Trans Voices: Becoming Who You Are review: Their change is gonna come
Declan Henry’s interviews with transgender Irish are worthwhile, but already they feel partly rooted in the past
Historic change: in 2015 Ireland removed medical criteria from the legal recognition of gender. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Trans Voices: Becoming Who You Are
Jessica Kingsley Publishers
In 2015 a British survey asked more than 1,600 18- to 24-year-olds to place themselves on the Kinsey scale, on which a zero means completely heterosexual, six means completely homosexual, and one to five mean somewhere in between. How many chose zero, to identify as completely heterosexual? Just 46 per cent.
Also in 2015 the Dáil passed the Gender Recognition Act, which introduced a process that enables full legal recognition of trans people’s preferred gender. The Act was a historic piece of legislation, putting Ireland in a group of countries that have removed medical criteria from the legal recognition of gender. And even though the transgender experience is ever more visible in popular culture, it was also a rare instance of legislation being more forward-thinking than public discourse: transgender people still face hostility, and even the best-intentioned cisgendered people – which is to say those whose sense of identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex – often feel awkward discussing the issues.
That means it’s a good idea to do what Declan Henry does in Trans Voices and tackle a subject as complex as gender identity by beginning with the basics.
Henry, who is a social worker, illustrates those explanations with extracts from the interviews that are at the heart of the book: he has collated dozens of interviews with transgender people to document their experiences, with a focus on realising one’s gender identity, on surgery, on passing as male or female, and on the act of transitioning.
A growing canon of writing, much of it based in memoir, offers fascinating accounts of the transgender experience: Kate Bornstein’s Hello, Cruel World and Gender Outlaw, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Man Enough to Be a Woman by Janye County, Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, Juliet Jacques’s Trans: A Memoir, even Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
Trans Voices favours instead an elementary approach, and because it speaks in basics it sometimes dips into language that at best approaches clunkiness and at worst is problematic.
“Imagine what it must be like to feel you are a woman ‘trapped’ in a man’s body,” the back cover declares. “Or a man ‘trapped’ in a woman’s body. And what happens if you decide to reject your birth gender and become a trans man or a trans woman?”
Yet early in the book one interviewee, Katie, calls the idea of “a woman trapped in a man’s body” a description that “the media latched on to 40 years ago to explain something they didn’t understand”.
That said, there are some fascinating insights from trans people. “You have to conform more if you are trans because you have to make up for the past, for the time you lost whilst living a life that wasn’t designed for you,” says Joan, a trans woman.
Certain issues are not expanded on, such as the ongoing and often fractious debate about the inclusion of T in LGBT, a conversation that often swerves into a hurtful discourse for trans people, given that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is supposed to be inclusive. “I feel the T is just something that is tagged at the end of LGBT,” one trans woman, Ruth, says. “Gay people can be as ignorant as anybody else in society about trans issues.”
And some of Henry’s assertions seem a little rickety. “There are feminist writers who espouse hatred towards trans women by claiming that only a cisgender female can genuinely feel what occupying a woman’s body is like,” he writes. Besides the assumption that all women menstruate and experience childbirth, who are these feminist writers? Germaine Greer?
There are Irish experiences here, including one trans man, Darius, detailing female-to-male surgery: “Here in Ireland, options for chest surgery are limited. There is a three-year waiting list with the HSE and then the surgery you receive matches that of a cancer patient having a mastectomy. The vast majority of Irish trans men travel to Florida, where there are a range of specialist surgeons who are specifically trained to operate on trans men, or to some European country like Belgium or Germany.”
Although Trans Voices contains relatively little that is new, it is commendable as a snapshot of the varied experiences of transgender people; it may be of use to other social workers and to medical professionals looking for a fuller understanding of the transgender experience.
Trans people themselves may find plenty to relate to in the book, from the childhood experiences of other trans people to the complexities of surgery. It might also be a useful touchstone for parents of transgender people, to better understand the multitude and the commonalities of experience.
Yet we live in a time when the experiences of trans people are accessible, online and in popular culture, in emotionally richer ways than Henry chooses here. Such is the progress being made that a part of Trans Voices already feels rooted in the past.
Una Mullally is an Irish Times columnist and the author of In the Name of Love: The Movement for Marriage Equality in Ireland