Transgender History by Susan Stryker | Review
Publication: New York, NY : Seal Press : An imprint of Perseus Books, LLC : A subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc, 
Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook
I read this book while trying to figure out what to say and how to say it in my review of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. The leap from race to gender topics may seem a bit wide, but really what drove me to Stryker’s book was my own dissatisfaction with the minimalist’s perspective society has given me with respect to intersectionality. I’ve been attempting to write several feminist-leaning short stories and have recently found myself leading a women’s book group, both of which have left me wondering whether I have enough information to speak intelligibly about these hard topics (and whether the world needs women’s-focused book groups and, if so, why). “I don’t know how to talk about these topics appropriately and in such a way as to encapsulate inclusivity,” was my seemingly eternal complaint. A friend told me once that if a person is worried about being too exclusive, they’re probably already on the path to inclusiveness.
But beyond developing a more inclusive mentality, we should be careful of the communicative categories we use. What do I or others mean when they use vocabulary words like “female”, “male”, “cisgender”, “transgender”, “transsexual”, “bisexual”, “asexual”, “woman”, or “man”? Basically, I was asking the age-old question: “What exactly are we talking about?”
In Stryker’s book, I found just what I was looking for in regards to groping my way toward understanding the multiplicity of some of the identities people hold most dear. Did all of it take? Do I now understand the difference between sex and gender, for example? Honestly, I’m not sure, but I’m still willing to give it a go, because mistakes made in the midst of honest effort is all I’ve got. So, I ask the gentle reader to judge just as gently please. (The LEAVE A REPLY button at the bottom of the page is ready and waiting for your wisdom.)
The most impactful portions of this book, for me, had to do with feminism. Specifically, my fear of how exclusive the mantras of feminism might be has been at the forefront of my mind for some time now. Stryker recaps the history of feminism (especially second-wave feminism) and its hesitancies to merge its goals with anyone who is not born-female who want to find acceptance within the feminist sphere. If you weren’t born with a vagina, do you have a voice in the feminist march toward equality?
For myself, feminism is about leveling the societal playing field between the two binary genders we call “men” and “women.” In that vein, feminism needs to encapsulate a voice toward equality for all who want to identify or who are immediately identified by society at large under the gender category we call “woman” when juxtaposed with all who want to identify or who are immediately identified by society at large under the gender category we call “man”. In other words, I’m looking for a way to free our cultural perception of each other from the pitfalls of gender normative prejudices.
While I was working my way through Stryker’s book, I couldn’t help but stop every few pages to look wistfully over at my partner and explain to him yet another new aspect of the gender equality discussion that had just dawned on me. These discussions led us pretty quickly to Nina Paley and her rejection of transgender identities as manifested through preferred pronouns. Now please understand, I’m all for Paley’s rejection of the cultural constraints instituted by copyright law. I applaud her work in the realm of copyright as well as her political stance on the topic from the perspective that artistic expression is and should be a shared endeavor (while still giving credit to those we borrow from along the way). However, I’m struggling with her idea that, “everyone is free to identify however they wish, but not to force me to identify them the same way.” My initial reaction to this is to ask where’s the respect aspect here? It seems to have been flushed straight down the toilet if we prescribe this type of mentality to our understanding of something like a person’s gender identity, just like it goes completely sideways and misses the point so absolutely if applied to rape or domestic violence.
Within her explanations of second-wave feminism, Stryker hits on the destruction this type of attitude can initiate in discussions of gender. But, I guess if I want a world where everyone’s perspective is given the respect its due, maybe I can’t condemn someone like Paley for holding to an opinion that I find condemning in and of itself. The flow of respect has to go both ways in order for constructive conversation to flow between the “camps” involved in the discussion. I guess what I’m hoping is to leave room to listen to Paley’s and other TERFs’ opinions to try and understand the starting point of their perspectives, even if I ultimately end up still disagreeing.
Here, I’m talking about boundaries, a topic every abuse survivor is, or should be, very familiar with, no matter the form that abuse has taken in their life. We create boundaries to keep ourselves and those around us safe. To be sure, those born into the female sex have taken a beating throughout the history of civilization going back to the discovery of agriculture (if you’re hearing the influence of Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman, then you should congratulate yourself as having sussed out my current reading list). So, the initial boundaries toward a safe space that the first and second waves of feminism created surely shouldn’t be dismissed. But, what happens when the reality of voiced societal norms shift? Can a male who identifies as a woman ever feel completely safe in the men’s world ascribed to her at birth, and how can she truly feel accepted in the women’s world she associates herself with unless others around her stop trying to put her in the men’s categorical box and begin to accept her as the her she wants to be seen as? To this point, does safety equate to acceptance and vice versa? If your boundaries are not ones I’m comfortable with, can I still accept your boundaries, and if I choose to do this, am I denying my own person safety? I think the answer probably lies within the topic the boundaries are encapsulating.
In an effort to continue this discussion of safety and acceptance, one of the transgender heroes that stood out most adamantly to me in Stryker’s book was Sandy Stone. The more I learn about her journey and her work, I can’t applaud her enough. It strikes me as incredibly brave that anyone born with all the cultural advantages of being born male would want to put themselves into the woman gender category or (perhaps more intensely) into the female body, with all the inherent disadvantages these realities are fraught with within our society.
For example, when I was a preteen and then a teenager, I found myself in the throes of what I thought was a very disturbing body transformation. This transformation was like the scariest magic act that disappeared the skinny, straight-lined, self-identified non-gendered kid, whose only love was for long walks alone in the sparse forests of my many home towns in search of the perfect reading or story-writing tree to claim as my own personal hideaway from all the aggression my mother’s husband brought into my childhood home, and replaced that young kid with a ridiculously curved, albeit, or perhaps consequently, awkward woman who didn’t understand the very real and very dangerous implications of having to carry such a body. Anyone who would willingly take on such a transformation is a giant of heroic stature in my book.
Yet Stryker explains that Stone was ostracized by the second-wave feminist groups of the 1970s and 1980s because she was not equipped at birth to fully comprehend the true feminist struggle. She was seen as an infiltrating force in the realm of feminism, as a result.
Earlier, I spoke about boundaries and how they are designed to keep us and others safe. In relation to the women’s book group I recently found myself leading, a woman I respect beyond words asked why our group of women needed such a “safe space” as we had been attempting to create in our little club. This brought me up short at first, but the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve begun to wonder if we simply wanted a space to “bitch” (excuse the phrase please) about the misogyny (however micro-aggressively expressed) inherent in many of the pieces of literature being chosen and discussed in the other coed book groups my posse of women had been frequenting. I think feminism is like this — it wants a safe space in which to express female concerns. But should these spaces of safety be for females only, especially in the context of our current societal shifts, keeping out all others? I guess I’m realizing that, for myself, the concerns of females are also the concerns of women, whatever sex they were born into.
To this end, I’m going back to the mentality mentioned in some of my more recent book reviews where I talk about the dangers boundaries can pose when they separate and keep out those who also need harboring. Because a boundary works simultaneously to keep some safe by categorically keeping others out. I don’t think I want this type of feminism. If the goal of feminism is to level the playing field, wouldn’t inclusivity (while still listening to all the perspectives, which maybe should go without saying) be paramount?
But I’ve waxed perhaps too philosophical. Maybe I’ll experiment with the book groups, as a way to get out of my own head on these topics. In any case, I can see why Stryker’s book is a common textbook for college courses on these topics nowadays, as it certainly provides a plethora of insight, history, and a bird’s eye view of the vocabulary we use to describe and understand issues of transgenderism.