booknotes: the lives of transgender people

I was super excited to get my hands on an advance review copy of The Lives of Transgender People by Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin (Columbia Univ. Press, 2011) a couple of months ago. Lives is being touted as a unique and much-needed large-scale study of the identities and experiences of trans* individuals as described in their own words through an online questionnaire and qualitative email, phone, and in-person interviews. Beemyn and Rankin gathered data from 3,474 individuals via the questionnaire, and followed up with over four hundred of those respondents for more lengthy interviews. By encouraging interviewees to articulate their own identities outside of pre-determined research categories, the authors allowed their subjects to provide a rich and nuanced picture of the lived experience of being someone who experiences life outside the sex and gender binaries mainstream culture assumes are innate and largely inflexible. Most studies examining the lives of trans* people to-date, as the authors point out, have focused on the life experiences of people who identify as transsexual; an overwhelming majority of those studies focus on the experience of trans women (women assigned male sex/gender at birth). As the authors point out, this renders invisible those people who do not fall into neat, polarized gender categories (trans* or otherwise). Often, as documented in books such as Brainstorm and Sexing the Body, this stems from the research community seeking discrete identity-groups they can control and measure for difference. It also comes from researchers' own unexamined assumptions concerning sex and gender difference, assumptions which are then reinforced by the results of studies that have been designed (in part) by jettisoning the data from individuals who don't fit into the pre-determined sex and gender categories.

The Lives of Transgender People can be read, in part, as providing a model for a much different way of exploring trans* experiences -- one which honors the myriad expressions of sex and gender which the human organism manifests. "Throughout the book, we use the language of the survey participants to honor their voices and their own self-descriptions," write Rankin and Beemyn, insisting that we, as readers, pay attention to the richness of the gendered experiences described by the people who shared their stories (36). Lives seeks to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, synthesizing the data collected in a number of different ways that suggest some patterns to be found in trans* experiences, often differentiated by other variables such as age cohort, race, economic status, and so forth.  Particularly useful was the researchers discussion of gender identity and expression, given their insistence that trans* identities and experiences not be simplified the better to accommodate researchers desire for tidy data. They discuss in great detail their decision to identify four basic categories for analysis: trans men (assigned female at birth, self-identity male), trans women (assigned male at birth, self-identity female), "female to different gender" (FTDG) and "male to different gender," (MTDG) which allowed them to honor the current identities of respondents which don't fit into the mainstream system of binary gender. Further chapters discuss race, sexual orientation, and age as variables which further complicate the project of identifying any stable sense of trans* identity or experience.

The researchers, both of whom work in higher education, are particularly interested in age and generational differences as a factor, and put forward some tentative observations concerning the difference in reported experience across generations. For example, older respondents were more likely than younger ones to identify as cross-dressers, while trans men were statistically more likely to be significantly younger than trans women. They also spend a great deal of time was also spent on identifying recurring "milestones" of gender identity development as articulated by the study participants. Much trans* research to-date has focused on modeling the "stages" through which individuals go on the journey to identifying themselves as transgendered, and the authors of Lives offer the more flexible model of "milestones" (which may or may not be relevant for a particular individual) as an alternative model for understanding the process of self-realization.

I hope that in the years to come Lives will be a rich source of data for activists, theorists, and policymakers, as well as one possible model for doing research on sex and gender that allows us to collect meaningful data without depending on the binary male/female, man/woman dichotomies that continue to unhelpfully reduce the variety of human experience to the inflexible straight-jackets of innate gender difference.

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