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.