I might need to stop requesting non-fiction books from NetGalley, because it seems like I haven’t been very successful with them. In this case I don’t know if I just didn’t read the description properly or didn’t understand it, but I thought Trans Voices: Becoming Who You Are was by a trans author and comprised longer-form interviews with transgender people. Instead, this inaccurately titled book is by a cisgender gay man who intersperses his medicalized, somewhat discomforting commentary with cherry-picked excerpts from interviews he conducted with trans people. (Also, the description itself is terrible and even worse than the book is.)
Trigger warning for possibly transphobic, medicalized language quoted in this review.
The structure of this book is great; Declan Henry doesn’t just address binary transgender people but specifically devotes a chapter to nonbinary people as well. He highlights issues of discrimination against transgender people, both overt—anything from slurs to physical and emotional violence—and more subtle—such as the way many countries do not fund/subsidize hormone treatments and gender reassignment surgery. And throughout the book, Henry makes it clear that the trans community is not monolithic:
There is no single authentic expression of trans identity. Trans people have a wide diversity of appearances, personal characteristics, interests, experiences and viewpoints…. There are many degrees of transition and options available to trans people…. Surgical status is not a reliable indicator as to how a person identifies…. Trans people have many different opinions about terminology, with some preferring medicalised terms and others preferring community terms.
So, basically Henry is saying that different people prefer different labels; different people have differing opinions on how they want to perform their gender and how or whether they want to make a physical transition. This is all well and good, and it is a promising beginning to the book. I don’t have much doubt that Henry’s intentions are good here, that he just wants to share trans perspectives with others. But I don’t review a book on intentions. I review a book based on what I read and how it makes me feel, and Trans Voices made me (a cisgender man, for what it’s worth) very uncomfortable with Henry’s appropriation of trans voices.
I call it appropriation because instead of letting transgender people tell their story, he embeds quotations from interviews within a framework of his making. Some of these are mere paragraphs, a little bit of “authentic trans flavour” to whatever he has chosen to say at that point. Admittedly, others are longer (my electronic Kindle copy doesn’t do a great job of differentiating between quoted material and Henry’s words, with multi-paragraph quotes not having a quotation mark at the beginning of each subsequent paragraph like they should, and no other visual indicator) and hint at more developed narratives. Again, however, these “voices” are only used in service to Henry’s thesis, rather than the other way around. Hence, rather than a strong euphony of diverse trans experiences, we get a watered-down, overly academic and medically-fixated look at transgender-related phenomena through the eyes of Declan Henry.
As I mentioned earlier, Henry points out that surgery is not the be-all-end-all goal or metre-stick for understanding transition. Yet he certainly spends a lot of time talking about the details:
For trans women, the most commonly undergone genital surgery is vaginoplasty…. However there are also other vaginoplasty techniques, using different tissues, and also some trans women may decide to undergo orchidectomy without any vaginoplasty. As previously mentioned, some trans women do not undergo any genital surgery as they feel either it’s not appropriate or necessary for them to express their identity, or they are fearful of surgical experiences, or there are health reasons.
Trans people assigned female at birth may wear chest binders whilst awaiting chest surgery. The binders are sometimes tight and often result in tissue damage, as well as chest infections because they make breathing shallower.
These types of sentences are the rule rather than exception. This is what made me so uncomfortable with this book. This language is so clinical; it feels invasive, and it makes me feel like a voyeur. I know we aren’t talking about any one specific person here, and certainly,
as a cisgender person, I could benefit to understand the surgeries that trans people might have or the other techniques they use to express their identity. But if I’m going to learn about these things, I’m better off hearing it from an actual trans person who isn’t going to reduce it to a matter of meat. [Editor's note, Aug 2020: Welp, hindsight is 2020. I came out as earlier this year (both to myself and to everyone else). Everything in this review stands, though.]
It’s just so dehumanizing. And in a book proposing to give a voice to trans people, of all things. Remember, Henry is writing this as a gay man who feels that it’s his responsibility to educate people about the misrepresented, unknown trans community. How would he feel if a straight person decided to write a book called Gay Voices like this one, and started talking in clinical detail about how gay men have sexual intercourse? That would be just as inappropriate as this book. (It probably exists, come to think of it.)
Also, what’s up with that cover?! I normally don’t care much about covers, but I don’t know what the artist/marketing people were thinking here. That the person appears androgynous I understand, but monochromatic with that splash of colour? Is that supposed to be symbolic for this book “shedding light” on the hidden stories of trans people? Then that positioning of the title so it covers the person’s mouth, figuratively saying, “Don’t worry, poor trans person! I, Declan Henry, will speak for you and give you a voice!”
I am reminded of the way settlers co-opt and colonize Indigenous issues all the while claiming to give Indigenous people a voice. At the time of writing this review, CanLit is embroiled in something of a controversy over Joseph Boyden. For a while, many Indigenous people have been questioning his claims of Indigenous heritage and pointing out inconsistencies in how he represents himself, and this news is finally bubbling to the surface of the mainstream press and wider Canadian consciousness (including my own). One of the reasons this is so upsetting, as far as I understand it, is because Boyden has been profiting off assuming a role that is not his; at the same time, he provides sanitized picture of Indigenous cultures and issues that cleaves to what settlers would like to see.
Henry would have you believe that transgender people do not have much of a voice, and so it is necessary for outsiders to step into their community, interview them, and talk over them. Henry, unlike Boyden, is at least clear about his identity. But by speaking over trans people, he is erasing them, exactly counter to his stated objective. Trans Voices ignores the fact that trans people already have a voice, have multiple voices, and they have been talking and shouting and making media about their experiences long before this book was a gleam in Henry’s eye.
I think the most dangerous thing about Trans Voices is that, on the surface, it seems so good. Like I said at the top of this review, I didn’t pay enough attention and thought this would be a very different book. I can only imagine that many cis people are going to pick this up, read it, and think they somehow “understand” trans people better now—or worse, they’ll start transplaining to trans people using the medical terminology they’ve gleaned from this. Reading a book about a marginalized community of which you are not a member does not suddenly give you the ability to speak for them, or of them, or about them. By this token, I can’t stand up and yell about how this book should anger trans people—that’s not my call to make. (At least two trans people, judging from the foreword and afterword, liked this book. That is their prerogative.) I’m yelling about how this book angers me and, as a cisgender person, I’m telling my fellow cis people not to read it.
Go read an #ownvoices book instead.