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Transitions: Thinking About How We Think About Gender

Newsflash:  Chaz Bono is not the only transgender person out there. Nor is he the first one to write a book. Nor is he the only one to publish his transgender memoir this week.

I’ve been following the Chaz Bono story with great interest because he shared a pub day with my friend, Nick Krieger, author of the terrific new memoir, Nina Here Nor There, My Journey Beyond Gender.

You can hear the difference in their stories and points of view in the titles: Bono’s, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man vs. Krieger’s Nina Here Nor There:  My Journey Beyond Gender.

Bono’s title emphasizes a clear and definitive notion of gender and identity: once I was this, now I’m that.  Krieger’s title emphasizes fluidity, change, transformation, and a gendered identity that refuses to reify rigid notions of what it means to be a boy or a girl.

If you plan on reading Bono’s book, excellent–but make sure you read Krieger’s book, too.  And if you don’t plan on reading Bono’s book give yourself a treat and read Krieger’s book instead.  Krieger can really, really write: with warmth, wit, and great honesty.   Publishers Weekly writes: “”A beautifully rendered and personal account that feels like a fresh addition to trans literature.”  Krieger treats his own transition in the context of the larger LGBT community in San Francisco and reaches for a definition of gender that transcends binary divisions.  And really, in the end, isn’t that what we all want for all our kids? An understanding of gender that honors all the ways our kids can be boys or girls? All the ways we can be men and women in the world?  Gender may be last frontier of identity–the one we are most frightened of challenging, the one most deeply embedded in our cultures, minds, and bodies. But take just a cursory look at, say, Dara Torres next to Christina Aguilera next to Hilary Clinton next to your mom. Or Anderson Cooper next to Barry Bonds next to Stephen Hawking next to your dad. There are very many ways to be male and female.

Last night, I watched Bono on Piers Morgan, and I liked him. He’s likeable. I think in very many ways that it’s terrific that a celebrity is speaking out for trans rights and visibility.  It can only help to gain wider acceptance, understanding, and visibility for non-gender conforming kids and adults, and this strikes me as a very good thing.   So the bottom line is that I think it’s important that he’s joining the conversation in a very public way. Certainly, he didn’t start this conversation, nor does he have the only word, but his platform is undeniable.

What unsettles me is the sense–in the interview and all the media surrounding Bono’s book & movie–that  Chaz is the first and only person to go through a transition, and that his story is representative of all transpeople. There was no discussion of community, of the challenges still faced by transkids/adults, of finding a new gender identity among a larger social and cultural context, of embracing a gender identity that doesn’t conform to conventional male/female binaries.   It made me sad because I suspect that very many transkids and adults won’t find  his story comforting. They’ll find it one of isolated privilege. Only when Bono’s girlfriend came on the show did the couple give brief, almost dismissive nods to their trans friends. Nick’s book shows that communities are vital and crucial and that trans men and women think about what gender is and what means and how it works in the world in far more depth and with far more complexity than most people.

It is true, as Mary Mack Bono, Chaz’s stepmother said last night, that there is something to be learned from personal stories.   There are things to be learned from Bono, and even more to be learned from Krieger.   There are lots of voices in this conversation.  We need to make room for all of them.  I suggest starting with Krieger.

You can visit Nick’s website here and read his blog here–which includes a timely post on some of the more challenging aspects of Bono’s story. And don’t forget to buy his book here Nina Here Nor There, My Journey Beyond Gender.

Nick’s SF Book Launch is next Tuesday, May 17, 7:30pm: San Francisco Book Release Party, Castro Books Inc (2275 Market St). Consider joining him. He’s really funny.