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03 March 2012

“Transgender” in The No-Nonsense Guide to Sexual Diversity, 2001–a review

I think that the first reaction of most of my readers will be to note the book title, and as it has a Transgender chapter to ask that the book be renamed to say Sex and Gender Diversity.

Vanessa Baird is a journalist-editor with the Oxford-based New Internationalist, which is a publisher particularly concerned with what used to be called the third world, and with diversity as a human-rights issue.   This international focus is certainly the book’s strength; an healthy alternative to the far too-common North-American-Western-Europe focus.  It was quite adventurous for Vanessa to write the entire book rather to get different authors for each chapter.  Like the older type of academic Vanessa does not care to situate herself within the sex-gender spectrum.

The ‘Transgender’ chapter is a mere 17 pages.   So one cannot expect thoroughness.  One quickly notices that Baird is jumping back and forth between intersex and transgender topics.    She uses ‘transgendered’, but then so did we all in 2001.  However she still uses ‘berdache’ a full decade after 1990 First Nations Gay and Lesbian conference in Winnipeg that asked us to use ‘two-spirit’ instead.    In the 2007 revision the chapter is retitled ‘Transgender and intersex’, but she still uses ‘berdache’.

After an introductory section on the varieties of trans, Baird discusses the Guevotes (penis-at-12) families in the Dominican Republic, Imperato-McGinley’s biologistic interpretation and Gilbert Herdt’s social construction rejoinder.  She then jumps to John Money and the unfortunate boy that we now know as David Reimer.  She was writing shortly before Colapinto’s As Nature Made Him so understandably neither David nor Colapinto are named (nor are they in the 2007 revision).  Next is the genital correction of intersex children and the usual Cheryl Chase biography.  Bo Laurent is cited in a footnote, and as was usual at that time, Bo and Cheryl are not identified as the same person.  Then the possible incongruence of chromosomes, hormones, gonads, genitals and internal organs, which leads to sex testing at the Olympics and, somewhat surprising, a quote from Stephen Whittle that transsexual is a type of intersex.  Then third gender persons: berdaches, especially Nadles, and hijras, and the kwolu-aatmwol of Papua, whom it is mentioned have 5-alpha reductase deficiency, as do the Guevotes.  Then the murders of Latin American trans women, especially prostitutes.  The last section is an upbeat praise of the transgender movement with mention of those proudly out, refusing to conform to the gender binary and choosing not to have surgery.  This section is spoilt by the canard that trans women are 1 in 12,000 and trans men 1 in 30,000.  Even before the Olyslager- Conway study in 2007, that established 1 in 500, it was apparent that 1 in 12,000 was a serious underestimate.

Recognizing  the constraints of space, what is seriously missing?  I would have liked a clear statement about the difference between intersex and transsexual and perhaps a quote from an intersex activist about transsexuals who want to be regarded as intersex.  I would have thought that British India Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 which called for the registration, surveillance and control of certain tribes, including Hijras was worth mentioning, as was the the large migration of mainly Brazilian prostitutes to Paris and then Rome in the late 1970s/early 1980s.  There is no mention of Corbett v. Corbett which redefined intersex and seriously reduced trans civil rights, at least in all the English-speaking countries.   The many positive rulings by the Council of Europe and the EU happened after 2007, let alone 2001, and so are understandably not mentioned.  None of the pioneer transsexuals are mentioned, so it is a special privilege that Chase is named.  On the other hand a passing mention of a murdered Venezuelan gives not only her name, but her boy name also.  Twice!  The 2007 revision should definitely have mentioned the 2004 Gender Recognition Act as an example of trans activism, but at that time it was not obvious that similar legislation would follow in Spain, Portugal and Argentina.  In the 2007 revision she might have mentioned the Blanchard-Bailey fracas, but given the orientation to the global south it is perhaps as well to leave it out.

A reasonable but not great chapter, suitable for those who know nothing of the topic.  However anyone who has read in the field will find it too simplistic.

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