May 29, 2014

A Brief Review of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (2014)

transresourceTrans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community. Edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth. Oxford University Press, 2014. 649 pages.

When I received my copy of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves in the mail Tuesday I eagerly cracked the spine and began reading. This hefty reference work sounded like an ambitious effort when I first learned of it; I was eager to find out how well it had delivered on its promise of being a comprehensive guide to trans-related issues.

The first thing I discovered was that reading Trans Bodies, Trans Selves was going to be no easy task. It’s the size of a college textbook, 640-some-odd pages long, and filled with small, densely packed black-on-white text. It would be impossible to sit down and read this book quickly from cover to cover. In fact, the editor, Laura Erickson-Schroth, discourages it, saying in the front matter that Trans Bodies, Trans Selves “is meant to be flipped through, referenced, picked up, and put down.” So I took the editor at her word. I flipped around. I looked for interesting things to read. I skimmed here and there. I found things I was interested in and devoted time to reading those articles.

And she was right. There’s an overwhelming amount of material here, much of it informative, some of it engaging, a bit of it quite honestly obtuse. It has sections on identity, on transition, on relationships, on history, and much more, covering everything from trans parenting to the intersection of the trans and deaf communities. Like any good reference work, the best approach to Trans Bodies, Trans Selves is to start with the Table of Contents (if you’re looking for broad information) or the Index (if you’ve got a specific topical need) and to go from there.

The articles themselves can be slow reads. The first article, for example, “Our Many Selves,” is a 19-page discussion of the language the trans community uses to describe itself and the world; the article is packed not only with defined vocabulary, but also quoted opinions and sidebar discussions that touch on the topic of the main piece. It’s very easy to get distracted by a sidebar, only to lose track of where you were in the main article. And we’re not talking about decorated pages with graphics and plenty of white space here. This is journal-level black-on-white layout with minimal stylizing. The book does its best to avoid “wall of text pages” through the use of some formatting tricks in its minimalist page design, but this is still a book not generally friendly to the browsing eye.

Once I got a handle on the book, though, there was absolutely no questioning the value of the material inside. I have tried to be as well-versed on trans issues as I can be, but I very quickly found myself discovering a lot in these pages that I didn’t know before, just by going through a laundry list of topics in my head and seeing what the book had to say about each of them. I’m willing to bet that even experienced trans folk who have lived authentically for decades could find new information somewhere in here. And for allies and others outside the community who are willing to do the reading, this comprehensive text could be an intense crash course in Trans 101.

Having said that, I can’t say that I would recommend Trans Bodies. Trans Selves to everyone. For example, it’s not the first book I’d suggest to the mother of a trans child, or to a trans man just beginning to explore his authentic identity. That would be like teaching someone to swim by throwing them into an ocean. Though there are definitely parts of the book I might want to recommend to a new trans woman or to the teenager who’s questioning their place on the spectrum, though, and this may be, in the end, the biggest problem with Trans Bodies, Trans Selves — it’s hard to share only a part of it!

For someone serious about diving into the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of being trans, however, this book will stand as a key resource for many years to come. I know I plan to keep it near my writing desk from now on, both to reference things I know about and to learn about things I don’t. [And maybe to design a college course around sometime. This would make an amazing course text.]


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