I refer to this book, and the collection of essays in the front by Riki Wilchins, constantly. It’s a wonderful anthology, and it shows — in real people’s voices, not just academic theory — that there’s so much more to gender than merely “man” and “woman.” It’s one of the first trans-related books I ever read; I bought it, Wilchins’ Queer Theory, Gender Theory, and Leslie Feinberg’s Trans Liberation at the 2009 MN Trans Health and Wellness Conference.
Perhaps one of my favorite quotes about gender is in Wilchins’ essay “A Continuous Nonverbal Communication:” “In fact, throughout our entire waking lives we are carrying out a continuous nonverbal dialogue with the world, saying, ‘This is who I am, this is how I feel about myself, this is how I want you to see me‘” (12). To me, that statement sums up why it is so important to allow people to identify and express their gender as they will — to do otherwise would be to render them invisible and deny who they are.
In “Deconstructing Trans,” which has long been one of my favorite essays dealing with trans issues, Wilchins sheds light on the hierarchies within the transgender community and movement (among other topics), hierarchies that place the most value on transgender people who can pass, people who have a gender identity that is firmly within the binary. Wilchins writes:
when we equate transgenderism with those individuals who can claim their gender is a sign of an internal, binary essence, we privilege transexuals over other genderqueers who cannot make similar claims. Moreover, we diminish those who conceptualize their transcending of narrow gender stereotypes as a matter of the right to self-expression (61).
“Queens in Exile, the Forgotten Ones,” by Sylvia Rivera, is blunt, rough around the edges, and entirely not P.C. It’s also Sylvia freakin’ Rivera, and you have to respect that. It’s powerful, in an honest, matter-of-fact sort of way, and it gives a look at life around the time of Stonewall and just after. It gives important insight into how people who fought at Stonewall (and those like them) have been pushed aside and ignored by the more mainstream gay rights movements for being too different, too other — “for four years we were the vanguard of the gay movement, and all of a sudden it was being taken away. We were being pushed out of something we helped create” (82). She shows that the idea of incremental inclusion — the “Oh, let us pass our bill, then we’ll come for you” (80) — doesn’t work:
Yeah, come for me. Thirty-two years later and they’re still coming for me. And what have we got? Here, where it all started, transpeople have nothing. We can no longer let people like the Empire State Pride Agende, the HRC in Washington, speak for us. And it really hurts me that some gay people don’t even know what we gave for their movement (80-81).
“Scars,” by Hilda Raz, is this short little essay written by a mother about her transgender son. Maybe it’s nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering, but it feels revolutionary to me. It seems that there are so few accounts of parents lovingly, supportively, dealing with their children’s transitions, and I found this one really moving, brief though it is. She writes of dealing with losing her only daughter as she gains another son, and it makes me think of my own mother.
“World’s Youngest,” by Mollie Biewald, is a collection of memories about her gender-transgressive childhood. There are a few in particular that really speak to me. At 13, after attending a queer conference, she writes “If I’m transgendered, wouldn’t I know it by now?” (122), and I remember thinking the same thing, only I was in college at the time. She whispers to her mom, “I’ll always be your daughter. But I’m your son too” (122). And she goes to a gay prom — I remember being so jealous when I read that. Even though I’m well past the age for proms and school dances — and frankly, I never liked them when I was — her few sentences made me wish I could go, too.
Wally Baird’s “Disorderly Fashion” was one of the first first-hand accounts I’d read of a person who, though on T (testosterone) and trying to obtain top surgery (double mastectomy and reconstruction resulting in a male-appearing chest), didn’t do so in order to pass as, or become, a man. She doesn’t identify as a man; she simply wants to make certain changes to her body. It went a long way in separating gender and sex for me in a real sense, not just a theoretical sense.
Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins, eds. GenderQueer: Voices Beyond the Sexual Binary. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002.