recognising the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of this. Little to no acknowledgement of this happens inside or outside of the field, and so one can hopefully see how in combination with the simplistic (but again, virtually ubiquitous) attitude that ‘science = facts’ can cause a lot of problematic stuff to be taken for granted. It is a mighty claim for anyone to say something behavioural is ‘hardwired’, though this is a term I would hazard we are all familiar with through popular culture. Fine uses a great quotation from Anne Fausto-Sterling in the introduction which sums up her claim nicely:

[d]espite the many recent insights of brain research, this organ remains a vast unknown, a perfect medium on which to project, even unwittingly, assumptions about gender.

Throughout the book, an impressively thorough number of references are given (the bibliography is 39 pages long), though in the text there is a recurring focus on the work of a small handful of particular authors. In no particular order, ones that stuck out to me were:

  • Louan Brizendine – The Female Brain
  • Leonard Sax – Why Gender Matters
  • Simon Baron-Cohen – The Essential Difference (and other works)
  • Allan and Barbara Pease – Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps


These works were quoted and dissected, used as examples of poor methodology, untenable claims, and problematic stereotype support. What Ben Goldacre might term ‘Bad Science’ (another fabulous book, that you should read if you haven’t, incidentally). The reason I bring this up is because some might claim that the revisiting of these sources may imply there isn’t that much out there to criticise, that Fine may be picking on only a few examples to make her arguments easier to maintain, or to make strawmen of the cases presented.

I do not believe these potential criticisms to stand up, however. Brizendine, Sax, and Baron-Cohen are all respected neurologists, psychologists and doctors (With Allan Pease being the exception, his background being in sales before writing best-sellers on body language and communication with his wife), commanding a great deal of academic clout – making it all the more impressive that Fine’s meticulous research creates serious criticism that also remains accessible. There are a large number of differently sourced examples through the book that highlight how ingrained and accepted much insidious gender stereotyping there is throughout societal consciousness. None of the quotations chosen by Fine of works she casts a critical eye over appear unfairly cherry-picked, and indeed having also read The Essential Difference at least, I can confirm no misrepresentation or simplification of Baron-Cohen’s work, which is almost disappointing as one would not expect a Cambridge Professor to propagate such underdetermined claims that buy into a chronically anti-feminist state of affairs.

Delusions of Gender doesn’t restrict itself to an insular critique of those within the niche of neurobiology. By broadening discussion to how work in this field has influenced (or been influenced by) how people view personal relationships, single/mix sexed schooling, how people raise their children, advertising and media, and work on gendered behaviour in animals, Fine managed to create a work that covers so many important questions as to keep the non-scientist engaged from beginning to end, but without attempting an analysis in terms that are outside her area of familiarity. You won’t find any Judith Butler or Michael Foucault in the references. Nor will you find any meaty discussion of how trans* or non-binary gender experiences are related to the narrative of the science of sex differences. Fine obviously can’t be held responsible for the ubiquity of the sex binary within scientific discourse, though I feel exploration of this could have been a valuable and fascinating addition to the book. It is a delusion of gender to imagine that there are only two genders.

This is tame criticism however for a book that clearly sets out its area of investigation, and does so with precision and originality. I feel it would be a very small number of people who could read this book and honestly say they hadn’t learnt a lot. Make time for this book, even if you think it sounds too brainy.

Book Review: Feminism is Queer – The Intimate Connection Between Queer and Feminist Theory by Mimi Marinucci

So the first thing I have to say about this book  is that I consider the title to be extremely misleading. I was – unsurprisingly – expecting a work that examined perhaps different areas of feminist thought and queer theory, and perhaps examined their tensions, agreements, and nuances. I think it’s generous to say that a quarter of the book does this. The final two chapters (7 and 8), ‘Feminism Explained and Explored’ and ‘Notes Toward a Queer Feminism’ offer a very accessible synopsis of a range of different definable branches of feminism (such as Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Marxist Feminism, etc.) without assuming any existing knowledge of other gender scholars whilst introducing a few in a baby-steps capacity. Even bearing in mind these two chapters make up only 22 pages (excluding notes and references) I would still say I found simplifications and generalisations that very unsatisfactory. For example:

Although there is some disagreement about whether or not the second wave is over, those who believe a third wave [of feminism] has begun…

I find it alarming that someone could purport to write a book focussing around feminism, whilst giving the impression to readers who may be new to this area that the existence of Third-Wave Feminism is somehow tenuous or in its infancy. Whilst distinctions between Second and Third-Wave Feminism can be interesting and/or open to discussion, this implies a poor exploration of the literature given that discussion of a Fourth-Wave of Feminism certainly exists. Another textual example (also from chapter 7) that concerns me concerns a stunningly oversimplified definition.

…womanism, unlike liberal feminism, addresses intersectionality. Intersectionality refers to the simultaneous impact of race, gender, and class on the lives of Black women.

(emphasis original)

(*Edit*: It is important to note – as both I, and Marinucci failed to do – that Intersectionality as a theoretical position and tool has its origins in black feminism, and was originally particularly associated with the Combahee River Collective and the statement they produced. This scholarship, nucleated in the experiences of women of colour, has since been used to consider how multiple sites of oppression [such as gender and race originally but then also sexuality, disability, age, and innumerable additional categories] interact and produce unique discourse rather than simply being ‘additive’.)

Okay, so yes, this is an example of intersectionality – but the definition implies that only the interplay between the three categories of race, gender, and class are considered, and worse, that this might only be in relation to black women. It comes off to me like saying ‘LGBT activism is the activism of gay men who live in Chicago’. I may sound like I’m nitpicking, but in a book that makes obvious efforts to be accessible to readers who are not already entrenched in queer or feminist literature, an opportunity was lost here to produce communication on a key concept. Plus, the short definition given doesn’t manage to be properly accurate.

Sadly other confusing errors have also entered the text – most noticeable for me being a short discussion of the evolutionary history of lactose intolerance, in relation to how social processes can impact on physical bodies. For someone without any background in biology, they could be forgiven for not knowing that lactose is not “the enzyme that digests milk sugar”. Whilst perhaps a typo of ‘lactase’, this one letter change causes the entire paragraph to cease making any sense.  This is on page 70, for anyone who ever gets hold of a copy. With a background in philosophy, my sense was that Marinucci has some problematic understanding regarding scientific methodologies and epistemological objectives. Just in using turns of phrase like “contemporary science acknowledges two basic sex categories” (chapter 4) strongly implies some ridiculous notion of ‘science’ being some kind of hive-mind monolith, able to declare objective facts, with further ‘fluffy’ discussion being an outside realm.

My discussion so far has engaged only with the last two of eight chapters of this book for the most part. So what is the book about if not what the front cover indicates? This is covered in the preface, and caused my eyebrows to disappear into my fringe.

Introductory texts in gender studies, sometimes identified as women’s studies or feminist studies, address gender identity. Introductory texts in sexuality studies, sometimes identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies (or LGBT studies) address sexual identity. Unfortunately however, introductory texts situated at the intersection of gender identity and sexual identity are rare. This book attempts to fill that gap, and could therefore serve as a text for any course of study, be it in a university setting or in the context of independent scholarship, directed towards the examination of virtually any aspect of gender, sex, and sexuality.

This made me ask three questions:

  1. How is the sweeping claim of the (I think erroneously) conglomerated gender/women’s/feminist studies being about ‘gender identity’ justified?
  2. How can introductory books considering gender identity and sexuality be considered rare?
  3. How is Marinucci defining and differentiating between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’?

Gender identity concerns one’s sense of oneself as male, female, non-binary, without gender, or any other minority gender identity. I would not say that gender/women’s/feminist studies ‘address’ this per se, as if to imply this is ‘the’ central area of investigation and discourse production in these fields. This closed statement by Marinucci left me uneasy, as the book begins with a factually-stated premise which I not only find over-simplifying but problematic. Secondly, a good range of gender studies readers exist – such as this one, this one, and this one – which contain essays covering a broad range of topics, as probably the most obvious thing about gender studies (other than it being about gender) is that it’s very multi-disciplinary. Marinucci’s book was published in 2010. Feminism is Queer doesn’t quite hark from the era completely lacking in intersectional resources.

Thirdly, well, at no point in reading the book did I feel this question was properly addressed. The book is divided into four sections – I. Sexuality, II. Sex, III. Gender, and IV. Queer Feminism. The way this played out was a first section that engages with some tired old figures to discuss the Kinsey Spectrum and discussion of philosophy and social construction in chapter 1. Chapter 2 talks about social history, and I thought actually does a pretty nice job of discussing the interplay of the work of Foucault on power relations and D’Emilio on how capitalism and wage labour allowed for the emergence of sexual identities*. A lot of emphasis was also put on the works of Mary McIntosh (who wrote an article called ‘The Homosexual Role‘ in 1968) and Alan Bray (who wrote ‘Homosexuality in Renaissance England‘ in 1982), which seemed like odd resources to focus on. In the third chapter ‘Queer Identities’, a little more Wikipediable LGB history is recounted, a rather modest nibble at the meaning of queer is attempted in the form of more history, how binary constructs are avoided, and the philosophy of underdetermination.

Two big alarms went off in my head when reading chapter 3. Firstly, Marinucci uses language like “biologically unproblematic women and biologically unproblematic men” when referring to cisgendered people. I find it very unfortunate that such painful cissexism is slipped into given that in the preface, she rightly holds her hand up regarding her possession of race and class privilege. Marinucci also demonstrates an awareness of ableist language, and also states:

I resist the use of binary language by avoiding the gender pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and I resist the use of universalizing language by avoiding the plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’. I also resist oppositional language by avoiding such expressions as ‘arguably’ and ‘on the contrary’.

Sadly, this list makes me feel that whilst an effort has been made to avoid offending individuals, engagement with detailed scholarship of trans issues and language use are somewhat lacking. This feeling doesn’t come from this single example, but gnawed at me at various points throughout the book. Not least section II, which boils down to being on medical and social treatment of (binary) trans people. That Marinucci also claims in a note that:

Gender usually refers to constellations of characteristics commonly regarded as feminine and masculine, whilst sex usually refers to constellations of characteristics commonly regarded as female and male.

Left me with the sense that I was glad I wasn’t trying to make my first investigations into gender studies using this book, due to how ideas about biology, gender presentation, and identity are slooshed around together to give banality at best and downright erroneousness at worst.

I may sound like I am utterly damning every element of this book. I do not mean to entirely. Whilst each chapter was started with a fairly irrelevant Wizard of Oz quotation simply for containing the word ‘queer’ (the joke gets old after being used 8 times) and the appendix is literally passages copied verbatim from the main text, some of the metaphors used (particularly regarding philosophical concepts) were useful. Any even slightly technical language was defined in the main body of the text, which is certainly more useful for students than the assumptions made by many teachers. Being led by the hand a little too much is preferable to being shoved out alone in the dark, after all. But as this book made lofty claims regarding its importance and usefulness, I critique it in these terms. Not only would a book covering such a wide range of material be unable to do a solid job in only 100 pages, much of the text is relatively commonly discussed work or narratives that has been dealt with by a scholar who has left me unconvinced that she has a masterly grasp on the range of areas touched on.

Get this book out of a library and check out chapters 7 and 8. But perhaps spend your money on other works.

*Both of these scholars are big and important names, and it would be nice to talk in detail about both of them. I won’t enter discussion on them in this review for brevity’s sake, but at some point their work will be reviewed independently.

Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

Book Review: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

So at the top of the GenderBen homepage there has been a forlornly empty tab dedicated to book reviews. Today marks the day when this emptiness is no more! This tab will be where links to any book reviews I write can be easily looked up.

It’s probably not normal procedure to open a review with a huge endorsement, but I will be very (and delightfully) surprised if I read any book as thought provoking, clear, useful, and important as this one for quite some time. With the subtitle ‘A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’, Serano utilises structural and stylistic devices in her book that make it a real breath of fresh air compared to many stodgy collections of gender essays and other works useful to scholars of gender.

An incredibly important element of the book which I thought was handled more masterfully than any other gender book I’ve seen was the clarity with which technical terms are used. Also the recognition of the different ways such can be used or understood by different people helps support not only her own robust arguments but also shine a revealing light on the assumptions, misconceptions and prejudices of others.

For example, very early in the book a distinction is made between transphobia, defined by Serano as “an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances, or behaviors deviate from societal norms.”  and cissexism, defined as “the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals.” This allows for an analysis that recognises differences in experience based on whether individuals identify as or experience being transsexual as opposed to transgender.

Whilst these are terms that are often used interchangeably (as are cissexism and transphobia), Serano uses the word ‘transsexual’ to refer to individuals who specifically were assigned a given gender at birth, and wish to transition from this (most often referring to MtF and FtM transitions, though appreciation of non-binary identities is also given). Transgender is used as a more general term to allow discussion of issues in a broader sense that may impact upon individuals who may identify as a cross-dresser, as butch, effeminate, queer, or any number of other non-conforming gender identities. The point is made though that “The focus on “transgender” as a one-size-fits-all category for those who “transgress binary gender norms” has inadvertently erased the struggles faced by those of us who lie at the intersection of multiple forms of gender-based prejudice.” Lack of commonality between individuals who may be described by the same terms receives the important attention it deserves. Serano manages to carefully define a large number of gender terms to allow for construction of excellent arguments and observations based on this without simplifying or invisibilising individual experiences as caveats and clarifications are also abound in the text without becoming overwhelming.

The second chapter offers direct commentary on the portrayal of trans individuals in the media, both in fictional and non-fictional circumstances. With films and TV shows covered including The Crying GameAce Ventura Pet Detective, Jerry Springer and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a perhaps controversially critical analysis is given yet it’s very difficult to fault. The only criticism I have of this section of the book is a small factual inaccuracy made when describing what happens in Ace Ventura. It is claimed that a large group of police officers proceed to vomit after having it revealed to them that the film’s villain who is portrayed as female throughout the film  possesses a penis and testicles. They actually all begin spitting – the ‘joke’ being that they have all kissed her at some point, in reference to her having kissed Ace at an earlier point in the film. This hardly makes a huge difference to the nature of the analysis in pointing out unambigous homophobia, and portrayal of a trans individual as ‘deceptive’, and ‘really a man’. The analysis of media output in this chapter rests on trans characters usually falling into one of two patterns, either ‘pathetic’ or ‘deceptive’. Whilst such a binary analysis may seem simplistic, its impressive (and alarming) point is disappointingly supported by a good range of sources cited.

The book repeatedly draws upon the author’s personal experiences, in terms of both how other individuals have responded to her gender identity and gender presentation, but also her direct experiences of dysphoria and ‘gender dissonance’, and the sensation of one’s hormonal profile changing. These accounts are not only very brave (and indeed an honour for the reader – it is a privilege to know the intimate details of an individual’s transition experience), but also tie in important discussion of biological difference to produce an argument that “socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist”. Serano is not only valuably situated as having experienced different gender identities in her life, but also possesses great familiarity with queer theory and the social sciences literature AND a PhD in biochemistry and a scientific career. Such multi-disciplinary scholarship coupled with vital personal experience packs a serious punch. In saying this I of course do not wish to imply that Serano’s PhD and scholarship makes her accounts and arguments on transgender politics and experience superior to the experiences recounted by other trans people. Serano however occupies an uncommon position in possessing such awareness of intersectionality, plus personal understanding of disparate academic and gendered experiences.

The largest chapter in the book is titled “Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism”, and gives not only an excellent historical overview but also challenges some methodological problems with scientific modes of inquiry (such as disconnection of the author from work done, or the assumption that some kind of true objective position is actually possible). Discourse on medicalisation, the cissexist declarations made by various feminists, and how masculinity and femininity are considered are tied together in an accessible manner. This leads into a chapter dealing with the dismantling of cissexual privilege which I found provided more clarity and focus than I had achieved through my own introspection, even given that I am actively engaged with trying to be the best ally I can be.

All of this, together with a most original chapter where the appropriation of intersex and transsexual identities in art and academia is critiqued makes up part one of two of this book. The sensation I had from reading each of these two parts was rather different. Part one contained a greater range of material, and had more of an ‘academic’ structure – unsurprising as this half of the book was subtitled ‘Trans/Gender Theory’ – whilst the second section (Trans Women, Femininity, and Feminism) is pithier and contains a greater sense of polemicism. Three of the ten chapters of this section contain only 4 pages each, but each has its place and each makes a point. I had a small sense that some material was repeated, giving me the sense that some chapters were written independently from consideration of the book as a whole, and I felt I gained more from Part 1 than Part 2. This is a book where each chapter stands alone quite well – not quite separate essays, but not a book that necessitates being read linearly from start to finish. Maybe it’s only because I did read it through from start to finish that made me wish for more of a sense of ‘wrapped up conclusion’, but these are ephemeral concerns. In writing this review it was difficult to not write condensed, reworded versions of every chapter, such was the importance of their contents that resonated with me. This book is too important to not be more widely read. One becomes a better human for reading this book.

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