Online Edition: Fall 2006

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Transgender Rights

edited by Paisley Currah, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter

University of Minnesota Press ($19.95)

by Matthew Cheney

Here we have what many anthologies aspire to be and the best achieve: a book that houses a lively, informative array of ideas, opinions, suggestions, arguments, and purposes. Here we also have what more anthologies should seek to be: a book of political and social importance that seldom simplifies the groups it portrays or the world it seeks to influence, making it a valuable volume not merely for the people most immediately affected by the issues raised, but also for anyone with a commitment to social justice.

It is to the credit of the editors of Transgender Rights that a reader who looks through even a few of the essays in the book is likely to step away with a sense that the two words in the title each have problems and possibilities huddled within them. There is unity within the discussion, though, a unity founded on the fact that transgender people face numerous obstacles in a world where they are misunderstood, harassed, denied basic recognition and services, and, more frequently than is reported by the nightly news, attacked, beaten, killed.

Many of the essays in Transgender Rights mix a sad and angry acknowledgment of the difficulties facing transgender people with an optimism born from experiencing real, though incomplete, progress over the past decade. The word "transgender" did not enter general usage until the 1990s, but many of the essays herein imply that though it is, at times, a contested term, it is nonetheless one that has been useful at moving concepts of gender variance away from the monopoly previously held by medical discourse. Unlike most of the terms that had been used previously, "transgender" is a label invented by the people it attempts to describe. It is an open term, one capable of containing numerous types of people and an array of definitions, an umbrella that is also a scaffold.

The fifteen essays in Transgender Rights are arranged in three sections--"Law," "History," and "Politics"--and they have been carefully arranged: read in order, the essays frequently pick up where the previous left off, or offer a different perspective or opinion. Definitions and tactics are what cause the most disagreement and passion, but the essays are most vivid when they present specific lives in specific circumstances--a divorced transsexual woman denied visits to her children for two years after her surgery; a transgender student expelled from high school with no explanation, who becomes homeless, incapable of accessing welfare services, and, for lack of any other way to pay for hormone therapy, works as a prostitute; Gwen Araujo, a transgender woman tortured and killed by four men; Tyra Hunter, a transgender woman hit by a car and, while still possibly conscious, denied help by an EMT who, according to witnesses, "stood laughing and telling jokes" with other technicians about the "it" who lay dying in front of him. The essays are sometimes abstract, sometimes academic, but rarely stray so far from the reality of everyday life that anyone could forget that the ideas discussed are ones with implications and consequences for real people in real situations. Richard Juang, in a wide-ranging essay with powerful ideas in every paragraph, writes, "Trans persons are systematically misrepresented both within the mass media and within the criminal justice system. We are regarded as persons whose identities are not simply 'deviant' but actively deceptive and criminal." This misrepresentation has allowed courts to repeatedly treat victims as if they brought their crimes upon themselves, and it is particularly disturbing to read, in numerous essays, of cases where judges and juries were so blinded by prejudice that they favored and excused thugs and murderers who attacked transgender people. Often, transgender people are denied human rights because they are not perceived as human. (In an afterword to the book, Kendall Thomas speculates that perhaps trans people should embrace their "nonhuman" status, but his argument is muddled, vague, and unproductive.)

Some of the essays address the often-uncertain relationship of transgender rights to gay rights, with multiple authors pointing out that though transgender people have been central to every struggle for gay liberation, they have also faced prejudice and misunderstanding from within the gay community. Dean Spade links frustration regarding how the gay community responds to transgender issues with a blindness to other issues, particularly issues of class: "The most well-funded organizations in the lesbian and gay movement do not provide direct legal services to low-income people, but instead focus their resources on high-profile impact litigation cases and policy efforts. Most of these efforts have traditionally focused on concerns central to the lives of nonpoor lesbian and gay people and have ignored the most pressing issues in the lives of poor people, people of color, and transgender people."

Many of the writers here seem to have a sense, though, that the transgender movement (if we can speak of a single movement) offers a possibility of creating links to other liberatory struggles, and thus of creating a new and unifying momentum that demonstrates where and how oppressions overlap, putting more strength into challenges to those oppressions. The cumulative effect of these essays is to prove that protecting and extending transgender rights is the responsibility of us all--whatever our experience, and however we express what we sense to be our self.


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