Review of Sex Changes


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review by Vamp

Sex Changes: Transgender Politics
by Patrick Califia
Cleis Press, 1997

"Who would you be if you had never been punished for gender-inappropriate behavior, or seen another child punished for deviation from masculine or feminine norms, or participated in dishing out such punishment? What would it be like to grow up in a society where gender was truly consensual?"
- Patrick Califia, Sex Changes: Transgender Politics

This book was a rare treat that left me asking myself many questions. It challenged the way I think about my own gender. This is not a book just for the identified transgendered communities; this is a book that is for everyone.

Patrick Califia begins by doing something unusual in scholarly examinations of the transgendered community, she tells you where she is coming from and why this issue involves her as much as it involves other's she speaks of. Instead of taking the stance of an outsider that is examining and dissecting a community, she firmly places herself within that community in an honest way talking about her own struggles and issues with gender and how they have evolved over time. She also makes transgenderism not just an issue of who has surgery, what the surgery is, and what the social norms dictate a "transsexual" to be. Instead this book treats those as some issues within the larger picture of the history of people who have been in any way deviations from the norm of their gender.

This is a great book for finding resources if you are someone with an interest in gender. She talks about the major first wave of transsexual autobiographies and explains the approaches of the authors. This book has notes at the end of each and every chapter so you can see the articles and books that every quote is taken from. This was so refreshing! I had never noticed before how much the "gender scientists" had dictated what was normal for transsexuals to think and feel about themselves. This book clearly pointed out the catch 22 involved for those seeking surgery. You must fit the profile of those that are "healthy" in their thinking if you want any cooperation from scientists or physicians. If someone feels that they are quite healthy but far outside the box that the surgeons and psychologists create for "normal deviation" (how is THAT for an oxymoron) they can be denied the surgery. I wonder what it would be like if all of us that have opted for body modification of some kind had to undergo such analysis? As Riki Wilchins (the organizer of the In You Face newsletter against gender oppression) is quoted as saying, "If I want my nose done, it's a 'nose job'. If I want my breasts done, it's a 'boob job.' But if I want my groin done, suddenly I have a mental disease."

Patrick takes on the logical questions that follow such an idea. If the transsexual communities are going to represent themselves as a normal variation rather than an unfortunate deviation labeled "Gender Identity Disorder" that is "curable" by surgery and successful when someone adheres to what the doctor's decide are proper behaviors for the person to exhibit in their "new" gender, how can they then push for their right to this surgery based on mental health issues and the disease model for making surgery available and even covered under some insurance?

It is a sticky wicket. They have to be "ill" and unhappy to be able to get the surgery from a system that believes they don't have a right to it unless they are sick, but they don't want to be thought of as ill or unhappy people. Since the transgendered community is very savvy in what must be said to get surgery, how can current knowledge based on case studies or questions asked through medical channels honestly reflect how they feel? They know they must feel what the doctors say they must if they are going to get the surgery or leave the option for surgery open to people in the future. This is a very complicated issue.

Beyond the issue of the ramifications of changing the definition of Gender Identity Disorder in the DSM IV or removing it altogether, Patrick also takes on some of the many other issues of the transgendered. One that particularly caught my attention was the chapter on transphobia in feminism. The acceptance and appreciation of transsexual women in feminism has been rocky. It has spawned reactions like Janice G. Raymond's book "The Transsexual Empire" that attacked transsexuals involved in feminism, and particularly in the lesbian feminist circles. The transsexual female is put in a double bind, unable to be seen as a woman by some because of a belief in genetic determinism by a group purporting that sex is not destiny even though they act as if it is. They are watched and judged based upon how feminine they are, yet if they support feminine norms they are ostracized for supporting sexist beliefs about women. There have been purges of brilliant women from leadership positions in groups they have invested a lot of time and effort in simply because someone has determined that they are somehow moles for the patriarchy penetrating women's groups to violate them. Some radicals have even put forth the idea of transsexual identity as a symbolic form of violence and rape of women. As Raymond put forth, "...[T]heir whole presence becomes a 'member' invading women's presence to each other and once more producing horizontal violence." On top of the aggression and hatred some transsexuals sometimes find themselves up against (to simply prove themselves worthy of participating in women-positive events) there is also a lot of debate inside the transgendered circles about when a person qualifies as a particular sex. Perhaps some of the most haunting questions that everyone is faced with is what is gender, what are the genders, and when does a person qualify for any particular gender?

Here are some examples:

I know that I run a women's mailing list and strangely one of the most challenging details involved in it has been the definition of the term "woman". I've had many questions such as whether transvestites are welcome if they feel their female side is an alternate personality, whether pre-op or non-op transgendered women are allowed, and whether it is appropriate for butch dykes that prefer male pronouns to become members. It is always such a bind to try to come up with an answer. When someone has an answer for them self it is easy for me; I personally believe in the individual's right to identify them self with whatever label they feel comfortable with or with none at all. When someone ASKS though, it puts me in a weird place to judge.

I find myself rolling in sexist expectations and ideas of what is "normal" for a woman when we so frequently discuss how women's destinies and abilities are not defined by our genetics and how so many of us are non-traditional in our actions. I've doubted my judgements and I've seen my ideas evolve with time. I imagine that is going to become a more prevalent struggle in this world in time, as we are confronted with people (and are people) that blur the gender lines more and more. Patrick Califia does a wonderful job in her book of describing some of the internal struggles within the transgendered community to define itself and define gender and what it means. She presents many sides and honestly takes a good look at the weaknesses and strengths apparent in all of them without seeming to take an obvious side. The courage to point out weaknesses while not separating herself from the debate was a very wonderful thing to see. She demonstrates that these are questions she struggles with as much as she imagines others will.

Patrick Califia's writing strikes me as the writing of a good friend. My mother always taught me that shallow friends are quick to sing the praise of all your judgements and your actions. It takes a good friend to take an honest look at you and tell you where you need to work on things while never looking down on you or expecting you to face it all on your own. A good friend is quick to congratulate when it is due, but doesn't give false praise. Patrick does this in the book. She is honest enough to say the things that have to be said. Major kudos to her.

This book takes on another touchy subject, the appropriation of transgendered people by gay academia. She points out that many historical "gay" figures may very well fit more into the transgendered label or thought of themselves as transgendered rather than gay.

One example of this is the "berdache". Berdache is not a word based on any Native American language, but is said to have been applied to certain natives that appeared to the Europeans to be cross dressing bio-males that had sex with other men. The term berdache was applied to them since it was a Persian word known in Europe to mean the passive male partner in anal intercourse and inferred prostitution.

This is far from how many of the "berdache's" or their cultures saw themselves. Instead, they used words such as the Crow badé meaning "not man, not woman" or the Lakota winktes meaning "halfmen-halfwomen". They were treated very differently in their cultures than those that did not blur gender lines and yet engaged in same sex. In spite of this, many academics have decided to include them as some sort of gay role model such as in Gay American History by Jonathan Katz. Many people question those sorts of appropriations, since many gay males would hardly think of themselves as "not man, not woman" or "halfmen-halfwomen".

Another example of this in the Native American culture is that of the "passing women" that crossed dressed, were perceived as men, and had sexual relations with women. There is hot debate as to whether these are transgendered heterosexual men being appropriated as butch dyke historical figures or whether they are butch dykes being treated like the transgendered inappropriately.

I got the impression from the chapter on these appropriations that to take either side was a somewhat flawed and arrogant stance, since we can hardly understand how people saw themselves unless their is a record of how a particular person felt in their case. I doubt there will ever be answers to such debates, so perhaps it is better to honor the questions and acknowledge the doubt.

Patrick Califia also shares some research that casts some doubt on the mystical and revered status of such figures in Native American cultures. There were many incidents of violence and prejudice that these people faced and it is perhaps disrespectful to forget their struggles and suffering while we struggle to find role models of a perfect society that once accepted sexual or gender variations beyond those we know now.

Patrick goes into some other really interesting territory in this book. For one, she actually spends some time talking about the PARTNERS of transgendered people. This was refreshing to read. I have had several romantic relationships with transgendered people and I never really see this subject dealt with except in passing. She dares to ask if they are really the straight or queer stereotypes that they are often made out to be, or whether they are something else entirely. She also dares to ask if they might actually be attracted to partners BECAUSE they are transgendered and that they see that as a sexy and fabulous aspect of a person. So many times partners are written about as accepting or dealing with a transgendered partner as if that element is a liability, what a refreshing treatment to see someone speak about them as loving and being attracted to that element of the relationship and seeing it as a bonus!

It is also nice to see transgendered people represented as whole people with different experiences. Patrick explores the whole new wave of transsexual autobiographies and writings that no longer seem to be pandering to some accepted definition of how they should feel but instead seem to be challenging old ideas. She details the autobiographies of some transsexuals who have dared to explore some of their pain and who haven't tried to make themselves into visions of the perfectly well adjusted heterosexual transsexual who is just so grateful to their doctor. She also details some of the rebellion against gender ideas. There are some that want to make it clear that they feel that the gender system itself is a problem that needs to be eradicated. Yet another side that wants to be heard are those that state that gender shouldn't be non-consensual and the complete denial of those with a different chromosomal makeup than XX or XY is a major problem that is ignored even by the larger transgendered communities. They feel the non-consensual surgeries, hormone treatments, and forced compliance with the artificial structure that has no room for hermaphrodites is inhumane and that they are the forgotten victims.

The one place that I think this book falls short of dealing with well is with the transvestite community. There was not much talk about them, and when there was it tended to be very negative if they saw themselves as heterosexual people. Perhaps this was only my reading of it, but it gave me that impression. You'll have to read those small sections and decide for yourself. I think much of the criticism was fair, but I would have liked to see more viewpoints about transvestites represented. Although she may not have gone into much detail about goings on in the transvestite communities, she does make sure to include resources in the vast array of materials listed in the back. The resources at the back of this book will be incredibly valuable to anyone trying to track information down.

In summary, I adored this book. Overall I felt it was a fair, daring, thorough, and caring treatment of the politics of transgenderism and a great resource for everyone regardless of gender. I wish this text could be an element in human sexuality classes everywhere. I think that if more people took the time to ask themselves about their feelings regarding gender and regarding what the gender label they feel they fit into really means to them, the long term result might be less sexism and a more comfortable world. Then again, I know that while I read this book I had a dream about a world in which gender was defined by things such as femme, Top, bottom, butch, and such. In that world I attended high school and got bashed for refusing to take a label, seeing myself as a chameleon that moved within all of them and went beyond them. Maybe before sorting out what is gender, we have to remember that we are all human. Since all groups have a history of dehumanizing actions and attitudes, that may take awhile for all of us no matter how enlightened we think we are.

Vamp :)=

This review is Copyright © 1999 Vamp Ire.


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