Guest Post: Trish Mifflin

Trish Mifflin recently wrote a short review of the book True Selves that she posted on our community forums, and I thought it was worth posting here for others to read. Do you agree? Disagree? I know this has been a very important book for many people, but I’d love to hear more about what people think of how it has, or hasn’t, held up. – hb.

True Selves Revisited – by Trish Mifflin

When people are trying to learn about transgender issues, they’re often referred — by IFGE  and others — to a 1996 book called True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism for Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals, by Mildred Brown and Chloe Rounsley. It’s gained something of a reputation as a “Rosetta stone” for explaining transgender issues to people.

I’ve owned True Selves for years, but for one reason or another, I never got around to reading it, until last week, when — on a whim — I pulled it from the shelf and started going through it.

Well. To put it nicely, I don’t think it holds up. I guess, being generous, I would call it “quaint.”

To put it not-so-nicely, I think it’s a terrible book to give to anyone who has a loved one who is transgender, or to someone who may be transgender, transsexual, gender-queer or otherwise non-binary conforming.

True Selves — and I know I’m oversimplifying here — pretty much says that unless we’re seeking genital surgery, we crossdressers (I’m one) and gender-queers are disordered people with sexual fetishes.

And if we are seeking permanent gender re-assignment, True Selves tells us we will have strife-filled, heart-breaking, miserable lives.

These are not exactly the messages I would want to give my family and friends if I wanted them to understand my feelings.

I hate to dump on True Selves, because much of it still rings true, at least for me. For instance, I can identify with many of the people who Brown and Rounsley interviewed. In 1996, they performed a valuable service — they attempted to illuminate a completely dark cave, and wrote an extremely thorough book, making a huge contribution to the (then meager) literature about transsexuality.

The year True Selves was published was the year I graduated from a major university. I spent many, many hours in our library, reading everything I could find on transsexuality. I didn’t find much, and what I did find either wasn’t good or was hard for a lay person to understand. I wish I’d been able to read a book like “True Selves” back then.

But looking at True Selves from a 2013 perspective — after a lot of other people have produced books, magazine articles and websites about being transgender and/or transsexual, many of which were probably inspired or informed (at least in part) by True Selves — the book is almost offensively out-of-date. Back then it was sympathetic, but now it seems patronizing — it’s like reading a book from 1960 on being “homosexual,” or a book from 1930 on being “Negro,” or pretty much any 19th century book on the proper role of women.

At this point, I would not be comfortable recommending True Selves to anyone, except to understand “where we’ve been” or “where we were” — in other words, as a period piece, because our understanding of gender identity has gone way past True Selves over the past 20 years.

I don’t think True Selves should be dropped down the memory hole, or ignored or removed from libraries or anything of the sort—I think there’s a lot of good information in the book that gives it the potential to help many people. But it is badly outdated and—unless the authors choose to re-write and revise it—those LGBTQA groups recommending True Selves should probably make sure they include some big caveats along with their recommendations.

—Trish Mifflin is transgender. She occasionally blogs at Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents.