The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights, by Deborah Rudacille. Pantheon Books, 2005.

by Samantha P.

RiddleBookWith an introduction, followed by seven chapters and a conclusion, Deborah Rudacille attempts to solve the riddle of “gender”. Being a science writer at The John Hopkins University and the author of several highly praised books, she seems eminently qualified to do so.

As the inside front flap of the dust cover says in part, “Coming at the subject from several angles — historical, sociological, psychological, medical — Rudacille discovered that gender variance is anything but new; that changing one’s gender has been met with both acceptance and hostility through the years; and that gender identity, like sexual orientation, appears to be inborn, not learned …”

By the time I had finished reading the first two pages of the introduction I knew that I was into a book the likes of which I had not read before. In a class by itself, this book, unlike others of the genre, is authored by one who is not gender variant. There appears to be no hidden agenda here. Thoroughly researched, and very carefully constructed, “Riddle” is a breath of fresh air, the aim of which, she states, is to “promote a greater understanding and acceptance of a group (or groups) of people who typically want nothing more than to live their lives in peace and be able to enjoy the same civil status and protection granted to others.”

She defines gender this way. “My female body is made to give birth and to nurture. Your male body is constructed to seed me and to protect our offspring. From an evolutionary perspective, our common goal is to ensure that our children survive until they can reproduce themselves and thus transmit our genes to the next generation. Gender is the cultural tapestry that we weave from those fundamental facts.”

Each of the seven, very powerful, chapters is followed by an excerpt from a conversation with one of her research subjects. Although these excerpts are, of themselves, quite enlightening, their purpose is to highlight and underline the subject matter contained within the chapter.

Chapter One, entitled The Hands of God, traces the treatment of gender variance from the early eighteenth century to the present. Well into it she states; “It is worth noting that though an increasing number of cities and states have added “sexual orientation” to civil rights legislation, fewer have added riders protecting people whose gender expression makes them targets of discrimination or violence. This lapse is a sign of our continuing failure to understand and acknowledge the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity, and it has major consequences.”

Other chapters, from Through Science to Justice; The Bombshell; Men and Women, Boys and Girls; Liberating the Rainbow; Childhood, Interrupted; to Fear of a Pink Planet develop Rudacille’s thesis. The book is so laced with powerful statements that it is difficult to pick only a few which could be considered the most significant. For example, in the chapter on childhood development she asks, “… in the absence of a strong desire for body modification, are the “distress and impairment” experienced by such individuals due to the disorder itself, or are they a consequence of the harassment and social ostracism gender-variant people endure?” With statements like, “Although there are no Robert’s Rules of gender posted at home, in schools, and in churches, the rules exist and are often harshly enforced by peers, parents, and school authorities.” she challenges the reader’s preconceived ideas concerning gender variance.

In Chapter Seven, Fear of a Pink Planet, Rudacille states: “If the stories contained in this book teach us anything it is that gender variance is neither a fad nor a revolution. It is a biological fact. Our continuing failure to acknowledge this fact virtually ensures that there will be more [murdered transgender people], individuals whose pain cannot be assuaged by a syringe or a scalpel and who die violent and premature deaths. Whether dying by their own hands or at the hands of uncomprehending others, these individuals have been sacrificed to an illusion, the belief that the spectrum of gender contains only two colors, black and white, and nothing in between.”

Does she solve the riddle? In her own words, “Will we ever find a definitive solution to the riddle of gender? Maybe not — but as this history indicates, the questions we ask about gender tend to be more liberating than the answers. I would prefer to live in a society that gave me the freedom to ask those questions, rather than one that enforced autocratic conclusions.”

In her concluding paragraph she states in part, “I have come to view gender less as a riddle that should be solved and more of a collage, which we each assemble in our own fashion. Nature provides the canvas, and on that canvas we assemble scraps of meaning from family, religion, science, friends, and the media — a kind of surrealist montage that, like children’s art, is a natural expression of being, so natural that we forget that it is an art.”

Once you start reading this book I challenge you to put it down before you have finished it.