Tuesday, 24 April 2012


1. (v.tr.) To write or print (a letter or word) using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or language.
2. (adj., also "trans-literate") Well-versed in transgender theory and/or experiences.

OK, I made that second one up. I like wordplay. But it strikes me that trying to write intelligibly about trans* experiences bears some similarities to transliterating text between one alphabet and another. Being trans* is one of those ineffable personal experiences that are very hard to wrap one's head around without direct experience. More than that, there's such a vast range of differing trans* experiences (as I always encourage readers of this blog to remember: YMMV) that it's often hard for trans* people to understand each other's experiences. All one can do is try and decipher little snatches of one's own vast and indescribable depth of feeling, and then attempt to re-encode them in a way that speakers of a completely different language might possibly begin to understand.

Thanks to my excellent local LGBT+ library, I've recently been trying to improve my trans-literacy, starting with three books that between them emphasise the YMMV principle: Jamison Green's Becoming a Visible Man, Julia Serano's Whipping Girl and Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw. These are the kinds of books that I wish (hope?) "gender professionals" would read, if nothing else so that they could recommend them to trans*/questioning individuals seeking counselling. It's vital (and difficult) to realise, as a trans* person, that there is no one way of being trans* - that one doesn't need to compromise or bemoan one's personality, sexual orientation, or even physical body, in order to accept and own a trans* identity.

Becoming a Visible Man is a "this is not just an FTM transition story" kind of book, written in an accessible style by a thoughtful, sensitive trans man whose experiences have fed into his belief in treating all people with dignity and respect. Whipping Girl, meanwhile, is a searing manifesto of trans-feminist theory, written with devastating insight by a trans woman biologist with a talent for seeking-and-destroying bullshit and hypocrisy. And Gender Outlaw is a form-echoes-content patchwork of ruminations, reminiscences and penetrating questions from a happily-transitioned MTF who is now coming to identify as genderfluid.

All three work hard on challenging and taking apart our tangled societal assumptions about all things gender, repeatedly making the point that physical sex, social gender, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity are not necessarily connected. Many parents worry that because their son likes pink things he might grow up gay, and many adolescent FAABs who have a penchant for masculine clothing think that perhaps they must be lesbians (even though they're not actually attracted to women), and great swathes of people will boggle at the concept of an androsexual FTM or a gynesexual MTF. This assumption that gender expression = sexual orientation (= gender identity) is deeply ingrained into our culture, meaning that anybody who varies even slightly from the prescribed scripts of "manly straight man" or "girly straight woman" or "flamboyant gay man" or "ultra-femme 100%-androsexual trans woman" etc. immediately has a whole heap of internalised everything-phobia to deal with.

You don't have to have done a lot of untangling of all this bullshit in your head to become a happy self-accepting trans* person, but it helps. And it's exceedingly useful (to anyone who struggles with gender norms, not just trans* people) when such people write books about their untanglings that articulate what you were sort of thinking but just couldn't put into words. Serano insightfully pins down a widespread cultural devaluing of feminine qualities as being at the heart of a vast number of these assumptions and prejudices (from gay male fetishising of "butches" over "femmes", through feminist disdain towards women who enjoy expressing femininity, to the massive over-representation by science and the media of trans women over trans men). Meanwhile, Green opens with a knife-sharp chapter mischievously knocking down accepted ideas about "the two biological sexes" (a large portion of which is available on Amazon's "see inside this book" function, and I encourage you to have a read of that if of nothing else I review here).

What's more, you don't have to be a trans* person to have untangled some of this bullshit, but again, it helps: experiencing life "from both sides" (as it were), and needing to come to an unusually clear understanding of what it means to be a "man" or a "woman", have given these authors particular insights into the mechanisms of social, hormonal and psychological gender, and allowed them to think critically about which gendered expectations they do and don't wish to live up to. Or, sometimes, it doesn't: Bornstein struggled to understand the ineffable concept of gender all her pre-transition life, and although she loves her female body, and feels solidarity with those who experience the world as women, she still can't come to terms with gender other than as a social phenomenon, and a dubious one at best. Seeing it as a quietly insidious form of class-based oppression, she encourages us all (gently) to do as she does: to transgress it, thumb one's nose at it, ask it awkward questions, and point out that it (like the proverbial emperor) is wearing no clothes, at every possible opportunity.

I have great sympathy for Bornstein's position, which is why I was particularly intrigued to read Serano's theory of the "subconscious sex": an individual's mental sense of what form eir body ought to take. This subconscious sex is separate from the societal pressures that can affect a person's relationship with eir gender or gendered body; it is just there, effectively existing in a vacuum, a quiet insistence that there ought to be a vagina there, for example - whether or not there actually is a vagina there, or whether or not the person in question identifies as female-gendered. I'm not sure I have a subconscious sex, and it seems from Bornstein's writing that she probably doesn't either;. While people like us, the gender-bewildered, have many valid things to say about the negative aspects of social gender, we must remember that our insistence on destroying the binary can offend or alienate those people (cis or trans*) who do have a subconscious sex. In Serano's terminology, we must avoid behaving with "gender entitlement": the unconscious tendency to project one's own individual experience of gender onto everyone else.

In trans* people, the subconscious sex can be a massive source of physical dysphoria. In cis people, it can be a massive source of gender entitlement. Cis people, Serano reasons, usually have a subconscious sex - they just don't notice it, because it aligns more or less perfectly with their physical sex (and, to a greater or lesser extent, their social gender). Therefore, having no experience of gender dysphoria, they may be unable to understand or believe trans* people when they insist that they are a gender other than the one assigned to them. It can also lead to fractures within the trans* community, based on entitled assumptions of "my experience is the transsexual experience - your experience does not match mine - therefore you are not a true transsexual".

In both cases, the entitled behaviour can stem from an underlying insecurity in one's own gender, a fear that the way one experiences one's own identity might not be "valid". However, those who are brave enough to put aside these layers of defensiveness and try to empathise with other people's perspectives can gain a great deal from it. The initially reluctant Green gradually became deeply involved in the evolving FTM community of the 80s/90s, during which time he got to know (either face-to-face or via correspondence) more trans* people, each with a different trans* experience, than most gatekeepers would ever meet. The result is a text which is imbued with a deep consciousness of and respect for each individual's perspective on gender, and is richer for it. Very few of the (numerous) books, scholarly articles and scientific studies about trans* people have this level of real understanding of their subjects, Serano argues. Most of the "gender professionals", theorists or polemicists who wrote them didn't actually bother to properly get to know any trans* people, and this is why she feels that books like the ones I've discussed here, books written about the trans* experience by trans* people, are so important if we want to come to any meaningful conclusions about gender and those who struggle with it.

Transliterating between alphabets is not the same as translating between languages: all it does is make the words legible, rather than comprehensible. Some extra work is required by the reader if ey is to understand their meaning; ey must try to learn some elements of the writer's native language. Therefore, while I heartily applaud these three authors' prodigious efforts at transliterating their unique experiences into relatable stories, the onus is now on us to become trans-literate.


  1. So... what, if any, distinction would you draw between Serano's concept of "subconscious sex", and the more familiar concept of gender identity?

    1. Attempting not to make blog post overlong --> failure to define terms clearly, whoops. My interpretation was that gender identity is something broader than subconscious sex, and can encompass one's reactions to intellectual/social/cultural aspects of gender as well as one's innate level of comfort with one's physicality.

      Bornstein, for example, talks about being happy to identify as a woman because she is perceived and treated as one in her daily life and is comfortable with this (or, where she's uncomfortable with it, it's in an expression of solidarity with others who dislike being treated in a certain way just because they are women - it's not out of a need to distance herself from them, which is where my own dislike of being treated as a woman stems from).

      She transitioned surgically more out of a sense (back when she was young and naive :D) that she needed to do so in order to be a "real" woman than because of any pre-existing physical dysphoria. Hopefully I'm not projecting onto her too much if I conclude from that that she has a gender identity somewhere on the feminine spectrum, but that this gender identity doesn't encompass a female (or male, or "other") subconscious sex.

    2. Interesting. Thanks for the reply...

  2. I've added all those bks to my amazon basket, due to lack of access to yr awesome library. Can I make a same-sized donation to yr library so you can get more awesome books? :) M x

    1. Ooh, do! Donations can be made by contacting lgbt-librarian [at] cusu [dot] cam [dot] ac [dot] uk. :) xx