Review: Read My Lips

Sexual Subversion and the End Of Gender

Riki Anne Wilchins
Review by Nancy Nangeroni
Riki Anne Wilchins is blessed with a remarkable verbal ability, and “Read My Lips” captures her at her eloquent best.  She knows how to take an oppression, turn it inside out, and reveal a powerful conceptual tool for change.  It’s a skill she has used with remarkable effectiveness in forging a national transgender movement, and “Read My Lips” showcases her talent in the service of advancing gender theory and contesting gender-based oppression.

Well known in the transgender community as a prominent and effective radical activist, Wilchins founded the Transexual Menace, a “disorganization” of transgender activists known for their smart, respectful and effective street demonstrations.  She publishes “In Your Face”, the only publication dedicated solely to transgender activist news.  Most recently, she founded “GenderPAC”, a national gender Public Advocacy Coalition which brings together transgender organization leaders from across the country to collaborate on high-level activism.

Perhaps Riki’s greatest strength is her deliciously biting satirical humor, which she applys liberally throughout the book, rendering what could have been a challenging struggle with gender theory into a pleasant romp.  Though the more serious student may find some of her humor gratuitous, those with a more casual interest will likely catch themselves laughing out loud.

She also makes effective use of metaphor, often conjuring up startling images.  Talking about the sexual predation that seems to fall particularly heavily on queer kids, she says “If there are sharks in the water, the social thrashing of genderqueer kids is bound to attract them.  Such abuse appears not as an anomaly but as a cultural norm: the means by which genderqueer kids are instructed in the limits and consequences of gender difference.”

Her theoretical foundation draws extensively upon the writings of Judith Butler, though she comments in her “Subversive Glossary” that “we are still waiting for a good English-language translation.”  Those familiar with Butler’s “Gender Trouble” will concur.

The book also contains a photo section, by longtime transgender observer Mariette Pathy Allen.  It visually documents transgender activist efforts, from Camp Trans at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, to the Brandon Teena murder trial demo, to National Gender Lobby day, and more.  The images bridge the gap between gender theory and practice, and underscore the fact that the ideas presented in the book are being put into effective use on the street.

Riki advocates for a transgender movement built not by people who identify as transgender, but rather by a coalition of people of various identities who work together to end gender-based oppression. She criticizes the results produced by identity-based movements: “…the production of any identity inevitably creates winners and losers, those who are prelegitimized and those who are second class and ‘allowed’ in after the fact.”  The lesson of the gay liberation movement’s refusal to include genderqueer members under it’s advocacy umbrella was not lost on Riki, who hopes to avoid perpetuating the same exclusion to others.  “Our movement shifts its foundations from identity to one of functions of oppression,” she says.  “Coalitions form around particular issues, and then dissolve.  Identity becomes the result of contesting those oppressions, rather than a precondition for involvement.  In other words, identity becomes an effect of political activism instead of a cause.  It is temporary and fluid, rather than fixed.”

Riki exposes discussions about identities as truly about the reality of power: whose possession of the identity counts, who is relegated to being outside the identity, and who gets to act as judge.  “We need a new kind of political struggle,” she asserts, “one that seeks not just to overthrow the oppression, but the categories as well.” The question she asks over and over:  “What kind of cultural practice required me to produce an identity to justify it?”

She warns of the danger of propagating oppressions, so often accomplished by movements which do not adequately inspect their own methods.  “I cannot escape the nagging suspicion,” she says, “that gay liberation has disregarded Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted dictum that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’ and has, instead, contented itself with simply building a small, yet tastefully furnished addition out back.”

Ultimately, she is optimistic.  “Our lives and what we have suffered are not the stumbling blocks to our freedom but the keys to obtaining it.”  She advocates for a movement built on difference: “Our contradictions and differences are more than political obstacles: they are reminders of our boundlessness, confirmations that we can never be fully captured or circumscribed, that no label or movement can ever hope to encompass all we are or hope to be.”

“Maybe it’s time to stop sacrificing the complexity of our lives at the altar of unified identity, to acknowledge our contradictions and take political action with all of them intact.”

“Read My Lips” is an entertaining and effective showcase of potent ideas infused with extra vitality by Riki’s combination of wit and eloquence.  She’s given us a world-class statement on the issue of gender in our culture, a statement so frank, so rude, so challenging, and so smart, it’s fairly astonishing.