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.

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.

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.

Trans Book Reviews: Stories of Alternative Genders, Read from Two Perspectives

Trans Book Reviews has a unique proposition going on at their site. It’s not just that they review only books and stories that are non-cisgender (so transgender, non-binary, agender, or anything else that isn’t strictly cis); they also have a cisgender and a non-cisgender person review each one and post both reviews together. In terms of fostering understanding and support, I think that’s fantastic. Check out their site at https://transbookreviews.wordpress.com.

Trans Books

What Does Detransitioning Tell Us About Being Transgender?

Transitioning to a different gender or genders is hard. If you’ve done it, you probably feel the same way I do when you hear someone claiming that being transgender is a choice.

Who would ever choose to go through all this?

That’s why it feels kind of threatening to hear about people detransitioning–that is, becoming transgender and then becoming not transgender. Doesn’t that imply that they chose to be transgender, and then chose again? Or that being transgender is fake?

Spoiler alert for the rest of this post: no, it doesn’t mean either of those things. But it does point out a big problem for any of us who identify as transgender, or at least something important we need to figure out: how do we tell the difference between a different gender identity and something else?

There’s a terrific article on detransitioning on The Stranger: “The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t“, and in it we can see at least three possible situations in which people detransition or go through “desistance” (when a person–usually a young person–hasn’t transitioned yet and decides to go back to their birth sex instance).

Situation one is where a person receives so much negativity about their gender that they start feeling repulsed by it. That’s what happened to “Jackie,” who was born female and was always fairly butch, but was scorned for being that way and battered with mysogny. By contrast with that experience, being male felt like a relief … but Jackie eventually realized that even though being male felt better in some ways, it was really that she needed to accept herself as a woman. That was her particular circumstance.

“Ryan” had a similar experience from the other direction, being bullied and belittled as a young boy and finding refuge in the idea of being female. He transitioned to female, but this never addressed the internal problems, and eventually he detransitioned as well as he could back to male.

Both Jackie and Ryan seem to have mistaken bad feelings that had come to live inside them with dysphoria about their gender. This brings us to that big problem or thing we need to figure out if we’re transgender: are the feelings we’re following based on an experience of internally being another gender or genders, or are they about something else? In some cases, especially if those feelings are strongly negative and harsh toward ourselves, maybe they don’t have to do with gender identity at all. In other cases, based on the experience of the huge majority of people who transition and feel much more themselves, they really do.

On to situation two: instead of being fooled about your own gender identity based on bad feelings, you could be fooled by good feelings or by identifying with peers. There’s a very high percentage figure that has been offered that supposedly reflects how many kids who identify as another gender when young later come to identify with their birth sex. That figure may or may not be accurate, but what seems clear is that a lot of trans kids become cis* adults. In some cases, based on how transgenderism in kids can seem to spread, becoming trans might often come from feeling a closeness to or admiration for someone in your peer group. I mean, if some kid you know comes out as trans and becomes really famous in school, seems to be much happier, and is accepted by almost everyone (or even if they just stand out as unique and you feel like there’s nothing unique about you), the idea of doing that same thing and standing out yourself can be really appealing. If you become really drawn to it and end up fooling yourself, who can tell you that you aren’t actually transgender? Nobody, that’s who, though there are good therapists who can help you figure yourself out.

That’s the big problem with gender identity. We can’t know exactly how any other person feels, and the way different people feel can be hugely different, so how can we know what it feels like to be male, or to be female, or to be both, or neither? We have to trust our own best instincts and question ourselves carefully: there’s no other way. That’s why a good therapist is so important to this process (and a bad therapist, or even a well-meaning but confused therapist, can cause so many problems). A good therapist can help a person know themself better.

I mentioned three situations, but the third may or may not be real. Maybe some people’s genders actually change during the courses of their lives. Maybe, even completely ignoring the physical side of things, it’s possible to be one gender for a time and then become another. This may be ironic coming from someone who you could meet as a woman one day and as a man the next, but I’m skeptical, or at least cautious, that fundamental gender identity can change. Being bi-gender means that you shift from one gender identity or the other, or hold a balance between the two, but in a larger sense your gender has the same composition over time. If you’re bi-gender, both your genders are always with you: it’s just that you may not embody or experience both of them at once all the time.

At the same time, I probably shouldn’t be too skeptical. It’s easier to imagine that every trans person has always been trans, even if that person doesn’t start feeling trans until well into adulthood, as some trans people do, but this isn’t really known, and if it’s even possible to come to a conclusion about it, we won’t come to anything definite soon.

This idea of changing gender identity over time pertains to bi-gender people in an unusual way, because it sometimes happens that a person identifies as bi-gender as a waystation to being “traditional” trans–but I’ll take that up in another post.

*In case you’re not familiar with the term, “cis” is short for “cisgender,” which means “identifying with your sex assigned at birth.” It’s more or less the opposite of “trans”.

Can a Person Assigned Male at Birth Develop a Convincing Female Voice?

Andrea James is an actor, teacher, voice coach, producer, director, and transgender activist. If you’ve seen the film Transamerica, starring Felicity Huffman, you may recognize her from the opening scene, where the main character is working on her voice with a voice instruction video. She offers resources for people assigned male at birth who want to achieve an unquestionably female voice at genderlife.com. She also offers one-on-one tutoring via Skype or other means at http://www.genderlife.com/free-transgender-voice-resources/voice-consultation/.

Andrea James

If this post comes across sometimes sounding like a cheering section for Andrea as a personal voice guru, that’s only because I think she provides a tremendous service. I had been working on developing a full female voice for months before I came across her work, and as I’ve discovered since, all of the resources I was using were leading me down a path that would not be successful. Andrea’s videos made a big difference for me, and then some personal coaching made an even bigger difference. I’m not prepared to show off a complete female voice yet, but I’m getting closer every week, and there have been a few situations already where my voice has passed. (Note: I’m not receiving anything for posting this. I honestly do think she’s that great.)

Unfortunately, this post won’t be of much use to people assigned female at birth who want to achieve a male-sounding voice. For those taking hormones, this isn’t a great problem, as their voices will change like teenage boys’ voices do. My apologies that there’s nothing here in this post for those not pursuing hormones.

Andrea kindly consented to talk to me about developing a female voice.

JAMES BETH: When and how did you first discover that it was possible to find your female voice through training?

ANDREA: A pioneering figure in transition resources is Melanie Anne Phillips. She had put together some great materials on transgender voice, and she had an audio cassette and VHS tape available for sale. I used her techniques to good effect, but I felt I could make things a little simpler with a more streamlined approach based on techniques developed by Arthur Lessac and others. I taught a few people using these new methods, then eventually filmed it all 15 years ago in 2002.

Melanie Anne Phillips

JAMES BETH: It sounds as though you put some concerted effort into developing the method you teach. What drew you to doing this work yourself?

ANDREA: I initially planned to teach as a career, so helping others with transition goals has always felt like a nice substitute for that. I’m always happy when my students get results like these:

http://www.andreajames.com/2016/05/26/transgender-voice-coaching-results-sabrina/
http://www.andreajames.com/2016/11/27/voice-feminization-before-and-after/

JAMES BETH: Wow, those are great examples!

How long does it typically take someone who’s practicing regularly to develop her female voice? Is it much easier for some people than others, or factors that make a big difference in how easily (or whether at all) a person develops her new voice?

ANDREA: Most people take 3 to 6 months to get a good working voice. The biggest factor for success is age at transition, with younger people far more motivated and more likely to succeed. Older people are more likely to have a mental block about it, afraid to push past the point where it does not sound good yet.

JAMES BETH: So motivation seems to be key–which translates, I would guess, into amount of earnest practice? From your point of view, can anyone at all can develop an identifiably female voice if they’re motivated enough, or are there some barriers that can’t be gotten past?

ANDREA: Anyone at all can do it if they can push past the mental barrier of imperfect progress. I have taught non-trans people these techniques, so it’s possible for anyone who is motivated. Here’s an analogy: some people say they’d like to get in shape, but what they mean is they’d like to BE in shape. They don’t want to do the work to be in shape. You have to want to GET in shape, and there is no quick solution. You have to do the work.

JAMES BETH: Does a person have much choice over the character of her voice as it emerges, or is there a particular female voice that tends to emerge for each person? To put it another way, is a female voice created or uncovered?

ANDREA: Most people have the same vocabulary, accent, inflection, enunciation, vocal tics and general tone. Those who achieve a voice that most listeners take to be female sound as if they have a twin sister. However, it’s important to note that there’s not a good voice, or bad voice, there’s your voice. If you like your voice and don’t want to change it, that’s great! It’s an important part of how you express yourself, and it’s up to you whether it’s worth changing it. Be loud and proud!