Reasons to Read and Not Read Katie Rain Hill’s Rethinking Normal

This post isn’t a book review in the usual sense. I’ve only read the first few chapters of Katie Rain Hill’s 2014 memoir Rethinking Normal, and while I haven’t made my mind up entirely, I don’t think I want to read any more of it. It’s important, and there are some good things about it, but having read as much as I have, I came away feeling disturbed and upset.

Hill is a binary transgender college student who transitioned at the age of 15. She and her high school boyfriend, Arin Andrews, were the subject of widespread media attention in high school because they are both transgender, Andrews having been assigned female sex at birth and Hill having been assigned male. I’m sure on more than one occasion they must have desperately wished they could just swap.

Hill’s memoir starts with her arrival at college, when her and Andrews’s relationship was winding down. The book is important because it’s a fairly well-written, first-hand account by a trans person from a generation in which it is actually beginning to be possible to transition before entering adulthood. In another few years, I hope we’ll see more accounts from trans people who have been supported in their actual genders from grade school or earlier. These stories are likely to be different in many ways from already existing accounts by accomplished adult writers, such as Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There or Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness.

At the same time, unfortunately, I think Hill’s memoir and accounts like it are doing some real harm. This is because Hill, who according to biographies considers herself an LGBTQ+ advocate, does not seem to have taken the necessary steps to educate herself about broader LGBTQ+ issues, nor to find sensitivity readers who could explain the problems in her book to her.

All in the first few chapters, she gives a friend a free pass for using the word “faggot” because “he didn’t mean it,” claims that all trans people who don’t get surgery are still concerned primarily with “passing” (if you’re reading this and don’t already know, that’s not the case), and repeatedly misgenders herself.

To clarify, Hill repeatedly refers to herself prior to her transition as a “boy.” In other words, she’s adopting cis people’s terminology for herself, that she’s not a legitimately female until she has surgery and hormones, or at best until she presents as female.

Now, I do know that there are trans people who legitimately identify as one gender and then come to identify as another, but most of us seem to have the experience of always having identified as whatever gender or genders we actually are, even if other people always thought of us as our assigned birth sex, and even if we didn’t have the gender identity knowledge or terminology to understand or describe what we were.

This is why I dislike and try to avoid the terms “FTM” and “MTF” (“female to male” and “male to female,” respectively) for binary trans people: they put the power for assigning gender in the eye of the beholder–for instance, since everyone thought of Hill as a boy prior to her transition, she thinks of herself as actually having been a boy then, even though by her own account her gender dysphoria was so intense that she was constantly depressed and would lock herself in her room for days.

The reason I’m so bothered by this is that because Hill is known through popular news outlets, her book is likely to be the first–and possibly only–account of being transgender that many people will read. Since cis people tend to assume that any LGBTQ+ person can speak for all LGBTQ+ people, they will learn that it’s OK to use slurs for LGBTQ+ people if you’re in a group that doesn’t care as long as you “don’t mean it,” that all trans people are preoccupied with passing, and that binary trans people start as one gender and become another.

I am positive these are not the only such misteachings in the book, but I’m reluctant to read forward and continue to experience these disturbing nuggets of short-sightedness coming from within the trans community.

As a 19-year-old writer, Hill’s book is not as immediate or engaging as it could be, at least judging from the beginning. It’s not bad, but its success so far looks to be based not on writing skill, but from its topic and writer being so noteworthy.

This is not to insult Hill. It’s probably a better memoir than I could have written at 19 if I had anything meaningful to write about that I understood then–and I’ve been devoted to writing for a long time. It’s just that writing takes skill, and skill takes practice, and 19 years is not old enough for most people to have put in that practice.

And I don’t mean to suggest that Hill had any ill intent or even was especially negligent (for a 19-year-old). I do, however, fault her agent (if she had one) and her editor. Presumably they’re professionals, and if they haven’t had previous experience with publishing LGBTQ+ work, they should have known who to talk to in order to get it, and they should have understood about sensitivity readers and other resources they could have used to guide Hill and point out the problems in her book. These kinds of issues would have been easy to fix once identified.

At the same time, maybe I’m being too hard on a book that was written 5 or 6 years ago, since our culture is so rapidly changing our understanding of how to handle and talk about gender identity. Apart from the “faggot” comment, perhaps this book was close to the state of the art at the time.

On the other hand, I don’t think it will help for us to be too open to yet more harmful writing about our community, even when it’s wrapped up in an interesting and meaningful account by a trans writer. Average Americans–even including many of us who are not cis–are confused enough about gender identity as it is.

Confirmed: Vermont Will Offer an X on Driver’s Licenses by July 1st, 2019

Back in early 2018, it was reported that the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles had looked into offering a third gender option on driver’s licenses and had determined that there were no legal obstacles–so, Vermont being Vermont, they said they’d go ahead with it.

Then more than a year passed, and nobody heard anything. I contacted the DMV twice about this and got a response only to one of the messages (the response was “I don’t know what you’re talking about”).

So a few weeks ago, I touched base with the Vermont news organization Vermont Digger and suggested they look into the story. They felt it was newsworthy, so reporter Ellie French interviewed DMV head Wanda Minoli, and yes, a gender neutral marker is coming! The DMV is rolling out a new, higher-security license by July 1st of this year, and it will include an “X” option corresponding to “other” for gender.

The Vermont Digger article (and other articles I’ve read) did not specify what a person would need to do to get the X on their license. According to transequality.org , in order to switch between M and F on their driver’s licenses, binary transgender people must get “a written letter from a physician stating that gender change is complete and the date of completion.” That’s terrible. I hope we can get this law changed in the near future to be less oppressive and surgery-centric!

However, as far as the nonbinary or X marker is concerned, when I followed up with the Digger, I found out that Minoli has stated that it would be simply filled in by the applicant, like height and weight. Rock on, Vermont!

Sorry, Mx: you can’t bring that privilege in here

I’m a big fan of good therapy. I don’t think it’s a last resort or something only people with serious problems should do. It seems to me that it’s next to impossible to get through life without some bad habits or misconceptions or hang-ups, and that since it’s normal and human for that to be the case, it should be normal and human to go get some assistance from somebody who happens to know a lot about sorting that kind of stuff out.

All of which is a prelude to me saying “So, I went to see my therapist today …” I guess I worry that when I talk about having a therapist, people will imagine I’m seriously troubled, clinically depressive, or what have you. On the other hand, if I were, should that be a problem? Anxiety, depression, and all the rest–that’s just regular human beings having exactly the kinds of problems regular human beings have.

But in my case, I’ve been really lucky not to have serious emotional problems except for writing these long-ass qualifying introductions to make sure I’m not misunderstood even a little bit. Anyway!

So, I went to see my therapist today (there, James-Beth, was that so hard?) to talk about the possibility of eventually coming out completely, to everyone. I’m pretty far out already: I have been coming out to friends and friendly acquaintances at the least excuse; I’m out to my landlord, two siblings, everybody in Montreal and in Northampton, a sampling of people from one of my dance groups, former coworkers, and so on. Two of the main areas where I’m not out are my parents and work, the first one because OPHTWAGI (Older People Have Trouble With Alternative Gender Identities), and the second because I’m worried about causing any kind of ruckus with my income stream, considering I have no reserves.

But something else came out in my discussion, another big reservation I hadn’t even realized I had: coming out to everyone would mean giving up a bunch of privilege. When applying for jobs, for instance, I get male privilege, white privilege, seemingly-cis person privilege, and seemingly-straight person privilege … as long as they aren’t too dubious about the long hair and earrings and, let’s be honest, pretty eyes. If I ever need a new job, I guess I could still show up to interviews in male mode and play don’t-ask-don’t-tell, but that seems … kind of lame.

Even in the context of my family, I feel like I have male privilege. For instance, my brother, who mansplains a lot to my sisters, only mansplains a little to me.

I’m still not resolved on coming out universally, though my therapist helped me understand some steps I should take to get closer to knowing whether and when. But when I reflect on this unearned privilege and how many people have to make do without it, I feel much more riled to just come out and trash some of the privilege I have. If people aren’t going to respect me as a queer person whose gender flip-flops between male and female and sometimes god knows what, then screw ’em.

And if I find it inconvenient or difficult or unsafe sometimes because I no longer have male, cis, straight privilege, well, then I’d find myself in the company of uncountable wonderful people from all times and places who get the same deal, and at least I’d be able to link arms and help fight the good fight. Also, possibly giving up some of this privilege can help underscore how unnecessary and wrong that privilege is, or (for people who haven’t yet noticed) that it exists in the first place.

Brave words for someone who isn’t yet ready to come out to all. And I don’t have to–nobody has any kind of moral obligation to come out. But I don’t know … check in a few months down the line or something and see if anything has changed. It could get interesting.

Recommended podcast: Gender Rebels

I have to admit that my first reaction, on hearing the introduction to The Gender Rebels Podcast, which is mainly about trans and nonbinary topics, was surprise that while one host is a trans woman, the other is a cis woman (though also, as she mentions, an ally). On hearing a few episodes, though, I’m realizing what a good idea that was. Not only do Faith and Kath have great podcasting chemistry (among other kinds of chemistry: they’re also longtime romantic partners), but Kath (the cis host) provides a really useful point of view.

Faith and Kath — both adorable, which you can tell even from just hearing them

For example, take the episode called “What’s It Like to Be Cis?”: that’s a question I’m honestly curious about, and one neither Faith nor I can answer. Or the episode on chasers: Kath asks exactly the questions that need to be asked, like (my paraphrase) “What could be the problem with straight cis guys who are into trans women?”

Of course, as much as I enjoy Kath, Faith is the person I’m most interested in: like a lot of us, she’s come up a long and twisting path to get to who she is, and she knows things about gender rebellion that I want to learn.

One of the things I like about the podcast is that Faith’s and Kath’s voices are not completely dissimilar, so some of the time, I have trouble figuring out whether it’s a cis woman or a trans woman speaking. That’s a reassuring kind of uncertainty, for me, even though like most questions of passing, it’s also a little embarrassing for me to even care about how traditionally feminine a person’s voice sounds.

So, looking for something interesting to listen to? They’ve got episodes going back to 2016 and are podcasting weekly: dive in.

By the way, Kath and Faith’s use of the term “Gender Rebels” is not connected with my site’s tagline or with the imprint under which my book was published (Gender Rebel Press), except perhaps in spirit. They were using the term before I was, but hopefully are not concerned that I came to the same idea they did for a phrase that sums up a lot about living as a non-cis person in this world.

Goodreads Giveaway: 10 Signed Copies of Bi-Gender

You probably already know about Goodreads, a great website for finding books to read. In case you don’t already know about this feature of it, though, let me point you to Goodreads Giveaways, where authors and publishers post titles of books to give away to interested readers. You opt in for any books you’re interested in, and then when the giveaway ends, winners are randomly chosen from people like you who expressed interest. Then, if it’s a Kindle giveaway, the recipients get a free electronic copy, and if it’s a paper book giveaway, they receive a free copy in the mail.

The Giveaway listing for Bi-Gender (click on the image to see the page that includes the live listing)

We’re down to the last four days to opt in for a chance to receive a signed copy of Bi-Gender: A Candid Nonbinary Memoir, which you can most easily find on this page: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/genre/Gay%20and%20Lesbian . If you don’t already have a Goodreads account, you’ll need to create one (free and only takes a minute or two) to participate. Good luck!

Transcendent 2 is Full of Top-Flight Transgender and Nonbinary Fantasy and SF

I kept my expectations in check when I picked up Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, edited by Bogi Takacs. How much high-quality transgender speculative fiction would even have been published over the course of the year, I wondered. As it turned out, there’s quite a lot.

Before I speak to more specifics, though, I want to point out how broad and inclusive the spectrum of gender identities in these stories were. While I’m quite interested in fiction about what you might call “traditional” transgendered people, who each identify as just one discrete gender (which doesn’t match their birth sexes), being nonbinary, I’m keenly interested in stories about characters who are not strictly male or female, whether trans or not. To my surprise and great pleasure, Transcendent 2 offered a real wealth of stories like that.

Because so many of these stories are written by non-cisgender people, the trans and nonbinary characters in them are not used as gimmicks or tokens: by and large, they’re complicated, diverse people whose genders are not the most important or most striking thing about them. To go from reading about almost no trans/enby characters straight to full-fledged ones, without having to go through an intermediary stage of diversity for diversity’s sake, is a privilege.

While my enthusiasm for the individual stories was mixed, there was no lack of good writing, and I imagine another reader might well pick other favorites. A few of mine included

  • A. Merc Rustad’s “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door,” about childhood friends in other worlds
  • “Three Points Masculine,” in which An Owomoyela opens up some of the complex issue of a trans person’s own response to other kinds of trans people
  • Keffy Kehrli’s queerly and engagingly imaginative “The Road, and the Valley, and the Beasts”
  • Toby MacNutt’s “The Way You Say Goodnight,” with its half-metaphoric delving into individual burdens, disabilities, identities, and hidden strengths, and
  • “Her Sacred Spirit Soars,” S. Qiouyi Lu’s beautifully evolving story of transference of spirit, oneness, loneliness, and layered identity. While this felt like the least trans stories in the anthology to me, it had one of the most unusual approaches to the idea. For fans of literary rule-breaking, it also is one of those rare pieces of fiction that uses the second person well.

Some other stories caught my imagination less, but the variety and the consistently high quality of the writing prevented any from being stories I skipped, which in such a varied anthology is a real accomplishment for me as a reader. I generally stop reading books or stories the moment I decide they aren’t likely to have anything I really want to offer, and that didn’t happen once in this book. Take a look, and see for yourself.

Two Online Bi-Gender Communities

My experience is that bi-gender people tend to be very isolated from other bi-gender people: bi-gender isn’t a well-known or widely used gender identity. I have yet to meet another person who definitively identifies as bi-gender face to face, even though I’ve met many other people who identify as nonbinary and have connected virtually with dozens of other bi-gender people. For other bi-gender people, the gulf may be even wider. That’s why we’re lucky to have at least two supportive and well-established bi-gender communities (and if there are more, please let me know so that I can list those as well)!

The first place I found online to connect with other bi-gender people is bigender.net  (no hyphen). This is an old school online forum, and while the interface isn’t exactly up to the minute and it’s not swarming with people, there are always at least a few long-term participants available to connect with. The forum format makes it possible to have extended, in-depth conversations. I’ve met several good friends on this board.

By the way, if you join, don’t try to later log in through http://www.bigender.net without the /forum at the end of it. The home page for the site is for a journals feature that uses a completely different login system and is slated for retirement.

I’m newer to the second community, but it’s a lively group of Facebook users called Bigender Support . Here too, members are strongly supportive and worth getting to know. You don’t have to be bi-gender to participate; the group is for both bi-gender people and allies. It’s a closed group: you must apply first to participate.

 

How Do Bi-Gender People Experience Their Genders?

I’m conducting a survey of bi-gender people to help learn about and spread the word about what it means to be bi-gender. If you haven’t read about it elsewhere on this site, “bi-gender” (also written “bigender”) means having two genders, often but not always male or female, and experiencing them at the same time or at different times.

In other words, some bi-gender people experience their gender as a combination of two, others experience them separately, and still others sometimes do one and sometimes the other. That’s the topic of one of the questions in the survey.

gender identity experience among bi-gender people

For anyone who has read my book, you’ll know that I’m in that small green section, people who pretty much go back and forth between two genders without really ever finding themselves in the middle. As it turns out, that’s unusual among my survey sample: most people sometimes or always experience both genders at the same time.

The one response under “other” was from someone who wasn’t sure if the question meant to ask about gender identity or gender expression. My intention was closer to gender identity, though I meant gender identity in terms of how it feels at different times rather than in terms of how we define ourselves overall. Of course, I can’t say whether other respondents got this intention from the way I phrased the question.

There are other terms that can encompass the idea of being two genders at once: “genderqueer,” sometimes “genderfluid,” and just plain “nonbinary,” for example, could all potenitally cover it. Yet I don’t think it makes sense to try to insist that the term “bi-gender” not include people who might also be described in other ways, even if it were possible to make that change. First, “bi-gender” emphasizes the duality of our genders, which for some of us is a central point. Second, while for some of us, our gender experience may be consistent over many years, for others the experience of being bi-gender can change over time: gender proportions can shift, and the way we experience our genders can change as well. Not expecting the term “bi-gender” to give a specific account of exactly how we feel and present our genders leaves latitude for a range of gender experiences. There’s no point getting out of the gender binary box only to be trapped in another box of expectations.

My sample size is still small, although it’s growing. As of this writing, there are 18 respondents, which seems small unless you consider how difficult to find we bi-gender people currently are! I’ll post more results from the survey in posts going forward.

Nonbinary untruths debunked on Teen Vogue

Having been assigned male at birth, and having taken several decades to come around to getting my gender identity correct, there was never a point at which I read Teen Vogue–well, until today, when I was pointed to this useful article, “4 Things You Should Stop Saying to Nonbinary People.”

This is actually worth reading whether you’re learning about nonbinary people or are nonbinary (or “enby,” a word I learned very recently and love) yourself, even if only for the affirmation. This clear and useful little article gets to the heart of these problematic statements:

  • “Singular ‘they’ is grammatically incorrect.”
  • “There are only two genders.”
  • “So are you a boy or a girl?”
  • “Being nonbinary is a mental illness.”

Bi-Gender: A Candid Nonbinary Memoir Now Available in eBook and Print

Gender Rebel Press has just released my new book, Bi-Gender: A Candid Nonbinary Memoir, in a print edition (258 pages, $9.95), following up on the eBook edition ($2.99) released at the end of February.

paperback copy of Bi-Gender