Transgender Books

Here’s a list of books I recommend on transgender issues and lives.

The starred (*) listings are books that I reviewed in greater depth in the annotated bibliography of My Husband Betty.

You can read more about most of these books, find reviews and discussions of other books, or post your own book for discussion in our Reader’s Chair Forum.

If you’re brand new to the subject, see Boys Don’t Cry and read Jenny Boylan’s She’s Not There. They’ll get you started, and then you can start reading these, which complicate trans identities in ways that are both essential and necessary if you want to understand transgender lives.

IF YOU ARE A THERAPIST, Lev’s Trangender Care & Vanderbergh’s Transition & Beyond are the books you want.

Here is my Top Ten List of Transgender Books for LGBTQ readers, with these and others reviewed below.

  1. Butch is a Noun – S. Bear Bergman
  2. Gender Outlaw – Kate Bornstein
  3. Crossdressing, Sex & Gender – Bullough & Bullough
  4. Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism – Patrick Califia
  5. Head Over Heels: Wives Who Stay with Crossdressers and Transsexuals – Virginia Erhardt
  6. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman – Leslie Feinberg
  7. Becoming a Visible Man – Jamison Green
  8. Mom, I Need to be a Girl – Just Evelyn
  9. Whipping Girl – Julia Serano
  10. Transition & BeyondReid Vanderbergh

  • Beard, Richard. Becoming Drusilla: One Life, Two Friends, Three Genders. Nettie, one of our regulars o nthe MHB Boards, wrote a fantastic review of this book. You can find that review here.
  • Bergman, S. Bear. Butch Is A Noun. I’m not sure I can even begin to describe how good Butch Is A Noun is: it’s funny, and charming, and substantial – much as I suspect its author is as well. I found myself wishing that there were 365 of Bear’s stories so that I could read one every day as a kind of meditation, to inform my day. The charm of Butch Is A Noun is that it takes its subject both seriously and with humor, but a gallows kind of humor, one that helps you survive a difficult world. There is no mistaking the undercurrent of sadness and anger, but the humor and love overwhelm both, as they should in any book about being butch. I really can’t recommend this book more highly: it made me laugh first, then cry some, think seriously about the world, and by the end I felt I’d been given a great big Bear hug.
  • Boylan, Jennifer Finney. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. A required read since it’s probably the best written trans memoirs and makes the many other YETAs (Yet Another Trans Autobiography) redundant.
  • Califia, Patrick. Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism. Written when Patrick Califia was still Pat Califia, this book is a good overview of both what it means to live in the gender binary and a discussion of transgender politics of the last 50 or so years. I especially love it for two things: 1) a feminist eye, and 2) accessible writing. S/he doesn’t get bogged down in jargon, and his extensive background as a feminist sex radical informs a lot of the opinions expressed.
  • Feinberg, Leslie. Drag King Dreams. ** added 6/3/06* I’m not sure Leslie Feinberg has an actual fan club, but if there is one, I want in. When I first read Stone Butch Blues, it blew my mind. A lesbian friend – since transitioned – made me read it. Made me, and for good reason: it’s like a sledgehammer of experience for anyone who has ever lived in the world as queer, or working class, and especially for anyone who has lived in the world as both. My friend knew it would speak to me, as it spoke to him.Transgender Warriors was equally great, full of information, rage, inspiration. I remember practically pointing out passages to strangers on the subway when I was reading it. But Drag King Dreams is like something from another world. Leslie Feinberg is not just remarkable as a person, and activist, but as a writer. Or as a radical, righteous soul. When I met hir at TIC (UVM’s trans conference), zie came up to thank me and Betty for what we were doing, and I could have been knocked over with a feather. I’m still astonished. Leslie Feinberg thanking me? For anything? Absurd. But now I know why. Leslie Feinberg was thinking about crossdressers, and zie was thining about crossdressers a lot, and in deep, empathetic ways. Crossdressers: buy this book. You think I’m your friend? Leslie Feinberg is the mensch you want at your back, believe me.The book starts with Max Rabinowitz (transman, drag king, genderqueer, bulldagger – it’s not really clear and doesn’t matter) talking to hir friend Vickie. In a moment of frustration, of ‘transer than thou’ anger, zie says something about how Vickie can take the clothes and the wig off and go back to being normal.The next day Vickie is found brutally murdered. And the rest of the book is Max’s meditation on friends, community, activism, family; it’s an insider’s view into being queer, being outside, being “other” while also being well-loved, deeply loving, and sorry. The book is Max’s apology to Vickie, for that moment of assumption and hierarchy that a crossdresser’s life is somehow “easier” than anyone else’s. Throw in some amazing scenes about being ungendered online, a lovely exchange between a “tough as nails” femme and an “suit and tie bulldagger,” a remarkable speech by Vickie’s communist uncle; a chilling scene of an apartment break-in by mysterious and angry visitors, and one scene – an exchange of sweet, light coffee and flags – that was so touching, so genuine, and so intense that I could taste the coffee and jonesed for a smoke right along with Max. The cast of characters is a veritable melting pot of transness and their empathizers: Estelle’s surviving wife being one. I’ve never seen myself in a novel before, and though I have no interest in living Estelle’s reality, some of her words rang out in ways that were profound to me. I cried a lot just thinking about her, who she is, who she is to me. But it’s the delicacy that this book really thrives on: Feinberg doesn’t say “Max doesn’t feel solidarity with this asshole transman because he’s middle-class” but zie makes the point. Zie shows, not tells: the first lesson in fiction writing, and the one most writers get wrong.Leslie Feinberg, THANK YOU.
  • Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues: A Novel. This book was given to me by a friend – a friend who also identified as stone butch, and who now IDs as trans. At the time, many years ago, it was really just a book that was supposed to give me an idea of what her life was like. Although I don’t think the writing is all it could be – Les Feinberg is better at speeches and non-fiction prose, in my humble opinion – the impact this book had on my life can’t be underestimated. It’s one of the only books written not just by a lesbian and butch, but also by someone who lived a working-class life. As a result, so much of the book deals with what I’d call the real world: working in a blue-collar industry, dating women, dealing with family estrangement but also innate homophobia. The one scene that really hangs in my memory is one where the narrator has started taking T and is passing for male, and dating a woman who is straight. At some point, the woman says something deeply homophobic, and the convolutions of thought that go on in the narrator’s head at that time are enlightening. S/he wonders exactly what would happen to hir if that same woman were to really what/who the narrator really was; the fear in that scene is palpable. And practical. And realistic. (When I met Les Feinberg, at UVM last year, zie thanked me for the honesty of My Husband Betty. I was flabbergasted. Utterly flabbergasted. And I told hir: without Stone Butch Blues there would be no MHB. It sets a very high standard for other biographical books, one which most don’t even reach, but one which more writers should keep in mind when they write. For the record: I was not one bit surprised, however, to find out Les Feinberg was as gracious as zie was zealous about gender politics. Zie spent more than an hour after giving hir speech taking pictures with fans.) (Check out this review of SBB, too!)
  • Green, James. Becoming a Visible Man. So – why Jamison Green’s Becoming a Visible Man? For starters, it’s a good read. James writes to be read, unlike a lot of writers on trans experience or in gender theory. Since my “audience” comes mostly from the MTF end of things, I also think it’s vital for us to educate ourselves as to what the experiences are from those on the other side of the fence. Having run FTM International for a million years, James has more than his own experience to rely upon for this book – he has head the stories of thousands of FTMs, from those that embrace a more genderqueer radical place, to those who wish, simply, to pass well enough so they can marry and mow their lawn on Saturdays. Beyond that, James is a great guy, a good writer, and penned the phrase that Betty and I repeat ad nauseum: There is no right way to be trans. He is also selfless with his time and energy – and has been for quite some time. Becoming a Visible Man was also a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and won the CLAGS book award. Feel free to comment or read further discussion about this book in our Reader’s Chair Forum. You can find a Five Questions With… interview with James Green on my blog.
  • Just Evelyn. Mom, I Need to Be a Girl. Evelyn’s Mom I Need to Be a Girl is an unassuming book written by the mother of a transwoman – but a transwoman who realized her transness when she was just a girl. Not only would every transperson benefit from having a mom like Evelyn, but the whole community benefits from this amazing book. It was the first narrrative about transness that I read that I trusted – not just because, like me, Evelyn is an insider/outsider to trans issues, though that was one reason – but because the language of the book is so simple and heartfelt. There is no convolution here: it is a mother and child sorting out a very complicated question when there are no good answers readily available. I highly recommend this as a book to give others to read about transsexualism. For starters, it’s not 300 pages. But it is impossible to doubt this mother’s love for her child, or the seriousness of the problems they were up against. I think this book would soften the hardest of hearts – it is told in such clear terms, empathetically, and because you’re hearing the story from someone who loves a transperson, without the usual convolution of ‘whys and wherefores.’ Lynn Conway has made Mom I Need To Be a Girl available online and for download (with Evelyn’s permission of course) on her website. Feel free to comment on or read more discussion about this book in our Reader’s Chair Forum.
  • Pratt, Minnie Bruce. S/he. Minnie Bruce Pratt is Leslie Feinberg’s partner of many years, and in this short book, Pratt writes poetically about lesbian and transgender identity and sexuality.
  • Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl (Seal Press,2007) Whipping Girl is, to date, the only book to address, theoretically, the uneasy relationship between trans people – specifically MTF transsexual women – and feminism, and that work was long overdue. It addresses sexuality, media representations, the historical pathologization of trans people by psychologists, the fetishization of tans women’s sexualities, the inherent misogyny of a feminist politics that mocks femininity, and then some. It has been personally & politically important to me in confronting what remained of my own “natural attitude” toward my own gender, what Serano calls cissexism (and rightfully so) and proposes the concept of “subconsious sex” which did more to explain transsexualism to me than anything ever has — outside, maybe, of Betty’s “because” model. It’s a real shame that this book was not recognized by the Lambda Literary Foundation. It will be considered a classic, revelatory and ground-breaking book in time; it’s just sad the Foundation’s judges don’t have the foresight to give it its due now. Julia, personally: thank you. I always appreciate when anyone, with their words and logic and anger, can make me a little less of an asshole, and Whipping Girl did that in spades. There’s a Five Questions With… interview with Julia Serano in my blog’s archives, and a thread about Whipping Girl in the mHB forums. ** added 3/17/2008 **
  • The Lady Chablis. Hiding My Candy. The memoir of The Lady Chablis, aka “The Doll,” the trans woman who was in Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. It’s an interestingly-told tale – her optimism and attitude gloss over some very difficult times in her life – and yet there’s a pathos underneath the fabulousness that, at least to me, makes it a perfect drag memoir – of a drag queen who isn’t quite a drag queen: The Lady Chablis is, by her own definition, “a woman with candy.”
  • Vanderbergh, Reid. Transition & Beyond. Reid Vanderbergh’s Transition & Beyond is a holistic look at transition; it fills in so many gaps left by the previous literature. His empathy and admiration for partners of trans folk come through loud and clear, and his respect for us is what informs his insight and advice. Reid’s book is one of the few I know that sees the trans person in context, in the light of long-held religious beliefs, relationships, and families. His commentary on substance abuse and post-transition community are especially welcome. Transition & Beyond isn’t just vital reading for therapists but for trans people and their families. ** added 1/4/07 **

9 Comments on Transgender Books

  1. […] Helen Boyd , author of My Husband Betty and long time Gender Studies Scholar, teacher, activist and blogger, has put together a fantastic syllabus of ” go to” books , for those interested in the […]

  2. […] Helen Boyd has posted her own list of essential trans reading with capsule reviews on her site. Modestly, Helen omits her books—“My Husband […]

  3. […] Helen was kind enough to also point me towards a section of en|Gender that lists even more Transgender Books. Great! Thanks! Posted in books, gender […]

  4. […] Something: Here is a great book list – my favorite among these was Whipping […]

  5. […] do have a list of trans books. It does need updating, but a lot of the ones I’ve reviewed are still excellent choices. […]

  6. […] a list of books on trans subjects I recommend, I’ve got a whole pile of reviews from over the years (which needs updating, but still, the books mentioned covered a great many aspects of transgender […]

  7. […] and the challenges faced by transgender individuals. A list of suggested reading is provided by enlGender. A place to start is the book She’s Not There  that tells the story of author Jennifer Finney […]

  8. […] and heart-rending, but glorious. All just a google away. For trans resources in particular, try here, here and […]

  9. […] Transgender Books – en|GenderMar 17, 2008 … Here’s a list of books I recommend on transgender issues and lives. … Here is my Top Ten List of Transgender Books for LGBTQ readers, with … […]

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