Traversing Gender by Lee Harrington



This is the text of the book review from episode 21 of the podcast.

This episode’s book is Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Realities by Lee Harrington. Before we get started I’d like to say I received this book for free but I’m going to tell you what I thought anyway.

This book is geared more for allies, family, friends, lovers, academics, health care professionals… anyone who would like to have a better idea what transgender or gender nonconforming people experience.

For any of those people it’s an excellent resource. It would also fit wonderfully in a gender studies class.

I heard about the book in an interview Lee did with Graydancer on the Ropecast last February [link now dead]. He said what it was about and I thought, ‘Ooh, I want to read me that!’ Then I thought, ‘Boy, that’s going to be long and packed with info.’

Turns out, though, that it’s only around 170 pages. It’s impressively concise. You get a lot of information for your page, is what I’m saying. I was expecting something more academic—and I don’t mean it wasn’t well-written—the book was very well-written and there were sources galore. Sources make me very happy. I was expecting it to be academic in a way where I’d be saying, ‘This is a book perfect for if you’re writing a Masters thesis on gender studies.’ But, you know… not really anyone else.

Now, I will cheerfully slog my way through some academic text if it’s on a subject I’m interested (I would have for this subject), but it kinda stinks if I think other people should read it. Most people don’t want to fall asleep every night with a three hundred page book falling on their face, possibly breaking their nose. So I was very happy to find Traversing Gender was very accessible and moved right along.

The book is broken down into three sections, within which are specific chapters that pertain to the theme of the section.

Before getting to those there’s an intro with this statistic:

An estimated 700,000 transgender people live in the United States, with millions living worldwide.

The town I grew up in was 8,000. So 700,000 is… more than that. That fact that the American government is trying to legislate how more people than live in Washington D.C. live their lives is why I’m talking to you about this. There are two other states with populations smaller than that. Vermont and Wyoming. And that’s only the number of trans people who are out. If it wasn’t so dangerous how many more people would be honest about who they are?

The author also says in the intro:

Transgender is also an umbrella term. For the context of this book, it includes all concepts of gender variances outside of having your gender or sex assigned at birth correspond with your gender experience… the terms gender-nonconforming and gender variant will also be used throughout this book.

I’m going to follow Lee’s lead on this. There’s a Patton Oswalt piece where he talks about how he’s trying to be the best ally and he’ll go to the mat for anyone to be who they want to be, but you have to give him some slack because the terms keep changing. It’s hilarious and here’s a link if you haven’t seen it, but I’m here for you, I’m on your side, I’m doing my best to keep up with the terms, but there’s always that fear I’m going to marginalize someone who’s already got enough to deal with.

Just before kicking off the first section, the author says,

There are three different goals for the book:

  • To help those who are new to these concepts build an understanding of the lives of diverse trans experiences.
  • Provide language, resources and awareness for those on various gender journeys for exploration, activism and moving forward on their personal paths.
  • Enable individuals to become social, emotional, professional, and medical allies to transgender communities and in doing so, help make the world a better place, one life at a time.

The first section is entitled Journeys and covers three chapters about the concepts of sex and gender.

The first chapter contains this excellent description:

Sex is the body we have
Assigned gender is what we were told we were at birth
Gendered behaviors are the actions we engage in
Gender expression is how we communicate our gender
Perceived gender is how other people see us
Legal gender is what the government says we are
Gender identity is how we see ourselves
Orientation is who we are attracted to
Sexual behavior is what we do with our bodies.

I never realized how freakin’ lucky I am that many of those line up for me and that makes my life a hell of a lot easier. It also means I can be an ally, because transphobic people listen to cispeople—or people whose gender matches their assigned sex at birth—more readily than trans or gender nonconforming people.

The rest of the chapter breaks down each of those things just a bit further—assigned gender, gendered behaviors, gender expression and so on.

Under ‘perceived gender’ the author says this:

When we project a gender upon someone, we are seeing a story of what that gender means to us. Each person carries stories about what being a man or a woman ‘means,’ constructed through the lens of our history and upbringing. We consciously and unconsciously make decisions about how we behave towards them, layered with stereotypes based on race, age, physical abilities, accent, and style of dress. Whether or not our internal experience of what our own gender is, or how we experience our own gender; this is about the person perceiving us. This is not about who we actually are.

The second chapter in the section covers the various types of transgender journeys.

It starts with this reminder:

Asking people what terms mean to them, and why they use them, helps us understand their personal journey. This includes terms that we believe we know the definitions for, because no two people are identical in their path, even though there are trends in trans and gender nonconforming experience.

The types listed and explained in some detail are: transsexual, MtF (male to female) or transwoman, FtM (female to male) or transman, two spirit, third gender, genderqueer, gender variant and gender fluid, agender, gender neutral and androgynous, and bigender and demigender.

Each type is accompanied by a list of notable people in various fields who embody those genders.

Under the third gender category there was the positive news that Australia now issues passports under X rather than just M or F, German birth certificates no longer require a gender marker at all and India, Nepal and New Zealand have three options—male, female and other.

One that gave me a little difficulty, ironically, was the agender label. I say that’s ironic, because I’m asexual. Then I applied the metaphor I use to explain asexuality to it. Which is this: Being asexual is like being sexually attracted to something that doesn’t exist on this planet/realm/in this universe. Because you can still have a libido—some asexuals do. It’s just that what or whomever you’re attracted to isn’t anything anyone could imagine, including yourself. So being agender is possibly something like that. None of the possible gender expressions available work. There could be one out there, but nothing currently applies.

If you’re agender and that sounds completely off (or correct) please let me know.

Then there was this quote:

Their own personal experience of a gender neutral state is about the agender person, not about the gender (or lack thereof) of anyone else. It is not meant to affront, even if it challenges the questioner’s perspective on what gender should be—or that everyone should have a gender. This is an important point to remember for all people interacting with transgender people. A trans person’s gender is not meant as an affront to anyone else.

This applies to so many people. If you’re a woman who doesn’t have children, women with kids think you’re judging them for having kids… for some reason. If you’re gay people think that has something to do with their straightness. If you’re asexual people have to defend their sexuality. Everyone’s just being themselves. Minorities don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m going to make the majority question their life choices today!’

And even if we do make you question your life choices—you still have all the power. If our mere existence is a threat to you—that gives us an enormous amount of power over your lives. It also tells me you’re a little shaky in your foundations and comfort in who you are.

Speaking of people uncomfortable with who they are… something else covered in this chapter are preferred pronouns. If someone asks you to call them she, he, it, they, ze, hir, or a melaphant, just do it. It’s what feels comfortable to the other person. Inevitably, when this comes up online, someone says, ‘But what about me? What about my comfort?’
And I’m always tempted to say, ‘Oh, we get to call people what we think they should be called? So you’re Mr DickWagon now? Because that’s most comfortable for me. Not him or your preferred name. DickWagon. And so shall it be. What about my comfort.’
Dude, it’s not about you.
Believe me, no one wants everyone to go around calling them whatever feels right to them.

This chapter also covers intersex individuals, which is a:

person born with variation in sex characteristics including genitals, gonads, or chromosomes that are not distinctly female or male.

The next chapter talks about the different challenges faced by people who transition during various periods of their lives—childhood, teen years, adults, or later in life.

The chapter included this statistic:

Of the 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States, anywhere from 20 to 40% are gay or transgender.

And the surprising news that around 15,000 service people in the U.S. military had to lie about their gender until May of 2016, as the Pentagon finally lifted the ban on transgender and gender nonconforming individuals.

We tend to think of teens as being high risk for suicide due to bullying for being themselves, but this chapter lays out how older trans individuals go into care homes and keep their medical needs to themselves for fear of being outed or discriminated against by staff or peers. There’s this stat:

71% of older trans adults also report having contemplated suicide or ending life early, compared to under 4% for the general population.

I don’t know what to say about that. That’s makes tears come to my eyes and I want to do something.

The chapter discusses the pros and cons and whys and why nots of people choosing to transition or come out as trans or gender nonconforming at any particular time of their life. There is so much to think about. I had no idea.

The second segment of the book is about health—social, medical and sexual.

The first chapter in the section (chapter four of the book) talks about social health and brought up something I hadn’t considered under the heading of Gender Cultures, which is how people behave when they’re alone with people of their own gender. A locker room, for example. A bachelorette party was another example. Look, any of you ladies ever need to be awkward at a hen party, I’ll go with you—we can be awkward together. If ‘as awkward as an asexual lesbian at a hen party’ isn’t a saying, it should be.

The way some people deal with this is by seeking out mentors, which the author defines as:

cisgender people whose path in life mirrors the path they are on that are happy to help without judgment, or an ulterior motive; quietly offering insights and feedback.

I’d be happy to help, but useless. ‘Yeah, what I do in these circumstances, is hide behind the ficus, play with the pets and leave after twenty minutes.’

Under the heading Cultural Toxicity, the author addresses transphobia.

It manifests in work environments when jokes about a transgender employee are passed around the office, or a trans person is passed over for jobs and promotions.

So I’m pulling the episode over for a second for a mini-rant. I have a couple of trans friends who were looking for work. Both were having a hell of a time. No, they were both having a fucking impossible time. One works in a very small, highly specialized STEM field that’s male-dominated. She has multiple degrees and decades of experience with some of the top companies. She applied to hundreds, no kidding, hundreds of positions. Many times receiving no callbacks. Sometimes she’d get to an interview and then someone would say, ‘I Googled you.’ And that would be the end of it. The afternoon interviews would be canceled. This happened more than once. After being out of work for a couple of years she finally got another job and all of her friends were relieved (and highly pissed off) on her behalf.

My other friend has been put through some serious bullshit that isn’t as blatant, but it’s enough to make you squint and say, ‘Ummm.’

Meanwhile, my white, cishet husband occasionally applies for a job here or there over a four year period and we’re moving to Oxford! He doesn’t even have a university degree. I’m not saying he doesn’t work hard and hasn’t taught himself a great deal and isn’t worth it, but come the fuck on. This job is at least in part brought to us by Privilege. And we both know it.

Resuming the show.

The next chapter is on medical health and has some tips for health care providers on how to be sensitive to their patient’s needs.

The chapter also provides information about the likelihood of breast cancer for men. 1 in 1,000 men have a lifetime risk. It doesn’t matter if you were assigned male at birth or have had torso reconstruction surgery. It’s important to be aware of it.

This chapter covers hormone therapy and medical procedures and I probably don’t need to say this to my listeners, but don’t ask people what’s in their pants. Saying genitals is what makes a person a man or a woman—what does that mean to people who lose theirs to disease or accidents? Not everyone can afford or want surgery. Some people can’t have it due to health problems.

Chapter six is sexual health.

The tips in this chapter will be familiar to the kinky people—communication, consent, as long as everyone is consenting, there’s nothing wrong or bad about how you get down.

I also enjoy it when kinky people write books for a non-kinky audience, because they always put in something like this:

Afterwards, there are people who find that processing with a person about what you liked helps make next time even better.

Tina Horn had a similar suggestion in her Sexting book, which I reviewed in episode fifteen. Yes, vanilla people, talk about what you like. You can get more that way!

Stats in this chapter include the number of trans and gender nonconforming people who’ve been raped or molested. It’s 64% in the United States and 70% in Canada. And then we have these bathroom laws that portray trans people as the predators. Not even close.

This chapter covers fertility and STDs and I finally learned how people turn latex gloves into dental dams. Cut the fingers off then down the outer edge along the line where the pinkie would be. Then stick your tongue in the thumb. Doh!

Also, hormone therapy is not effective birth control. A popular mantra is ‘if you have it, check it.’ I really like that. I’m going to start shouting it at my asexual friends who don’t want to get certain tests because they think they have nothing to worry about.

The final chapter in the section is on mental health. This section covers the hoops people have to jump through for hormones and surgery. It’s a lot of hoops.

This covers gender dysphoria (where your internal gender doesn’t match your outer body) and body dysmorphia, which is when you obsess over perceived physical flaws. These are two separate things.

Because this is the mental health chapter, it includes this statistic:

One study of 6,450 transgender people in the United States found 41% had attempted suicide, compared to the national average of 1.6%. That study also found that suicide attempts were less common among transgender people whose family ties had remained strong after they came out. … These numbers only include those who survived their attempts.

Later in the chapter the author offers advice on dealing with difficult emotions and situations that can benefit anyone:

If this degree of work feels intimidating, the tool of H.A.L.T. can go a long way. Making decisions from any of these four places will not likely support quality mental health:
If someone fits any of these points, taking the time to address them before acting upon major decisions, sets them up for better likelihood of long-term, and even short-term success.

That brings us to the final section, entitled World at Large. It covers legal issues, challenges and communities and allies.

Chapter eight is on legal issues. Great Socrates. The legal issues. Many things require your ID to match the gender on your birth certificate, but some states and countries won’t allow you to change that. Well, thanks. I thought changing my name after I got married was nuts, but this is insane. And there’s a fee for everything. Transgender people are not doing this for fun, transphobes.

There’s good news—Ireland has passed something called national gender recognition and rights. Ireland. They only got divorce in 1996. We’re telling people where they can pee and a country run by the Catholic Church is giving country-wide protection to all genders. How you doin’, America?

We’re in the legal chapter so more stats.

Between 2008 and 2015, more than 1,700 trans people were killed worldwide. These numbers are disproportionately large amongst trans women of color.


15% of transgender people in jail report being sexually assaulted by police, with numbers amongst African-Americans double that figure.

As I was writing this today, I went to find the stats for this year—2016—and there was an article on the Advocate site that was three hours old on the 18th transgender person killed this year. Flipping through a slideshow of the people—it’s overwhelmingly female people of color. That’s nearly one person every two weeks this year. Where’s the outrage? The most recent was Erykah Tijerina—she was found on Monday, August 8th.

Chapter nine is challenges and communities. Challenges include who you tell and when and how and why—every chapter is an enormous list of questions and what to consider. So much respect and support to trans people for handling everything and dealing with idiots. And just having a life.

‘Passing’ is discussed, which is how well a person reads as their desired gender.

Then gender privilege is brought up.

These are the advantages that someone experiences because of their gender. Examples include the idea that men tend to receive higher pay, or that women are given permission to express emotion. Gender privilege does not automatically transfer to trans people upon transition. When a trans woman loses males privilege, she does not gain female advantages unless she passes and lives life stealth.

Norah Vincent wrote a fascinating book around ten years ago called Self Made Man about choosing to spend eighteen months or so disguised as a man. She wanted to see what gender privilege men had—and what guys got up to on male retreats. It was incredible. She also had a nervous breakdown from trying to be something she fundamentally was not. The lesson there is, trying to force yourself to be something you aren’t—even willingly for a book—will break your mind. It was riveting. There was much to learn about being both male and female.

Activism is mentioned in this chapter with this quote:

Privilege comes with the opportunity to speak up for oppressed or underrepresented populations, while simultaneously handing them the microphone to speak for themselves.

And it’s always important to remember that trans women of color led the Stonewall riots. I did not know there was something before that—something in 1966 called the Compton Riots that was started by a small group of trans women and drag queens and, according to the book, is considered to be the birth of the gay-rights movement.

You’ve stood up for me—I will stand up for you.

Speaking of—the final chapter is called Being a Trans Ally.

It covers preferred pronouns in more depth and offers this advice:

If an error is made regarding someone’s gender or use of their former name, it is best to quietly apologize and move forward, rather than constantly apologizing and drawing further attention to the issue.

As a culture we do this all the time when we meet a small child, or a pet. If the parent or pet-owner corrects us about the name or gender, we move forward with the new information.

Something else allies can do is modeling behavior—learning the polite way to behave and then simply be that way in front of people who may not know better.

If you see a trans or gender nonconforming person being harassed in public, rather than engaging with the harasser, just go talk to the person being harassed. Ask about where they’re going—if on public transport—or the book they’re reading, if they have one. Simply showing the person isn’t alone will diffuse the situation rather than escalate it and let the person know someone is on their side.

Trans people are more than just their gender journey—they’re everything else—they’re career, hobbies, families, sense of humor, etc. Having to constantly educate people is called ‘trans fatigue’ and, as an ally, you can take some of the work off by being educated and speaking up. This book has loads of resources listed in the back to help you along.

If you’re interested in learning about trans issues and or how to be a better ally—this is an excellent place to start. It’s packed with information, covers everything I can think of—if you’ve read it and it left something out, please let me know what, because I’m at a loss—and really isn’t that long.

I give this one a 5/5 and look forward to having Lee on the show in the near future.

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