By Terri Schlichenmeyer, December 2018 Issue.
Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution
It had to start somewhere. Someone had to make the first step, to pave the way, to stick a fork into the ground and say, “Here, now.” Someone had to be the first so that others could follow, and in the newly updated book Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution by Susan Stryker, you’ll see where we go next.
Opening a history book with a chapter on terms and words might seem odd but, says Stryker, “remarkable changes” over the last decade demand it. Thus, begins this book, with new language for what is an old lifestyle.
Indeed, America’s first recorded “intersex” individual was Thomas(ine) Hall, who lived in the 1620s, “sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman.” Seventy years later, however, the colony of Massachusetts made “cross-dressing” illegal and it spread: by the 1850s, many U.S. cities had ordinances against dressing in clothing normally worn by the opposite sex.
And yet, it was hard to stop people who wanted to dress as or fully transition to another gender. Throughout the 1800s, records show that women dressed as men for battle, cross-dressers braved the frontier, men ran away from their families to be true to their feminine selves, and Native American cultures embraced transgender people. Says Stryker, after anesthesia was invented and surgeries were safer, “individuals began approaching doctors to request surgical alteration of… parts of their bodies.”
For a time, then, the movement was relatively quiet – by necessity, as the Nazis proved when they torched Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin – until American Christine Jorgensen “burst onto the scene” in late 1952 when she traveled to Copenhagen for trans surgery. Her ensuing fame didn’t signal full acceptance for trans people, but it was a start: Riots in 1959 led to activism in the 1960s, and post-Stonewall groups consolidated to lend support and work through “difficult decades” of the ’70s, ‘80s, and the AIDS crisis. Today, says Stryker, though we live in interesting times of Trump and turmoil, the news is heartening. Millennials and “post-Baby Boomers” have expressed more acceptance of “trans-gender as part of the ‘anti-heteronormative’ mix.”
Though Transgender History is a revised edition of a book first published a decade ago, it has a fresh feel thanks to that which Stryker has added. The first chapter, somewhat of a dictionary, informs readers on new ways of talking about LGBTQ issues and individuals, while the last chapter of trans history brings readers up to the present, including topics of politics, potties, and celebrity.
What makes it unusual is that, though it’s not always chronological, it’s breezy and casually readable. There’s no stuffiness here, and no air of the scholarly: Stryker makes this history accessible for people who want a story and not a textbook.
And so, this book is a pleasant surprise. It’s easy to read, not overly wordy, and there are a just-right number of illustrations here for a reader’s enjoyment. For anyone who wants a basic, yet lively, overview of trans life in America, Transgender History is a great start.
The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) are Creating a Gender Revolution
Boy or girl? That’s a common enough question, if you’re an expectant parent. You might’ve even wondered it yourself: will you need pink things or blue, and what name will you choose? For generations, it’s been an exciting decision for prospective parents, but Ann Travers asks in The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) are Creating a Gender Revolution if it’s a prudent one. Maybe letting the child decide would be a better choice.
56 years ago, when Travers was born, their mother’s doctor unwittingly caused a lifetime of hurt: “It’s a girl,” he said, and Travers spent years trying to “untangle” what it meant. That, they said, is part of what drives this book. The other part is the desire to improve the lives of trans kids through understanding.
Getting to that point is harrowing: 95 percent of transgender kids on one study felt unsafe in their schools. Many report that physicians misunderstand kids who are gender-nonconforming. Trans kids attempt suicide and/or self-harm at very high rates and, says Travers, “… many grow up hating their bodies…” Most employ several kinds of coping mechanisms to live their lives.
In writing this book, Travers says, they interviewed a wide variety of trans kids from the U.S. and Canada – 19 in all, ages 4 to 20, plus 23 parents. The children mostly came from middle-class families, which allowed them privileges such as better access to medical care and chances to change schools if they needed to do so. Other children Travers interviewed lived in poverty, their stories illustrating how being a trans kid can be socially and medically isolating, and how lack of access to needed resources can affect their well-being.
Parents, of course, can affect that well-being, too, but it takes a “phenomenal amount of care, advocacy, and activism…to push back against cisgendered environments,” schools, sports, binary-only bathrooms, social activities, medical facilities, and politics. It takes a willingness to learn, listen, and lean in.
Not just for parents, but for teachers, advocates, and loved ones, The Trans Generation is one heavy-duty book.
Writing with a bit of a scholar’s voice and occasional, advanced, science and law studies, Travers also offers readers plenty of eye-opening chats with trans kids, which turn out to be the most helpful, useful, and even entertaining parts of this book. From the mouths of babes, as they say, those interviews give insights that adults will find to be wise and thoughtful, even monumental. They’re also heartbreaking but considering the kids readers are introduced to, and the singular interview with a 16-year-old who made her own hormone treatments in her high school’s laboratory, they’re a good indication of hope for the future.
While you could be forgiven for skipping to those case studies, you’d be missing out. The thicker parts of The Trans Generation are worth reading and reflection and are deeply instructive on pronouns, on gender fluidity, and on being trans in a cisgender-based society. They are also serious and weighty, but that kind of rock-solid information could make this book the right choice.
Straight Expectations: The Story of a Family in Transition
Always be prepared. That’s not just a motto to wear on a badge; it could save you money, time, or health. It might get you where you’re going, faster or easier. Being ready for anything can you feel secure and safe, it can help you bounce back against any adversity and, as in the new book Straight Expectations: The Story of a Family in Transition by Peggy Cryden (with Janet E. Goldstein-Ball), it can make you a better parent.
Everything in her life, it seemed, had readied her for what was to come.
Adopted as a small infant, Peggy Cryden grew up with a father who was a genius but was distant; and a mother with emotional issues and what Cryden indicates was probably mental illness. Cryden didn’t completely understand the latter until she was an adult and a working therapist, and it took many decades for her to make peace with her mother’s legacy.
Before that, however, as children, Cryden and her brother were often left to their own devices. They woke themselves, prepared themselves for school, learned to swipe lunch money from their father’s pocket change, and they tried not to be embarrassed by their mom’s antics, eccentricities, or melt-downs. Untaught by her mother, Cryden learned resilience and basic skills from her grandmother, her grandmother’s Black housekeeper, and from a neighbor woman who obviously noted a child in need.
Though she was generally independent much earlier, Cryden moved out of her parents’ house when she was still in high school. Later, while attending community college, she met the man she would marry, although Cryden indicates that she sometimes felt she couldn’t “bond.”
That feeling extended to her firstborn child, a girl she named Julia.
She was a little better centered when her second child, a boy, Jay, was born.
Finally, Cryden had stability and the family she always dreamed of having: two children, a girl and a boy, and a supportive husband. Theirs seemed to be the perfect, TV-ready, typical family down the block until Julia, who was just a teen, confessed to her mother that he’d come to the understanding that he was really a boy. Shortly after this, fragile Jay, who’d always felt left out, came out to his family.
Author Cryden (with Janet E. Goldstein-Ball, who offers pertinent information in her introduction) tells an absorbing story of childhood neglect and how she turned her own experiences into self-lessons on raising her two sons confidently. Readers will clearly see that there’s power in those words but there’s also repetition, often within the same half-page, causing the sentiment to wither like a pinpricked balloon. Add in an overabundance of choppy sentences and you’ve got frustration in the form of a book you very much want to read… but will you?Though it has steel-strong messages of affirmation, unconditional love, acceptance, and healing, Straight Expectations is a rough read.
Yes, it’s worth a try. Straight Expectations contains a basically good story plus resources, but it needed love with an editing pen. Yes, you may like it enormously – just be prepared.
True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century
Always Be Yourself. Pretty much since grade school, that’s what you’ve been told. Take a breath and you do you. People like you the way you are. You don’t have to try to be someone you’re not. Always be yourself – although, as you‘ll see in True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century by Emily Skidmore, that may’ve caused gossip a century ago.
In 1902, women in the United States could not legally vote. Many couldn’t hold property or get credit, and joining the military was likewise forbidden. None of that was a concern to Harry Gorman, though: well-traveled, adventuresome, and married, Gorman lived in Buffalo, New York, where he was known as a good man.
Except he wasn’t. Gorman was anatomically a woman.
Surely, that came as a surprise to doctors, jailers, and undertakers who discovered the secrets of Gorman and men like him but here, Skidmore says that the opposite is true of everyday folks: as evidenced by articles in many small-town newspapers, locals often knew the “true sex” of trans men in their midst and didn’t seem to care.
Many trans men in the late 1800s and early 1900s, says Skidmore, married, perhaps to cement their appearance as “‘good men’ to their communities.” Once discovered, they were often known in the press as “female husbands” because the term “lesbians” hadn’t taken hold yet and, at that time, women were largely believed to be asexual or unable to be passionate. Even so, though titillated, small-town Americans then weren’t quite as naïve as we might think they were.
Perhaps because the science of sexology was still in its infancy and words were lacking, many of the men explained their actions as a way to make a living, or because it was more comfortable to dress and live as a man. Some didn’t explain at all, while others said they lived as men to take advantage of men’s rights and continued to do so in order to avoid embarrassment for their new wives. In many cases that Skidmore found, those reasons were no matter to neighbors. But intolerance was never far away.
When one considers the attitudes toward LGBT individuals, pre-Stonewall, it’s quite eye-opening to know that tolerance was practiced well before discrimination was. It gives you more respect for your elders – and yet, as you’ll see in True Sex, laissez faire attitudes weren’t widespread.
Using the tales of many trans men, as garnered from newspaper accounts of the day, Skidmore shows how small-town residents around the turn of the last century viewed trans men and, at the same time, women who loved women. Not only are those stories fascinating, but they contain a certain quaintness that belies what’s between the lines: the newspapers had a lot to say, but there was an equal amount that they didn’t say but that readers, Skidmore believes, surely implicitly understood.
This book veers off into the scholarly now and then; even so, it’s readable by anyone who’s interested in this history. If that’s you, True Sex is a book you’ll want for yourself.
Histories of the Transgender Child
You have to start somewhere.
Indeed, few things begin in a vacuum: you need an idea, then experiments and practice to create a masterpiece. Nothing magically just appears. And in the new book Histories of the Transgender Child by Julian Gill-Peterson, you’ll see that that’s true, too, about knowledge and change.
The study of endocrinology had a fowl beginning.
In the eighteenth century, scientists, determined to learn more about what made “male” and “female,” removed the testes from birds, observed a certain amount of feminization, and then transplanted the gonads back into the birds. Alas, because they put the organs in the birds’ stomachs, little was learned; even so, it led them to think about kids and the male-female characteristics children possessed. They began to believe that male-female identification was pliable, and that children didn’t fully become either until they reached a certain age.
By the twentieth century, better understandings of human anatomy, psychology, and hormones led to new ideas that spurred doctors to take bold steps to help children with genitalia that didn’t fit the norm at birth and didn’t match their sexual identity later. Those kids underwent treatment that seems invasive, almost horrifying, but that gave at least some relief from the feeling of being bodily trapped.
These operations were supposed to have been kept quiet, but that was impossible. This, says Gill-Peterson, led to an influx of adults who sought American doctors for “sex change” operations. In the years surrounding World War I, those who were successful in their search told tales of themselves as children, making do with the resources they had, being isolated, yet sometimes enjoying a surprising amount of support from family who let them choose the gender in which they felt comfortable…
In the introduction to this book, the author indicates that the current narrative paints today›s trans children somewhat as pioneers. Nothing can be further from the truth, as you›ll see here, eventually. Maybe.
Maybe – because Histories of the Transgender Child is written very much for scholars in concept, medical jargon, and words that will send the most casual reader dictionary-bound. Doctors should grasp this book easily; non-medical professionals, conversely, may be tempted to put it aside.
But don’t. Yes, it’s a challenge to read but it does get easier as actual personal anecdotes become more plentiful. These tales also serve to show how society, shame, and social mores affected children and former kids who had few places to turn; it also shows how understanding of trans individuals grew while attitudes at large worsened. Here is the peek that most casual readers want from this book, one that’s more relatable and more social-history-based; these same angles also bring unsettlement as readers see racism creep into this overall tale and Gill-Peterson explains how doctors often saw patients as mere experimental vessels.
And so don’t ignore this book. Just be aware that it’s scholarly, so it needs more time to develop appreciation. Give yourself that, and Histories of the Transgender Child could be a book to start.