Review: Sex Changes

The Politics of Transgenderism

by Pat Califia

review by Nancy Nangeroni

Pat Califia, well known writer of lesbian erotica, has recently embraced transgenderism, joining with other intrepid queer writers hailing it as the leading edge of queer activism.  She seems to understand that the gender regime imposed on all of us is the root cause of both trans- and homophobia, as well as misogyny and a host of related evils.  Nonetheless, her recent publication of “Sex Changes, The Politics of Transgenderism” gave many transgender activists pause.  Though Pat’s voice is warmly welcomed in advocating for an end to all gender oppression, it was nonetheless a surprise to be greeted with this apparent claim to authority in a struggle in which she is at best a peripheral player, neither long-term participant nor observer.  At an FTM conference held shortly after the release of her book, there was even talk of a boycott, and a number of voices were raised in objection to her using her literary status to appropriate an authoritative transgender voice.

In her introduction, Califia addresses the obvious question of why she felt moved to write such a book.  “The work springs from my own profound discomfort with social sex-role conditioning.”  She accords some of the cause of her lesbianism to “a strategy for reducing gender dysphoria, part of a search for a place where I could be more of a man, or at least a different sort of woman.”  She admits to investigating the process of sex reassignment, in part due to a girlfriend’s sexual demands for domination, equated with maleness.  “In the end,” she says, “I could not separate my personal ambivalence about being female from the misogyny and homophobia of the surrounding culture.  I could not tell if I wanted to have a cock because I wanted to be a man, or because I had been told all my life that any real sex had to involve a penis and a vagina.”  So she contented herself with being a “psychic hermaphrodite”, embracing her female body without giving up male apparel or the sexual fantasy of being a man.

Pat positions herself as a lesbian advocate for transsexuals, a welcome and marked departure from the virulent transphobia that previously inhabited lesbian culture.  Her critique of prominent writers on the subject of transgenderism forms the bulk of this work.  While illuminating some shortcomings of that work, she nonetheless conveys an impression of shallow research, confirmed by the proliferation of “ibid” in her notes.  She seems well acquainted with transgender sensibilities, especially those of FTM transsexuals, and eloquent in their defense, but otherwise sketchily educated on transgender politics.  She fails to shed light on the social trends and currents which comprise this socio-political movement, and ignores interaction with race, class, and other issues, all the while disturbingly conflating transsexualism and transgenderism.

At a number of points in the book, Califia shares her view of the relative quality of contributions made by MTF versus FTM writers.  Her judgment of FTMs seems usually supportive, while she seems to find fault easily with the MTFs.  She extols the work of early FTM activists, while completely ignoring the activism of early MTF TS lesbian feminists.  She contrasts the strong libido of an FTM with the diminished sexual interest of some MTFs as denoting a difference in relative health, when those acquainted with transsexual culture recognize this as the effect of different hormones, not by itself an indicator of quality of life.  While purporting to teach us about transgender politics, Califia seemingly cannot escape the need to venerate people of gender similar to hers over those of an opposed gender.

To her credit, Califia shows a keen appreciation for some of the oppressive beliefs brought into play against transgenders.  She also recognizes the difficulty most transsexuals experience with sex. Departing from the usual denigration of MTF crossdressers for the sexual pleasure they often obtain from crossdressing, she makes the refreshing claim “I am not the only woman who gets a sexual rush out of appropriating a masculine image.”

Unfortunately, though, she seems most comfortable with critical analysis turned against others, and devotes the bulk of the book to shooting down other people’s work.  She takes on, among others, Walter Williams, Renée Richards, Mark Rees, Virginia Prince, Leslie Feinberg, and finally Kate Bornstein.  For some, she briefly outlines their focus, then proceeds at length to detail their shortcomings.  For others, she tediously retells the writer’s stories, in a sort of Reader’s Digest condensation of their work.  She concludes it all with an unremarkable (but mercifully brief) section of questions and observations.  Statements like “it’s not supposed to be hard work to be accepted as a man or a woman; it’s supposed to be a natural and effortless process” reveal a degree of presumption and lack of depth unfortunately characteristic of this work.

The bottom line here is that Pat Califia has written not an illumination of transgender politics, but rather a narrow critique of selected works in the field, liberally sprinkled with an informed perspective sympathetic to transsexuals.  While critique is not without value, presenting such as “The Politics of Transgenderism” seems at best a bit pretentious, and the result speaks of too little work done too quickly, rather than in-depth familiarity with the subject.  With this work, Califia succeeds mainly in further establishing herself as a transgender sympathizer, perhaps her primary intent.  It’s value to the rest of us, though, is questionable.