Book Reviews: Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism (Paperback)
by Pat Califia
and Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex by Pat Califia
Sex Changes provides a good history of nonstandard genders. It describes a rather dramatic change in how typical transsexuals see themselves, from a time when sex change operations were considered attempted cures for a somewhat embarrassing disease and strongly desired to fit in to a standard gender stereotype to a time when many celebrate their diversity and see their gender (both before and after any hormones or surgery they may get) as something different from male or female.
I was a bit surprised by some things the book reports, such as that cross-dressing was illegal in parts of the U.S. as recently as the 1980s, or that some people approach sex reassignment with the same mindset as they do when getting tattoos.
The book has fairly good discussions of the problems with access to surgery and hormones that are created by disagreements over whether they are cures for a disease or something closer to cosmetic surgery. It is disturbing how much incentive there is to lie to doctors (and maybe insurers) in order to fit a somewhat arbitrary stereotype of someone with more mental problems than the average transsexual experiences.
I’m disappointed that the book does little to analyze the politics of how gender-segregated restrooms deal with people who don’t consider themselves male or female. It seems likely that this will generate political controversy soon, but few people seem prepared for it.
The book mostly deals with U.S. culture, but one chapter deals unusually-gendered roles in other cultures, mainly Berdaches in Native American cultures, and arguments about whether they should be thought of as transgender roles.
I have a few objections to what the book says:
The roots of prejudice against homosexuals and the hatred and fear of transsexuals are so closely woven together that it is not really all that difficult to educate people simultaneously about both communities.
This seems only half right. There are ways to argue for queer rights that apply to both groups, but I don’t see how they address many of the fears of bigots. Prejudice against gays has little to do with the fears that restrooms will be unsafe for some women if there is no clear boundary between male and female, or the fear that someone will put a lot of time and prestige at risk courting a potential mate only to discover that it won’t be possible to produce children via such a mating. Fear of transsexuals has little to do with the fear that gay men will spread sexually transmitted diseases.
There are many things that could have been done better to advance respect for transsexuals without hindering homosexuals. We could have used the word queer a good deal more often, and we could have tried harder to insure that queer was used in an inclusive way. (The obstacles to that weren’t just conservative tendencies among some homosexuals, but also intolerance among radicals who want to show off their ideological purity by distancing themselves from non-radicals who could be called queer).
Another way would be for gay rights advocates to focus more on disagreements about whether the primary purpose of sex and romance is reproduction. Many leading gay marriage opponents are trying to maintain or recreate a culture in which sex is more strongly connected to reproduction than I think the swing voter is comfortable with. Yet too many gay rights activists prefer to stereotype opponents as simply ignorant rather than having controversial but coherent goals.
These two approaches could have helped transsexuals somewhat without any cost to gays, but much of the reason gays have been accepted faster than transsexuals is that there have been more gays around to demand respect from their friends and neighbors, and no change in queer activist strategies would have much effect on that difference.
despite the fact that SRS has been performed for three decades, most insurance companies and HMOs classify it as an experimental procedure, and will not cover it. This should be compared to the response to organ transplants
Yet there’s much clearer evidence that organ transplants usually accomplish their goals well than there is that sexual reassignment surgery does. Insurers treatment of SRS doesn’t seem significantly more arbitrary than their decision to not cover experimental treatments in general. The main problem is the inadequate innovation in the surgical practices.
Public Sex is a fairly good survey of unconventional sexual practices. Much of it simply reports that people (often the author) are proud to engage in this and that practice. The book occasionally makes arguments that attempt to convince people to approve of those practices, but mostly it will fail to change many minds. People who are unashamed of sex will mostly already agree with the ideas in the book, and prudes will be unwilling to consider them.
The rants against puritanical feminists might convince a few gays that some feminists are their enemies, but mostly they will just reinforce existing beliefs.
Many of the essays were written in the 1980s, and the sometimes tedious descriptions of legal and political details of that time are of little value except to historians.
Some of the older essays include an occasional annoyingly overbroad quasi-marxist class struggle rant, but the more recent essays indicate the author has become more sensible over time.