Dr. Serano’s Diagnosis of the Malady

In my previous blog posting, I wrote of the necessity for trans women to be able to communicate with each other.  By doing so, we may be able to build a community which will have the effect of empowering ourselves.  My recent visit to Camp Trans has motivated me to want to once more be active in the trans community.  My posting concluded with my hope that my blog might be able to initiate that conversation and communication.

A year before visiting Camp Trans, my curiosity about the current state of the trans community was piqued during a visit to a bookstore located in Chicago’s north side Andersonville neighborhood.  In our apparently post-literate society, Women and Children First is that rarest of emporiums:  an independent — and feminist — bookstore.  Even before entering, I felt a moral and political obligation to exit the store with a purchase.

On the bookshelf, I encountered a treasure.  Whipping Girl:  a Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007, Seal Press, Berkeley, CA, 390 pages) is an empowering polemic by a trans woman, and essential reading for anyone concerned about the nature and persistence of misogyny in our culture.  The author, Dr. Julia Serano, earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Columbia University and has conducted genetic research at the University of California, Berkeley.  While Dr. Serano’s scientific credentials prove valuble in her debunking of the distortion of medical and sociological research that results in, and serves, what she terms “pathological science”, “Whipping Girl” avoids the dry, academic prose style of traditional social science.  Likewise, this clearly-written book avoids the mangled syntax common to the “text” and “discourse” of post-modernist feminist/gender/queer “studies.”

Concerning pathological science, the book’s longest chapter critiques how the medical and psychiatric establishments have placed inferior meanings not only on femininity but also upon the needs of those seeking medical intervention to live as females.  Rather than providing care to people with persistent psychic pain related to their birth sex, the “gatekeepers” of gender identity clinics have placed great obstacles in the path of trans women seeking relief.  Dr. Serano defines this negative obsession with the supposed problem of male femininity as “effemimania,” and the efforts of Robert Stoller, Richard Green, and others in the psychiatric establishment as an attempt to control and, if possible, eliminate its occurance in children as well as adults.  In the psychiatric stigmatization of transsexualism, the destinies of trans people have been at the whims and mercy of the gatekeepers to determine who shall be able to proceed to further transitioning, and how.

Equally strong is the third chapter, “Skirt Chasers:  Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels”. Given our misogynist society’s assignment of inferior meanings on femininity, Serano writes of the recurrent tendency of the media to sensationalize, and thus deride, trans women.  In media representations, the presentation of our femininity places us in a double-bind:  either we are hyperfeminine (and therefore an exaggeration given prior knowledge of male pasts) or else we fail to be feminine enough.  In either instance, the femininity of trans women is inevitably presented as illegitimate, and trans women as either deceitful or pathetic.

Dr. Serano also pairs the hypocritical restrictions placed on women through traditional sexism with the trans-exclusionary policies and attitudes perpetuated in feminism against trans women.  Discussing the trans-misogyny rife in the works of Mary Daly, Germaine Greer, and other second-wave feminists, Serano speaks not only of their contradictory position, but also of their aversion to dialogue with trans-feminists.  “Bigots are typically too cowardly to dare have their views openly discussed or debated with the very people they despise.”  Within the context of lesbian-feminism, one wonders if lesbian identity is so fragile as to be unable to withstand even the slightest exposure to XY chromosomes, even those residing within a woman’s bloodstream?

Finally, in the closing chapter, “The Future of Queer/Trans Activism”, Serano comments upon the marginalization of trans women even within the Queer/Trans movement.  The privileging of trans masculinities as well as the tendency to frame trans oppression as the result of “heterosexist gender norms” evades the author’s  complaint that she has experienced “way more cissexism and trans-misogynist animosity ad condescension from members of my own lesbian community than I ever have from my straight friends.”

As a reader, I am left with some questions left unanswered by the author.  Assuming that such persons exist, I would have liked to have known about mental health professionals and feminists who are advocating for trans women and the legitimacy of our choices concerning our lives and bodies.  Likewise, I am curious to know about lesbian/feminist/queer cultural spaces where trans-inclusion is not an issue but, rather, in effect.  Finally, what accounts for the obdurate transphobia and trans-misogyny which persists in both the lesbian community as well as in feminist academia?

Perhaps such issues are to be addressed in another book.  It suffices that “Whipping Girl” is the best critique of transphobia I have read since Patrick Califia’s “Sex Change:  the Politics of Transgenderism”. Julia Serano has not merely spoken truth to the powers that oppress us, but also written truths that can empower us.  Thus, I find it fitting to conclude from my favorite chapter, Love Rant.  In response to a friend’s perplexion about what Serano finds engaging about other trans women, she writes:

I replied that it is almost always their eyes.  When I look into   them, I see both endless strength and inconsolable sadness.  I see someone who has overcome…a woman who was made to feel shame for her desires and yet had the courage to pursue them anyway…When I look into a trans woman’s eyes, I see…(how) empowering it is to be female…someone who understands that, in a culture…seemingly fueled on male transphobic hysteria, choosing to be female is…not a sign of frivolousness, weakness, or passivity, it is a…badge of courage.”

* * *

To Ricky, Chris, and all my friends to whom this wish applies:  L’Shanah Tovah! On this Rosh Hoshana, may the new year of 5762 bring you love and joy and prove to be as an apple dipped in honey:  sweet.

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