MARGARET CERULLO and Alan H. Goodman: Book review fosters transgender phobia
The Bulletin’s Dec. 7 front-page story explores a memoir written by a local author who describes the pain of watching her former spouse undergo a sex change. By posting a large color photo of the author, the Bulletin suggests that the pain explored is the author’s alone.
The Bulletin leaves the reader without much insight into the reality of the former spouse who clearly underwent a brave, painful and now public transition in the Valley where she and her children also reside.
Lines from the book “Sex Changes,” by Christine Benvenuto, convey moments of compassion for “Tracey” her former spouse, now a transgender woman. Yet there are many instances in which the memoir drips with disrespect and prejudice. Although Tracey transitioned to female over eight years ago, the memoirist refers to her to as “he.” Benvenuto writes, “There is something slightly creepy and more than slightly sad about a man in women’s clothes.” She peppers the memoir with descriptions of Tracey as “creepy, greasy, disgusting, and ugly.”
The Bulletin never poses the question: What counts for hate speech? Benvenuto maintains that her memoir is simply “her story about a painful divorce” —not about trans people.
Yet the memoir’s title and the Bulletin’s headline focus on Tracey’s transition about sex change. Had the memoir been about a marriage coming undone in a more banal way (infidelity, domestic abuse, alcoholism, falling out of love), the book’s title and anticipated content wouldn’t be much of a sensationalist draw.
Moreover, the author trivializes critiques of her depiction of Tracey as “politically correct.” During the Reagan-Bush years, politicians and pundits deployed the patronizing trope of “P.C.” to discredit nearly any critique of racism or sexism. Might it not be put to rest in 2012?
Consider a white author describing an African-American former spouse as, “creepy, dark, and disgusting to behold,” specifically because they were African-American.
What if a heterosexual author described a spouse who came out as gay as a source of “creepy” revulsion — again, due to their sexual orientation? Today, we would regard such texts as racist and homophobic. Must we wait 20 years to see Benvenuto’s depiction as transphobic?
Can a member of a dominant group (straight, white, cis-gendered) write off the political implications of their own hateful language as being merely “personal” — particularly when they insert this language into the public domain in the form of a memoir or media interviews?
Being transgender is neither a mid-life crisis (as described in the book), nor a mental illness, nor a choice for those who feel life unlivable in what feels to be the wrong gender.
Children of trans people, and society in general, deserve stories in which authors present their pain and anger about family members’ transitions in ways that convey respect and compassion for the people they write about.
The stakes are high. In addition to facing rejection from family and community, 95 percent of transgender people report harassment on the job and in public generally.
Moreover, everyday instances of exclusion translate into exponentially high rates of exposure to violence, depression, murder, and suicide. For many trans women, passing as female by changing dress, voice, hair and skin are central to protecting their own mental health and physical safety.
If trans women like Tracey cannot “pass” by wearing “women’s clothing” (found creepy and sad by the author) they are at risk of becoming a target of verbal, physical and sexual assault.
We do not question the rights of individuals to tell their painful personal narratives about what happens when a family member is transgender. But as feminists taught us since the 1960s, often, the personal is political. Personal hate, when made so public, is hate speech.
Alan H. Goodman is a professor of anthropology at Hampshire College, where Margaret Cerullo is a professor of sociology. In addition, this commentary was endorsed by Chaia Heller, visiting assistant professor of gender studies, Mount Holyoke College; Jamie Theophilos, Mount Holyoke College class of 2013; Abby Marsh, Hampshire College class of 2015; Kaeleigh Terrill, University of Massachusetts Amherst class of 2013; Parks Dunlap, Smith College class of 2013; Debra Bercuvitz; Kris Thomson; Rabbi Raquel S. Kosovske and Rabbi David Seidenberg.