west coast trip [no. 2]: bend & ashland

Leaving Portland, we drove down past Mt. Hood and through the Warm Springs reservation, home of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, to the city of Bend in central Oregon.

In 1984 my maternal grandparents retired to Bend, where we visited them throughout my childhood. This past May, my grandmother passed away there, and Tumelo Creek in the photograph above is where my grandfather, mother, and aunt, scattered her ashes.

We also visited the public library where my grandma volunteered for many years. She was responsible for selecting and mailing books to far-flung readers who were unable to visit the library in person very often (or at all). In ranching territory, this was not an insignificant group of people! She developed correspondence relationships with many of them, and was particularly proud of her ability to introduce her readers to new authors, occasionally sneaking in something they professed disinterest for. I remember one man, particularly, who refused to read women authors -- until my grandmother got him hooked on the mystery writer P.D. James!

We stayed at the hotel we nearly always stayed in when I was a child, but to which I hadn't been in over a decade: The Bend Riverside Inn & Suites. My mother had given us some money from her inheritance from my grandmother so we splurged on two nights in literally riverside accommodation on the Deschutes.

We ate well, lunching with my grandpa at the Victorian Cafe and discovering a coffee favorite of the trip, thump coffee.

thump had wooden shingles for customers to draw on, which they then hung up in the rafters -- great decor! Hanna and I each contributed one to the collection.

We left Bend after a two-night stay and drove south to Ashland. Hanna had never been to Crater Lake, so we took a detour and drove through the park. It was incredibly foggy, but there were still amazing views!

The incoming clouds, portending fog at higher elevations.

Ashland -- as long-time readers of this blog may remember -- is the town near where the Oregon Extension program is located (about which I wrote my thesis). We actually stayed at the Greensprings Inn, twenty miles up in the mountains.

It was gloriously dark and quiet. We would have stayed longer, but we had a wedding to attend!

The next morning we had breakfast at the Greenleaf and merged back onto the I-5.

Mt. Shasta from the road...


booknotes: my brother, my sister

Molly Haskell at a book signing for
My Brother, My Sister (via)
Just before leaving on vacation, I was asked to review the new memoir My Brother, My Sister: A Story of Transformation by Molly Haskell (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). I spent the flight from Boston to PDX reading ... and taking increasingly irritated notes. While I didn't actively seek out this book to review, I had slightly higher hopes for a memoir that promised in its ad copy to be a "candid" and self-critical memoir by a "feminist academic" who not only seeks to describe her own journey to understanding but also to "chart the cultural map ... of gender roles and transsexualism." I had hopes for a memoir that evidenced both better understanding of the trans issues its author attempts to outline for readers -- one that hadn't fallen into some of the most basic traps of our problematic cultural narratives about trans lives.

Part of my disappointment comes from the fact that cis* family members and friends of trans individuals often struggle to get up to speed on trans issues after a loved one opens up about their experience -- and there is a need for personal narratives by individuals who have struggled through ignorance and misconception into better understanding. Such stories don't need to paper over the messy reality of feeling that often accompanies such a journey. I have a friend whose spouse came to the realization of their transness within the last two years, and as a partner my friend struggled with many of the same feelings a major life change will bring: grief over the loss of "before," fear about what the future will bring, uncertainty about what this change meant for their relationship and family life, sometimes anger at their spouse for being at the epicenter of this upheaval -- and for mostly not sharing in the grieving process. Like many trans individuals, the partner was mostly elated and relieved to be finally bringing their self-presentation into alignment with their interior self: to no longer be living a dissonant life. To my friend, whose emotions were much more ambivalent, it often felt like there was no safe or sanctioned place to process their complexity of feeling. With economic barriers to therapy and other social supports often prohibitively high, books like Transitions of the Heart (written by parents of trans and gender-nonconforming children) can help mitigate what could otherwise be intense isolation.

My Brother, My Sister could have been an addition to this small but growing literary offerings. In my estimation, it was not.

Let's begin with the most basic trap of all, the way the memoir's narrative is structured around and saturated in the physical aspects of transition, most particularly fixated on gender confirmation surgery and Haskell's assessment of how well or appropriately she believes her sister is presenting as a woman. While acknowledging that authors sometimes have little control over book jacket design, the plain red cover with a youthful photograph of Ellen "before" and a current "after" photograph invites the reader to center Ellen's appearance and physical transition rather than Haskell's experience as the cisgendered sister having to assimilate her sibling's late-in-life changes. A set of photographs at the center of the volume likewise foreground the "before" and "after" images.

As authors like Julia Serano and S. Bear Bergman have pointed out, the narrative of "passing" places the onus on a trans person to conform to the world's high expectations of gendered behavior rather than demanding that the world accept a person's self identification regardless of presentation. A trans person -- just like any of us -- may be a butch or lipstick lesbian, a twink or a jock, a sorority girl or tomboy. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and sartorial taste ranges across a field of more-gendered and less-gendered style choices. Historically, we (the public) have required a high level of stereotypical gender performance from trans women -- at the same time as we (feminists) blame trans people for perpetuating sexism through that same exploration of femininity.**  Haskell perpetuates this scrutiny by making physical transformation the benchmark of transition, and by dwelling on the surgeries, the clothing choices, the gender-coded vocal and physical mannerisms, and other aspects of her sister's self-presentation.

While her sister's pleasures and anxieties around offering up her newly-visible self to the world are understandably preoccupying, Haskell's perspective is more often one of harsh judgment than it is attempt to follow where her sister leads. She frets that her sister will be unattractive, considers her clothing choices to slutty, and considers anyone who can't or is unwilling to fit into her neat categories of gender to be somehow at fault. For example, she writes of a trans woman her sister knows, "One man, though convinced he's a she, refuses to do anything to alter his rough male appearance" (158). As if this "refusal" to care about her appearance somehow invalidates the woman's self-articulated gender identity. She also offers unsolicited opinions on the femininity of other high-profile trans women:
From photographs, Jennifer [Finney Boylan], being younger and more typically feminine, seems to have made an attractive looking female, while [Jan] Morris by most accounts, before settling into dignified-dowdy, went through a grotesquely awkward wannabe-girl period (122). 
I scribbled in the margins “seriously. out. of. line. judgy.”

When Ellen visits Haskell after a period of cloistered transformation, Haskell nervously invites friends over and then grills them afterward on Ellen's ability to perform femininity: "The verdict ... she's very convincing. I said the hair's too blond, and Lily and Patty agree, the hair is too blond, but they're surprised at how good she looks" (146).

I think possibly a large part of my irritation is that I couldn't find Molly Haskell very likable, as a sister or as a feminist. She's critical of other women's appearances, ageist towards both the old (women who might be unable to catch a man) and the young (who are too slutty in appearance and too casual about identity), and hews close to gender expectations. One of her first reactions to her sister's coming out as trans is to fear that the tech- and number-savvy brother she relied on will no longer be good at computer repair or math. While she sidles up to the notion that this first reaction was unfounded, she never demonstrates for her readers that she has since come to revise her binary thinking when it comes to girl brains and boy brains.

At what might be a low point of the book, she even suggests that Brandon Teena, the trans man who was the subject of the biopic Boys Don’t Cry somehow “asked for it” by dressing in clothing appropriate to his gender and not disclosing his trans status:
Yes, the yahoos were uptight and murderous, but she in some sense invited the violence by taunting their manhood, pulling the wool over their eyes, and acting in bad faith (106). 
Yes, she willfully mis-genders him. To fall back on the trope of the deceptive transsexual (who supposedly invites violence through the act of passing) in a throwaway comment, in a book pitching itself as one about understanding trans lives, seems to me a fairly basic mis-step that, again, both Ms. Haskell and her editor should have caught before the manuscript went to press. That they did not suggests neither understood how problematic it was.

Which in turn calls the entire project into question, at least as far as its worth as a positive contribution to trans literature goes.

At the end of the day, I am glad that Molly and her sister have remained in good relationship, and I am glad that Molly gained more understanding of trans experience and trans history than she had when her sister first came out to Molly and her husband. I imagine that, at the end of the day, there are far worse reactions to have had from one’s family upon coming out trans (see: transgender remembrance day). Yet I also wish that Haskell had let her own learning process cook a bit longer before publishing a book on the subject. As it stands, My Brother, My Sister is a tepid-at-best, damaging-at-worst popular memoir that does little to invite a more complex understanding of trans people or sex and gender identity more broadly. I expected better from a self-identified feminist author, although I’m sure trans feminists would laugh at my (cis-privileged) wishful thinking.

For those interested in learning more about trans lives, I would recommend The Lives of Transgender People by Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin, Whipping Girl by Julia Serano -- who has also just published a book on trans-inclusive feminism that I can't wait to get my hands on -- and also Anne Fausto-Sterling's excellent Sexing the Body.

Luna, a young adult novel by Julie Ann Peters, is also an intimate fictional portrait of a sister coming to terms with her siblings trans identity.

*Cis or cissexual refers to individuals whose gender assigned at birth (usually based on external sex characteristics) matches their internal sense of their own physiological sex and gender identity.

 **Trans men have, historically, had a very different socio-political experience within both mainstream culture (where they are often rendered invisible) and mainstream feminism (where they are more often embraced while trans women are actively marginalized).


west coast trip [no.1]: portland

As promised, here are some photos from our two-week trip to Oregon & California. We flew into Portland, Ore., where my brother and sister-in-law live. One of our first stops was Powell's City of Books, over sixty-eight thousand square feet of new and used titles, as well the in-store coffee shop (pictured above) where we obviously stopped for our morning espresso.

The store map (PDF) offers some sense of scale, although it's hard to grasp until you actually walk in the door.

On our first morning, the artist sitting behind Hanna's left shoulder was constructing paper flowers out of waxed drinking cups. The next day, his handiwork was on display at the cafe counter:

Portland is city full of artists, including my sister-in-law Renee! On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Renee was participating in an art fair -- painting to advertise an upcoming open studio tour. Hanna, Brian and I wandered the fair and also stopped by to visit with Renee.

That night, we waited in a long line for the Most Amazing Ice Cream Ever at Salt & Straw on NW 23rd. I had a split cone featuring pear and Gorgonzola and olive oil flavors. Both sound weird, but were incredible.

Sunday, Brian and I drove out the Columbia River Gorge to the Oneonta falls. Labor Day weekend proved a busy time to visit, even though the falls are difficult to get to. In order to reach the actual waterfall, you have to wade through chilly water that was as deep as my rib cage in places!

But first, a logjam ...

... which opens up to the ravine cut by centuries of rushing water ...

... with the waterfall payoff at the end!

People had left little cairns of river rocks at the base of the falls.

On our last day in Portland, before heading south toward Bend and Ashland, we went to the International Test Garden for roses in Washington Park.

The Tuesday after Labor Day, after Brian had left for his first day teaching middle school art (God bless him!), we rented a car, caffienated up, and headed up over the Mt. Hood pass to central Oregon on the next stage of our travels.


the statement on trans-inclusive feminsm and womanism [signed!]

I've been seeing this statement coming through on my RSS and Twitter feed for the last few days, and have finally had a moment to sit down and sign it. 

It should be upsetting to us all that the need to specify trans-inclusive feminism and womanism exists, but it does so I want to spell out my support. I also want to take this opportunity to thank the trans people and allies who have pushed me -- in person and in print -- over the past ten years to learn about trans issues and un-learn toxic myths and stereotypes. You have immeasurably enriched my life and my feminism. I will do my best to live up to the vision all you have challenged us to fulfill.

[text via feministsfightingtransphobia]

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable.  And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color.  Given these events, it is important that we speak out in support of feminism and womanism that support trans* people.

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Transphobic feminism ignores the identification of many trans* and genderqueer people as feminists or womanists and many cis feminists/womanists with their trans* sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers; it is feminism that has too often rejected them, and not the reverse. It ignores the historical pressures placed by the medical profession on trans* people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes in order to be “gifted” the medical aid to which they as human beings are entitled.  By positing “woman” as a coherent, stable identity whose boundaries they are authorized to police, transphobic feminists reject the insights of intersectional analysis, subordinating all other identities to womanhood and all other oppressions to patriarchy.  They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.  We recognize that transphobic rhetoric has deeply harmful effects on trans* people’s real lives; witness CeCe MacDonald’s imprisonment in a facility for men.  We further recognize the particular harm transphobia causes to trans* people of color when it combines with racism, and the violence it encourages.

When feminists exclude trans* women from women’s shelters, trans* women are left vulnerable to the worst kinds of violent, abusive misogyny, whether in men’s shelters, on the streets, or in abusive homes.  When feminists demand that trans* women be excluded from women’s bathrooms and that genderqueer people choose a binary-marked bathroom, they make participation in the public sphere near-impossible, collaborate with a rigidity of gender identities that feminism has historically fought against, and erect yet another barrier to employment.  When feminists teach transphobia, they drive trans* students away from education and the opportunities it provides.

We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody.  Criticism is not the same as silencing. We recognize that the recent emphasis on the so-called violent rhetoric and threats that transphobic feminists claim are coming from trans* women online ignores the 40+ – year history of violent and eliminationist rhetoric directed by prominent feminists against trans* women, trans* men, and genderqueer people.  It ignores the deliberate strategy of certain well-known anti-trans* feminists of engaging in gleeful and persistent harassment, baiting, and provocation of trans* people, particularly trans* women, in the hope of inciting angry responses, which are then utilized to paint a false portrayal of trans* women as oppressors and cis feminist women as victims. It ignores the public outing of trans* women that certain transphobic feminists have engaged in regardless of the damage it does to women’s lives and the danger in which it puts them.  And it relies upon the pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt, using any example of such violent rhetoric, no matter the source — and, just as much, the justified anger of any one trans* woman — to condemn all trans* women, and to justify their continued exclusion and the continued denial of their civil rights.

Whether we are cis, trans*, binary-identified, or genderqueer, we will not let feminist or womanist discourse regress or stagnate; we will push forward in our understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality across disciplines.  While we respect the great achievements and hard battles fought by activists in the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those activists are not infallible and that progress cannot stop with them if we hope to remain intellectually honest, moral, and politically effective.  Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group.  People are more important than theory.

We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.


Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook (librarian, historian, writer)
Allston, Massachusetts

[click through for the full list of signatories]


west coast trip: back in Boston, more soon

Shelley the hotel cat @ Sylvia Beach (Newport, Ore.)
We're back in Boston and I'll be posting more organized photo posts and some book reviews soonish -- once we've finished doing laundry, reassuring the cats, and unpacking all those books we brought back with us...

Books on Beach (Newport, Ore.)


west coast trip: we aren't dead yet!

After Labor Day weekend in Portland, we drove down to Bend and spent two nights at the Riverside Inn on the Deschutes river before heading south to Ashland. On the way down, we passed through Crater Lake National Park and had some spectacular views of the crater.

Now we're in Hayward, California, for the wedding of our friends Diana and Collin. Fingers crossed the beautiful weather continues!

More photos to come...