One of my goals last year was, and for this year remains, to read more works by transgender authors, particularly about trans issues. I have been following Julia Serano on Twitter for a while now, so during my latest shopping expedition I decided to pick up Whipping Girl, which has also been on my radar for a while. Serano is not only a trans woman but also a molecular biologist, providing her with insights into the biological side of the sex/gender equation that many people lack. I went into Whipping Girl with the understanding that, even in its second edition, the book is somewhat outdated in ways—but I thought it was important to read this before I dive into some of Serano’s more recent publications, like Excluded, because I know that these works build upon this one. My overall impression is that, if you can navigate through the parts that do sound and feel outdated, this is a valuable book for cis and trans people alike. Cis people will learn a lot about trans perspectives and their own privilege; trans people (particularly trans women like myself) will learn a lot of vocabulary that might make it easier to describe their experiences.
In the first part of the book, Serano advances her own understanding of transgender theory. Aspects of this don’t resonate with me because I grew up later than her and never belonged to the queer communities that she has belonged to in the States. In particular, I’m not a fan of the way she lumps non-trans crossdressers and other gender non-conforming people under the banner of “transgender” and then uses the term transsexual to distinguish between trans people in general and people who have transitioned in a binary way from male to female or vice versa. Please don’t ever call me a transsexual or transsexual woman; I am a transgender woman, trans woman, or preferably just a woman!
As far as other groups go, I am very much in favour of labels being descriptive and individualistic rather than prescribed or applied to people: transgender is an umbrella term that you can use if you think it works for you. Non-binary people and agender people are trans in my eyes, but I respect that not every such individual wants to use the trans label for themselves. Similarly, some gender non-conforming people identify as trans, but others don’t because for them gender expression is just that, but their gender identity remains congruent with what they were assigned at birth. For example, before I came out as trans, if I had worn a skirt, I would have been gender non-conforming in my expression (but would still have considered myself cis at the time). Now that I am out as a trans woman and I wear heels and dresses, I am actually very conformative in how I dress.
You might see how all of these terms start getting complicated, though, and that’s something I appreciate about Serano’s writing in Whipping Girl: she does a good job distinguishing among related yet distinct concepts, such as cissexism and transphobia and trans-misogyny. Much of what we discuss these days we lump under the umbrella of the middle term when it is better discussed as one of the other two. In particular, I liked that Serano pointed out how people who are otherwise good allies (and therefore usually not transphobic in and of themselves) can often inadvertently display cissexism, for example by assuming being cisgender is “normal” and transgender is an abnormality.
Do you need to know all these terms, and the ones I didn’t even mention, to be a good ally? No, absolutely not. Nevertheless, if you are interested in gender theory and feminism, I think that delving into these ideas will provide interesting perspective to help shape the way you engage with the concepts of sex, gender, and gender expression.
I also like Serano’s intrinsic inclinations model for explaining why some people experience incongruence with their gender assigned at birth. Serano challenges the widely-held idea that gender is purely a social construct. This theory emerged out of the rejection of the gender essentialism that positions men and women as inherently, biologically different—something that transphobic people often cling to in an attempt to prove that trans people are mistaken or deluded about our gender, despite the harm that gender essentialism poses to feminism as a whole. Nevertheless, some transphobic people are now weaponizing the social construct theory of gender too, claiming that because we have been “socialized” as one gender, it isn’t possible for us to ever truly understand what it is like to be our actual gender, even if we transition and start living outwardly as that gender. So I agree with Serano that both models are unsatisfactory. Her intrinsic inclinations model does what we know is true already for other nature versus nurture questions—namely, establish that it isn’t nature or nurture, but rather a subtle combination that isn’t always easy to inspect. (On a similar note, I appreciate how Serano points out that the idea of using the term “biological male [or female]” is very problematic when we consider trans people who have started hormone therapy.) In general, these are very difficult concepts to investigate! The difficulty for trans people is that we keep encountering people who think they know better than us about our gender, and who think they have “science” and “biology” on their side, when the reality is so much more complex than they would care to admit.
Serano also offers poignant critiques of how researchers who study trans people are themselves overwhelmingly cisgender, and this has introduced staggering bias into how transgender psychology is characterized within the medical establishment. Serano has been very critical in particular of Ray Blanchard’s theory of autogynephelia, here and elsewhere, although I like that she branches out and provides a far more comprehensive overview of gatekeeping here. All in all, it comes down to the fact that cisgender researchers of trans people are often inordinately obsessed with linking our transness to some type of sexual deviance—or at best, they view us not as human beings with agency of our own but as a subject of study for the benefit of cis people.
In the second part of Whipping Girl, Serano starts to discuss how transgender issues relate to feminism as a whole. Again, aspects of this feel dated—she seems in particular to be pushing back strongly against second-wave feminists, which I totally understand, but I think third and fourth wave feminism have brought new and interesting problems to the forefront. I also disagree with how she uses the terms masculine and feminine, discussing how some women are “masculine” and some men do “feminine” things. I realize this might seem like common usage to most people, but I prefer to say that men are masculine, by definition, and women are feminine. Thus, if I wear a dress, it is a feminine act because I’m female; if a man wears a dress, it’s a masculine act because he’s male. I prefer this conceptualization because it seeks to do away with the idea that certain activities are inherently masculine or feminine. (On the other hand, note that I agree that similar terms like femme, masc, and butch can be applied regardless of gender—I am a femme trans woman, or but other trans women might describe themselves as butch if they end up expressing themselves in ways we often associate with men.)
Beyond this splitting of hairs I’m performing here, however, I’ll register that I largely agree with what Serano has to say in these essays. I agree that—in some cases—modern feminism has sought to disavow femininity and feminine expression (but as I mentioned earlier, third wave feminism was, in no small part, an attempt to rectify this). Additionally, Serano engages with the concept of male privilege as it may or may not apply to AMAB trans people. She makes the important point, which I’ve seen made before, that privilege is not an absolute but rather quite dependent upon context.
Whipping Girl is a fascinating collection of essays that yields fruitful ideas. This is a great place to begin a reading journey about feminism and trans issues. For trans people, particularly trans women, much of this will resonate and hopefully feel affirming. Timeliness aside, this is not the be-all, end-all of trans writings (nor does Serano position it as such!). It’s very specifically attempting to discuss issues of history, sociology, and gender politics. In between the pages you’ll likely notice opportunities for tangents and intersections that Serano leaves unexplored (at least in this book). After reading this, if you are like me, you will only be motivated to keep on reading.