Category Archives: reviews
Tomorrow Will Be Different, and so will this memoir, written by trans activist Sarah McBride about her experiences since coming out in her senior year of college. I generally avoid trans memoirs, since the genre has become rather predictable and honestly a little depressing. But this book breaks out of that mold—though Sarah doesn’t shy away from discussing her experiences as a trans person, she also doesn’t conform to the genre. Her story is more a tale of coming into politics as a young adult, learning to balance professionalism with the authenticity of identity-based storytelling, and battling cancer as a young couple than it is a traditional trans memoir. She sprinkles in the statistics and legal realities of trans people throughout to educate the casual reader, but it’s really just a story, told by a bold and heartfelt young woman who’s been through way more than anyone should have to before reaching the age of 30.
Tear-jerker warning: a lot of what Sarah writes about in this book is the ultimately tragic love story of her and her late husband, Andy, another trans activist who died of cancer a few years ago. I don’t know if folks who didn’t know Andy will do quite as much crying in airports as I did while reading this, but as a friend and former coworker of Andy’s, I was terribly struck by how the intimate version of the last couple of years of his life written by his wife aligned with my own experience of Andy as a person. Bright, fiercely dedicated, and hillarious, Andy was a hard worker whose efforts were instrumental in getting trans health care protections put into law, but he was also just an awesome person and I wish I’d been closer with him in his life. It was a little surreal to read about what was happening in Andy and Sarah’s private life as I was making bad oral sex jokes with them on Facebook and offering to teach Andy to sign if his tongue cancer made speech difficult. Even those who didn’t know Andy, I think, will have a hard time not getting emotional when they learn through Sarah what a sweet, romantic nerd he was, and how dedicated he was to improving trans peoples’ lives.
I don’t really know Sarah personally, but I feel like I do after reading this book. Some of her experiences ring so true for me, as she goes from terror around coming out to pleasant surprise at the positive reactions to political activism and ultimately pride in herself as a transgender person. I am so, so happy to read about kids like Lula who ask a question like “What’s your favorite part of being transgender?” as if there’s nothing unusual about it. I admit that I’ve sometimes been fiercely jealous of trans kids, but I think part of it is that, like Sarah, I look at them and see the authentic kid I could’ve been, if I were born just a little bit later. I’m happy that I’ve been even a tiny part of the national trans movement that has made their experiences possible.
And it’s the feeling of community of that movement that I think Sarah best brings to light in her account. DC can feel like a bubble sometimes, but the trans and queer movements really can be like a big family at times. Behind the big trans policy announcements of the last few years, there are spectacular people working tirelessly even as they go through their own struggles of bullying and bad breakups and figuring out family life. Even though I don’t currently work in the movement, I feel that I have a home there, and I’m happy to know that such awesome people are working to protect my rights even in terrifying political times. I’m also so happy to read a white trans activist like Sarah giving full credit to the trans folks of color who are much more marginalized and usually can’t get a book deal or the kind of spotlight that she has. She’s clear that while her own story is valuable as a tool for activism, she stands on the shoulders of giants whose names most of us will never know, and I can feel her commitment through her words to changing that world from a position of relative privilege.
I was a little startled by how much I related to Ariel Gore’s new novel, We Were Witches, out now from The Feminist Press. Deeply embedded in Gore’s experience with young motherhood, I thought I might like the story but expected to distance myself from it given the femininity of the topic. But this tale is deliciously queer in both form and function, and speaks to emotions I’ve certainly felt but found difficult to name.
In accessible language and with a playful narrative framework, Gore leaves the experience of shame cut open and dripping blood onto the page. But at the same time, she reminds us that only living things bleed, and reshapes that shame into resistance. “What does shame require to stay alive?” she asks. “What is the antidote to shame?”
Blending a personal journey with political questions, this story reminds us that even white women are not served by White Feminism, and the narrative complicates any nostalgia towards 90s feminism. Gore’s story reminds us that women can also be brutal and that whiteness can be a prerequisite for mainstream feminist protest, that seeking protection for a child can mean forced re-insertion into a heteropatriarchal structure even where the patriarch didn’t ask for it. Ariel in the story experiences both deeply personal, specific pains and the weight of oppressing systems that defy happy endings and leave some questions unanswered. This is a book about shame and magic, violence and motherhood. It’s not (entirely) a true story, but it plays with the question of what is true.
Disclosure: The publisher provided an Advanced Reading Copy of this book for review.
Confession time: I’ve actually had the book reviewed below for quite a while, and with apologies to the Arsenal Pulp folks. I spent so much time thinking about it and how to write about it that this blog has been stalled out for a while as I go through that process. But hopefully, better late than never, as it’s a volume I think many of you should absolutely pick up.
One of my favorite poets, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, recently released a memoir that is somehow both a gut punch and a sweet femme-of-color lullaby, telling a story that is neither completely linear nor what you might expect from what frames itself as a survivor’s tale, but bursting with sense memory and relevance—particular for QPOC and migrant readers. Dirty River (published by Arsenal Pulp Press) focuses mainly on a period of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life in the late 90s where she lived in Toronto struggling with both poverty and relationship abuse, but it is neither a sob story nor a clichéd “overcoming adversity” narrative. The complexities of the story are conveyed with a tight relationship to geography, the confusing nature of memory, and a sense of celebration for queer brown crip femme survival.
Like many great books, particularly those by women of color, this memoir made me think about the nature of storytelling. The path to healing is often not very simple, and this story wrestles with that. It’s a narrative complement to all the great radical books on violence in the context of racism and colonialism published in recent years — with all the references to Courage to Heal in the text, I actually found myself thinking much more about how Piepzna-Samarasinha’s story lines up with the lessons of The Revolution Starts at Home.
While I’m not exactly a great big fan of capitalist gift-obtaining sprees, I’m pretty excited to finally have a year where I remember to post a Radically Queer Gift Guide. Why? Well, I do enjoy putting my money where my mouth is, and so many of the gifts I’ll suggest in these series come from creators and businesses I’m proud to support. Others may be from larger companies, so of course spend at your own discretion, but I am guilty as the next person of sometimes falling prey to the lure of big-box geekery.
For the first post in this series, the focus is on books, always my favorite gift to give and receive. I’m featuring some favorites both old and new that will appeal to radicals, queers, activists, and anyone on your list who appreciates a bit of mind-opening in paperback form.
When I recently received a copy of Benjamin Law’s Gaysia to review, I admit I was a bit skeptical, given the title. I needn’t have been worried, however. Law blends an accessible journalistic style familiar to fans of travel writing with solid research and investigation into various queer cultures in the countries he visits. Each chapter focuses on a country, and I was happy to find that despite the cheeky title, the coverage is quite comprehensive when it comes to queer identities and communities. Law focuses quite a bit on transfeminine folks of various identities, as well as queer people involved in sex work, silenced lesbians, and even the often-abused wives of MSM in a repressive society, showing a refreshing willingness to consider queer life from all angles. The account is honest, as Law admits his own ignorance going into some situations, and thus particularly accessible to the reader who is interested in but not particularly familiar with queer Asian cultures. I was eager to ask Law some questions about his process and what he learned in his travels.
Avory Faucette: Though your style is accessible and reflects your journalistic background, I also wasn’t surprised to find that you have a PhD, since you raise a lot of important questions that I’ve seen in the recent scholarly literature around queer identity in Asia. What kind of research did you do in preparing for your travels? Were you at all influenced by academic research in deciding what topics to investigate in the countries you visited?
Benjamin Law: To be honest, the volume of academic writing on queer identities, culture and communities is so enormous, I had to back away from it and remind myself I was writing something pretty different – a work of adventure journalism. At the same time, a lot of academics were so enlightening and crucial in my understanding of how other cultures framed queer identity, especially Dr Peter Jackson. But most of my background reading was other journalism, actually. For prep, I’d try to email or call every expert in the field, in the country I was going to. And then when I’d arrive in, say, Myanmar, I’d have a meal with them, pick their brains, and ask for more recommendations of interesting stories, or people I should chat to. Most of the contacts I encountered were people I met on the ground.
AF: What was your biggest surprise in terms of how the people you met see their own identities or present themselves?
BL: I guess the biggest surprise was that nearly every preconception or expectation was completely dismantled by the time I left a country. For instance, as an outsider, you go to Bali assuming every male sex worker is living a life of rank exploitation and poverty, when a lot of them are middle-class guys with other jobs, but see sex work as a respectful way of supplementing their income. I’ll never forget when one money boy said, “Of course I’d ask for money after sex – I’m young and handsome, and no one should get this for free.” In a way, I sort of got where he was coming from! And then there are the stories I assumed would be happy, like the ladyboy beauty pageants in Thailand, where transsexual women get a lot of media attention and sponsorship deals if they win. But of course, as I quickly discovered, Thailand isn’t exactly this promised land for transsexual women. In some respects, their laws overlook transsexual women so much, that ladyboys are treated even worse there than countries were transsexual people are less visible.
AF: Were you surprised by how some of your subjects saw you as a journalist? I was struck, for example, by a story where someone perceived you as white, and your decisions in certain contexts not to reveal yourself as queer. Did you find that your own identity shifted significantly in the eyes of those you met as you went from country to country?
BL: Oh absolutely. My first rule was never to lie – I’m openly gay myself, but I’m not going to go out of my way to discuss my sex life with a religious zealot who believes homosexuality can be cured by the power of Christ, or Allah, or yoga, or whatever. But then, to get access to other openly gay men, I’d bring up my boyfriend back home, just to let them know they were in a safe space. Being a Chinese guy ethnically, but an Australian person in terms of citizenship, was interesting – some people saw me as outsider, and others saw me as someone they trusted more quickly, because I had a familiar face.
AF: Finally, I was particularly interested given my own research into how some Asian cultures classify gender and sexuality in how you described kathoey people in Thailand. I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to get any sense from English-language literature of whether kathoeys and other gender categories (hijras in India, fa’afine in Samoa, etc) are really a distinct category in the given culture or just another understanding of what white Westerners would call trans women. Your explanation seems to suggest that ladyboys are basically trans women and that the idea of kathoey has died out. Do you think that in Thailand, or in other queer cultures you researched, gender and sexuality are mostly understood as separate categories with a Western model of transgender identity, or do you think there’s a fundamentally different understanding of gender (or how gender and sexuality relate) in these cultures compared to in the US or Australia? You described some fairly complex understandings of identity categories in a few of the countries you visited, and I found myself wondering to what extent they might affect a general cultural understanding of gender (as opposed to something very much internal to queer subcultures).
BL: Every culture has different vernacular for what’s often similar things. But then in some places, like Myanmar/Burma, the language is really specific, because the gender and sexual identies are so super-specific and don’t have an exact parallel – apwint, abone and thange, for instance. I mean, I think it’s really interesting that the West uses the acronym LGBTIQ, whereas in many other cultures, those alliances aren’t seen as inevitable or natural, necessarily. Gay Burmese men would probably have little or no understanding, concept or care-factor about lesbians, and one country that might subsidise sex change operations because transsexuality is seen as an illness, might also stone homosexuals to death.
Thanks to Benjamin for generously answering my questions about the book and to Cleis for the review copy!
It’s been a while since we had a Radical Reading column around these parts, and I confess that it’s due to the fact that I read Excluded, written by Julia Serano and published by Seal Press, about three times before I felt like I could really talk about the book. The October 1st release date came and went, and I knew I needed to get a review up, but I just kept dithering about what I wanted to say. In a way, though, I think it’s appropriate to post this review as 2013 comes to a close, as this was such a major year for intersectional feminism and (perhaps more obviously) its discontents.
Excluded summarizes some of Serano’s earlier work since her widely-read (in the trans community, anyway) Whipping Girl and then tackles the issue of trans women’s exclusion from feminist spaces. This topic clearly hits a chord with trans and cis feminists alike, and it’s been brewing in feminist, queer, and alternative sexuality communities for several years. A post I wrote about the cotton ceiling debate back in 2012 remains the most popular post on QueerFeminism.com, a site I founded to give a voice to communities that have been excluded by many mainstream feminists, and rarely a day goes by where I don’t find some example of cis feminists being transmisogynist to a greater or lesser degree on Twitter. Furthermore, Serano’s book comes from an important voice at this important time–unlike some of the other trans authors popular in radical queer communities, Serano is a binary-identified bisexual trans woman. She describes herself specifically as bisexual, a transsexual woman, and a femme tomboy. Much of Excluded reminds us of the danger of assuming that the gender binary is a conservative force, and the continued prevalence of biphobia or perhaps general bi-cluelessness in communities that rally around the term “queer.”
Kate Bornstein’s memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, out today, is perhaps not what you would expect from the memoir of a white transfeminine person in her mid-sixties. Unlike some of her peers, Bornstein wrestles with gender and sexuality questions that are often attributed to a younger generation. This will be no surprise for readers of Bornstein’s earlier Gender Outlaw, but it is refreshing in a genre that is often overwrought with medical history, descriptions of a second puberty, and marital drama.
In fact, a large chunk of A Queer and Pleasant Danger isn’t about a trans topic at all—or at least, not a topic that most would consider trans. Bornstein chronicles her years in Scientology, from the anorexic and suicidal young man that joined up in Colorado to the high-ranking Sea Org officer who lived on the flagship with L. Ron Hubbard himself in the 70s to the struggling young father trying to establish a presence for the Church in seedy New York neighborhoods. This portion of the book is hilarious and quite readable, though not without the threads of emotion that you would expect from such a tale told in retrospect.
Bornstein frames the book as a letter to her daughter, Jessica, who was born in the New York years and who is still in the Church with her mother, estranged from Bornstein for the last thirty-two years. The emotional element comes from the fact that this transgender memoir is really a deceptively simple father/daughter story. Bornstein never got to be her father’s daughter, but her memories of Jessica are all as “Daddy.”
The transition element weaves throughout the story, from surreptitious crossdressing as a successful salesman for Scientology to transition and eventual rejection by many staunch trans women who couldn’t quite assimilate Bornstein’s notions of gender. The initial appeal of Scientology for Bornstein was that thetans, the Church’s notion of soul or essential humanity, don’t have a gender. When she took that flexibility beyond the Church, her trans female peers were evidently not amused. Bornstein’s queerness, openness to less rigid ideas of gender, and forays into the lesbian SM scene kept her from fitting in with most trans women and cis lesbians and frankly, make it a more interesting book. At the same time, there are elements of gender hierarchy in Bornstein’s relationships that will likely frustrate any second-wave feminist readers.
As a trans activist, I’ve never quite known what to think of Bornstein, who seems to weave between some really brilliant ideas about gender and some frustratingly foot-in-mouth moments. But as a writer, she accomplishes the same thing she does as a performer: she draws you into her story and gives you a break from life to laugh along with her. What she sometimes lacks when asked to be a trans spokesperson or a media pundit, she makes up for in her storytelling. I would recommend this book to anyone who needs a brief and honest reprieve from the daily grind.
As Bornstein’s one-time partner, David, says, when she asks what she is, exactly—”You’re a mad, mad artist, my dear, and you are awfully cute.”