The best explainer on trans issues for an older gentleman
November 27, 2022 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Hi, I work in academia, and my professor is a 70 year old scientist. Recently at lunchtime he's been asking a lot of questions about trans stuff. Like "If someone can choose their gender can I choose my race or age" hypotheticals. I don't think there's any malice in it, I think he's trying to wrap his head around something that's new to him. I've been doing my best to explain the little I know, but I am not very educated in the subject either. I've decided I'm going to get him a book for a Christmas present that will be a better teacher that I am. Does anyone have any good recommendations?

To stress a point above, he's pretty old and scientifically minded, and is probably not very up to date on current identity politics stuff. So something that doesn't assume much beforehand, whilst being clear and concise would be perfect. Thanks in advance
posted by Ned G to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I, myself, am "pretty old" (67) but, in spite of that, and apparently shockingly, considering my age, I am very up to date on current identity politics "stuff". With that said, I highly recommend, "The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society", by Debra Soh.
posted by SageTrail at 6:34 AM on November 27, 2022 [14 favorites]

SageTrail has a good suggestion.

I wanted to also add that you may want to also consider a book about Nicole Maines. It's a few years old but still useful I think: Becoming Nicole. The author also has credentials that might appeal to an academic.
posted by gudrun at 8:01 AM on November 27, 2022

I am not trans, but this is how I explained it to my mother, who was born in 1941, and who considers herself a "science person" (and therefore, in her mind, gender is defined by genitals at birth).

I knew that she was aware of phantom limb syndrome and shared with her a portion of a medical book (i think it was Atul Gawande) where it explained that doctors have found the part of the brain that can be stimulated to convince people, instantaneously, that they had or did not have such-and-such limb. For instance, a four-limbed person could be convinced they only had 3 limbs even though they could see all four. Or a three-limbed person could be convinced they had 4 even though they could only see three. Or, and most importantly, people who'd gone from 4 to 3, who could not wrap their brain around this fact (phantom limb syndrome), could be convinced that they had 3, which could make their life much easier going forward.

She accepted that "of course" this was possible, but I drove the point home by showing her a film called "Whole" (trailer), which is a documentary about 4-limbed people with brains that were convinced that they were only supposed to have 3. These people were, essentially, miserable, because when they looked in the mirror, the person they saw was not the person their brain told them they were. Many of these people spent all their time trying to figure out how to become amputees, removing the specific limb that they know they "should not have".

None of these people could be convinced they were supposed to have all four limbs. Doctors, therapists, friends and family — no one could say anything to soothe their discomfort. Many of these people tried to find doctors to amputate that unwanted limb. But there is no legal solution for these people. As a result, some did things like lifting their lower leg up so their ankle hit their butt and then using a belt to keep it there. Others altered their clothes to that there was no hole for the "extra" limb to come out so that they'd never have to see it. To find peace, some desperate souls resorted to violence: trying to freeze the limb until it fell of, or blowing it off with a shotgun.

My mother watched the movie and sympathized with the people and believed she would be equally miserable in their situation and "would go mad having to live like that".

Then I said, "It seems that you believe that what we feel about ourselves is more important for our sanity than what we see in the mirror. If it's certain that our brain tells us how many limbs we should or should not have, why is it such a stretch that it's our brain, and not the mirror, or anyone outside out brain, that tells us what gender we are? Do you have to look at your genitals to know you're a woman or do you just know? And what if you had that same level of certainty but had been born with a penis?"

But you asked for a book. May I suggest, Paul B. Preciado's An Apartment on Uranus?
posted by dobbs at 8:30 AM on November 27, 2022 [21 favorites]

I would recommend both The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye, and Trans Britain by Christine Burns. Its hard to say exactly what will help point your professor in the right direction, but as I see you are in the UK, I think both these books do a good job of showing Trans people have always been a part of society and the challenges they face - just hearing from people as they are can make a big difference if all he normally sees is the awful stuff in the UK press.
posted by crocomancer at 8:44 AM on November 27, 2022

Friends, the request was for book recommendations. I suggest we turn the thread back in that direction, being mindful of past complaints from trans site members who have been frustrated by theorizing from cis members. I know people are trying to help, but let’s solicit expertise as we were asked to do.
posted by Comet Bug at 11:40 AM on November 27, 2022 [21 favorites]

Transgender History by Susan Stryker. It's more of a historical look (aptly named lol), so not necessarily "transgender 101" but if your audience is scientifically minded then that intellectual approach might be useful.
posted by winterportage at 12:03 PM on November 27, 2022

A somewhat lateral suggestion, but perhaps Ben Barres' autobiography might be useful, inasmuch as it's the story of another professor, a very successful neuroscientist, who was trans. (Someone's working on a film, but it's not going to be out in time.) It is not a broad overview of the topic, nor a discussion of gender theory, nor an exploration of trans history, and it definitely doesn't get into, say, non-binary experiences or even transmasculine experiences that differ from Barres' own. However, some people can find personal accounts a bit more accessible when they first encounter sex- and gender-related experiences and identities that are different from their own. If that's the case for your professor, possibly hearing a first-person description of the experience of being trans from the sort of person he's primed to respect might be helpful?
posted by ASF Tod und Schwerkraft at 2:23 PM on November 27, 2022

Julia Serano is a scientist (PhD in Biochemistry from Columbia) and a trans woman who has been writing about trans stuff for a long time. Her book Whipping Girl is really old at this point (published in 2007) and not exactly a general trans 101 so I'm not sure I'd make it the only book, but her writing (she also has a lot of essays online) is good and might appeal to him since it's coming from another scientist.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:34 PM on November 27, 2022

Depending on his field of study, possibly Perry Zurn?
posted by supercres at 4:11 PM on November 27, 2022

It's less choosing a gender, than that the genetic lottery gave one a body that doesn't match.
posted by porpoise at 1:08 PM on November 28, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input and answers, I've gone for "The End of Gender" because I think the neuroscience angle makes it seem more relevant to things he's already interested in.
posted by Ned G at 5:23 AM on November 30, 2022

I'm very slow to respond and it seems like your decision has been made (two weeks ago!) but I still feel the need to add my two cents: tread carefully around Debra Soh's work. I read the opening chapters of The End of Gender recently and her portrayal of trans issues (as well as people and activists) is ...a bit one-sided, to put it nicely.

(To give you further insight into her position and ideology, she was also one of the academic defenders of the "Google memo" in 2017 - the comments in this MeFi thread touch on this.)

IMO, Julia Serano is a better representative voice.
posted by bigendian at 5:49 AM on December 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

I wasn’t familiar with Debra Soh before this thread, but after perusing her Twitter, I would really really not recommend choosing a work by her. I’m seeing what I consider to be typical TERF talking points in her tweets:
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:55 PM on December 13, 2022

OP, just to circle back - can you perhaps stick with books that were either recommended by the trans folks within this thread, or written by trans folks? (In this thread - authors Perry Zurn, Susan Stryker, and Shon Faye are trans, as is Julia Serano and of course the writers of the various autobiographies recommended.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:37 AM on December 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

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