By Angelina Eimannsberger
Gender theorist and feminist Julia Serano is one of our biggest inspirations at Indulgence. Her first book, Whipping Girl, is a brilliant intervention in the discourse of feminism, misogyny, and femininity from the perspective of a trans woman. Alongside Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, it is one of the most important recent manifesto-memoirs of trans women. Whipping Girl provided a critical framework for rethinking what it means to be a woman in society. Serano’s new book, Outspoken, continues the work of Whipping Girl while also chronicling the past 12 years of feminism and trans activism through the lens of Serano’s previously unpublished writing, making this book a collection of essays loosely grouped into five parts by topic and time. Serano’s cherishing of femininity, her analysis of cis people’s lack of acceptance of the validity and realness of trans people’s bodies, and her critique of health care access for trans people are among the most outstanding contributions of this essay collection.
While Serano has earned a Phd in Biology from Columbia University, we know her as an activist, public speaker, and proliferate writer about feminism, trans people, and social justice activism. She is a performance artist, a public intellectual, and continues to do research in the natural sciences. Her writing takes personal experience and makes it into theory and social activism in ways reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Both Lorde and Serano speak with unique and urgent voices from places of multiple exclusion and treat the mundane as political; they also both carve space in public discourse for women who are not meant to be there or speak because of their compound identities such as being a black lesbian cis woman or a white bisexual trans woman.
Serano’s most crucial insight may be that while trans people have slowly gained more mainstream acceptance and public visibility, their gender identities, and all queer gender identities, are still considered as less valid than those of cis women and men. While public visibility of trans people has increased and overt discrimination decreased, Serano documents how many people still question the validity of trans people’s gender identities. Recent comments by author and acclaimed feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about trans women not being women confirm Serano’s observation, and the ramification of this have been discussed in a Medium essay by Serano as well as here on Indulgence. To create acceptance of various gender identities, Serano speaks of her body and the experiences she has with it. Reporting on her experience of being in the world, on having sex, on how she is perceived by others is a crucial tool for Serano to share with her readers the validity, authenticity, and realness of her body.
Serano uses spoken word as well as nonfiction to speak of the realness and validity of her body. Giving a rare printed taste of her spoken word performance, Serano turns to impotence and its implications for trans women in Small Blue Thing (24-5), showing her sex positive feminism at its very strongest. After describing what it is like to be a woman with a penis and have sex with other women, how after meeting a “kick-ass girl” she “did what any self-respecting semblance of a man would do: I set out to score some Viagra” (25), Serano ties up the poem saying, “So here comes the happy ending: I married the kick-ass girl, transitioned to female, and we were together for ten years, living as lesbians” (25). Serano’s penis becomes part of a lesbian relationship, her experience of sex is one of empowerment. Through her writing, we can experience Serano’s body as entirely valid beyond any reasonable doubt of an open-minded reader.
Serano’s cheerful and enthusiastic championing of femininity is another feature that sets her apart as a thinker: we aren’t used to femininity as a strength, a goal, as something to yearn for. Instead, we are conditioned to think of femininity as a weakness, as a public prejudice to overcome. Serano, growing up as a trans woman, comes to embrace her femininity while being forbidden to be feminine by the world around her, and so “[g]rowing up in a society that is fueled by male homophobic hysteria, it took [Serano] many years to figure out that there is no act more brave than proudly embracing one’s femme self” (78). The embrace of femininity as empowerment and pleasure is not something most feminists or women talk about even though it is a crucial for liberation. Serano owns her bold feminine identity knowing that her “femme expression is not meant for any man, any boy, or any butch. It is not a performance, or an artificial construct designed to entice, allure, or appease anybody. I am femme solely for me” (78). By extension, any woman’s femininity is just as valid, as strong, and as much of an achievement in the face of society’s derision as Serano’s. That is valuable insight for feminism that all too often finds itself scrambling for clear solutions such as a pay equality while the real structural challenges and the compounded operations of misogyny go far beyond that and are much harder, but also much more rewarding, to solve.
Serano has to live with complicated realities that are attended to poorly by a limited feminism constrained by small mindedness and lack of diversity in sexuality and gender identity (both of much interest to Serano) as well as other intersections (she throughout acknowledges her lack of experience and attention when it comes to being women of color, being poor, and other aspects of identity). While focused on the specificity of her bodily and personal situation, Serano shows us that accepting our complex reality is liberating. She doesn’t “have the luxury of seeing [her] penis in black-and-white, cut-and-dried terms. For [her], the penis does not represent power or privilege, because [she is] regularly marginalized for having one. It is both [her] center of sexual pleasure and a signifier of something that [she doesn’t] identify with” (103). Bodies are real just the way they are, and phallocentrism is based on an idea of male anatomy and superiority that simply doesn’t match with reality: centuries of Greco-Judeo penis obsessions are revealed as myths about men and power but that do not attend to real bodies or real lived experience.
Another excellent part of Outspoken is Serano’s engagement with healthcare for trans people. A trained biologist who knows science and its results when she see and lives them, Serano discusses with great erudition the revisions and implications of how being trans is understood in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). She explains that if a trans person wants to access health care they must allow their gender to be pathologized. This affects Serano personally as “for insurance purposes, my therapist uses Adjustment Disorder as my diagnosis […] I was very disturbed about the fact that I needed to be diagnosed with GID [Gender Identity Disorder] in order to transition” (128). While accepting the diagnosis ‘adjustment disorder’–after all, she does adjust to many new beginnings in her life–Serano is understandably irritated at being diagnosed as ‘disordered.’ Serano brilliantly performs the shock for her reader to experience: after having spent more than a hundred pages being impressed by her mind and insights, we are now forced to accept the truth that the US state considers Serano sick and in need of mental treatment.
As her reader, we can feel the invalidation and the unfairness, as well as the wrongness of this judgement. Serano responds to being considered ‘disordered’ by saying that the invalidation of trans people as being confused “is the opposite of what I actually experienced: The feeling that I had had since childhood that there was something wrong with me being male, and that I should be female, was very real and very unalterable, whereas my physical body has proven to be quite malleable in comparison. But their belief that my external, anatomical sex is most relevant and immutable essentially rendered my inner experience, my mental state, as irrelevant and unstable” (131/132). Her ‘anatomical sex’ is valued by the state and health care providers above ‘what she actually experience.’ However, Serano is not deterred by this official invalidation. She knows that she ‘should be female’ even though being male, and being the gender one is assigned at birth, is what is valued and accepted in society. By living as a woman she contradicts patriarchy in the most flagrant way possible: while men are posited as powerful and gender as immutable by our culture, Serano chooses to be a trans woman even if it means lack of access to health care, power, privilege. It does mean the achievement of femininity, of being herself, of living the reality of her body. It also means being resilient and attractive and revolutionary: “Trans women are sexy because we have bucked the patriarchy in the most flagrant way possible. Trans women are hot because, unlike our cis counterparts, we have chosen to be women and we have gone to incredible lengths, and overcome incommensurable obstacles, in order to make that reality possible.” (214).
Go read Outspoken if you have any interest in women, in trans people, in being a person. Serano is a wise, generous writer who has put in a lot of time to thinking and researching and discussing with others, like minded as well as contrarian. Engaging with her work, your thinking will be clearer, your capacity for empathy stronger, and your knowledge of the world more profound.
–All quotes are taken from Julia Serano, Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism, Switch Hitter Press 2016.