By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Julia Serano occupies a rarified place in the world of trans woman authors. Her first book, “Whipping Girl: a Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity,” laid bare the bigotry and misogyny behind the marginalization of transgender women in our culture.
Released in 2007, and written in language both academic and fiery, the book felt foundational on arrival and has only grown in stature. I’m not alone among trans women I know in feeling it changed how I view my identity.
Serano, who is an activist, spoken word artist, and biologist — she’s a researcher at UC Berkeley — returns with a new book, “Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive” on Oct. 1. The book looks at the ways sexism and hierarchies function within the very organizations that seek to combat them, and suggests possible remedies.
While broader in scope than “Whipping Girl,” which dealt solely with trans-feminism, Serano’s gifts for expressing the trans woman experience are still on generous display in “Excluded,” as in this passage in which she imagines responding to a feminist who argues her presence, as a transgender woman, would be triggering to sexual assault survivors in attendance at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which excludes trans women:
“There are no words in your second-wave feminist lexicon to adequately describe the way that we, young trans girls forced against our will into boyhood, have been raped by male culture. Every trans woman is a survivor, and we have triggers too. And my trigger is pseudo-feminists who hide their prejudices behind ‘womyn-born-womyn-only’ euphemisms.”
We began by discussing how she thought media representations of trans women had changed since the release of her first book.
“In the years leading up to me writing ‘Whipping Girl’ most of the media representations of trans women came in the form of characters in movies, TV, and other media, which almost always fit into one of a few stereotypes,” she said. “There were very few trans women speaking in their own voices in the media, with the occasional exception of sensationalistic talk shows like ‘Jerry Springer,’ which used to feature trans women coming out to their unaware boyfriends.
“Nowadays, the biggest, and most positive, change seems to be that actual trans people are appearing in the media, often speaking in our own voices about issues that concern us. I think this has led more and more people to recognize that trans people are a fairly heterogeneous population.”
We spoke about Coy Mathis, the 6-year-old transgender girl who’d been denied access to the girl’s bathroom in her school in Colorado, and the “bathroom bill” in Arizona, designed to deny transgender people access to public restrooms in the state. (Both cases, which have resolved favorably for trans people, were still unsettled when the interview took place).
“I think that rather than picking on a trans child, the administrators at the Colorado school should read GLSEN’s 2009 report called ‘Harsh Realities’ that showed that almost all transgender students are verbally harassed and more than half experience physical harassment in school settings,” she said. “And the Arizona lawmakers who passed that bill should provide credible evidence that trans women pose some kind of actual threat in restrooms. In San Francisco, which has a rather high population of trans women per capita, there has never been a single police report describing such harassment. Ever. Yet I know lots of trans women who have been harassed by cisgender women in women’s restrooms.
“These laws are classic examples of the dominant group mischaracterizing the minority group as constituting a ‘threat,’ when in fact it is really the other way around: We’re the ones who are constantly threatened in public settings.”
While Serano writes about her activism around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in “Excluded,” she says it’s not an issue she still devotes time to.
“I was involved in Camp Trans and fighting against trans woman-exclusion at Michfest around the time of 2003-2004. While I am still passionate about the issue of trans woman-inclusion, I stopped focusing on Michfest because it seemed like a lost cause at the time. And I was mostly right: It’s 10 years later and the policy is still in effect. And while some cisgender female acts boycott the event, as some did a decade ago, many still play Michfest with little to no ramifications on their careers or status in women’s, queer, and progressive circles. To clarify, when I say that Michfest is a ‘lost cause,’ I am not saying that everyone should give up on it. I am glad some activists are still working on that issue. I’m just saying that I personally experienced activist-burn-out regarding the whole Michfest issue.”
With the release of “Excluded,” Serano and her ideas will be back in the public eye. When asked whether her role as a public intellectual on trans matters was a burden or a reward, she was unequivocal.
“I find it very rewarding!” she said. “I have been a performer most of my life and have always liked getting up in front of people and sharing my thoughts and ideas with them. So I really enjoy getting the chance to give talks and presentations about trans, queer, and feminist issues.”
“Excluded” by Julia Serano will be available on Seal Press on Oct. 1.