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Words, Words, Words: Talking Transgenders
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.3 (2000) 455-466

Book Review

Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue . Leslie Feinberg. Boston: Beacon, 1998. 128 pp. $20.00

FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society. Holly Devor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999 (orig. 1997). xxviii + 695 pp. $27.50 paper

Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities Jason Cromwell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. x + 201 pp. $42.50 cloth, $19.95 paper

Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Jay Prosser. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. x + 270 pp. $50.00 cloth, $17.00 paper

Of the four books under review, three are by transgenders and the fourth is by a sociologist with a history of research on gender variance. Leslie Feinberg's collection contains "adaptations" of speeches given in 1997 to a variety of queer audiences, from a transvestite gathering in Texas to a queer studies conference in New York. Interspersed are brief personal accounts by members of the communities addressed. Many of Feinberg's assertions are incontrovertible: we must build alliances for civil rights progress; we are all "in transition" all our lives; the shorthand use of "patriarchy" is sloppy indeed. Feinberg's critique of popular genetic hypotheses regarding gender identity is reasoned and welcome. And who can disagree with the underlying premise that the mainstream gender dichotomy is too rigid, too all-pervasive? The author's trans-lib movement is for everybody's liberation, even those who are not at all "beyond pink or blue."

Yet fundamental questions remain. Is a genderless society possible? Does everyone want to be liberated? If not, are those who do not merely victims of false consciousness, or are they perhaps as genderly programmed, and as firmly, as the most childhood-gender-dysphoric of transsexuals? If transgender feelings of being a "woman in a man's body" and vice versa are validated by support systems, medical interventions, and political organizations, may those who feel like a "man in a man's body" or a "woman in a woman's body" forgo coerced "liberation"?

Public speeches, especially those with hortatory aims, are not a prime locus of reasoned analysis. So it is no surprise that these talks are replete with the historical howlers that fill the popular GLBT press. Gender variance, we are told, has existed globally throughout human history; ancient societies accorded respect and honor to sex/gender diversity. Gender oppression and homophobia, in the pop-Marxist doctrine espoused by Feinberg, appear only with class societies and economically motivated ruling classes. To Feinberg, the record, postprimitive, is a long series of progressive workers' battles. There are no moments of regression, no excesses of the left. This history is bunk.

We also learn of personal experiences, familiar to all trannies, of strangers befuddled by their inability to classify us, of bathroom discomfitures, traffic stops, and drivers' licenses. Most disturbing is Feinberg's horrific experience of rejection by a medical doctor during a life-threatening bout of endocarditis, when hir female body was revealed. While Feinberg insists that s/he does not fit prevailing notions of gender attribution, it is clear that the doctor first read hir as male. But beyond the maltreatment, what disturbs me is Feinberg's inability or unwillingness, in 1995, to locate sympathetic practitioners to obtain regular medical care. It is sensible and medically justifiable for transgenders to identify themselves as such at the outset, yet Feinberg resents doing so. Criticisms of the health care establishment are certainly in order, and transgenders, along with many lesbians and gay men, suffer crippling anxieties that weaken their ability to demand services. But Feinberg's position, as hir personal experience demonstrates, risks far more than initial honesty does. I find it unworthy of a queer icon active in the political arena.

Since there is little to learn from Feinberg's exhortations, the reader's interest shifts to the author's own protean and perplexing persona. In 1980 Diane Leslie Feinberg authored Journal of a Transsexual. Feinberg now presents hirself as someone who would "rather not be" gender-categorized, who does not fit prevailing gender notions. "I am a female who is more masculine than those prominently portrayed...