This is the book on transgender rights, gender identity and expression, and policy that you never knew you wanted.
Welcome to the latest instalment of “$#A$^% am I ever behind at reviewing my NetGalley books”. Today I review Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, out at the beginning of June from New York University Press. To summarize Heath Fogg Davis’ thesis in one sentence in his own words: “I show why it is in the best interests of organizations of all kinds to minimize their administration of sex”. What follows is a careful, methodical, logical, but heartfelt analysis of specific areas of Western society in which categorization, segregation, or discrimination on the basis of sex/gender is, in Davis’ opinion, unnecessary. Moreover, Davis goes beyond pointing out problems and actually suggests practical, workable solutions that involve breaking down gender barriers and gender binaries rather than—as he phrases it—using assimilation and accommodation to fit trans people into those binaries.
Before we go on, a quick disclaimer:
I am cis and so can only review this book from that perspective. I can’t tell you if it provides a good representation of the views of various trans people. Davis himself is a trans man. Also, I appreciate how he quotes a variety of transgender and non-binary people, not all of whom necessarily share his views; Davis is careful not to represent trans communities as monolithic in their desires or views on gender. Finally, Davis acknowledges that while he has experienced the oppression, marginalization, and fear that comes with being transgender, he also has privileges of class, and he does not appear “visibly” transgender, so he has male privilege that he did not have prior to his transition.
Beyond Trans is not actually as controversial as some of the marketing might make it seem. I was a little wary because of the title and the first lines of the description. Was Davis going to make some kind of argument about how gender doesn’t matter, how we should all be blind? No—if anything, it’s the opposite. Davis says that your gender matters, and that it matters so much to your identity that the government and other organizations should stop policing it in silly, contradictory, unenforceable ways.
Really, libertarians should be all about this book. (Disclaimer: I am not a libertarian either, so I guess I shouldn’t speak for them.) It always amuses me how there is this overlap, at least in the States, between people who call for smaller government and people who want the government to legislate what people can do with regards to their sexual and gender orientations and identities. Much of Davis’ argument is classically libertarian: the government has no business regulating sex and gender. Indeed, one of Davis’ chief criticisms of government regulation is its inconsistent and often absent definition of sex or gender. Various laws and regulations just use these words, often interchangeably, without offering proper legal definitions, leaving it up to the courts to decide what was actually meant by the law.
Davis also points out that existing attempts to be inclusive have major shortcomings. He cites, for example, the movements to add “other” categories to the sex checkboxes on many official forms. It’s well-intentioned and better than nothing, but it also creates confusion. Ultimately, he argues the collection of sex/gender information from people happens in situations where it is entirely irrelevant. For gender-conforming individuals, this isn’t a big deal; we don’t get called on it. For non-conforming people, though, it puts amazing power in the hands of administrative authority that can, in some cases, lead to violence.
I used the terms “gender-conforming/non-conforming” for a reason, because Davis asserts that the superfluous collection of and segregation by gender harms cis people as well as trans people. He gives the example of a lesbian woman kicked out of a New York restaurant for using the women’s washroom: the bouncer didn’t believe she was a woman. Since her gender expression didn’t conform to his personal beliefs for what matches “woman” in our society, he felt it was within his power to police her gender and her access to essential facilities.
Along the same lines, Davis points out that the strategy to accommodate and assimilate trans people essentially erases non-binary people, agender people, etc. It’s all well and good to let a trans person change their sex on official documents from male to female or vice versa—but what about people who want to change from male to … nothing? Or female to non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, neutrois, or so on? Amendments and improvements to laws that focus on removing the barrier to changing one’s sex within the existing binaries can’t fix the fact that the entire idea of a sex or gender binary is itself a flawed and broken one and should be demolished post-haste.
Beyond Trans looks at sex markers on official documents, sex-segregated washrooms, single-sex admissions policies at colleges, and sex-segregated sports. In each case, Davis examines why these policies are harmful, unnecessary, and ill-advised. He then suggests how to fix them, whether it involves dismantling them altogether or going a different route. He emphasizes how this approach doesn’t just benefit trans people or gender non-conforming people but everyone. For example, on the subject of sex-segregated washrooms, he points out that “bathroom bills” as they are so-called in the United States cannot possibly accomplish their purported goals, because truly dangerous people will follow someone into a washroom no matter what the sign on the door says. More open-plan washrooms, with floor-to-ceiling individual stalls, would be a huge step forward in both safety and gender inclusiveness.
Later, when addressing sex-segregated sports, Davis unpacks the contradictory approaches to policing men’s and women’s sports. There is a greater emphasis, he argues, on “catching” men who are “pretending” to be women to gain an unfair advantage, whereas few people seem as concerned about women masquerading as men. He points out how this “trans misogyny” is in fact harmful to society at large: “this kind of misogyny is an extension of the general assumption that ‘femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and exist primarily for the benefit of, maleness and masculinity’.”
I love this. And this is why my feminism will always include trans people, and why my feminism will always fight for trans women to be treated as the real women they are. Drawing a line in the sand is not only arbitrary but damaging and harmful in the very way that people drawing that line are often themselves oppressed and marginalized. Why inflict that on another?
In case you can’t tell from my effusive encomium of the arguments in Beyond Trans, I loved this book. I can’t think of a single criticism of it, except perhaps that it is very focused on American society and policy. Yet a much broader survey would probably be very long, and I also appreciate that this book is short. Even so, it manages to accomplish a lot in this brief length: multiple case studies, and an appendix with practical suggestions for companies who want to do a “gender audit” on their policies.
Last time I requested a book from NetGalley on trans issues I got burned, badly. Beyond Trans is a salve to that burn: it’s #ownvoices, acknowledges diverse points of view, and has impeccable logical, ethical, and moral arguments. This is an academic book, with all sorts of great references and sources—but Davis’ style is very accessible and easy for a layperson to read. If you are interested in gender, or particularly gender and its intersections with social policy, I highly recommend this book. It will get you thinking.