Tapestry Book Reviews #97

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #097, Spring 2002.

Because your editor had a negative reaction to a book treasured by many in the community, we?re featuring a contrasting review by our own Miqqi Alicia. Those interested in another viewpoint should see Transgender Tapestry #92?Ed.
Review by Miqqi Alicia Gilbert

Bohjalian, Chris. Trans-Sister Radio. 2001. New York: Vintage Contemporaries. Pb. 344 pp., US $14. ISBN: 0375705171.

Trans-Sister Radio is a wonderful, moving, exquisitely written, and amazingly authentic novel. I urge every member of the T-community to read it, and venture that many of you will pass it on to partners and friends. In a way, I?d love to stop now and hope that you?d go out and read the book just because Miqqi Alicia says so, but that?s asking a lot. So, here goes.

The action takes place in a modest-sized town in Vermont. There are four main characters, each of whom speaks in turn in separate chapters. The central characters are Allison, a grade-school teacher who resides in an old New England home in the center of town. She is divorced and, as the story opens, lives with her daughter, Carly, who is shortly to head out to college. Carly is another character with a voice. An intelligent and warm young woman, her insights allow us a view from the eyes of another generation. The sine qua non character is Dana, a college English professor who begins the novel as a man,and ends it as a woman. Finally, there is Will, Allison?s ex-husband and Carly?s dad, who still carries a torch for his ex.

These four, along with a broad and far-ranging cast of supporting characters, become embroiled in the emotional and social politics of Dana?s sex change. Of course, Allison and Dana meet and fairly quickly become lovers as Dana desperately tries to find the right moment to tell Allison that the lover she thinks is a man is really a woman?and soon to do something about it. Every issue you might imagine arises. The school where Allison works suddenly has a petition on its doorstep: how can a woman who teaches young children live in the center of town with a transsexual? What will Will, director of the local NPR station, think and do? His own marriage is in bad shape; now he has to cope with his ex-wife?s man-into-woman boy-girlfriend. And Carly, who really liked Dana?was she fooled, tricked? If her mother stays with Dana, does that mean she?s a lesbian?

All of this makes it sound familiar, and that?s what I wanted to avoid. Yes, there is a certain amount of familiarity, but there?s nothing trite or pat about Dana?s story, because the book is not about Dana alone. Each of the characters has a truly independent point of view, distinct needs, fears, desires, temptations and crises. Dana and her sex change is the catalyst that brings everything together, but each of the characters goes through explorations and changes particular to them. Allison?s struggle with her love for Dana, her confusion about her sexuality, and her puzzle over just how those two things?love and sexuality?combine and separate are real, not mere sidelines for Dana?s process. And that?s what makes the book so wonderful?Bohjalian does not take easy ways out. There are real issues for the partner of a transsexual, and they are explored not only in a splendidly real and sensitive way, but also with humor and a kind of fatalistic sympathy that seems to capture the unending confusion we T-folk inevitably cause the straight world.

Here?s a lovely snippet from early in the book. It?s Dana speaking and thinking. [S]he?s already told Allison of his appointment for SRS in the not too distant future. In this scene they are in bed, Dana still gets erections, and Allison asks about the necessity of the surgery.

?Why?? Allison asked me again.
?Because,? I told her, ?I?m a woman. And a woman isn?t supposed to have a penis. I?ll be much happier when it?s gone.?
She stopped fondling me and kicked off the lone sheet that was resting upon us. For a moment I feared we were going to have a fight, or a scene like the one we?d had when I first broke the news to her. But then I understood she was simply going to show me, once more, that she loved my penis enough for both of us, and was about to give me the blow job of the millennium.

Bohjalian has an ability to portray everyone?s feelings with a legitimacy that speaks truly because they come from the speaker?s location in the world, from their emotional center. Even the supporting characters we meet along the way, from Dana?s family, Allison?s boss the school principal, and the characters in Colorado where Dana has her operation, have a fleeting reality which enables us to believe, understand and, in most cases, sympathize with them.

For many of us in this community, there are special resonances and even identities. We?ve heard of Trinidad, Colorado, and we?ll know the convention of something that sound suspiciously like IFGE took place in Toronto and not Montreal. But unlike so many T-autobiographies, the real, hard, thorny issues and costs to all those involved are put on the table: fears, prejudices, insecurities, self-doubts, warts and all, for us to see and experience. In the end, it is both Bohjalian?s amazing ability to get inside a transsexual?s head and body and at the same time present the storms that abound in those around her, that make this such a remarkable and worthwhile read. Do it. Read it. Miqqi Alicia tells you to.


Review by Andrew Matzner

Denny, Dallas. (1994). Gender Dysphoria: A Guide to Research. New York: Garland Publishers. Hb. 650+ pp., $30 U.S. ISBN: 081530840X

Imagine trying to collect between two covers the citation for every book, book chapter, academic and popular press article, and legal case that ever dealt with transgenderism. Today it seems like an impossible project, considering the mountain of information which has appeared over the last six or seven years. Yet in the early 1990s Dallas Denny set about to do just that, and nearly succeeded. At that time the task was manageable; a substantial amount had been written about transgenderism, but not so much that a person couldn?t get a handle on the literature. A similar project of consolidation attempted today would be impossible?too much has been written.

As it stands, Gender Dysphoria: A Guide to Research is an invaluable research tool for anyone interested in learning about any aspect of transgenderism. By collecting and then annotating and indexing citations from the past hundred years, Dallas has provided a gold mine of information.

Perhaps the most useful portion of the book is the topic index, which lists authors under specific subject matter, which range from Intersexuality, secondary to Turner?s Syndrome, to Androgyny, from Medical Problems Occurring After Vaginoplasty to Injectable Silicone, from Legal Issues in Gender Dysphoria to Clinical Studies, and beyond. However, the most interesting part of the book is its body, in which the citations are listed. It?s fun just to open up in the middle to browse?and read Dallas? comments on this or that particular piece of writing.

Dallas makes clear both in her preface and afterword?and in many of her annotated comments?that she is critical of much of the so-called ?scientific? research done with transgendered subjects and issues. Scientists and academics are regarded as authorities in our society, and lay people often believe their writings to contain ?The Truth.? Dallas encourages us to be skeptical, and rightly so?for these ?authorities? are only human, subject to the same biases, carelessness, and aversion to the sloppiness of reality that can afflict people in general. Thus, in one sense Dallas has collected much of what she did in order to provide future writers and researchers with examples of how not to treat transgender issues.

Indeed, in addition to being a useful reference book, Gender Dysphoria is still very much relevant today because it shows us where writing on transgenderism has been and puts what came next into perspective?for Dallas? penetrating conclusion still rings true: ?[We should] take the time to learn what transsexual people are like before soaring off into the delirious heights of theory.?

Thankfully, more and more transgendered people are writing from their experiences, are becoming part of the discourse which formerly excluded them. Unscientific and unsympathetic journal articles, books, and mass media articles continue to be written, but a read through Gender Dysphoria will quickly tell you that the times sure have changed?and for the better.


Review by J. Utschig

Siegel, Laura, and Olson, Nancy Lamkin (Eds.) Out of the Closet Into Our Hearts: Celebrating Our Gay/Lesbian Family Members. Pb. 157pp. $15.95 Leyland Publications ISBN: 0943595843.

This is a collection of essays and poems written from the heart of those who live with, love, and nurture a population of kindred souls who survive outside of the mainstream. It is an anthology that speaks to the issues that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people face. Each selection echoes the same emotion and tone. It is a tone of pride, love and acceptance, and often frustrations. The purpose of the book is to celebrate diversity.

Each author offers their personal experience and perspective of living with and loving a person with an alternative lifestyle. Common emotions are outrage, pride and unconditional love. The outrage is for the social injustices their loved ones suffer. The pride is in the strength and perseverance each demonstrates when standing up for their rights. The unconditional love is the driving force of each relationship.

Many of the pieces focus on the strength of community and the need to take action. Parents and grandparents participate in their child?s life, becoming advocates, educators and picketers. Thus, the impetus for this book is people joining together to get their message out to the public. In that respect, the book is successful.

This collection of readings is appropriate for people who are searching for understanding. Each article is affirming and can assuage the pain and anticipation for those new to the world outside the mainstream. Most pieces offer the reader a sense of camaraderie and support, and since each piece is a personal perspective, a wide range of experiences and thoughts are presented, including extremes on the broad spectrum of the topic. Readers may take from the book what is germane and useful to their own issues and parameters. Though each writer shares a commonality, each is unique and individual. Such is the journey for everyone.