Julia Serano

Outspoken By Julia Serano: The Evolution of a Transgender Feminist

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism & Trans Feminism is Julia Serano’s third full-length book following Whipping Girl (2007) and Excluded (2013). Serano, a writer, activist, and blogger, is one of the foremost thinkers on gender issues and contemporary social justice movements today. She is perhaps best known for the concept of trans-misogyny–the confluence of transphobia and misogyny often experienced by trans feminine-spectrum people–and for popularizing the “cis terminology” (cisgender, cissexism, etc.) that has been useful in articulating differences in experience between those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and those who partially, or fully, do not.

Julia Serano
Outspoken, Serano’s third full-length book, was published November 2016 on her own imprint, Switch Hitter Press.

Unlike Julia Serano’s previous works, which present more unified explorations of trans women’s experiences and trans activism, Outspoken collects approximately a decade of her writings on transgender issues, as well as their intersection with larger queer and feminist concerns. Arranged both chronologically and thematically, the pieces that comprise the collection span from 2002 to the present, and cover a range of genres and topics including Serano’s early slam poems, manifestos, essays and blog posts on trans-misogyny, critiques of pathological “scientific” theories about trans people such as “autogynephilia,” and debates surrounding activism in transgender, queer, and feminist communities.

While Outspoken may not be the best place to start for those completely new to Serano’s work–I would recommend beginning with Whipping Girl or Excluded to first get acquainted with her theories about trans feminism and activism–each piece is accompanied by a short introduction that describes Serano’s intentions and situates the piece within her larger body of work and the history of transgender and feminist activism. Serano is known for her clear prose, well-reasoned arguments, and ability to straddle and unify academic and activist spaces within her writing, and Outspoken is no exception. Both new and returning readers will profit from this collection. Whereas newcomers will receive a thorough introduction to contemporary gender theory and transgender movements, seasoned readers will walk away with a more nuanced understanding of Serano’s life, theories, and the evolution of our society’s understanding of gender and activism over the past decade. Serano also provides a link to an online glossary she created–which she refers to as “a Transgender Glossary of Sorts”–to help readers unpack gender terminology, as well as critically engage with the politics of gendered language.

Though Outspoken often reads as a theoretical and challenging (in the best way possible) work, it is also incredibly intimate and personal. Serano resists the genre of memoir that has historically characterized trans people’s writing and self-representation, yet provides numerous examples of how her personal experiences as a white transsexual* woman, who also identifies as bisexual, impact her theories and perceptions of gender. Many of the pieces in Outspoken simultaneously invite the reader into Serano’s life while critiquing the tendency, often perpetuated by mainstream media, to view trans people’s lives through a lens of voyeurism. Though Outspoken is not a memoir in a literal sense, it presents the making of a visionary writer and activist who has made peace with her identity and has arrived at a nuanced and self-reflective understanding of social justice work that continues to evolve.

Serano’s discussion of activism might be the most useful aspect of Outspoken given our current social and political climate in the United States. Her fearlessness in critiquing and generously examining social justice issues, such as cultural appropriation, the polarizing term “tranny,” activists’ use of language to shift gender norms, and the pros and cons of “identity politics,” from all possible perspectives is applause worthy. She is highly critical not only of arguments leveled against social justice advocates from the outside, but, more importantly, tactics used within activist spaces themselves that are potentially divisive and lead to smaller, less effective movements. The movements that create the most sustained change, Serano suggests, are those which are broadly coalitional and inclusive of multiple forms of “difference.” Thus the call by many feminists scholars and activists for “intersectional” approaches and movements has not yet been fully realized.

And now is the time when such coalitional and intersectional strategies must be mobilized. Though Serano did not assemble Outspoken with a Donald Trump presidency in mind, her work provides necessary tools for navigating this new reality, especially for LGBTQ people. No one in the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ youth, is fooled by Trump’s hollow pandering, namely his mentions of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida. Following Trump’s election, calls to the Trevor Project’s suicide hotline spiked to a four-year high. Despite the legalization of same-gender marriage–which could be targeted for repeal–LGBTQ people still lack full federal equality. There are currently no federal SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) laws that universally protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in all 50 states, and transgender people are certainly the most vulnerable.

Additionally, many health insurance providers do not offer coverage for transgender-related care, and many trans people might be faced with even bleaker options for healthcare if the Affordable Care Act is partially, or fully, repealed. Trump’s election will most likely embolden conservative-leaning states to attempt to pass so-called “bathroom bills” such as North Carolina’s much criticized HB2, which legally mandates trans people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth, not their gender identity. Texas, for example, is in the process of proposing a similar bill, SB6, which, under the guise of protecting cisgender women’s privacy, would ban trans women from women’s bathrooms, but not trans men from men’s bathrooms. This disparity was rationalized by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who explained that “men can defend themselves.” Patrick’s language seemingly frames trans people as deviant predators cis people need protection from in public-private spaces such as bathrooms, not to mention reinforcing stereotypical notions of men as active agents and women as helpless victims. To quote Reverend Dr. William Barber, a North Carolina political leader who has led the charge against HB2, “this is not a bathroom bill, this is a hate bill.” Full details of SB6 are slated to be revealed on January 10th, 2017.

With these challenges in mind, Serano provides readers a map to navigate gender, social justice movements, and the role of the individual within them. Effectively combating the oncoming assaults will take nothing short of a fully-realized coalition of the margins. As Hillary Clinton reminded us throughout her presidential campaign, we truly are “stronger together.” This is a basic truth of political organizing and activism that Serano compels us to consider, and Outspoken reaffirms her as one of our most necessary voices in the continued struggle for (gender) equality and inclusivity.

*Note: While the term “transsexual” is sometimes viewed as contentious or outdated, I use it in reference to Serano in this context, because this is the label she uses to describe herself throughout her body of work. As she explains in her “transgender glossary”: “While I proudly call myself transsexual (and probably will until the day I die), other trans people take issue with the label, either because it originated in medical/psychiatric discourses, or because it has the pesky syllable ‘sex’ in it (even though ‘sex’ in this case clearly refers to physical sex rather than copulation).”

Photo Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen. Check out their work here.