Books

Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins Alyson Books, 2002 ISBN 1-55583-730-1 (paper)

First published in Triple Echo v. 4 no. 2, 2003

Some years ago there was a great deal of commotion amongst trans people in the United States over what was then perceived as a new direction for the trans advocacy organization GenderPAC. In moving the battle for trans rights into the broader realm of gender rights, GenderPAC’s executive director Riki Wilchins was accused of betraying the trans people who had supported the creation of the organization. This collection of essays and stories, whether intentionally or not, provides a convincing justification for GenderPAC’s orientation. The essays contributed by Wilchins largely restate the arguments she made in her book Read My Lips. “Our problem is not fighting for the rights of specific individuals, but rather fighting for the right to be different kinds of individuals.” Any identity based movement creates a hierarchy of privileged individuals within that movement that inevitably designates other individuals as somehow less worthy. Gay and lesbian liberation has in many cases become a liberation movement for socially acceptable queers with, for example, drag queens being somehow less worthy of respect. Within the trans movement, transsexuals are now in the best position to secure their rights through legislation, while other trans people get left behind.

…debates over identity are always divisive and never conclusive. They are divisive because at heart they are about conferring status, always ,a zero-sum game. For one person to win, another must lose. They are inconclusive because there are no objective criteria by which to decide. Winning such debates is always a function of who sets the rules and who gets to judge. And since postsurgical transsexuals are most often in a position to judge, at the moment, the rules tend to favor their life experiences.

The first story that follows Wilchins’ introductory essays is a knockout. Written by the late Sylvia Rivera, one of the battling queens of Stonewall and a long time political activist and founder of Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), it tells the story of her difficult personal life and that of her political activism. There’s no self-pity to Sylvia, although some bitterness toward the gay community for abandoning trannies after it made inroads with the mainstream. “I remember this man telling me – a straight man who was my boss at the time, when I was working in Jersey – he said, Ray, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. Be careful. Watch it. ‘And I saw it. And l still see it.”

She also speaks up for the late Lee Brewster, political activist and founder of Lee Brewster’s TV Boutique. Brewster put up her own money to fund gay marches and to campaign to change drinking laws in New York so gay men could be serve in regular bars instead of after hour clubs.

When she died and I wrote the obituary for her, these freaking gay rag newspapers didn’t even have the balls to put in her accomplishments – even after her death. Yes, I’m angry with this fucking community. I wish sometimes 1969 had never happened, they make me so angry.

This last remark was fuelled by memories of the togetherness of queer communities before Stonewall and the subsequent success of the gay rights movements. Sylvia remembers the early ’60s and how fabulously the queens and the lesbians got along. “The lesbian community today has a lot to learn from the old ways of the lesbian community”

Sylvia Rivera’s contribution to this collection reflects her powerful personality. She died at age 50 from complications of liver cancer in February 2002. Boy, did we lose a good one.

The rest of the stories don’t always live up to the first one, although there are undoubtedly many good ones The ways in which we oppress people through the manner in which they present their gender is many and varied. There is an essay here, for example, titled Fading to Pink written by a femme lesbian who is rendered invisible by the hetero community because they presume she’s straight, and then disapproved of by the lesbian community for the same reason. Can’t win.

Still, on the scale of the type of harassment that is regularly doled out to genderqueer people, this rates pretty low. I am still astonished at how malicious people can be. The predictable result of all this harassment is that while there are many brave people in this collection of stories, there don’t appear to be too many happy ones. It takes its toll, this living on the margins of gender, and it raises philosophical questions. People assume that the pursuit of happiness is the prime directive, but then what do you do when your only choice is different types of unhappiness?

The best solution to this seems to be to develop a better attitude. One of my favourite essays, written by Allen James, a transman, comes off as a good old-fashioned scolding.

I find myself getting irritated whenever I spend time with large groups of gender-variant people. I get sick as hell hearing about their need for “acceptance,” their sad desire to have their existence and the decisions they’ve made validated in some way by someone else. Piss on that mess. The day that magical someone else whose approval I’m expected to beg for is the person who has to save money for my surgery and sticks this damn needle in his leg on my behalf is the day I’ll kowtow to him.

It’s a forthright, no nonsense approach that is useful if not always easy to adopt. I especially like the following line: “C’mon, folks, we are the stuff of which successful Jerry Springer episodes are made.” Ouch. While I detest the truth in that, I can still appreciate it for its raw frankness.

There are also a number of stories here on lesbian sexuality, some of which I don’t find especially relevant. They’re mildly interesting, but come off as little more than role playing in the bedroom.

This is not true of all of them, however. There is a wonderful musing by a femme lesbian therapist anonymously identified as Lionheart that begins, “I find myself looking at men on the streets.” What follows is a thought provoking essay on the nature of desire and gender and the inadequacy of categories like homosexual and heterosexual. She concludes that there is not yet a name for her desires, but that she is “a womon, [sic] a lesbian womon, and a femme, who deeply desires male presence in female bodies.” This conclusion reminds me of another wonderful line in this collection written by Joan Nestle, one of the book’s editors and another lesbian: “She knows that breast and cock and cunt are shaped by dreams.”

(Actually, from a literary point of view, there are a quite a few delightful lines in the book. Here’s another of my favourites: “I learned to silence the whispers of my shadow heart.”)

Finally, there is also a valuable contribution from Cheryl Chase, founder of the Intersex Society of North America. Her essay, titled “Affronting Reason”, is an indictment of the medical practise of “fixing” intersex babies in infancy. She recounts her own personal history, and how she had to obtain her own medical records to find out why she was without a clitoris. Imagine her shock when she discovered the truth, that for the first 18 months of her life her parents and doctors weren’t sure if she was a boy or a girl. When they made their surgical decision at age 18 months, Charlie, as she was known before, ceased to exist and all evidence of him disappeared. She went through her entire life without this information, went through the difficult journey of accepting her lesbianism and then found out her story was yet more complicated than that. You can appreciate her point of view when she says, “Nonconsensual surgery cannot erase intersexuality and produce whole males and females; it produces emotionally abused and sexually dysfunctional intersexuals.”

There are far too many contributions in this volume to include all of them in this review, but together they form an excellent book. Of course I’m biased, being something of a gender queer myself. But frankly, the ideas behind this book speak for the liberation of all of us, and not just for the few that society at any one time finds acceptable. That’s the only kind of liberation I’m interested in.