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by Donald B. Jeffries

This review was written for Interweave, a St. Louis-based transgender newsletter, in 2005.


Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and The Rest of Us, by Kate Bornstein

Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism, by Pat Califia

Both of these books deal with the subject of transgenderism and gender studies. Both question, with great rigor, the dichotomous polarity of gender as it is practiced in American culture. Both pointedly note that they find gender to be both an incredibly interesting subject matter, on one hand, and an incredibly tedious issue, on the other. Interesting, because it is such a critical cornerstone of people’s perceptions of each other, and tedious, because that perception is so profoundly ridiculous on another level, given that our gender has in many ways little to do with who were are, and more to do with what we are supposed to be and how were are supposed to act.

And ‘act’ it is: there is a distinct way in which each of us ‘presents’ our gender identity to the world around, so that we can be ‘identified’ in the eyes of the viewer as falling into one of the only two possible gender categories, male or female. That ‘presentation’ is pivotal to how we are perceived by others and, given the rigid sex role socialization to which we are subjected in our society, how others ‘react’ to us and how others ‘treat’ us. The ‘presentation’ is so utterly pivotal to the whole of the process that if a transgendered person wants to appear as the sex of ‘presentation’, they must act out the various mannerisms, hand gestures, intonation of voice, styles of speech, stride or gait, and level of assertiveness or submission expected of their ‘sex of presentation’ in order to ‘pass’ for that gender; and failure to achieve these highly defined ‘sex role behaviors’ will result in their being laughed at, ridiculed or in extreme cases, beaten. (Unless, of course, they are intentionally trying to make humor out of the situation, such as in a “gender fuck”, where a gay man dresses as a woman, but with his full beard showing through, parodying the distinction between the genders; but even in these situations, one must be intensively careful to only display such behavior around ‘safe’ company, people of like humor or inclination.)

I have, over the years, read quite a great many books on the subject of transsexuality and transgenderism, and the exploration of that field of study has opened my eyes to a wholly different sociocultural world than most people experience in this society. (1) It has given me a ‘window on reality’ that is opened only rarely in this culture: an opportunity to see the world as other-than-the-given, an ability to openly question the polarity of gender to which our culture so rigorously adheres. I have, over the years, slowly begun to work through the terror of the sexual abuse perpetrated upon me as an infant, and just as slowly I have become comfortable with my ‘maleness of presentation’, as the male that I am.  I still resent, though, being forced by others into a strictly dichotomous role structure, and drop like a rock any and all ‘dating’ relationships that even hint at moving in that direction.

The Issue of Sexual Identity

Emotional trauma and childhood sexual and physical trauma often cause sexual identity crises in both men and women, though sexual confusion could as well come from other causes, such as fluid sexual socialization or having a caregiver who is gay/lesbian, whose own sexual identification is not ‘fixed’ in the ‘normal’ [rigid, inflexible] way our society demands (or for other reasons not listed). But that confusion was the route for me and I know of many other sexual abuse survivors for whom this is also the case.

The Califia book (2) addresses this matter of sexual identity in full measure. Though Pat Califia talks about both female and male sexual identity confusion and its aftermath, and though she does not infer a direct connection to childhood sexual abuse as the cause (in fact, she stresses sexual variety and the manner in which it is played out in a sociocultural context), both female and male survivors of childhood sexual abuse very often experience this kind of deep dissonance in their sexual self-image, and while it may allow them a certain level of acceptance of sexual variety unacceptable to the general population, that very flexibility often leaves them in a position of even greater confusion about their inherent sexual natures.

Both Pat Califia and Kate Bornstein (3) , though, are unwilling to stop at the dissonance of sexual self-image, and are more than willing to attack the social ‘norms’ that demand that each of us fall into categories of one gender or the other. And whereas many of the early works on transgender and transsexuality accepted the medical community’s definition of gender in order to facilitate sexual reassignment surgery, both Califia and Bornstein actively challenge that community’s definitions and as willingly challenge the surgical community’s right to define gender. They see the categories as being considerably more fluid and overlapping, and while they are willing at some level to accept a certain amount of the balkanization of sexual roles, so that individuals can have a measure of ‘known identity’, they are unwilling, in the extreme, to allow those two limited roles to define the total landscape of sexuality. Kate Bornstein, in particular, takes a somewhat sweet and humorous bent to the subject matter, and notes with particular sagacious acumen that she is not simply a man who has gotten a transsexual operation and become a woman [a woman she is not, she notes, since she lacks the interior functioning organs of a genetic woman], but that she represents a third sex altogether.

Ms. Bornstein wonders if all the neurosis about sexual role definition is worth it to much of anybody:

I’m supposed to be writing about how to be a girl. I don’t know how to be a girl. And I sure don’t know how to be a boy. And after thirty-seven years of trying to be male and over eight years of trying to be female, I’ve come to the conclusion that neither is really worth all the trouble. And that made me think. Why? Why do people think it’s worth all that trouble to be a man? Why do people think it’s worth all that trouble to be a woman? (Bornstein, Gender Outlaw, p. 234)

Partly she answers her own question, by noting that at least the appearance of nature is destiny:

I had my genital surgery partially as a result of cultural pressure: I couldn’t be a “real woman” as long as I had a penis. Knowing what I know now, I’m glad I had my surgery, and I’d do it again, just for the comfort I now feel with a constructed vagina. I like that thang! (Bornstein, p. 119, her emphasis)

What is very interesting about both Califia and Bornstein is that, while both of them accept that ‘presentation’ has a place, neither is willing to allow society or the medical establishment or therapists (social workers included) to define how potential transsexuals have to behave or what they have to say in order for them ‘qualify’ for the surgical operations they so dearly desire to become comfortable with themselves. Unlike Kate Bornstein, Pat Califia has chosen not to take the ‘leap’ of sexual reassignment surgery, though she gave ample thought to it:

In the end, I decided that I could not separate my personal ambivalence about being female from the misogyny and homophobia of the surrounding culture. I could not tell if I wanted to have a cock because I wanted to be a man, or because I had been told all my life that any real sex had to involve a penis and a vagina. Did I hate my tits because I was transsexual, or did I hate them because I was sick to death of being leered at, grabbed, and ridiculed? I went around and around with this question for months, and could not come to any honest answer.

And so I became a sort of psychic hermaphrodite. (Califia, p. 5)

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Mariposa Men’s Wellness Institute was founded in 2001

to help men become emotionally healthy.


Book Review:

On The Fluidity of Gender

Page 1


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