Transgender Book Corner: Recommending & Discussing an Anthology and Kate Bornstein

Lorelei Erisis
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Lorelei Erisis

By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist–

Dearest Lorelei,
I’ve been trying to support a co-worker with a challenge she’s having with a client. I work as a therapist at an outpatient substance abuse program down here. My co-worker has no experience with GLBT clients, so she’s working on her learning curve. I’m a gay man, but realizing my own limits with transgendered folks too. The client is MTF, but horrified at the thought of it, due to being married and professionally employed as a high school teacher. Meanwhile, the client, currently trying to identify as male, keeps relapsing with alcohol to deal with the internal conflict. A few months ago he went on hormones without telling his wife and described it as, “the most comfortable and close to happy I’ve ever felt.” He stopped when breasts started to develop and went back to the booze. The dysphoric self-image is clear, as is the resorting to alcohol to self-medicate.
What we need is perhaps a book (fiction is okay) written from an MTF point of view — hopefully with a happy conclusion. Also a book recommendation so that we, as clinicians, can better educate ourselves too. The client is terrified of coming out to the wife or anyone else. My co-worker knows this from trying to have the client find a way to dress as a woman when possible, just for the benefit of getting a better feel for what he/she wants for the future.
Signed, Seeking Knowledge in Newark

Well friend, you have most certainly come to the right place. Though I have to admit that every time I sat down and tried to answer your question, I found myself in a blind panic. There are just so many good books out there. How’s a girl to choose?!

I know that when I was trying to figure out who I was and just what it meant to maybe be a transsexual/transgender/crossdresser/drag queen/just-plain-woman, or whatever the heck I might be, I read voraciously! Pre-internet, I would prowl bookstores looking for anything that might give me a clue in my evolving search to understand my own identity. Casually, nervously, sidling my way into whatever dusty, disused corner the “Gender Studies,” “Gay,” or most often, “Women’s Studies,” shelves were hidden in.

I read everything I could find. Academic studies, memoirs, manifestos, how-to guides, niche magazines and, yes, porn. Some of it more exciting to read than others and not always in ways you would expect. I read some really dry and dull pornography and some really, pulse-poundingly hot academic works!

With all that said, here are my recommendations. First, for your male to female transgender client, I would strongly recommend the book, “Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs,” edited by Jonathan Ames. It’s a sort of a sampler platter of excerpts from some of the most important pieces of literature and memoirs about the transgender experience. Starting with a case study from “Psychopathia Sexualis,” written in 1886, and going right through the 20th century to end in 2003 with an excerpt from the excellent memoir by Jennifer Finney Boylan, “She’s Not There.”

The main reason I’m recommending this anthology, and not any one work in particular, is that it offers a variety of perspectives on the trans experience, including some from a female to male point of view. Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor at Colby College in Maine, so her story particularly may hit close to home for your client. But it was also fascinating to read about the pro tennis player, Renée Richards, or Caroline Cossey, who was a model and a Bond girl before she was outed to the public as transsexual by the tabloids. The variety here helps to humanize the transgender/transsexual experience by presenting as wide a range of folks as will be found in any other group. Yes, we have common issues and experiences, but we have individual lives too. I personally find that idea freeing.

My second recommendation, for yourself and your fellow therapists, in addition to the previous book which you should read yourselves, is the book “Gender Outlaw,” by Kate Bornstein. I believe I’ve mentioned this book before and I am quite personally partial to it. It was, for me, quite revelatory. When I first encountered this book as a club kid living in Boston in the mid-90s, it blew me away! Before “Gender Outlaw,” I thought I faced a choice between being a drag queen, a closet cross dresser or a transsexual housewife going “stealth” in the suburbs. Kate Bornstein showed me a world where gender could be whatever I made it out to be, where I could still be my boundary-pushing, punk rock self, as well as the woman I knew myself to be.

Frankly, I owe my present existence as the ever-fabulous Lorelei Erisis to Kate Bornstein. Sure, I might have found my own way here without Kate, but then it might have taken a much longer route through Oz to get to who I am today!

Reading “Gender Outlaw” will give you a good grasp on some of the finer intricacies of gender generally. It will make you think beyond what you think you know already. Plus, it’s just a fun read. Bornstein’s voice throughout is friendly and smart. Though it is not the most current work available, it remains cutting edge in its views and ideas. The book will give you a framework for discussion beyond the simple mechanics of gender transition.

The only reason that I recommend it for you and not your client, at least to begin with, is that it sounds like she (your MtF client) is not quite ready for the really post-modern, reality expanding stuff yet.
Baby steps first. Happy reading!

Slainte!

*Lorelei Erisis is Miss Trans New England 2009. Send your questions about trans issues to her at: loreleierisis@therainbowtimesmass.com._