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The Transgender Rights Movement Needs a Goofy, Basic Foundational Text

It worked for feminism

Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images Entertainment

Laverne Cox had a banner month in May 2014. The activist and actress, who plays Sophia Burset on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, spoke at Hampshire College’s commencement and appeared on the cover of Time magazine next to the headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier.” As Time’s Katy Steinmetz argues convincingly, due to the work of Cox and many others, transgender Americans—people who do not identify with their biological gender—are more visible and less stigmatized than they have been in previous decades. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services just announced that it would no longer exclude gender-affirming surgery from Medicare coverage and a 2011 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans (nearly 90 percent) believe transgender people deserve the same rights and legal protections as everyone else. 

It seems like serendipitous timing, then, for the release of the new book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. Edited by New York City psychiatrist Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, the book is a transgender resource guide that is deliberately modeled after the feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves. Just like the original was written by and for women, TBTS is written by and for trans people. And just like the original, it occupies a strange space between practical guide and political document.

Trans Bodies Trans Selves

When OBOS first came out in 1973, The New York Times Book Review did not hail it as a font of information and a breath of fresh air; they mocked the basic exercise guidelines and the overly cheerful images of women laughing in groups. One could quibble with TBTS for similar reasons; occasionally it reads a little simplistic and Pollyannaish (does it really need to define the word “homophobia”?). But it is a necessary foundational text in the way that OBOS was a necessary—if sometimes goofily basic—foundational text. A trans teen just figuring out their gender identity might need someone to tell them to nurture their outside interests, to say, as TBTS does, “we all have other parts of ourselves that are not directly related to our gender identity or experience.” Sometimes, we need to go back to basics to come to terms with complexity.

Erickson-Schroth got the germ of the idea for the book when she was in medical school at Dartmouth in the mid-aughts. During rotations in endocrinology and surgery, she noticed that there was a yawning disconnect between her trans patients and their medical providers. It was a feeling similar to the one women expressed in the early editions of OBOS—that feeling of, “I’m not being given what I need from my provider, and I want to share with other women and I want to talk to other women about our health,” says Erickson-Schroth, who read the book as a kid, growing up with a second-wave feminist mom.

Simplicity aside, each chapter in TBTS is brimming with straightforward information about living a life as a gender-nonconforming person in the United States, along with short personal essays from trans people about their lived experiences. There are sections about parenting, mental health concerns, surgical and medical transitions, sexuality, arts and culture, and political activism.

Because of this richness, the book is still illuminating even for people who are already well-informed. If, as a well-meaning cisgendered person, you’ve ever been paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing when addressing a gender-nonconforming person, the book has a section outlining the myriad different words for the various identities that exist within the trans community.1 For example:

We may call ourselves trans men or female-to-male (FTM/F2M) transgender people if we were assigned female at birth (AFAB) and view ourselves as male. We may see ourselves as trans women or male-to-female (MTF/M2F) transgender people if we were assigned male at birth (AMAB) and see ourselves as female. Those of us who are younger may identify as trans guys/boys or trans girls instead of trans men or women. 

And that just scratches the surface of the identity terminology included in TBTS. Sensibly, the book recommends simply allowing “each person to identify themselves with [a term] rather than using it to talk about someone else.”

That may seem like common sense, but widespread knowledge about trans issues and sensitive language with which to talk about those issues are fairly recent developments. As a brief history of American trans people in TBTS notes, there were documented gender nonconforming people in Native American cultures, and as far back as 1692, a “female-assigned individual” named Mary Henly was arrested for wearing men’s clothing because “such behavior was ‘seeming to confound the course of nature.’”

The word “transsexual” (which is now considered antiquated) has only been around since 1949. That’s when an American physician coined the term to refer to individuals who feel like they belong to another gender, so that they could be distinguished from transvestites, who merely wanted to dress as the other gender. In the ’50s, an endocrinologist named Harry Benjamin advocated for giving transgender people hormones in order to transition. At the time, transsexuals were still largely seen as mentally ill, and other doctors believed gender-affirming surgeries were akin to mutilation. Dr. Benjamin recommended gender-affirming surgeries in other countries, as there were no doctors in the U.S. who would perform those surgeries at the time.

While Benjamin was working with transsexual patients, the media became obsessed with Christine Jorgensen, who was born male in New York City and underwent gender-affirming surgery in Denmark in 1952. Jorgensen’s story was so huge in the U.S. that in 1954, it “had received the largest worldwide coverage in the history of newspaper publishing,” according to a trade magazine. That coverage was far from sensitive or kind—as Time’s Katy Steinmetz points out, columnists in the ’50s debated whether Jorgensen could be “cured” or “treated”—it did bring trans issues to a much wider population. And in 1966, right after Harry Benjamin published a book called The Transsexual Phenomenon, Johns Hopkins opened the first gender identity clinic in the U.S. According to TBTS, within ten years, 40 more such clinics would open in America.

In the decades after Jorgensen, there would be a new, splashy memoir written by a trans person every few years. Most memorably, in 1983, there was former pro-tennis player Renée Richards’ Second Serve. But there were two things that really accelerated the process of trans activism and awareness in the late ’90s and early aughts: The Internet and Oprah.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, the national co-chair of the Board of Directors of GLAAD and author of the best-selling 2003 memoir She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders (she also wrote the introduction to TBTS), says that figuring out trans issues in the pre-Internet days was like navigating the French underground. “It was like a resistance,” she says to me over the phone. “But starting in the ’90s, people would put up personal pages in places like Geocities and would connect to other trans people. There have always been tens of thousands of trans people in any culture, but we couldn’t find each other before. 

Boylan’s four appearances on “Oprah” beginning in 2008 also helped raise awareness of trans issues in a big way among Americans who might not otherwise be compassionate towards trans people. Boylan is an excellent poster-woman for the movement: She has two lovely kids and a wife who was with her before and after she transitioned. She seems like—and is—a woman who you might be sitting next to on the bench at your kid’s soccer game. Studies have shown that just knowing a trans person directly influences attitudes toward all trans people, and Boylan’s kind face beaming into the millions of homes along with America’s most trusted TV hostess were a boon.

Laverne Cox’s recent media appearances represent another huge leap forward. Boylan says that she felt that when Cox and model Carmen Carrera appeared on Katie Couric’s show it was a “seismic shift” for trans people because Cox and Carrera pushed back against Couric’s invasive questioning about the state of their genitalia. Cox said to Couric: 

I do feel there is a preoccupation with that. The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real, lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things. 

“Trans people in the media have been defined and othered by cis people in the media,” Boylan says. What Cox’s push-back against Couric represents is that trans people are “now speaking for ourselves.” That doesn’t mean all trans people agree on everything, of course. Just like the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves represented a time when the women’s movement was highly contentious and in flux, people in the non-gender conforming community are arguing about their own issues. Furthermore, we’re still in a time when conservative commentators feel comfortable calling Cox “an effigy of a woman,” so clearly there’s still a long way to go in terms of universal acceptance.

Hopefully we can look back 40 years from now and see Trans Bodies, Trans Selves as a signpost on the road to greater trans affirmation, just as Our Bodies, Ourselves, was a beacon of a better, if still imperfect, future for women.

  1. Cisgender: A person whose “sex and gender identity match.” Trans activist Jennifer Finney Boylan says it’s not a term she liked when she first heard it, because she thought it sounded silly and made up. The term has been controversial. But Boylan later realized, “A lot of the words that I need and that are crucial to my survival are silly, made-up words.”