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GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary
Joan Nestle, Clare Howell & Riki Wilchins, eds.
New York: Alyson Books, 2002.
$16.95, 297 pages, ISBN 1-55583-730-1 (paperback).

Mercedes Cuenca
Universitat de Barcelona


GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary [2002] is a compilation of heartrending stories written by "genderqueer" people, that is, transsexuals, intersexuals, transgendered men and women, cross-dressers and butch and "femme lesbian women," about their personal experiences. The pieces invite the reader to question the very nature and necessity of such categories as "masculine" and "feminine" or "man" and "woman." All of the texts are either biographical or fictional accounts of the authors' reactions to the rigid binary gender system predominant in Western cultures. Hence, this book will undoubtedly be of great interest to all those readers interested in lesbian, gay, gender and/or queer studies.

The editors, Joan Nestle, Clare Howell and Riki Wilchins, provide insightful introductory pieces to the collection which explain their reasons for embarking upon such a difficult and challenging project. Each of them draws on personal experiences, as a "femme lesbian woman," a transgendered woman and an M-to-F transsexual respectively, to expose the artificial construction of gender roles. Furthermore, they highlight the notorious oppression this rigid gender binarism enacts on all individuals who do not conform to the predominantly heterosexist, patriarchal imaginary of the societies they inhabit. Interestingly, the compilation tackles the question of how fixed forms of identity are constructed linguistically and serve to silence and/or render invisible all other identifications with alternative categories. As Wilchins writes:

Gender is a system of meanings that shapes our experience of our bodies. Genderqueerness is by definition unique, private, and profoundly different. That's what makes it "queer." When we force people to answer to a single language that excludes their experience of themselves in the world, we not only increase their pain and marginalization, we make them accomplices in their own erasure. [p. 46]

It is self-evident that this volume attempts to reinscribe the linguistic right of all genderqueers to express and share their visions of reality, thus restoring a much needed visibility to the obliterated.

In this connection, it is interesting that all of the so-called "stories" included in the work point to the exclusive nature of movements for lesbian and gay rights, which exclude transsexual and transgendered men and women. In this connection, Sylvia Rivera's text, "Queens in Exile, the Forgotten Ones," is particularly revealing and touching as a memoir of the author's life as a transgendered drag queen. Rivera, a veteran of the Stonewall uprising, recounts her lifelong struggle to achieve lesbian, gay, and transsexual rights. Her personal sense of defeat at seeing her community excluded from both the lesbian and gay communities led her to found the "Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries," an organization which offered safe lodgings for transgendered girls who had to work the streets and found themselves prey to drugs and hunger. Rivera, who died shortly after writing this short biographical account, finished her piece with the words "before I die, I will see our community given the respect we deserve" [p. 85]. Unfortunately, her desire failed to materialize during her lifetime.

In a similarly moving piece, "Affronting Reason," Cheryl Chase explains her painful process of realization and acceptance of her intersexuality. As a woman who underwent clitorectomy with her parents' consent when she was still a baby, she is unable to relate to sexual desire as a stable form of identity. In fact, she is biologically incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure to orgasm. In her own words, "I claim lesbian identity because women who feel desire for me experience their desire as lesbian" [p. 216]. However, her knowledge of the fact that she was deprived of her "overgrown" clitoris, and with it of a full range of female sexual experience, makes her question the manipulation of bodies to meet artificial sexual standards. In this way, Chase actively argues against the right of the medical establishment to determine the sex and gender of intersexual babies. Furthermore, the author points to the lack of understanding she has felt about her condition in the lesbian community--a lack which has resulted in her need to identify primarily with a different category, that of the "intersexual."

The reader also learns, however, that this sense of exclusion from the lesbian and gay communities is not restricted to intersexual, transgendered or transsexual men and women. A case in point would be that of Robin Maltz, a queer femme scholar who feels her femininity is misconstrued within the LGBT community as assimilation to heterosexist gender expectations of women. Conversely, in her piece "Fading to Pink" she argues, in a way which strongly reminds the reader of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble [1990], that her very ability to "pass" as heterosexual is, in fact, a weapon to prove the artificiality of the identification between sex and gender. In her own words:

Queer visibility does mean a lot in shaking up the status quo, but it is not the only way. I use my femme femininity in ways that are insidious, a little trickier than just looking queer. I use my gender as a strategy against the assumption that femininity in a female means I am heterosexual. [p. 161]

Therefore, Maltz advocates for "femmes" to achieve visibility in alternative ways to create a "queer presence" [p. 163] for themselves which does not rely on others, that is butch counterparts, for its existence. For the author, this is the rationale behind writing and publishing autobiographical texts.

Another relevant text in this connection would be Wally Baird's "Disorderly Fashion." The author is a "boy-dyke" lesbian woman who feels marginalized in her day-to-day experience as a homosexual woman. She writes that "in my typical full-time lesbian existence I have a lot of explaining to do" [p. 260]. As a woman who takes testosterone she feels misunderstood by butches who reject her on the grounds that she wants to become a man. Baird denies this fact, thus separating "transitioning" from the wish to have a fully transgendered or transsexual identity.

Notwithstanding, this volume does not limit itself to providing the reader with the thoughts and testimonies of writers who feel excluded from their environments. In fact, Susan Wright's biographical account on her experience as a cross-dresser, "Be a Man," develops on how her "passing" as a man has provided her with a deeper understanding of both men and women. Wright explains how she has experienced male reality through adopting the appearance of her "alter ego, Steve" [p. 267]. Apparently, she has "disguised" as a man in public places, such as the subway, in straight and gay bars, among strangers and with personal friends who did not identify her. Interestingly, Wright notes that:

I started cross-dressing because I wanted to see what life was like as a man. I still don't know what life is like as a man, not really. But I do know that cross-dressing has shown me things I never knew about myself as a woman. I am so much a product of our gender-determined world that until I tried to become a man, I couldn't see how many aspects of myself have been dictated by culture. [p. 267]

Therefore, in being all-encompassing, Wright's process of knowledge has led her to disregard any stable notions of identity categories. For her, the less one worries about political identities, the more one will find it inside oneself to be accepting and inclusive of others.

It seems that Wright's point should be kept in mind when reading this volume. The fact that her text is unique in defending the need for flexibility in one's own conception of self-identity may seem bizarre in a book informed, if not explicitly then certainly implicitly, by queer theory. Nonetheless, this is the case because GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary is oriented towards creating a social consciousness that, to draw on the title of Riki Wilchins's closing essay, "Gender Rights are Human Rights." In fact, the book decries the notion of an essentialist lesbian and gay movement while actively defending the need to accept the so-called essential identity of transgendered, transsexual and intersexed men and women. This identity is apparently based on a "gender that results from a core identity, a true self that is not the result of external norms" [p. 61]. All the same, this book should prove interesting and useful to all those readers who wish to delve into the intimate experiences and thoughts of those who defy mainstream notions of gender and sexuality.

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