Wow, wow, wow, I’ve had a lot going on recently, last quarter I was fretting about not having enough reading to make a post, now I have… almost too much. That is because I’ve picked up a number of epistolary substack stories being done like Dracula Daily and I took an online course on Tolkien and the Ancient World! So, for this quarter I’m going to be breaking things up a little differently as well as sticking this under a read more.Continue reading “Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022”
The first thing I learned reading this was that I’m very out of practice when it comes to reading academic theory. The second was that I need to broaden the academic theory I read. Thankfully, “Black on Both Sides” has a deliciously robust bibliography which I have marked up for future reading.
Now I will say, this may be a somewhat challenging read for those who don’t have a background in academic theory, but I think it’s doable if you’re willing to stop and google things, which I still had to do myself despite my academic background. Regardless, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in gender studies, even if you haven’t delved into much theory yet. C. Riley Snorton has done an incredible job of pulling together a wide range of theories to curate his discussion of race and gender, and moreover, he explains those theories well.
As you may have already guessed, “Black on Both Sides” is not your run of the mill history book. It is a history, certainly, but one that goes one step deeper than just telling history. It asks questions about and provides an analysis of the history of Black gendered experience and how that has developed from slavery through to today.
The first chapter begins with a discussion of the Black female body as an object in the historical context of the origins of the medical field of gynecology. Major warning in this chapter for discussions of unethical experimentation and medical abuse.
The second chapter follows this, with a discussion of how “ungendering blackness” provided ways for fugitive slaves to use crossing gender boundaries in their movement toward freedom. This chapter uses two early slave narratives as examples of this and continues with a discussion of literature into chapter three, where Snorton moves on to discuss the female presence in post Reconstruction narratives of Black individuals.
Chapter four delves into the lives of several Black trans individuals and how the media portrayed their gender and transitions in the years surrounding Christine Jorgensen’s rise to fame. Snorton hits, quite early on, one of the major problems I have with the Jorgensen narrative, namely that it plays heavily into the tropes of the “good trans” who upholds white heterosexuality.
Lastly, chapter five discusses the the Humboldt killings and the Brenden Teena archive, the tragedy behind the documentary “The Brenden Teena Story” and the feature film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
I was particularly excited for these final two chapters, 1) because they brushed up with things that I’ve studied more in depth, and 2) because they offered different perspectives to the dominant narratives surrounding both Christine Jorgensen and the Brandon Teena archive. For the latter in particular I have gotten rather sick of cis feminists touting “Boys Don’t Cry” as The Best Trans Expression In Film as if it isn’t about the rape and murder of a trans man. Snorton’s look into the Humboldt killings prioritizes Philip DeVine, the Black disabled man who was murdered alongside Teena and Lisa Lambert, and who notably was removed wholesale from the narrative of “Boys Don’t Cry.”
I could go on and on about everything I loved about this book. It’s a very careful and detailed breakdown of queer theory as it pertains to Black and trans history. But as I do have to end this review, I will direct you to where you can get this book so you can experience it for yourselves.
If you’re interested in the gay history of the 19th century, but have absolutely no idea where to begin, “Strangers” is a really solid place to start. It not only covers the whole of the 19th century (and swings into the 20th century), but unlike many books in the field, it goes out of it’s way to cover the lives of both men and women. Many books about gay history tend to limit themselves to either talking about men exclusively or talking about women exclusively, and there are certainly good reason for tackling those issues separately, however I really enjoyed getting to see the lives of men and women side by side.
I also found the book very accessible, you don’t need an academic background to understand “Strangers.” There’s a lot of queer and gender studies texts that get locked up in the ivory tower simply because they’re written in language not readily parsable by people outside of the field. “Strangers” certainly doesn’t avoid using academic language, but it’s understandable even if this is the very first book about gay history you’re picking up. In general, I think history books tend to be better at this than theory books, but “Strangers” has a particularly conversational tone that feels very welcoming and it’s not just a dry slog through a series of facts. It’s an engaging read and does a good job of holding your focus.
For what is ultimately a fairly small volume, “Strangers” covers multiple European countries, Britain and the United States. It succeeds in this, I feel, by focusing on specific people, Walt Whitman, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Oscar Wilde, to name a few, and then using these people and their words to dig into the culture at large. Does it cover each person absolutely comprehensively, of course not, there just isn’t room for that, but it creates an incredibly strong foundation for life during these times.
The one thing I would have liked to see more off, was the overlap of cross dressing and transvestism as it came to be known in the early 20th century. It is touched on a little bit, but I would have liked to see a bit more. This is relatively minor however, because on a whole the scope of this book is huge and there’s only so much you can fit in and do justice to.
On that note, the one big problem I had was with how to book treated Native American two spirit identity. It lacked the background and nuance that was given to the discussion of western identities, and I can’t tell from the works cited if any Native voices were actually consulted. This is a case of trying to include diverse outlooks on same sex attraction and gender diversity, and having it fall short. The proper space isn’t there to go into nuance about this and two spirit identity cannot be equally conflated to western ideas about homosexual or transgender identity. If these incredibly brief moments had been left out entirely, I don’t think the book would have suffered for it.
I don’t want to imply that I think this ruined the entire book, it’s a well researched, accessible and incredibly informative book, about 19th century Europe and white America. I just think that these discussions of Native identity could have been handled better.
I’m going to end this by recommending further reading about Native American gender and sexuality studies.
1. “Transgender Warriors” by Leslie Feinberg – While Feinberg is white, ze makes it clear in hir section on Native identities that ze recognizes that privilege and hir research is thorough and emphasizes Native voices wherever possible. I also like this book because it’s accessible to the lay person.
2. Literally anything by Qwo-Li Driskill. Ze is the author of the poetry collection “Walking with Ghosts” and the book “Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory,” and co-editor of “Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature” and “Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature.”
3. “Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology” edited by Will Roscoe, a collection of fiction.
I’ve struggled with body image all my life, a combination of weight anxiety and dysphoria. The dysphoria is mostly managed these days, the weight anxiety, not so much, particularly as I’ve been gaining weight in a more sedentary life style now that I have an office job and don’t walk everywhere anymore. Resources for men struggling with body image can be hard to come by, I remember vividly a body workshop my university put on that was supposedly geared toward everyone, but heavily advertised for women only. The flyers were covered in silhouettes of a variety body types… but they were all clearly supposed to be women.
This is why resources like “Rainbow Reflections: Body Image Comics for Queer Men” are so important and delightful to find. Through discussions of experiences and tips and advice to help sort through feelings and anxieties, the book is compelling and genuinely helpful.
And it’s not just weight that the book covers either. This is made clear just from the cover, where you see people of various race, ability and weight. The anthology includes both fiction and nonfiction comics that cover a vast array of masculine body types and issues. It really feels like a book that has something for everyone.
Choosing favorite stories to narrow in on was really hard, there are so many wonderful stories, but I’ll talk about the three I felt the most impacted by:
“Masc Man” by Ollie Rollins deals with the pressure on trans men to “look like a masculine man,” even when you may be happiest in more feminine/androgynous clothing, which is something I’ve struggled a lot with over the years. This can often be compounded by working jobs where you’re only safe if you’re stealth or have a specific dress code that doesn’t allow that kind of freedom.
“The Grass is Always Greener” by Corey Morgan is a comic that deals in how we compare ourselves to other people. The first man looks in the mirror and thinks he’s ugly, the second man see’s the first man is taller than him and feels bad about being short, the third man see’s the second man’s muscles and feels bad about being weak. I found this particularly compelling as a trans person, because especially when the desire is to be read as a man, you can often find yourself in a loop of endless comparing your self to cis men.
Lastly, I want to mention “Fitting In” by Loch Arambula which is about the trials of being a short trans man with odd proportions. I felt particularly called out by the panels about trying to get pants. I’ve never met men’s pants that fit me in any comfortable way. If they fit my waist they’re too tight in my hips, if they fit my hips they’re huge around my waist and far too long. (I recommend getting pants at Costco, they have women’s pants that are pretty non-gendered, the pockets might be smaller but they have a better leg/waist ratio I’ve found).
Note: This book does have nudity and sexual themes as there is a section on sexual health.
Continuing with the theme of trans and intersex narratives, I have made up a short master post of early memoirs and biographies of trans and intersex figures that I am familiar with, including the ones I discussed in this month’s review. I am here defining early as having been born in the 1800s, even if their text wasn’t published until later. They are listed in order of age range.
- 1838-1868, “Herculine Barbin: The Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite” – complied by Michael Foucault in 1980
This is the earliest written memoir I have found in my studies. The actual memoir portion of the book is quite good, though pieces are missing due to mishandling. It’s the extra “dossier” at the end of the book, along with the introduction, that Foucault added full of legal and medical reports and a fictional story based on Barbin’s life a that I find deeply fetishistic. As it is a book that gets taught in queer studies classes, you may be able to find a pdf online without having to spend money on it or, if you’re at university, the school library might have it. If you do want to buy it, I would recommend buying used.
- 1868-1935 – “Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress” – Magnus Hirschfeld
First published in German in 1910 and later translated into English in 1991, the book spends pages 17 to 123 going into 17 case studies of trans people who have detailed their lives for Hirschfeld. It can be a slow slog through dated and a bit technical language, but I think ultimately very enjoyable for someone interested in trans history.
- 1869-1936 – “From Female to Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland” – Lou Sullivan
This is the one genuine biography out of the set. Published by trans man and activist Lou Sullivan in 1990, he was drawn to Jack Garland after hearing about him in a presentation. Unfortunately, this book is out of print and can be difficult to find. To my shame, while I do own this book, I haven’t read it yet. Perhaps it will appear as a future review.
- 1882-1931 – “Man into Woman” compiled by Niels Hoyer
Lili Elbe’s memoir is an interesting case, written in third person with identities masked and compiled by a third party. Outside of some of the cases in Hirschfeld’s “Transexuals,” this is the only genuine memoir I have found of a trans woman. This can be found in a number of ways, I own the new ebook version “Lili: Portrait of the World’s First Sex Change” as well as a facsimile reprint of “Man into Woman.” Getting your hands on an original copy can prove difficult and pricey.
- 1885-1956 – “Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years” – N. O. Body aka Karl Baer
Published in 1907 and reprinted 100 years later with a beautiful afterward detailing the man behind N. O. Body. See review for more information.
If you’re interested in the genre of early trans memoir, then I cannot recommend this book enough. While much of the content does reflect the conventions of early trans memoirs, it is important to remember that N. O. Body/Karl Baer, was also intersex. This fact cannot and should not be overlooked in the reading of the memoir. Of the early trans/intersex memoirs I have read, I would recommend this above “Herculine Barbin” as presented by Michael Foucault.
The memoir deals in the early years of Karl Baer’s life as he is raised as a girl. A Jewish man, Baer disguised his identity in his memoir writing under the pseudonym N. O. Body, and making himself of Catholic French decent. While this obscures some details of his life, the underlying message is clear, this is a book, published in 1907, with support of some of the leading medical minds of the time, calling for understanding and acceptance. This call for acceptance and emphasis on medical professionals is quite typical for early trans memoirs and remnants of this can still be seen in the genre today, though it’s much less present than it was.
Obscuring details is also common in these very early memoirs. Lili Elbe’s “Man into Women” was also published with her name changed in the text, as well as it being written in third person like a novel. Additionally, her memoir passed through multiple hands after her death, so it is unclear what was her editing and what other people’s edits were. In this sense, despite the changes made by Baer himself, it’s almost a more genuine narrative, due to less ambiguity surrounding the who wrote what.
Another instance is of this is “Herculine Barbin,” which is presented by Foucault in an incredibly fetishistic manner. Including medical and “scientific” reports about Barbin as well as a fictional story based on their life along side Barbin’s memoir, it is therefore even more unsettling when you learn that the Barbin’s narrative is incomplete. A large portion was lost by one of the many doctor’s fascinated with Barbin’s case. Ultimately, the focus of the book is on the tragedy of Barbin’s life and death and the fetishistic fascination with their genitals.
On the opposite side, Magnus Hirschfeld’s epilogue to Baer’s memoir not only discourages this kind of treatment, but encourages understanding, with quotes like “The sex of a person lies more in his mind than in his body” and “For far too long, adults have underestimated … children and their significance as human beings,” this short epilogue written in 1907 seems positively modern. I find the positive messages that can be attained from reading “Memoirs” is vastly above “Herculine Barbin.”
Additionally, if you are looking for a positive story, “Memoirs” has a happy ending, while the memoirs to primarily focus on Baer’s “maiden years” the end is optimistic and hopeful for the future and, more than that, Hermann Simon has been able to uncover the trajectory of Karl Baer’s life through the lucky coincidence of his mother knowing Karl Baer and his wife when she was a child, followed by years of painstaking research. His afterward to the 2007 edition is an excellent supplement and he takes you back through the memoir as he uncovers the reality behind what Baer disguised.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with religions. One that has been inherently distrustful even before I realized I was a queer trans man. Yet something about a higher power and the magic of religion has always fascinated me. I wasn’t raised religious, except in the vague Christian-normative way most secular families are. Christmas might not have been a “religious” holiday for my family, but it’s still a religious holiday underneath. You’d be hard pressed to find a wholly secular “Christmas” holiday, though the McElroys’ Candlenights does try its best, it’s ultimately pan-religious rather than secular.
Despite the fact that I wasn’t raised religious, religion was always an option. My mom, an ex-Catholic and religious history and comparative religion double major, made it very clear that religion was an option, should I ever want to pursue it. As a result, I had Hanukkah books and Kwanza books alongside my Christmas books, ate latkes and knew how to play dreidel, but also sang Christmas carols and got a new Christmas ornament every year. I also remember spending at least one holiday with a Jewish friend when I was in kindergarten or first grade, though I could not for the life of me tell you what holiday it was.
After briefly looking into what conversion would mean when I was in college, I didn’t actually make the decision to look into converting formally until I moved away from home. Approaching Judaism is not easy, it’s a journey, but it’s one I feel prepared to make, due to the fact I’ve made a similarly massive transition before with my gender. Just like with gender transition, converting to Judaism isn’t a massive change in my worldview, it’s just a change in how I approach the world.
That said, just because Judaism is what feels right to me doesn’t mean that it’s still not easy to grapple with the historical stigma that chases queer and trans people wherever they go. Noam Sienna’s “A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” presents an incredible historical record, but it’s also one that isn’t wholly happy. In between loving homoerotic poems and stories, you also have first hand records documenting the persecution of queer people in history. While court or arrest records are sometimes the only historical documents that remain of queer presence, it doesn’t make it any less challenging to read them, especially when they come from a religion you are looking to join.
However, the way Judaism has evolved into it’s various branches means that the Judaism of then is not the Judaism of now and there is absolutely space in Judaism for queer people. This is made apparent through the existence of books like “A Rainbow Thread” and “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible,” as well as through the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which is a congregation in New York City that is explicitly for the LGBTQ community.
One other book that I have found particularly important in twining my conversion and gender together is “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community,” edited by Noach Dzmura. It’s designed with a readership of transgender people in mind and as a result is an indescribably cathartic read. Some might find the terminology dated, because the book is almost ten years old at this point and many of the authors writing are older, but that doesn’t detract from the messages that the book brings.
If you’re interested in pursuing something that isn’t Judaism. Some other books I would recommend are:
- “Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality & Black Magic in Brazil” by Kelley E. Hayes, which “examines the intersections of social marginality, morality, and magic in contemporary Brazil by analyzing the beliefs and religious practices related to the Afro-Brazilian spirit entity Pomba Gira.” Pomba Gira being a figure who has been linked with trans women and gay men, which if memory serves is either talked about on in the book or in the accompanying DVD, “Slaves of the Saints.”
- “In from the Wilderness – Sherman: She-r-man” by David E. Weekly. “In from the Wilderness” is a memoir, that details Weekly’s life as a transgender man holding religious office in the Methodist Church.
- “Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach” by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. I haven’t read this myself, but I have heard very good things about it. It seems to be a more Christian approach, but I can’t tell if it’s geared toward any one specific denomination.
[Edit: Originally published July 8, 2017]
Queer, There, and Everyone is a really wonderful book. It’s well researched, informative, and best of all it’s accessible. As I’ve discovered seeking out books for my thesis, when it comes to queer texts they aren’t always the easiest to get your hands on or even read when it comes to more theoretical texts. There are a lot of queer texts that are mainly geared at adults. Queer, There, and Everywhere, provides good summaries of the amazing lives of twenty-three incredible people in language that you don’t need to be a college student to understand. As a voracious reader myself, I breezed through it in a couple hours.
Several of the people included in this book were people whose memoirs I’d already read, including Lili Elbe’s Man into Woman (though what I read was the renamed Kindle version Lili: A Portrait of the First Sex Change) and Josef Kohout’s The Men with the Pink Triangle. Queer, There, and Everywhere does a really great job of summarizing the stories in these books. Of course Lili and Josef’s sections were not only summaries of their memoirs, in fact, it wasn’t until this book that I learned Josef’s name, because his name is not included in The Men with the Pink Triangle. He chose to remain anonymous when the book was first published.
Queer, There, and Everywhere is also one of those books that makes a great stepping stone for further research. The bibliography in the back is organized by section and so if there’s a particular person you find yourself wanting to look into further, it’s very easy to find other books or resources to pursue. I know I intend to invest in some of the books used as references for the sections on Renée Richards and Sylvia Rivera. The bibliographies of queer texts are your best friend when it comes to finding further readings, especially if you’re like me who’s really bad at googling things.
The people in this book range from the year 203 (Elagabalus) to today (George Takei). It’s not meant to be a comprehensive history by any means, there’s entirely too much rich and complex history for that. But our history has been one that gets overshadowed and ignored so often that this book feels really great.
There are a couple of deaths, Elagabalus’ and Harvey Milk’s that are, for this level of book, pretty graphically described. Those two both left me feeling distressed and I actually had to put the book down for a bit after the Harvey Milk section. It may have been the fact that both of these people were murdered that made their deaths hit particularly hard.
You can find it here.
Related Reviews: Christopher and his Kind
[Edit: Originally published April 1, 2017]
Some Assembly Required is a Trans Narrative. It encompasses all the aspects someone might expect if they are familiar with other trans books or if they have a passing awareness of trans people. These books have value, and I am hesitant to be critical of any trans books in the state of things—however, they may not have as much to offer if one has already read another Trans Narrative book.
An issue with the Trans Narrative story always being spotlighted is that it does little to question gender; it simply implies that biology made a mistake that we should fix medically and move on with our lives. It does not dissect gender roles; it just asks politely for a little room for those having trouble fitting into them until they can perfect the art. This book does improve upon some tropes by featuring multiple and non-straight trans characters. However, Arin assumes the gender of everyone he meets by their appearance. As someone who would be misgendered by this author despite his intended message, this is saddening.
The language is simple and voice relatable, making it appropriate for high school or middle school students. I would ask that educators diversify their material, and include other trans experiences and gender theory as well, including those that are non-binary, non-white, etc. (For a college class, check out Gender Outlaw by Kate Bernstein!) I think this book could be so much more useful with good discussion questions. Question perceptions, not just if the book has been read!
Seeing your usual narrative—“wrong body” “wrong parts” and so much labeling of ‘boy’ activities and clothes exhausts. I want more than this. I want to talk about why clothes are gendered and how arbitrary that is, about why people force these roles. But many do feel this way, and it’s authentic for Arin. The window into discovering one’s transness as an American kid rings impressively true to mine. It’s just a small window, where I’d like a glass house.
Some details: There are several passages where he berates girls and femininity, which is normal for a child forced into those roles, but there’s no indication that he’s grown from this later. There is also a line drag performers that come across as derogatory in a similar way, and some mentions of Native people that needed a bit more care.
For someone not exposed to many resources, this could be lifesaving and educational. At the same time, I think we should be mindful to center other lenses along with this one and question the binary that tramples trans people in the first place.
You can find this book on Amazon here.
This is a guest review by @Bovastic, who is available as an accuracy consultant/sensitivity reader at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. Areas of expertise are listed on Twitter. For characters with other mental conditions or certain life experiences, please contact and ask.
[Edit: Originally published April 28, 2016]
Christopher and his Kind, a memoir detailing Christopher Isherwood’s time in traveling abroad from England, is delightfully frank and honest. Christopher Isherwood has no qualms in saying which parts are unreliable because he doesn’t remember them or how the opinion of his younger self might be biased. He treats young Christopher Isherwood as if he is a different person from the Isherwood who is now writing this memoir, and in a sense he is.
I found it fascinating the way he talked about how he fictionalized the people that he met, particularly Jean Ross who was the inspiration for beloved character Sally Bowles. This ties in with Isherwood acknowledging himself as an unreliable narrator. He remarks on several occasions in the book that over the years what was Jean Ross and what was Sally Bowles has become blurred.
The queer history that this book provides was wonderful. I was particularly intrigued by the Hirschfeld Institute. It’s something I definitely want to research further. Aside from that it was a wonderful glimpse into how homosexuality was thought of and how gay and bisexual men (though they weren’t called that in the book) lived their lives, and how despite the tendency for history to get straight-washed, queer people have always been there and will always be there.
There is also a movie of the same name, starting Matt Smith, and while it is good, it doesn’t really give you the full feel of Isherwood’s time traveling or the full nature of his relationship with Heinz, or Isherwood’s other friends for that matter. On it’s own the movie is good, and if you’ve seen it but haven’t read the book you should go out and get the book ASAP.
The book can be found here.
Related Reviews: A Single Man, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin, Queer, There, and Everywhere