CN Lester’s Trans Like Me, out this summer in the U.S. from Seal Press, adds another strong voice to the growing chorus of trans authors writing about the trans experience from their own, uncompromising perspectives. Written in an accessible style, but heavily backed up by research, this book is not a trans memoir, but it does blend Lester’s own experiences as a non-binary trans person with observations on media, culture, medicine, and the law. Though the book jumps between a number of topics, I found a cohesive theme throughout around the question of who controls the trans narrative—and what they choose to keep or leave out.
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.
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.”
When I started to read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s newest collection, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? (AK Press), I had an idea of what to expect. There are plenty of examples in the trans/queer blogosphere and Twittersphere of queer, trans, and/or non-binary individuals critiquing femme erasure and femme invisibility. Usually these individuals are young, white, college-educated, and politically radical. They (we) critique a mainstream gay culture that attacks or erases femme expressions of gender, is bothered or even disgusted by trans queers, and deifies masculinity.
Some of the contributions in this volume come from this group, but the collection as a whole takes on a different tenor, one that is sorely needed in our communities. Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? focuses on brown bodies, on AIDS, on colonialism and nationalism, and on the intersections between these themes. These essays are about love and fear–the potential of queer creativity and the impact of a faggot-coded epidemic.
This volume asks us to question our fears–not only of femininity but of brown bodies, trans bodies, poverty, drugs, open sexuality, terrorism, and AIDS. The essays engage explicitly with sex, linking queer desire to ideas of nationality, safety, and acceptability. The authors ask us to build a political discourse around sex and desire and to see the potential in brown, femme, and/or diseased bodies that the collective mainstream gay imagination fears and has forgotten because of the terrifying possibility of death.
Some of the most controversial essays challenge the idea of “safe sex” and ask us to consider barebacking as a sexual practice. How do we pose bodies and sex as dirty or clean? The public health discourse around AIDS jibes well with a national rhetoric of individual responsibility–you are either safe/clean or you are not, you are a citizen or a terrorist, you are with us or against us–and if you cross the line, it is your fault.
“The ‘risk reduction’ we practiced often meant avoiding intimacy with the very people we needed in order to overcome generations of internalized shame; we ended up limiting the types of connections that had historically led to personal health and community well-being.” –Chris Bartlett, “Levity and Gravity”
Some of the authors in this volume suggest solutions to the status quo that are wrapped up in sex, desire, cruising culture, creativity, and femininity. These solutions also challenge the white, middle class, masculine gay norm. Ali Abbas, for example, tells the story of a white colleague accusing him of “playing into” his own Middle Eastern culture while simultaneously ignoring the queerness of some Middle Eastern cultures. Masculinity here is linked to nationalism and citizenship, which in turn is linked to the mainstream gay American culture’s focus on marriage (a right linked to citizenship) rather than human rights, immigration, sexuality, or poverty.
Several essays challenge the assumption of norms, usually presented in a “good vs. bad” binary, around desireability and sexuality. CA Conrad wants to know why fat men are assumed to be undesireable, while Philip Patston asks the same thing about disabled bodies. Patston’s story of going to his therapist and initially assuming, when told that things would be different for him because of his disability, that gay men would see him as a rare and desireable potential partner, challenges the assumption that normal desire focuses on able bodies–or on white ones, thin ones, cis ones, or masculine ones. Discussions of creativity in the early AIDS movement and of the good things about HIV-positive sex challenge readers to consider whether even an “infected body” is necessary less desireable. The gay community is used to the idea of collective trauma (ie, AIDS) vs. collective Pride, but why does Pride have to be found principally in middle class white bodies? Why not in a community of “Others”–brown, trans, pos, disabled, queer faggots?
I agree, at least in part, with the criticisms of the mainstream public health response to AIDS. There are no “good gays” and “bad gays.” The community, such as it is, would be a better place if we consciously engaged with disease, with sex, and with the creative potential of our fringes. I agree with Patrick “Pato” Hebert that our power lies in sex and storytelling, and that these things are linked. “We make ourselves through storytelling. We reproduce the queer power of ourselves through our sex.”
The narratives in this collection are a first step in looking at ourselves as sexual, positive, worthy wholes and as a powerful potential community of activists and artists. As Nick Clarkson explains in his story about a gay cis man who is unwilling to go home with him because of his trans body, we are not solely defined by our histories. It is important to recognize queer people both collectively and individually as a whole–through our histories, our identities, our bodies, and our stories.
Jeanne Córdova’s memoir When We Were Outlaws: a memoir of Love & Revolution, recently released from Spinsters Ink, fills an important gap in the existing first-person accounts of the history of gay and lesbian liberation, but suffers from an unfortunately inconsistent tone. When students take up gay or lesbian history in the US, the starting point is often the Stonewall Riots. The picture of gay and lesbian liberation has a decidedly East Coast slant, or it is told more generally in the context of national movements–homophiles, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, and so on. Córdova’s strength is in the details she provides on the day-to-day life of lesbian activism in 1970s Los Angeles, centered around the strike against the Gay Community Services Center. Her weakness lies in a tendency towards melodrama and an inflation of her own importance in the broader story.
The reason why accounts such as Martin Duberman’s Stonewall are so gripping and effective is that the narrator or the individual subjects of the story are portrayed as mere players in a bigger picture. The power of those individuals in the narrative comes from how subtly their story is told. Córdova has an amazing story–the details of the relationships between gay men and lesbians in LA at the time, the struggle between gay liberation and labor movements, and Córdova’s journalistic relationship with “her Nazi” are particularly interesting. There is a good balance between broader themes and particularly interesting historical snapshots in the book. Where it starts to come apart is Córdova’s tendency to drop into melodrama in describing her personal romantic relationships, non-monogamy in the movement, and her own role as an activist. The dialogue doesn’t come alive, and whenever Córdova focuses directly on analyzing herself at the time or her role in the movement, the subtlety that helps a reader relate to a narrator is lost. The dynamics of butch and femme in the 1970s LA lesbian community and the trend of non-monogamy are interesting, but the moralistic tone that weaves through the narrative will make it uncomfortable for some.
I would recommend this account for those who are particularly interested in first-person history of lesbian liberation on the West Coast, but with reservations. A shorter, more tightly controlled narrative would be more effective in communicating this particular story.
I did find it interesting that in some cases, those perceived as resisting were actually using a group of “resistors” to normalize their bodies. In many groups made up of non-normative body types, the members talk about the safety of that group space, whether it’s roller derby girls embracing their size and propensity towards “unladylike” injuries or women with body hair talking about their experiences in the somewhat artificial setting of a classroom experiment. This first chapter of the book on female body hair was actually the most relatable for me, as a female-perceived person who does not shave underarms or legs. For many women, this is an intentional form of protest, but for many of us it is simply a natural state, and others’ attempts to define us as intentional resistors can be uncomfortable.
On the whole, Embodied Resistance is a good overview of a wide range of topics related to non-normative or resisting bodies. The book does tend towards mostly white subcultures in the US, but there are exceptions. There is also a fair balance in documenting the experiences of different genders. From belly dancing while pregnant to the female dominatrix to the transgender “bathroom question,” the book will prompt plenty of interesting classroom discussions.
Note: I was bothered by the inclusion of a chapter on pro-ana, and need to mention this as a trigger warning for some readers. The authors of this chapter acknowledge the problematic nature of the movement, but it nonetheless may be very hard to read–it was for me.
Radical Reading is a column where I review books of particular interest to a queer, feminist, radical audience. If you have a book that you would like me to review or would like to put me on the list of reviewers for your press, please contact me at judithavory [at] gmail.com.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve been a huge fan of Melissa Harris-Perry since she first started appearing as a guest on The Rachel Maddow Show. She has a tremendous voice and is particularly agile at synthesizing complex information about politics, current events, and social science in an accessible way.
That said, I’m not surprised that I enjoyed her newest book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. The book uses a slightly different framework than usual for looking at black women’s struggles in the US: instead of focusing on simple unequal distribution of resources, Harris-Perry uses a lens of misrecognition throughout the book. Misrecognition, or failure to see black women as their full, authentic selves, is a denial of humanity that colors black women’s lives and prevents them from participating fully in public life. Harris-Perry uses this lens to show how black women are denied full citizenship when they are recognized only as familiar stereotypes–the Mammy, the Jezebel, the Sapphire, and the self-sacrificing strong black woman.
Of course, none of these ideas are really new, but Harris-Perry presents them in a way that is very relevant for 2011. She uses an interdisciplinary focus, blending polling data, her own focus groups, literature, current events, and politics. Though there is some feminist influence at work, this book reads less like works I’ve read by black feminist authors focusing specifically on the feminist lens and more like general non-fiction.
Hurricane Katrina is a theme that weaves throughout the arguments presented, along with the stories presented in literary classics like Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Harris-Perry also looks at current events like the Duke Lacrosse scandal and media coverage of Michelle Obama, but blends these discussions with historical comparison. Black women’s history in the US is presented in a way that would be relevant for a high school or college student today, and I can see this book being used in the classroom.
The frame of misrecognition is particularly interesting, because it gets to the very humanity of the issue. I particularly liked how Harris-Perry tackles the ideal of the “strong black woman,” putting this self-sacrificing, superwoman figure next to other stereotypes and revealing the personal and political problems it creates. Though the strong black woman is a positive character, she too is a misrecognition, and Harris-Perry posits that this idea of what black women should be may lead some black women towards political conservatism through a belief in individual responsibility.
This isn’t a primer on black feminism, or a treatment of all the historical issues related to black women in America. But it is a particularly skillful treatment of some of the issues black women in America face today, seen through the lens of public misrecognition of their true, complex selves.