Pamela McMullin-Messier: Pamela McMullin-Messier is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Southern California. She is doing research on the social construction of population-environment connections and women's rights in non-governmental organizations, particularly on how the discourse has influenced and shaped debate on public policy issues.
There are numerous questions today about what constitutes gender identity. Is it socially constructed? Is it biologically determined? In some cases, for example, there have been attempts to distinguish “women born women” from just being “woman enough”. How is it that our identities and bodies are judged by others for what “passes”? Who can make the rules and enforce them? Basically, simple categories of female/male and woman/man are no longer applicable in our society, as transexuality and transgenderism have added a twist to what constitutes these identities. The author of READ MY LIPS, Riki Anne Wilchins, offers us a perspective from that of a transexual woman that challenges both the linguistics and hierarchies of legitimacy for gender identity. However, this book is not just “about identities, but about…[our culture]...that repudiates, stigmatizes, and marginalizes many kinds of people. It is a book for anyone committed to changing that system.” (17). Basically, Wilchins utilizes this book as a vehicle to use language and knowledge to subvert certain established ideas about bodies, gender and desire.
READ MY LIPS also addresses something that many books offering trans and gender theory doesn't – the pain, voice, and complexity of lived experiences. Wilchins criticizes how the “transgender studies” people have further tribified and politicized the transexual/transgender community in studying their bodies, choices, and desires, but have somehow not addressed the disempowerment, dislocation, and exploitation that this community feels. Not one has actually addressed the conditions of their lives, exposed treatment by police, the struggles faced (loss of custody of children, HIV), the fact that many transpeople are survivors of crime and abuse, nor about the number of transpeople who have been murdered because of who they are. But Wilchins goes beyond this to point out that the system of oppression is what needs to be fought against, that there is a need to go beyond personal actions to organized systemic beliefs and has dedicated this book to this cause. Wilchins further offers us her experiences as a Transexual Menace (an activist group) and GenderPAC (an organization that works for “gender, affectional, and racial equality”), in demonstrating how the message needs to get across that genderqueers are here to stay and they'd better be treated right.
Wilchins discusses her identity politics and sexuality in various chapters. In “What Does it Cost to Tell the Truth?” Wilchins discusses how we tend to see ourselves, in relation to how others see us. We all become self-conscious about how we appear and “pass” in this society, and this is one area where we all have something in common in understanding. How do we break free from this constant scrutiny? Wilchins uses this as a vehicle to discuss her experience as being “read” as a woman, in how suddenly body image changes with Trans-gender identity change and the challenges in adapting to this. As Simone de Beavoir says, “the body is a situation.” It appears that it costs us quite a bit to live in our culture's standards of meanings for the body. In “Lines in the Sand, Cries of Desire,” Wilchins discusses the intersection of sex and sexuality, in how we define ourselves based on the borders in which we preside. These borders are the complexities of how we define ourselves, our sexuality, and our bodies based on our experiences. Wilchins discusses her ambivalence about defining her sexuality, in terms of how a transexual defines identity based on choice of partner or roles played. She also discusses the humiliation of sex, pointing out that many transsexuals are survivors of sexual abuse and incest. She goes further to explain how to become free through realization. This section touched me in a way, as I'm sure others can relate to: “Our lives become the enactment of those things we can think, the erotic acts and petty daily defiances of the fears haunting the borders of what we will confess to desiring, what we can imagine ourselves wanting to do with our own bodies and those of our lovers. The borders are drawn not by us but by our fears, lines drawn in the sands of our need by rape or shame or abuse, imaginary lines in shifting sands we dare not cross.” (182)
Wilchins discusses her activist experiences in various chapters. In “The Menace in Michigan”, Wilchins discusses her experience of fighting against the organizers of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, as they had articulated a policy of “womyn-born womyn only” and evicted transexual women as a result. As one activist noted, “after decades of feminist insistence that women are ‘made not born,' after fighting to establish that ‘anatomy is not destiny,' it is astounding that ostensibly progressive events can get away with discriminator policies based so blatantly on recycled biological determinism” (110). Unfortunately, many women's groups feel this way, and exclude based on fear and/or ignorance. The Transexual Menace started a Camp Trans as a result, and set up tents along side the music festival to educate people on transexuality. Finally the transexual women are escorted into the music festival, making their point of being included. “The Gay Games Controversy” discusses the controversy at the 1994 New York Gay Games, where transsexuals were expected to supply letters from physicians about health status and hormone treatments, and from a therapist confirming on-going therapy and why it would be impossible not to compete in the “birth sex” in the games.
The Transexual Menace came back, objecting to the requirements and offered suggestions for changes. For example, the Gay Games do not screen other participants for health requirements or hormones, so place undue burden on transexual people? It really leads one to wonder why this blatant discrimination still continues. The book is not organized into segments or in some chronological fashion, so it has not been discussed that way. Wilchins utilizes a wry sense of humor and an in your face approach to this book, as seen in her use of language throughout the book. This can be seen in titles of chapters, including: “17 Things You DON'T Say To A Transexual” (but doesn't offer what to say instead for those of us who want to understand), “Why Identity Politics Really, Really Sucks” (how sex (dis)qualifies gender issues and identity ‘experiences', based on the cultural rules), “Our Cunts Are NOT The Same” (a show n' tell about her surgery), “CLICK. Hello?” (the ins-and-outs of getting approval to change legal documents), and “Interview with a Menace (nice synthesis at the end of what to do with what we've read). Some may be put off by this off-beat style, however it does get Wilchins' message across. The humor does not take away the pain presented, nor is it intended to, however, it does offer the reader the attitude of the author which is that of experience with living in our society and coping as best as possible.
Wilchins has also included several items in her book that add flavor to her already interesting repertoire, including photographs, glossary, and chronology of events. The photographs in the book give us faces to attach to the messages and discussions, which is something that we need to see more of. These photographs give us snapshots of what the movement is about: getting the word out that transsexuals are here to stay and deserve the same rights that everyone else has. The pictures also included those of vigils for those who had been murdered or left to die: Brandon Teena, Tyra Hunter, Christian Paige, Deborah Forte, and Chanelle Pickett. The chronology indicates dates of the movement, starting in 1993 with the exclusion incident at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The chronology continues through 1997 with other events, including assaults and murders of transsexuals (and the trials), protests, controversy over the gay games, picketing of conferences and news coverage, etc. The glossary is subversive in expressing Wilchins' attitude, in explaining terms used throughout the book. Some of these terms include: weekend warrior (transpeople who dress up and go out only on the weekends), woodwork (attempt to blend in or pass), t-bird (someone who is attracted to transsexuals, dismissive or affectionate), and TITWB (trapped in the wrong body – a politically incorrect term).
READ MY LIPS offers the GLBT community a different perspective on sexuality, identity politics, and activism, particularly from that of a transexual standpoint. It offers a nice mix of theory into practice. As Wilchins points out in her final chapter, we need a new movement without identities. As Judith Butler suggested, “maybe it's time to stop sacrificing the complexity of our lives at the altar of unified identity, to acknowledge our contradictions and take political action with all of them intact. Unity is a product of encouraging diversity, not of reinforcing its absence.” (199). This provokes us to think about how much we take for granted in our communities, in terms of acceptance and diversity, in how much we tolerate difference and open up to include everyone who doesn't fit into the heterosexist world that we live in.
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