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Transgender Studies: Literature in an Evolving Field (March 2022): Personal Accounts

By Robert Ridinger

Personal Accounts

The genre of contemporary personal accounts of the experience of transitioning from one biological gender to physical and psychological identification with another (either within or beyond the male-female binary model) continued to develop in the 1990s. These accounts supplemented the body of social science and clinical articles based on fieldwork with specific populations of trans people such as that reported in In Search of Eve (discussed above). Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, by Kate (formerly Albert) Bornstein, posed a series of fifteen challenging questions about how US culture structured and defined the idea of gender (requiring individuals to choose a specific gender within a binary model) and discussed the component social elements of gender (assignment, identity, roles, and attribution) using their own life experiences as illustration. It was followed by Passage through Trinidad: Journal of a Surgical Sex Change by Claudine Griggs, the story of the author’s transition presented in journal form with a title referencing the Colorado community (the Trinidad of the title) where the surgery took place. Griggs would follow up their personal account with a two-year questionnaire survey, begun in March 1995, of transsexuals, focusing on the process of gender reassigning. Griggs published the results of that survey in S/he: Changing Sex and Changing Clothes. Bornstein likewise carried forward the arguments of their 1994 work in the international anthology Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, which they coedited with S. Bear Bergman. A third significant writer on the idea of gender, Riki Anne Wilchins (founder of the transgender political action committee GenderPAC, which was active from 1997 to 2009) entered the discussion with Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. In the introductory chapter, “Why This Book?” Wilchins delivers a scathing challenge to the idea of transgender studies as an intellectual construct carried out by anthropologists and sociologists—a construct that makes trans people into an ethnographic population of “natives” to be researched. Wilchins went on to contribute to the literature on gender theory with Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. And in 1999, economist Donald (now Deidre) McCloskey shared their transition experience, at age fifty-two, in Crossing: A Memoir. It was republished ten years later with the subtitle A Transgender Memoir and a new afterword reflecting on twenty-five years of living in a new identity and personal choices made during that time. 

Though Susan Stryker described the independent magazine Transvestia, launched in 1960 by Virginia Prince, as “the first published voice of the nascent transgender community,”1 Prince had done foundational work for the coalescence of a self-aware transgender population over several decades. Prince’s journey and work is described in Richard Docter’s From Man to Woman: The Transgender Journey of Virginia Prince and in Virginia Prince: Pioneer of Transgendering, edited by Richard Ekins and Dave King.

The earliest published trans accounts relate the experience of transitioning from male to female (MTF), a genre begun in 1967 with the publication of Christine Jorgensen’s A Personal Autobiography, which included an introduction by Harry Benjamin (discussed later in this essay). (The book was republished by Cleis Press in 2000, with an introduction by Susan Stryker.) Given that this was the first such book to reach a mass-market audience, it left the reading public with the idea that all transitions occurred as male-to-female gender changes, an impression borne out by the consistent appearance of such accounts. A literature giving voice to the parallel transition from female to male (FTM) began to appear in the late 1990s. The first account was FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society, by Aaron Devor, who a decade later would create the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria. Devor’s massive work—which ran to 695 pages—was based on interviews with forty-five individuals, and in scope it is comparable to the studies of Alfred Kinsey. Its contents are framed by questions about the history and theories of transsexualism, childhood years, adolescence, pretransition years, the process of “changing over,” and life after transition. 

Anthropologist Jason Cromwell, an open transman, soon added to the discussion with Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities. Cromwell’s research explored theories of bodies, sexualities, sexes, and genders (and how accurately these constructs fit FTMs and transmen), and he offered a cross-cultural survey of female gender diversity. The final chapters of the book examine how medicine and psychology construct the categories of transsexualism and transvestism, and the author provides thoughtful discussion of FTMs and transmen as activists forming a community and challenging models of identity categorized as mental illness.  

Put together by documentary photographer Dean Kotula, The Phallus Palace: Female to Male Transsexuals set the FTM experience in cultural, medical, psychological, and historical contexts by combining personal accounts with analyses from social service professionals and physicians. Anthropological attention to the FTM population was continued by Henry Rubin in Self-Made Men: Identity and Embodiment among Transsexual Men. Based on interviews with twenty-four FTMs in Boston, San Francisco, and New York, Self-Made Men combines two research approaches—genealogy and phenomenology—in exploring the crucial significance of body identity among transmen. In 2016, a second edition of Devor’s FTM (discussed above) was reissued with a new introduction, in which Devor cites his original research as helping him to clarify and claim his own identity as trans. Devor also assesses the changes that have occurred for transmen since the 1990s in the areas of social acceptance, law, psychological and psychiatric classifications, and the uses of technology to share information and promote activism. Avi Ben-Zeev and Peter Bailey offer a different dimension of FTM life in their collection Trans Homo … Gasp! Gay FTM and CIS Men on Sex and Love, which provides accounts by transmen and their partners (both FTM and cisgender) providing an insider’s  perspective on an aspect of FTM life not frequently considered. 

Another group of personal accounts examines the role and importance of family life to individuals who are engaged in transitioning and to their biological relatives. The first works appeared in the 1990s paralleling the formation of transgender studies as a discipline. In 1999 photographer Gigi Kaiser and editor Peggy Gillespie published Love Makes a Family: Portraits of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Parents and Their Families, an illustrated volume that served as a bridge between earlier works by gay and lesbian people about their coming-out experiences and the emerging trans literature, and including two trans-parented families.

Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Parents, edited by Noelle Howey and Ellen Samuels, is unique in bringing together the voices of grown children raised by transgender mothers and fathers. Other unique approaches include What Becomes You, a joint memoir by FTM Aaron Raz Link and his mother, Hilda Raz. Link and Raz provide detailed, interwoven accounts of the experience of transitioning from within the minds and hearts of child and parent. Trans Forming Families: Real Stories about Transgendered Loved Ones, edited by Mary Boenke, comprises accounts of trans people and their birth families contributed by members of the Transgender Network program of the support organization Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Now in its third edition, this volume includes life stories by transgender people and transgender parents, and essays by therapists who work with transgender clients. Sarah Pearlman focused on maternal concerns in Mother-Talk: Conversations with Mothers of Lesbian Daughters and FTM Transgender Children, and film critic Molly Haskell focused on her MTF sibling in My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation. Also distinctive is Kristin Beck and Anne Speckhard’s Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming Out as Transgender, in which Beck recounts her MTF trans experience in the military.

The product of four years of research, Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family relates a case of one of a pair of twin boys who insisted that he was a girl and chose to grow into a new gender identity. Julia Medsker’s Coming to Life: One Mother’s Journey with Her Transgender Daughter complements accounts recorded in Mother-Talk. Another title in the genre of FTM literature is Mary Collins and Donald Collins’s joint memoir At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces, and this is balanced by the highly publicized book by a prominent athlete sharing his gender transition from male to female, Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life, written with Buzz Bissinger. Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached, by Hillary Whittington (with Kristin Gasbarre), is notable as a mark of progress in parental consciousness. Another valuable volume is Peggy Cryden and Janet E. Goldstein-Ball’s Straight Expectations: The Story of a Family in Transition, which relates the experience of parenting a gay son and a transgender son. Jo Ivester’s Once a Girl, Always a Boy: A Family Memoir of a Transgender Journey is one of the recent additions to the FTM genre.

1.    Susan Stryker, foreword, International Journal of Transgenderism, 8:4, xv–xvi, 2005. DOI: 10.1300/J485v08n04_a

Works Cited