Mar 17, 2011

Sex Changes: Transgender Politics by Patrick Califia

Sex Changes: Transgender Politics by Patrick Califia

Sex Changes [takes] the radical position that diversity in gender identity, opposition to normative notions of social sex-roles, and even “anomalies” in genetic sex are natural and universal phenomena, a rich and valuable part of human physicality and society.
Patrick Califia’s Sex Changes: Transgender Politics is one of the most informative and eye-opening books about gender I have ever come across – I cannot thank Cass enough for recommending it to me. What Patrick Califia (who is himself a FTM transgender person) does here is attempt to write a history of transgenderism and its social and political implications. Sex Changes is not meant to be a history since the dawn of time; rather, it goes back to the moment when transgenderism first began to enter mainstream consciousness with the first medical ‘case studies’. This is followed by the first transgender biographies, the subsequent backlash, the more recent biographies that rewrite the narrative of the “pathologic” trans person in a far more positive light, and the eventual beginnings of the trans community as it exists today.

Sexual Changes raises a lot of questions, particularly about what exactly transgenderism is. The main answer I took away from this book is that it’s not a monolith – there is no universal trans experience, no single story, no one valid way of experiencing gender dysphoria. I also learned that certain authors, such as Kate Bornstein or Jan Morris, have wondered about the extent to which transgenderism is a product of our current rigid gender binary. In a more flexible world, would gender dysphoria exist at all? Or would people feel comfortable with their gender of birth if this was defined more flexibly? However, others writers, like Margaret Deidre O’Hartigan, have pointed out that these questions are in fact very dismissive of the overwhelming experience of alienation from her own body that preceded her sex change. She also problematises the term “transgender” as opposed to “transsexual” – like me, she sees gender as a social construct; therefore it isn’t really her gender but her sex that she changed.(“Transgender” is the term Califia most frequently uses, though, so I’ll continue to use it myself throughout this post.)

The existence of transgender people raises a lot of questions for which there are no easy or comfortable answers – which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the horrifying hostility and violence with which they have been and sadly continue to be treated. What does transgenderism mean in the context of our current definitions of gender? What do I mean when I say I’m not a gender essentialist? Reading Sex Changes enlarged my mental categories, and I can’t say how much appreciate that. It also caused me to clarify my ideas about questioning the gender binary and how to do so is not necessarily about erasing identities at all.

What I mean is that as much as I have struggled with gender throughout my life, feminine identity is a part of who I am. I just want to define it on my own terms, and I don’t want to have it be nearly as momentous in my life as the whole world seems to be convinced it needs to be. But that aside, yes, I am a woman. I have always felt myself to be a woman and I have always been comfortable with this fact. It isn’t femininity in itself that weighs me down – it’s the fact that so many different definitions of “woman” are imposed on me by outsiders. My lack of gender essentialism, then, is not so much about erasing the categories of “male” and “female” as it is about challenging the way we currently define them. It’s about making them far more flexible and less dominating, as well as not the only categories we recognise. In addition to being a continuum, gender doesn’t need to be the main thing that defines who we are. But none of this necessarily has to do with feeling that your body and your identity are mismatched, and nothing gives me the right to dismiss or attempt to explain away people who do feel that way. (Of course, I
m not saying that alienation from your body is the one feeling that defines transgenderism, which goes back to the whole point about there not being a single story or experience.)

Sex Changes is full of examples of appalling violence against trans people – stories like Brandon Teena’s or Tyra Hunter’s are relatively well-known, but there are countless others: sadly the numbers speak for themselves. One thing that surprised me, though, were the innumerable examples of transphobia among feminists and glb folks (perhaps this is na├»ve of me, I know). It was sad to see people who might make natural allies for trans people react to them with particular virulence. I’d had a glimpse of this in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, but Califia’s examples are worse than anything I could have imagined. Particularly upsetting was seeing feminists use arguments against trans people that seemed straight out of a Victorian treatise on gender. As Califia puts it,
The plight of transsexual lesbians highlights an ideological double-bind. Feminists cannot have it both ways. If we are going to claim that biology is not destiny and present a political analysis of gender as something that is socially constructed, we have to make room in our world view for women who were not born with XX chromosomes. To do otherwise is to subscribe to biological determinism, the regressive belief that our genetic structures determine our potential as human beings, and the notion that biological sex can be used as a justification for placing limits upon the freedom, intellectual abilities, and creative talent of women.
This is not meant a stab at feminism as a whole, of course. And if the feminist blogosphere is anything to go by (which I fully believe it is), things have certainly improved since the days of Janice Raymond’s horrifying The Transsexual Empire, especially among younger feminists. Nevertheless, this attitude does exist still, and Raymond herself has not changed her views on transgenderism.

When it comes to hostility among the glb community, Califia gives the example of academics appropriating trans historical figures by claiming these people were “really” only living under the opposite gender as a way to avoid homophobia. For all we know there might very well have been cases in which this was true, but the point is exactly that we can’t know. Therefore, there is no reason at all to use these stories to demean or explain away another identity, which unfortunately has often been the case.

Another thing I loved about Sex Changes was Califia’s sex-positive approach. He has a lot to say about the fact that the sexuality of transgender people has been downplayed to “lift it” above so-called paraphilias. Naturally this has consequences for the sexual and romantic lives of transgendered people, which is especially unfortunate because things really don’t have to be that way.

As Cass told me, anyone with an interest in gender or in glbtq issues should get a hold of this book. It’s informative, challenging and mind-expanding. I couldn’t ask for more.

More interesting passages:
The violence, discrimination and hatred heaped upon differently-gendered people is an enormous wrong. This bigotry will stop only when the rest of “us” are able to accept our own gender conflicts and pinpoint our own prejudices about biological sex and social sex-roles. This book was written with the hope that someday gender will be a voluntary system for self-expression, used chiefly to enhance the pleasure we take in one another’s unique realities.

In order to be a woman, you simply have to get yourself defined as “not-male”. Although there’s an enormous amount of effort involved in presenting a feminine image, that energy is not recognised as real work or as an indication of any sort of serious talent or intelligence. To be recognised as a man, you have to emphatically and publicly reject femininity, but you also have to strive for that recognition. We say “Be a man” in a way that we would never say “Be a woman”.

We need to question the so-called experts who are so quick to pathologize behaviour or self-concepts that are not inherently self-destructive and don’t necessarily interfere with people’s ability to love or pleasure one another. We can only do that if we jettison our own guilt and apply the same intellectual standards we would apply to a piece of research in the field of astronomy or physics.

Few of us are even aware of the pervasive rewards and punishments that shaped our gender identities—unless that process was not successful. I suspect that much of the hatred and fear of transsexuals is based on the discomfort that others experience when they are forced to recall the pain of involuntary gender conditioning. It is easier to believe we never had a choice about something so fundamental than to process and accept the fact that the choice was taken away from us and ruthlessly suppressed.
(Have you posted about this book? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)


  1. Wonderful review, Ana! I didn't know that that words 'transgender' and 'transsexual' had different meanings. I thought both of them were synonyms! I liked very much your comment - "In addition to being a continuum, gender doesn’t need to be the main thing that defines who we are."

    I didn't know that feminists had problems with transgenders - as you have said they should have been natural allies. The mention of 'transsexual lesbians' made me think - they must be the rarest of rare people. I liked very much Califia's passage that you have quoted - "Feminists cannot have it both ways. If we are going to claim that biology is not destiny and present a political analysis of gender as something that is socially constructed, we have to make room in our world view for women who were not born with XX chromosomes. To do otherwise is to subscribe to biological determinism" - so beautifully put!

    I liked very much all the passages that you have quoted. My favourite was this line - "This book was written with the hope that someday gender will be a voluntary system for self-expression, used chiefly to enhance the pleasure we take in one another’s unique realities."

    Thanks for this wonderful review, Ana! This book looks really thought-provoking.

  2. Oh, I want to read this so much!!!! It sounds like it's just the kind of book I was hoping that Between XX and XY was going to be, but sadly wasn't. (Not that I'm totally bashing that book, but it I did have issues with it.) Thanks for adding yet another awesome-sounding book to my wish list, Ana! (And yes, you can read that last sentence as said with complete sincerity or as loaded in sarcasm--because both readings are equally valid. :P )

  3. Vishy: The impression I was left with was that "transgender" and "transexual" ARE often used interchangeably, but there are people who read different meanings into them and so prefer one or the other. As for the intersection between transgenderism and homosexuality, it's actually not that rare! Something I forgot to mention but was really interesting was the fact that Califia explores the grey areas we don't even have names for - for example, what do you call someone who is primarily attracted to trans people exactly because they don't fit into the gender binary? There's an entire chapter about the partners of transgender folks that deals with that question. Very often they're portrayed like long-suffering and immensely patient people who "put up" with their partners' non-normative identities, when in fact some of them don't see themselves that way at all. As for the feminism thing, I don't think it's a problem with the majority of those of us who identify as feminists today, but it's so disappointing that it happens at all. Anyway... I really think you'd love this book, and I'd love to hear your take on it :)

    Debi: You can be sarcastic all you want... I know you'll thank me later :P

  4. It is really interesting that Califia explores interesting grey areas. I found your comment "what do you call someone who is primarily attracted to trans people exactly because they don't fit into the gender binary?" quite interesting! Yes, that is the real rarest of rare! I will look for this book :)

  5. I don't know much about this issue, but the book and the questions you raise about it make me think that this could be an important piece of literature for me in regards to opening my eyes about things, and maybe even shaping behavior. I am open minded about these issues, just a little misinformed and ignorant, so your thoughts on all this really turn my head and make me want to try this book for myself. It would probably be very enlightening. Great review, Ana!

  6. I have a FTM in my family, and this sounds like it would be a great read for all of us. He is actually an excellent writer and has given us a bit of insight from his own perspective through blog posts, but I'm sure there are elements that I'd learn from here. Thank you for the introduction, Ana!

  7. Wonderful review. It is interesting how transgenderism inspires even more fear and prejudice than same sex gender preference. I am friends with the mother of a transgendered person, and it is also interesting how hard it is on the parents. In spite of our friendship, I've never really been able to understand why. It would be nice to read more about this from the parents' perspectives also.

  8. I used to think we ought to stop saying "be a man" to anyone, as it seems gratuitously callous for anyone, but now that I have a teenage son and am seeing his struggles to identify as masculine, I'm starting to feel differently. I think it just goes to show that one's sense of gender identity is bound by expectation, no matter how open-minded one tries to be, and that always colors how we respond to others, although it certainly doesn't have to define our responses.

  9. Vishy, can't wait to hear what you think!

    Zibilee, I'm pretty ignorant myself, really. But we have to start learning somewhere, right? And this proved a perfect starting place.

    Elisabeth: You're most welcome! I hope you find the book as informative as I did.

    Jill: There isn't much here about parents and other family members, but I've seen reviews of Normal by Amy Bloom that mention that it does deal with parents. I need to read it sometime soon!

    Jeanne: Yes, that's a very good point about how expectations affect us all. The problem with phrases like "be a man" is that they're predominantly associated with a very narrow definition of masculinity, so the starting point has to be to expand that - for men and women alike.

  10. I just don't understand the lash against trans people. Can you imagine living your whole life in a body that felt alien to you? I wish we could get to a point where we could accept people for who they are.

  11. Thank you for a great post! It made me really happy to read your fourth paragraph, especially, "It isn’t femininity in itself that weighs me down – it’s the fact that so many different definitions of “woman” are imposed on me by outsiders."

    When urged to embrace my femininity by people who define femininity in rigid terms, I want to say "I AM, DAMMIT!" What they are really urging us to do is embrace a definition, not something we’ve found within ourselves.

    I'm interested in the idea the gender dysphoria would not exist in a less rigidly binary world. I don't think it has to be an idea that dismisses feelings of body alienation.

    While acceptance of transgenderism and any sort of inborn sex characteristics seems a foregone conclusion to me, I admit to being one of those people who is uncomfortable (though I don’t condemn it) with transsexualism. If gender is a social construct, sex is a physical one. Transexualism makes sex a medical construct. I believe intrusive medical procedures are very powerful in and of themselves, so much that it is nearly impossible for people to embark on them with a full understanding how their sense of body-self and emotional health will be affected--even when putting gender issues completely aside.

    It also sets up a situation of privileged access. Surgery it is expensive, it is dispensed by a small group of powerful people with certain shared ideologies (the medical community), and some people have underlying physical conditions which simply make surgery and/or hormone therapy impossible to undertake safely. I am one of those for whom--because of a genetic condition that causes heavy internal scarring--no kind elective surgery is an option. If I identified as transgender and was led to believe that the truest way to realize my gender was to change my sex, I would be out of luck! So would anyone too poor for surgeries/treatments, and anyone who simply didn’t have the innate emotional constitution to withstand the consequences (even desired consequences) of that level of physical upheaval.

  12. Kathy: I dearly hope that day will come!

    Trapunto: Califia actually deals with much of that in the book - I wish I'd written a longer, more detailed post :P While he doesn't believe that trans identity was artificially constructed by the medical community, he does think that the way doctors have defined it in pathological terms is very problematic - as is the idea that surgery is the "answer" to every single trans person. It will be for some people, but not for others. Genital surgery is particularly tricky, as it doesn't really create functional sex organs and can in fact severely hinder a person's ability to experience sexual pleasure. He also explains that unfortunately things become even more complicated if we consider the role medical definitions play in health insurance :\ This is why there is such a huge debate around removing transgenderism from the DSM, just like homosexuality was removed. People are understandably worried that without a concrete diagnoses, insurance companies will flat out refuse to pay for things such as hormonal therapy and surgery. There is also the fact that for someone to medically defined as a "true" transsexual, they have to want genital surgery. If they don't - if they're perfectly happy with changing their secondary sec characteristics and retaining their primary sex organs of birth, even if these don't correspond to the gender they identify with - they can be refused treatment. Naturally this is a way to pressure people, and in many cases it might cause them to forfeit an enjoyable sexual life for the sake of fitting the medical mould :\

  13. Thank you for bring another wonderful book to light for me. I'm always looking for good LGBT books and especially about trans issues. I will put this on my tbr list. Wonderful review.

  14. I need to read this. Love the point you raise in the comments about partners of trans people and the need to expand our cultural categories of attraction in addition to our cultural categories of gender. There is such a focus on being either "straight" or "gay," but I know plenty of folks whose primary indexes for attraction are not gender-based (e.g., they're attracted to people of any gender who are androgynous, or people of any gender who are into kink, etc.).

    Incidentally, have you read Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues? It raises many of these same issues about the uneasy intersection of lesbian and trans identity/community.

  15. Interesting review, thank you. This book sounds much better than the last one I read on this topic. I forget the title, but it was by Amy Bloom. I've nothing profound to add to the discussion, I'm afraid. Except that the trans people I've know, several but none very well, all seemed like happy well adjusted people just trying to live their lives.

    I guess that's still threatening to some people.

  16. This sounds interesting. My sister's spouse is transgender, after denying it for many years. Before this all came out into the open, it was honestly something I didn't think about much. Even after talking to her about it, there are still so many questions. My main thoughts have been what you said--there is no universal transgender experience. Each individual is different. And they do need love and support from friends and family, because the world can be very harsh.

  17. Great review, Ana! I have been interested in all the books relating to sex/gender that have been posted here and I think at Amy's blog over the past year or so. I think it's important to learn more about the situation but I also wonder if the books only cater to people who are already interested and sympathetic, rather than reaching a new crowd of people who are misinformed on the topic. I think that is often something that happens with non-fiction, which is sad. Very much "preaching to the choir."

    I think the most interesting thing for me in your review was the possibility that this situation only arises now because of how rigidly we define gender. Was there ever a time in history, or a culture, in which this did not occur? I can't think of one, but I know that generally, Romans and Greeks were more open to romantic love of all kinds. I don't think that's what the authors mean, though. My heart aches for those people who feel a revulsion for their own bodies and feel that they are in the wrong ones- that must be horrible and depressing.

  18. "It isn’t femininity in itself that weighs me down – it’s the fact that so many different definitions of “woman” are imposed on me by outsiders."

    Yes Yes Yes!! I agree with this so much, Ana. I've always identified as a male, myself, and been very comfortable with that, but I HATE what society says that should be. Well I don't hate what it should be, but that society thinks you can ONLY be that.

    I seriously need to read this!! It sounds so good. I'm reading Bernstein's new Gender Outlaws book which is actually a collection of essays by others right now. It's really good! You'd thoroughly enjoy it I promise you!

  19. I really like your comments on being feminine and how we each have our own interpretations / definitions. Love it. I still think transgender and transsexual are terms that have a lot of weight and it seems from my reading experiences that people strongly identify as one or the other and so both are very necessary terms.

  20. Linda: Thank you, and I hope you'll find this one as rewarding as I did!

    Emily: I've often thought about that - how it's probably not that rare for gender not to be the main thing that determines whether you're attracted to someone. And probably not everyone who feels that way identifies as bisexual, necessarily. I haven't read Stone Butch Blues, but Califia does mention it! It sounds like I really need to.

    C.B. James: It never ceases to amaze me how threatened people can feel by folks just quietly living their lives!

    Shelley: It really can :\ But I imagine that a loving, accepting family could make a world of difference.

    Aarti: Amy is constantly adding to my wishlist! And yes, I see what you mean about a book like this not reaching anyone who isn't interested to begin with. But at least it's out there, and it's a resource we can point others to. About rigid definitions of gender and transgenderism, this book actually did more to dissuade me of the possibility of that being a cause than the opposite. Though I guess it all goes back to there not being a universal experience - in a world where gender wasn't so rigidly defined, some people would feel differently, and others would not. And all these identities and experiences are equally valid.

    Chris: I definitely need to read Gender Outlaws! Cass and Amy have also said wonderful things about it.

    Amy: VERY good point about the terms being complementary and equally necessary!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.