Five Questions With… Julia Serano

Julia Serano is a Bay Area slam-winning poet, author, performer, activist, & biologist. She organized the GenderEnders event from 2003 until last year; plays guitar, sings & writes lyrics for her band Bitesize, and oh – has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. We got to meet her when she was in town promoting her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, recently published by Seal Press.

(1) I loved Whipping Girl, for starters. I think it’s a pivotal work for trans communities, especially in building trans pride. But you know I kept waiting for you to actually define “feminine” – maybe if not for all time, but in some way that I could understand what you meant by it specifically. Your “barrette Manifesto” came close, except that I see barrettes as childish, not feminine per se. So can you help the genderblind like myself? What is femininity? Can you be feminine without being girly?

In the next to last chapter of the book, “Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism,” I talk about that a bit, but I’ll try to define it here a little more clearly. I would say that femininity is a heterogeneous set of traits (some of which are cultural in origin, some biological, some psychological, and many are a combination thereof). The only thing that all feminine traits have in common is that they are typically associated with women in our culture. But they certainly aren’t exclusive to women, as many men and MTF spectrum transgender folks also express feminine traits (similarly, many women express masculine rather than feminine traits). I think most of us tend to express some combination of both feminine and masculine traits.

I appreciate that you asked whether a person can be feminine without being girly, as I feel that pretty much describes my experience with femininity. While I have experimented with high femme in the past, these days I definitely don’t see myself as a girly-girl. I only wear make-up or dresses on special occasions and most days I probably come off more as a tomboy than anything else. At the same time, my personality is definitely more feminine in other ways, for example, in the way I tend to be verbally effusive and emotive, and in my concern for others. I don’t believe that these traits “make me a woman,” or that all women should express them. They are feminine traits solely because they tend to be associated with women in our culture.

Your point about how many of the things that are seen as most feminine in our society are also associated with childishness is important. I think there is a tendency to infantilize femininity in our society. One can definitely see that in how teenage girls are so regularly sexualized in our culture (while teenage boys are not). And when we think of icons of femininity, things like Hello Kitty, Barbie and so forth come to mind. Yet, when we think of masculinity, we never think about toy trucks or Transformers. We assume that masculinity is inherently mature, even though people often do the most childish things in the name of masculinity.

(2) We’ve both talked about some of the ways the queer + trans communities meet, or don’t. Can you talk a little bit about your own personal experience with these two communities? Is there a place where you feel at home?

I guess I feel simultaneously at home and not at home in the queer community. I feel at home in queer spaces because I have so many friends there – so many truly wonderful, sweet, creative and interesting people. I would say that most of the people who seem to understand me the best identify as queer. Yet, at the same time, I also feel that there is so much policing of identity in queer spaces, almost as much as there is in straight spaces. Large contingents of queer folks try way too hard to prove that they are “queerer than thou,” or that people they don’t like for whatever reason are “not queer enough.” It’s sad how much the queer community reminds me of junior high school sometimes.

What disappoints me the most is that “queer” is supposed to be an umbrella word for all different types of people who in one way or another are deemed “not straight” by society at large. Of course, the people who are most often accused of not being queer enough by the community are bisexuals, trans folks and our partners. It’s as if the word “queer” keeps reverting back to cisgender gays and lesbians only.

One of the best things about living in the San Francisco Bay Area is that the artistic communities in general are pretty genuinely cool with queer and trans folks, so I also enjoy a sense of community in the local spoken word and music scenes. Folks in those circles may not be aware of all the minutia of queer/trans politics, but they respect my work and my female identity—sometimes even more so than queer folks do.

(3) I was thinking about your observation lately, about me & about you, on Trans Group Blog: that you tend to know more queer-identified trans women who are way post transition, and I tend to know a lot more who are in transition, about to transition, & just transitioned. Here’s my concern: the community I know isn’t very hip to feminist ideas at all, & I wonder sometimes if, for trans women lacking a feminist consciousness, they will get all riled up about their own rights without getting certain stuff about women’s spaces, women’s history, women’s rights. That worries me. Tell me why I shouldn’t worry, or if I should.

I’ve found that many trans women undergo an evolution in their thinking about gender issues. When they are first transitioning, they may be more inclined to see themselves as trans first and foremost, and often they’ll focus solely on trans rights. But post-transition, after having the experience of being treated as female day-in and day-out, they’ll begin to develop a feminist conscious as they begin to face many of the issues that cissexual (i.e., non-transsexual) women face. And many will begin to draw parallels between the misogyny they face as women, and the trans-misogyny they face as trans women.

While many trans women gain an appreciation for feminism either before or after their transitions, I agree with you that some trans women never seem to make this connection. In my book, I critique the whole “single-issue” gender activism approach that occurs when people fail to make connections between their own marginalization and those of other groups. Transphobia, homophobia, biphobia and misogyny are all inter-related—they are all forms of sexism. Therefore, it’s crucial that we recognize the parallels between feminism and transgender and queer activism. So I agree with you that single-issue activists who only fight for the rights of trans people, but not for women or LGB folks can be a problem, and I am concerned with it to.

(4) You coin words in your book, like transmisogyny and effemimania and trans mystification. You’re liberal in your use of transphobia. Do you ever feel that coining new terms loses some readers? I’ve met trans women who get upset about trans discrimination who seem otherwise entirely unaware of their own class or racial privilege. Do you ever worry that some of your salient points might be lost because you use new words, or that your readers don’t have the background in the kind of theory and language you’re steeped in?

I was very worried about using so many new words in the book. For example, I went back and forth for a couple weeks trying to decide whether or not I should use the word cissexual (which I did not coin) rather than non-transsexual, because I was worried that it wouldn’t register with people and they would just put the book down rather than continue on. The reason why I eventually decided to use that term (as well as others which I did coin) was because I felt they were necessary, that they helped illuminate issues that previously remained largely invisible.

Of course, a lot of the coining of new words was inspired by other movements (for example, those to end sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, etc.), where activists similarly created new language to articulate marginalized perspectives on those issues. It’s hard for me to say how people who are not familiar with these movements will react to the language I use. I’d like to think that maybe the book could become a jumping off point for them to make connections with these other movements. In the book, I talk a lot about being at the intersection of different forms of marginalization, and the last thing I would want is to have people use my book to argue for transsexual or trans women’s rights without making connections to those other important issues. After all, it would be hypocritical for a trans person to expect other people to acknowledge cissexual privilege if they themselves are not willing to look at the privileges they may experience because they are male, heterosexual, white, middle-class, etc.

(5) You seem to posit, in your chapter on being submissive, that you had to move through that phase, that it was somehow part & parcel of your experience of being trans, that your move through (and away from) being submissive meant you had come to accept yourself, & your transness, more. Do you think being submissive is a bad thing, or a sign that something is up mentally or emotionally?

I really wanted to include that chapter because so many trans women (myself included) have submissive fantasies or forced feminization fantasies in the years before they transition (and sometimes after). This of course has lead many non-trans male psychologists (such as Bailey and Blanchard) to view our desire to be female as a “autogynephilic” fetish. They seem oblivious to the possibility that the desire to be female comes first and that the submissive fantasies are merely a coping mechanism to deal with it. That’s how I experienced it. I wanted to be a girl before I had sexual fantasies. I had a lot of shame about my desire to be female (most of which grew out of our culture’s misogynist attitudes), and those fantasies relieved a lot of the guilt that I was feeling. I think this is similar to how a lot of cissexual women feel ashamed about their own sexual desires, and so they may learn to relieve that guilt through rape fantasies. It’s not that they want to be raped, just as most MTF spectrum folks don’t really want to have someone force them into feminization or submissiveness—it’s just that the fantasy enables us to unleash taboo and repressed desires.

I don’t think that having submissive fantasies are necessarily a bad thing, as they are often a survival skill and can be personally empowering to those who experience them. Also, there is a big difference between being a submissive or bottom sexually and being submissive in day-to-day life. Most people I know who are sexually submissive are not very submissive in their day-to-day life.

Bonus Question!!

(6) Call me a Marxist feminist, or Second Wave or something, but I was pretty surprised you wrote so much about femininity and specficially feminine presentation without mentioning consumer culture. Marketing to young girls and tweens and teenagers is over the top these days, and I’ve watched as the moms of my various nieces have had to battle with the girls wanting *everything* that involves ponies and barrettes and girliness in general. So you can say something about the consumption of girliness?

In the book, I talk about how masculinity often comes off as natural while femininity comes off as artificial. For example, many feminists have argued that high heel shoes or make-up are inherently unnatural and artificial, and that they only exist to appease or attract men. What underlies many of these arguments is the presumption that their masculine counterparts are inherently natural or practical. But this clearly isn’t the case. Most men shave their face (something that is arguably unnatural), and those who do it every day often do so in order to look presentable or attractive. But nobody ever talks about all of the time and money men waste on razors, shaving cream, and aftershave. And plenty of men spend an exorbitant amount of money fancy Italian shoes or the latest fad sneakers – there is nothing practical about that.

I agree with you that we live in a highly consumerist culture, and I’ll be the first to critique that. But I also think that when people talk about consumer culture and feminine presentation without also addressing masculine presentation, it seems to me to be really one-sided and sometimes even downright anti-feminine. Granted, women typically spend way more than men on clothing and most grooming products. But while growing up, I knew lots of guys who spent tons of money on things related to their image and presentation: they’d buy overpriced sneakers, or spend lots of money on prettying up their cars, and flaunting their money in other ways to impress women they’re dating or interested in. I’ve found that many (albeit not all) men are just as concerned about their overall image as many women are. It’s just that men are expected to spend money to enhance their image in different ways than women are, and they are far less often critiqued for it when they do.

11 Replies to “Five Questions With… Julia Serano”

  1. I think the more an MTF indulges one’s pre-transition fantasies and considers “her” self to be “a woman,” the more she becomes self deluded and, in many ways, loses her true self and that of her community. We are very very very girly men, and we will never ever be anything other than that, artificial vaginas and the magical effects of HRT notwithstanding. In that sense, we make up our own individual community with a unique culture, and we should not identify with women in anything other than our love of being like them. In that, we are, at best, close approximations, but never achieving true replication either in body or mind. I suggest that we take the “MTF” out of our lexicon. What we are is FM’s. Feminine men. Until we die. Embrace it. We are a new creature.

  2. There’s nothing wrong with being a feminine man. I know a fair number of them, of various sexual orientations. But they are quite different from transwomen.

  3. What does it matter, Marci, what we are? Surely it’s what other people think we are that is of significance. I have found other people see me as a woman. I make no claims. I feel no need to. But that’s how I live my life and I deal with whatever comes my way because of it no less than any other woman.

    I found reading Whipping Girl an amazing experience. Julia brilliantly articulated ideas that have been rattling around in my brain for the last number of years and had never been able to articulate myself so clearly.

    I’m especially happy to read in this interview Julia’s thoughts on so-called ‘autogynephilia’. I experienced this in an exactly similar way. Looking back since commencing transition it has been obvious to me that these symptoms were a coping mechanism most especially since they vanished into thin air as soon as I allowed myself to be myself and to express the emotions I never dared to before.

  4. I have spent a good portion of my life trying to learn what femininity is. I find there are many trangender who just are not interested. The appearance is enough. However one should not be condensing to these people, as each person must struggle with their own life

  5. Call me a heretic, but the word “transwoman” sounds to me like nothing more than a reworking of “shemale.” Believe me, I fully understand the inner feeling of the need and desire to “be a woman,” but that does not mean that one actually “feels like a woman,” because no woman feels like a man who desires to be woman; therefore, that feeling in the male is a uniquely male experience, an experience that is lost in the fog of self-proclaimed womanhood. And that is a shame, because continuously embracing that experience is not only free of delusion, it is also transcendental and spiritual.

  6. At this point I am coming to just plain resent labels. We are all so different and I cringe when we are lumped together under any label. I applaud the concepts that do not overgeneralize cisgender women or transwomen.

    For myself I have found it far more sane and less derogatory to describe my situation as simply being a vaginally challenged woman, for now. People laugh at first, thinking I’m making some PC joke, but many have the concept hit them later. It’s far more honest, to the point, and portrays my handicap as it should be instead of as a disorder or mistake of nature.

    I’m not changing who I am. Very little of my personality has changed 4 years into transition, nor will change post surgery, other than my perspectives and the ability of the culture in which I live to cope with me.

  7. The decision to transition is never an easy one. It can take years to make, and sometimes a lifetime. That is because there are so many things to consider: how you will fit into society, the prospects for successful relationships, family needs, career considerations, level of self-acceptance, your system of moral principles, who you are accountable to in your life, etc…
    There are some men who are just really, really feminine, and who will be content if society sees them as such. There are some men for whom femininity is an interest (like fashion designers), and some for which it is a turn-on. And there are some men who really would be better off if society saw them as a woman, even if, after transition, they will never be able to completely identify with women due their male childhood and plain biological reality.
    A lot of people get worked up about sexuality. That is because the gatekeepers of hormones and surgery, the psychiatric community, consider sexual orientation and sexual fantasies in deciding what to do with candidates for MtF transition. There is a huge intellectual war going on about autogynephilia – google autogynephilia and you will see what I mean. The most tragic casualty of this conflict is the truth – the only way you can be accepted as a gender-variant person is to be transsexual and to be a “real tranny”, you need to be straight and know you were a girl since toddlerhood. This leads to a lot of lies to therapists and even some self-deception. This also causes incredible competition among t-girls for validation. What we really need is increased acceptance of all gender-variant people, from the occasional crossdresser to the desperate MtF. If there is no ideal heterosexual model to conform to, people will be more honest and will therefore be able to analyze their desire to transition with a clear head.
    How do we do this? Easy – let’s expand society’s definitions of male and female. For women, lets revive feminism! (I am the kind of woman who would have loved to live during the 70’s!). Let’s change the feminist rhetoric from fighting a patriarchal conspiracy to fighting the portrayals of women by the dominant media and consumer culture. There are authors who have already addressed this – let’s turn their ideas into action. For men, let’s start with the wonderful documentary by Jackson Katz: “Tough Guise”. We need to get away from the violent “tough guy” image associated with men in popular culture. Men need to be seen as people with needs and feelings too. And to help both men and women – we need to support gay and lesbian rights (The Religious Right seems hell-bent on banning homosexuals from marriage, the army, and from churches – the three things that represent American “values” – without which homosexuals seem weird and un-American.)
    If the gender roles are blurred in this way, more people will be able to fit into them. Effeminate men and butch women will no longer have to hide at the fringes of society. Crossdressers – if they ever get mobilized (and spend less time on Fictionmania) – will be able to dress how they like and be seen for what they are. Unsure transsexuals of both the MtF and FtM types will be able to see a range of different identities as alternatives to transition. In short, the strict gender binary sucks – Let’s throw it out the window.

    PS – My main complaint about the literature about transsexuality and all the talk about autogynephilia is that it completely ignores FtM transsexuals, suggesting that all women don’t ever think about sex. Why isn’t autoeroticism talked about in the context of FtMs or gay men or lesbians? Maybe it is because changing from male to female is seen as a “step down” rather than a potential improvement, and so therefore it is inherently bad, and subject to intense scrutiny. Just an idea.

  8. And now for a rant about the infantilization of femininity:

    * Who ever invented the now-ubiquitous “babydoll tops” that look silly more than anything else?

    * I am no fan of high-end fashion, but every time I see an ad, I cannot help but stare. The models of super-sexy, mega-expensive, uber-femme dresses seem to get younger and younger. The dresses are not meant for 12-year olds, so why does it seem that 12-year olds do all the modeling? Why are people afraid of real women’s bodies?

    * Jeers to all of the companies that decided that career women should be “sexy” in addition to powerful. I cannot go on the internet and find a decent pantsuit that is neither low cut nor excessively tight nor covered in “girlish” frills and embellishments. The male-dominated culture has taken revenge against women by turning the workplace into a fashion show. (Read the Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf). I wouldn’t be surprised if people started referring to working women again as “career girls” like they did in the 50’s.

    * Are women always portrayed as young, small, skinny, and naive so that men will still be able to APPEAR dominant? (In light of having to share real power with women)

    * As time goes on, a man’s value goes up because his experience is seen as valuable. In contrast, a woman’s value goes down the way that a car depreciates in value, because her youthful looks give way to maturity. Why is maturity in women a bad thing? Why is gray hair seen by women as “ugly” and not “distiguished” like a man’s gray hair? Where does our culture leave older women?

    * Every day I struggle because I cannot take myself as seriously as my male peers. I work in a field where it is necessary to be agressive in your research to survive and where being a good leader is important. Yet every time I see a man, I think that he has some special abilities that I lack, that he is somehow “naturally suited” to being a scientist while I am just an anomaly. I feel guilty and selfish for not planning on being a stay-at-home mom. I don’t take other women seriously the way I would a man. They are somehow “less” to me, and I turn that view against myself. And being a lesbian doesn’t help either. And that is why I am a feminist – my survival and happiness depends on it.

    Rant over.

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