- Men in Place: Trans Masculinity, Race, and Sexuality in America by Miriam J Abelson
By Miriam J Abelson
University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 272 pages. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/men-in-place
Miriam Abelson's book, Men in Place: Trans Masculinity, Race, and Sexuality in America (2019, University of Minnesota Press), is a masterpiece. It is an outstanding example of qualitative in-depth interviewing as well as feminist and grounded theory methodological approaches and analyses. Abelson's work to travel the United States interviewing 66 diverse transgender men across the Midwest, South, and West resulted in her amassing one of the largest in-depth interview samples with this population conducted to date. In a technologically-mediated era, Abelson could have conducted these interviews using internet technologies. Instead, she painstakingly traveled thousands of miles, across four years, to ensure that she could develop rapport and potentially longer-lasting research partnerships and connections with participants. Her refusal to take research shortcuts reveals her careful attention to feminist research ethics and a desire to obtain the richest data possible for her important study.
Abelson's book contains five substantive chapters and each reflects her commitment to conducting truly intersectional and interdisciplinary research, analysis, and empirically-based theory building. The intersections that Abelson explores focus primarily upon race, class, gender, sexuality, and space/place. Men in Place fills important gaps in the masculinities literature, which often fails to include transgender men under its examinations of masculinities. While much of the literature on transgender individuals and communities focuses on individual identity, Dr. Abelson's work documents how geography, region, and shifting economic structures impact the lives and meaning-making processes of this understudied and culturally-marginalized group. As such, Abelson urges a more sociologically-grounded refocus—even among sociologists—for how we study, understand, and write about transgender people. For this alone, Abelson's excellent book should make quite a splash.
Abelson's work provides a wake-up call that too many sociological studies of transgender lives are not intersectional and have largely not considered space and place, failing to situate and more fully understand transgender identities, experiences, and communities. Thankfully, Abelson's well-written, methodologically-rigorous, accessible, and intellectually-sophisticated work contributes to filling these gaps. Further developing the apt metaphor of "Goldilocks masculinity," Abelson's work demonstrates how transgender men strive to obtain a "just right, regular guy" masculinity that rides a careful middle ground between hypermasculinity ("too hard"—associated with the classed, raced, and placed notions of "rednecks," "douchebags," and "thugs") and effeminacy ("too soft"—most often associated with the homophobic and misogynist specter of the "faggy man"). In this way, Abelson provides a compelling empirical elaboration of C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridge's critical and highly-cited theoretical framework of "hybrid masculinity."
Ultimately, Abelson argues that some trans men's adoption of a "regular guy" hybrid masculinity likely protects them from experiences of transphobia, racism, classism, and homophobia; yet it also requires their performance of masculinities that may shore up and reinscribe normative masculinity. Men in Place also explores how some white, urban, highly-educated, and middle/upper-class transgender men may engage in "vulnerability rituals" (such as engaging in Transgender Day of Remembrance events) as well as denigration and fear of rural spaces and rural figures (such as "the redneck"). Engaging in these rituals may allow relatively-privileged trans men to absolve themselves from personal responsibility for addressing systemic oppression and violence that is primarily meted out upon trans women of color living in poverty. On the other hand, Men in Place also details forms of masculinity enacted by some transgender men—for example, that of the "progressive man"—which may hold promise for challenging practices of masculine cisnormativity by emphasizing engagement with antiracist, sexist, classist, heterosexist, ableist, and cissexist politics and practices.
Throughout Men in Place, Abelson focuses on the necessity of understanding the systemic nature of transphobia and transphobic discrimination. For example, Men in Place discusses public restrooms and medical care as "amplified sites" of gender and sexuality, within which some inhabitants face violent and sometimes-deadly challenges. Abelson...