With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Excluded by Julia Serano
When she poetry-slams, the conviction and the eloquence Julia Serano possesses as a writer is there for all to see. Her style of fierce, funny, thoughtful insights is also present in Excluded (2013), arguably Serano's transgender manifesto, with a particular focus on issues of trans exclusion and communities. I'd recommend it to anyone wishing to get past the barrier of stereotypes erected against trans women in particular, with Serano on form exposing the double standards trans women have to deal with.
Excluded is divided into two parts, chronicling as Serano puts it, 'instances of sexism-based exclusion within feminism and queer activism,' with the second half exploring her possible solutions.
The instances she describes all highlight the kind of accusations trans women can receive at different times, particularly in some feminist circles. In one conference, a cisgender feminist makes repeated comments against trans people, about how they take up too much space in political forums. It's clear the barb is aimed at trans women in particular, with the added inference of trans women violating female spaces. Serano walks out, though it's important to note a cisgender feminist goes after her to express her equal discomfort. Elsewhere, Serano describes an experience at Camp Trans, where some trans women and allies gather outside the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival to hold their own concert (trans women were banned from entering the real Festival). It's there that two cisgender feminists approach Serano, railing against trans women for carrying the potential threat of penises, as if bringing in concealed weapons. It's interesting here to see the weighted signification of the penis in feminism, as something much more than anatomical. Serano, though, points out the hypocrisy, of how 'there are probably more dildos and strap-ons at Michigan than you would ever want to shake a stick at' (30).
In the second half, Serano looks at the way trans women are set up to fail in 'no-win' situations, for example with the issue of visibility vs invisibility. Serano notes how trans women are held up to impossible standards, in what she calls 'double-binds,' where if trans women aren't explicitly behaving in a feminine manner, they're attacked for being like men, but if their behaviour conforms to feminine type, they're branded caricatures. No cisgender person would have to deal with these gender-based double binds; Serano concludes that trans people should stop worrying about the visibility/invisibility issue, and focus on the unfairness of these double standards, and how they're projected upon trans women.
One important area that receives Serano's focus is the potential narrowness of the transgender movement, and its production of 'single-issue activism, where racism and classism have been viewed by some feminists and gay rights activists as falling outside the scope of their organizations' mission statements' (218). The consequence, Serano notes, is the exclusion of particular trans people, with a privileging of 'pre-dominantly white- and middle-class-centric movements, where the concerns of the most marginalized members of those groups . . . fail to be adequately addressed.'
Overall, this might be Serano's most important message in Excluded, of how the white, largely middle-class trans movement has to develop a keener awareness of its own intersections, and the influence this bears. Given the narrowness of Sarah McBride's own focus, as a representative of the trans movement in the recent Obama White House, Serano's is an important counter-balance, and one that any trans activist should read before claiming to speak on behalf of a single trans community.