Book Review–Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein

What’s your gender? When did you decide it? How much say do you have in your gender? Is there is anything about your gender or gender role that gets in your way? What would happen if you transgressed those roles? These are the sorts of questions Kate Bornstein asks as a self-described nonbinary transfeminine diesel femme dyke in hir part coming-of-age, part mind bending manifesto on gender and sexuality, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us.

Published in 1994, Gender Outlaw was years ahead of its time. Now, a little over twenty years later, it is a recognized classic in the world of gender and queer theory that continues to expose new readers to a daring world of gender anarchy, rebellion, fluidity, and creativity; a world where gender ambiguity can and should be explored and everything everyone is supposed to just know about gender is brought into question. This world of gender outlaws comes alive through Bornstein’s fun, quirky, personal style with a combination of cultural criticism, autobiography, and dramatic writing.

As a cultural critic Bornstein tackles many common assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality from the idea sex and gender are the same and gender and sexuality are interdependent traits. The main assertions Bornstein makes include gender is a cultural rather a cultural phenomenon distinct from biological sex and it does not determine sexual orientation. If it did what that make someone who is attracted to someone who is nonbinary?

Bornstein enhances hir cultural criticism with autobiographical content that gives readers a window (or, perhaps, a mirror) into the experiences of someone who does not live outside of the gender binary most of the population takes for granted. As someone who is neither a man or a woman, has experienced a gender transition from male to female, and is a trans elder Bornstein through means of autobiography manages to make hir theories speak to lived experience and come alive.

Also eaders who are interested in queer theater will appreciate the inclusion of Bornstein’s play, Hidden: A Gender, and its creative exploration of gender ambiguity and fluidity. By the end many readers and audiences will be left with new questions to examine and new gender possibilities to see.

While Gender Outlaw may not be for  the feint of heart, I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of gender and sexuality. Some, in the process of exploration, may find the issues of gender, sexuality, and desire Bornstein addresses speak to them more than they expected.

Book Review–Standing Tall with Turner Syndrome edited by Claudette Aharon

In a highly medicalized world it is important for those of us who are intersex to exchange in personal narratives centered on our experiences living in our particular bodies beyond clinics, charts, test results, treatment plans, procedures, lists of symptoms, diagnostic nomenclature, and normalization. When we share stories and information with one another we can empower each other. Just the act of sharing stories in community allows us to learn from one another away from the constraints of doctors’ offices. It makes us feel less alone and deepens our sense of community. When medical professionals hear our stories it gives them a chance to improve the care they provide and see us more as human beings and not just patients or issues to be managed or fixed. That is why the autobiographical essays like the ones collected in Standing Tall with Turner Syndrome are so important for the Turners community.

The essays cover a wide range topics including sexuality, hormone replacement therapy, interactions with medical professionals, gender expression, relationships, family life, and more. Turners women and girls in particular are given opportunities to see themselves accurately portrayed in the stories the contributors share. The essayists themselves are of ages from older women to young adults and a few are even people of color. This helps to expand representation for the Turners community beyond the usual focus on white girls and hormonal treatments. However diverse representation in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation is limited with only a brief acknowledgement lesbian with Turner syndrome exist. Otherwise the assumption everyone with Turner syndrome is a feminine, heterosexual, female, and cisgender are left unchallenged. Unfortunately such a lack of LGBTQ+ is unfortunately quite common within the wider Turners community. Hopefully this will change as visibility increases for LGBTQ+ and Turners communities including those of us who live at the intersection of these experiences.

Readers who do not have Turner syndrome are given a window into what it is like to live with the condition and what it means on a personal as well as a medical level. The sections on the biology of Turner syndrome are straight forward, easy to understand, and effective for teaching the basics of the condition. It avoids the common pit falls sources on Turner syndrome fall into like just giving a long of symptoms or using confusing medical jargon. All of this makes it an excellent educational resource.

In the end I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Turner syndrome, especially to those who are newly diagnosed and their families and friends. It is the kind of book I wish was in existence when I was diagnosed and I think it  also would have been really helpful to my family during that difficult time.

Book Review–Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul by Leslie Feinberg

Why is there prejudice against trans and gender nonconforming people? When did it start? Where did it start? How did it start? These are questions Leslie Feinberg sets out to answer in Transgender Warriors: From Joan of Arc to RuPaul in a world that largely takes sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, transphobia, homophobia, and similar forms of institutional subjection for granted.

For the purposes of this analysis Feinberg utilizes the broadest definition of transgender possible in embracing the word as an umbrella term that covers anyone who transgresses gender lines. This includes groups as diverse as, “transsexuals, transgenders, transvestites, transgenderists, bidgenders, drag queen, drag kings, cross-dresser, masculine women, feminine men, intersexuals (people referred to in the past as “hermaphrodites”), androgynes, cross-genders, shape-shifters, passing women, passing men, gender-benders, gender-blenders, bearded women, and women bodybuilders who have crossed the line of what is considered socially acceptable for a female body.” Some of these words have gone largely out of use, others have been redefined, and entirely new words have been added since Transgender Warriors was written in 1996. Many of the aforementioned terms, including intersex, have even experienced contested belongings under any of kind trans umbrella whatsoever in recent decades. While these rapid language shifts may be confusing at times, these changes are actually a positive sign. The fact our language on gender is changing at all means people are actually talking about these issues and it is having an impact. Plus Feinberg’s technique of using the term transgender in the most inclusive possible can still be useful for emphasizing how the issues gender transgressors from drag queens to intersexuals face on a daily basis are interconnected. After all none of us are free until all of us are free.

Feinberg also makes a significant contribution to anti-imperialist struggles with a compelling examination the connections between the rise of class divided societies, patriarchy, and the rise of European imperialism. Coming from an explicitly anti-racist, Marxist position, Feinberg avoids analyzing cultures they do not belong to and instead focuses on the central role the emergence of class divided societies and European colonialism have had in the development of prejudice against trans people. An example of this can be found in how colonizers forced their binary gender system on native cultures who recognized more than two genders. In fact not only were gender variant people not oppressed, they were revered and played important roles in their communities. There is also evidence this was also the case in Europe at one time in the far distant past. However all of that changed in the transition from matrilineal, egalitarian, communal societies in which resources are shared to patrilineal, class divided societies in which the majority of the wealth is consolidated among small groups of powerful men through means of inheritance from fathers to sons, private land ownership, and exploitative rent collecting practices that serve to direct wealth away from the lower classes. Such a system also necessitated a rigid gender divide and eventually evolved into the forms of patriarchy, racism, classism, imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia that we know today. This new way of viewing history also implications for how live and seek change in the present.

In the interest of praxis Feinberg and connecting theory to lived experience Feinberg also makes connections between the historical research and her own lived experiences as a “anti-racist white, working class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female revolutionary communist.” These insights help to ground all of the historical theories covered in their meanings for the present context and brings the reader into Feinberg’s vision for a future free of oppression, a future in which everyone has access to their own history and is honored in their gender.

In the end I would recommend this well-crafted and well-researched book for anyone interested in trans history and social justice. In particular I would recommend to anyone who is gender transgressive and wrestling with the questions Feinberg poses. There is nothing as powerful as knowing one’s own history. Once any subjugated people realizes their marginalization is not an inevitable, ahistorical fact of life that has existed for all times and in all places, and can actually be changed in the present there is no going back.

Book Review–The ABCs of LGBT+ by Ash Hardell (Ashley Mardell)

Ever wished there was an accessible, go-to source of information with colorful illustrations you could use to explain your lesser known identity when coming out to family and friends? Ever wished there was a comprehensive source of basic LGBT+ terms you can turn to for learning about the new identities you’re hearing come up more and more frequently? Maybe a friend or family member just came out as an identity you’ve never heard of and you want to learn more about it in an effort to better support them. Well now there’s a source for that: The ABCs of LGBT+ by Ash Hardell (aka Ashley Mardell), a Youtuber who’s channel focuses on LGBT+ issues and education.

With the input of knowledgeable editors from various LGBT+ organizations and LGBT+ bloggers, this helpful guide covers a range of topics from spectrums to gender identities to romantic and sexual identities. This includes an entire introduction to sex/gender with an entire section devoted to intersex complete with direct input from an intersex person and spectrums to help illustrate the sex diversity of humanity beyond male and female. The fact intersex is given its own section entirely separate from the chapter on gender identities helps to address the common confusion between intersex and nonbinary identities. Such confusion is understandable given the common cultural tendency to think of gender exclusively through the lens of biological essentialism. However, the fact of the matter is gender and sex are separate, socially constructed categories and an intersex person’s biology as such does not dictate their gender identity. We can identify as any gender along the spectrum and beyond or even have no gender at all. Many of us identify as men and women in agreement with our birth assigned genders. Some of us contested our assigned genders and identify as transgender men and women or some form of nonbinary. As so many feminists have put it, “Biology is NOT destiny.” In this sense intersex is not a gender identity in the same way nonbinary, transgender, and cisgender are all gender identities. Rather intersex as an identity is based on biological sex in a social world instead of psychosocial gender.

Beyond the information on intersex the text contains a wealth of information on lesser known gender identities such as genderflux, maverique, pangender, and demigender complete with input from individuals who actually identify with these terms. There are very few texts that show case such an expansive, informative, and well researched list of gender identities all in one place and to make it even better the section on romantic and sexual identities is just as expansive and informative. Not only does it include lesser known identities like androsexual, omnisexual, and polysexual, there is also a high level of quality ace/aro representation throughout the chapter. Ace and aro are slang terms for asexual and aromantic, words that refer to those who experience little to no sexual and romantic attraction respectively. Often these identities are lost in the plus of LGBT+ even within gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender spaces. That is why the inclusion of these identities in books like The ABCs of LGBT+ is so important.

Now, to be fair, readers who are familiar with the more radical works of queer theorists like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Dean Spade may find The ABCs of LGBT+ to be too basic and lacking in depth. However, as the title suggests, the text is intended to cover a wide range of basic information for a wide audience. In this way what the text lacks in depth it makes up for in breadth. Plus thanks to the efforts of Hardell and their contributors many readers who otherwise would never have heard of identities like demisexual, homoromantic, androgyne, and neutrois are now familiar with these often ignored identities and maybe have some new terms to help explain their own experiences. I know it has proven helpful in my own gender questioning and achieving my goal of becoming more knowledgeable on gender, sexual, and romantic identities beyond all of the binaries.

In the end as an activist, advocate, educator, and member of the queer community I would recommend this book as a guide to those who are questioning their identity as well as to those who wish to start educating themselves on LGBT+ topics and become better allies in the process. While the text only scratches the surface of LGBT+ identities, let alone queer politics, The ABCs of LGBT+ is effective in achieving its goals when it comes to educating readers on the basics of sex/gender, gender expression, sexuality, romantic attraction, and LGBT+ identities.

Book Review–Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis by Georgiann Davis

Georgiann Davis’ Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis is a compelling sociological assessment of the intersex rights movement in the United States and is an excellent read for anyone who wants to learn more about the current state of intersex activism. Using insights from the sociology of diagnosis, interviews with various stakeholders in intersex health care, and the work of major intersex organizations Davis effectively argues the medical profession introduced Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) nomenclature in order to reassert their jurisdiction over the intersex body after activists had successfully challenged their authority.

In her examination of the strategies currently employed within major intersex organizations such as Accord Alliance and the AIS-DSD Support Group Davis finds today’s intersex activists tend to take on strategies of contested collaboration with medical professionals rather than collectively confront medical authority like they have in the past. As part of this shift many organizations focused on intersex activism have adopted DSD nomenclature over the last decade in spite of how it inevitably pathologizes intersex bodies. While these less confrontational strategies have been useful for opening up conversations between intersex activists and the medical professionals who wish to care for them as well as for increasing access to biological citizenship for certain intersex people, there is always the danger that working with medical professionals may turn into working for medical professionals. Meanwhile intersex infants and children are still subjected to medically unnecessary surgeries with lifelong consequences despite formal changes on paper strongly advising against such “treatments.” Only now medical professionals can justify these practices in reframing their actions as part of treating abnormalities under the umbrella term Disorders of Sex Development. These findings act as a warning to activists that while collaborative strategies such as the use of DSD nomenclature may get us in the room and help some of us gain access to biological citizenship they can easily be co-opted, used to strengthen medical jurisdiction over intersex bodies , and create divisions within the community. To avoid these pitfalls Davis recommends cautious flexibility when it comes to terminology choices and collaborating with medical professionals and argues for strategic combinations of confrontational and collaborative strategies when seeking to transform intersex medical care.

Along with this analysis Davis also offers her own perspective as an intersex person diagnosed with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Throughout her analysis Davis shares aspects of her own experiences with intersexuality and how her personal experiences with the topic affect her work as a sociologist. This makes Contesting Intersex a very personal work as well as an academic one. Such a personal touch is excellent for readers of similar intersex experiences.

Then there is the analysis of the various views and linguistic strategies of intersex people. Over the course of the research process Davis interviews members of various intersex organizations on their views concerning terminology. These views ranged from those who take on the new DSD nomenclature to those who embrace an intersex identity to those who are flexible in their language choices. Together these interviews yield important insights into the wider debate over terminology within the community at a macro-level as well as how individuals approach language on a micro-level. This includes the benefits and drawbacks of each position for individuals and communities, especially when interacting with families and medical professionals. The one limitation of these interviews is the participants are predominately white, upper to middle class, college educated adults with access to support group memberships, conferences, medical services, and the internet. Hence the issues intersex people who do share in these privileges are left out. However, even with these limitations, this portion of Davis’s investigation does generate questions for further research and offers important insights into intersex issues and community at this point in history.

Beyond the intersex community other stakeholders in intersex health care may find Contesting Intersex valuable for expanding their knowledge of the community and what it means to be intersex. This includes parents and medical professionals brave enough to listen. For this reason I would recommend Contesting Intersex  to those who are intersex  as well as those who love them and wish to care for them.