Review: Transgender Voices

By , April 30, 2010 2:28 am

I wish I remember who recommended Transgender Voices: Beyond Women and Men to me.  It may have been through this blog, but…oh well! The book is written by Lori Girshick, a “sociologist and social justice activist,” and is an exploration of 150 interviews she conducted with individuals who responded to a survey looking for “gender transgressors.” Much of the book directly quotes these interviews, with Girshick interjecting her summarized opinions and conclusions throughout.

The book is divided into 6 chapters, with multiple sub-headings in each chapter. The chapters are:

  1. The Social Construction of Biological Fact
  2. Self-Definition: Birth through Adolescence
  3. Constructing the Self: Options and Challenges
  4. Coming Out to Community, Family, and Work
  5. Gender Policing
  6. Inner Turmoil and Moving Toward Acceptance

There is also an epilogue, “Gender Liberation,” and an appendix with the survey-advertising flier and the survey itself.

As you may be able to guess from the book’s subtitle, “Beyond Women and Men,” and even more so from the chapter titles, I generally agree with the politics of Transgender Voices. Girshick does a solid job of representing a very wide spectrum of people, and (for the most part) she interjects her own thoughts only to provide context or summarize how aggregate groups felt, rather than impose a specific definition of identity or gender.

However, in the introduction, “Identity Boxes,” Girshick lays the groundwork for a view I’m not 100% comfortable with:

My own bias in this book is to advocate for liberation from the binary gender system, which for many people artificially restricts the fullest expression of self. At the same time, though, I deeply respect those who wish to identify with “male” or “female,” “man” or “woman,” and are willing to undergo expensive and painful medical treatments to achieve physical correspondence with who they feel themselves to be given the current gender system.” (Pg 11, Emphasis in original)

She continues by acknowledging that medical/hormonal/surgical transition is a radical act, and one which pushes against the traditional gender binary. At the same time, those italicized words in the above quote seem to imply that people wouldn’t need to undergo medical treatments if the gender system was less restrictive. There is undoubtedly some truth to that, but I think Girshick strays dangerously close to questioning the validity of medical transitions. I agree that “the binary gender system…artificially restricts the fullest expression of self,” but I don’t like how Girshick takes a subtle jab at the validity of binary-gendered identities, when those identities are part of a conscious choice, even as the imposition of binary-gendered identities or behaviors is a problem.

Likewise, I’m not merely “willing” to undergo medical treatments, I need to be on hormones and undergo hair removal and transition. I would continue to do so in the utter absence of any other human life on the face of the planet, because I’m ultimately not doing it for “the current gender system.” Yes, I know: I exist within the current gender system, and a fish can’t see the ocean in which it swims. Nevertheless, Girshick seems too quick to label my choice as a result of the gender system, and not an informed decision based on my own identity. (On the same note, I’m curious why male cross-dressers fall under the transgender umbrella, but female cross-dressers don’t.)

All that said, Girshick’s gender politics did not really detract from my experience of reading Transgender Voices, as it is composed primarily of quotes and summations of the 150 surveys she collected. For example, Gail (MtF) talks about pretending to act male on page 56:

I can play act it, but from the heart I haven’t a clue. So it’s been this great big pantomime or something, you know. Lip-synch. Gender-synch. As far  as I can remember, since I was very young. But yeah it is kind of strange. I can relate sometimes when men are talking but the heart doesn’t make sense.

By far, these quotes were the most valuable part of the book for me, and did a lovely job both of providing insight into people whose experiences differed from mine and giving voice to people whose experiences matched my own. When Girshick quotes people in Transgender Voices, she includes their self-defined gender in parentheses: Leslie (male cross-dresser), Glen (human), NiseyLynn (MtF), AJ (FtM). In this way she does a good job of honoring the identities of her subjects. Here’s another quote, from Lynn (MtF), that resonated with me due to some of my own recent encounters with men (page 125):

My biggest challenge was when I was first approached by a male. All the rules of homophobia came flying back to me and I had to run out of the area to get control of myself.

I also appreciate the chapter structures of Transgender Voices. Each chapter was composed of multiple sub-sections. For example, some of the sections in chapter 1, The Social Construction of Biological Fact, included:

  • Influences of Hormones and Brain Development on Gender Identity
  • The Made-up Gender Binary
  • Perceptions of Others
  • Living with the Gender Binary
  • ..and quite a few more

Each section was only 3-5 pages, meaning the book was easily consumed in bite-size chunks before bed or while reading on the train; I never felt like picking up Transgender Voices was going to result in a huge time commitment of theory or narrative.

I also appreciated that, in the introduction, Girshick breaks down the various gender identities, sexual orientations, races, and socio-economic backgrounds of her subjects, and acknowledges the problems of a self-selecting bias: 57 of her 150 respondents identifies as MtF, almost double the next highest response rate of 30 for FtM, most of the respondents were white, and so on. But Girshick doesn’t pretend to be offering the definitive exploration of gender identity. She’s simply attempting to provide a better understanding (a better voice, if you will…) to an often neglected part of the LGBT community, and to that end I think she succeeds.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Lessons from the Intersexed by Kesler, pg 124, than Girchick quotes near the end of Transgender Voices:

One can imagine that just as a heterosexual woman today can legitimately claim not to be attracted to men with excessive body hair, in a newly configured system she could claim not to be attracted to men with penises or to be attracted to men with breasts and a vagina. What then would heterosexual mean? In what sense could a woman with a vagina who is sexually gratified by being penetrated by a “woman” with a large clitoris (that looks and functions like a penis) be said to be a lesbian? If gendered bodies fall into disarray, sexual orientation will follow. Defining sexual orientation according to attraction to people with the same or different genitals, as is done now, will no longer make sense, nor will intersexuality. (Emphasis in original)

2 Responses to “Review: Transgender Voices”

  1. To my mind, the most interesting thing here is the collection of quotes from trans-spectrum people. It seems like this kind of thing is hard to find, and I might end up buying the book just for that, honestly.

    I sort of relate to the quote from Gail, but not exactly. I’ve certainly felt like I spent most of my life acting, but I don’t have that sense of not understanding men. It’s not like I can’t relate, or there’s some mystery I can’t grasp or emotional disconnect. I don’t really think there are many humans I’m unable to understand and relate to. I certainly had to (and sometimes still have to) pretend I thought/felt/experienced a lot of things I didn’t, but those things still made sense. They just weren’t… me. I feel like it’s a similar phenomenon to when somebody likes a band I don’t find interesting: they don’t mystify me, I’m just not the same as them. Maybe in this instance that’s a result of my butchness, which fluctuates but is generally significant. I don’t really know. Certainly the whole experience was pretty damn awful, regardless of whether the men in my life made sense to me.

    Anyway, all that’s not to say anybody else’s experience is less valid. I just find how different people are fascinating.

    • Rebecca says:

      I feel like it’s a similar phenomenon to when somebody likes a band I don’t find interesting: they don’t mystify me, I’m just not the same as them.

      Nice analogy. I think, for me, it depends on the situation. For some things I see my guy friends doing – particularly around dating or courtship behavior – I agree that I “get” it, it’s just not where I am. But I think for certain ways of communicating that are classically ‘male’ or ‘female’ (massive over-generalization, I know) I do sort of look at some of my guy-friends and think, “Wait, what the hell is going on inside their head?!”

Leave a Reply

Panorama Theme by Themocracy