In the days of my youth, after I first heard of the existence of transgender people via the popular media, I went to my local library in an attempt to find more information. I spent long days buried in dusty card catalogs and primitive microfiche machines, focusing heavily on entries between “transportation” and “transvaal” for anything that spoke to me.
At that time, there really was little even in the biggest libraries, and the small community library that lay two blocks from my home simply did not carry anything of the sort. There wasn’t much of anything there.
At the time, the majority of texts you might find out there were slim, and mostly focused on autobiographies. First and foremost was The Christine Jorgensen Story, followed up by Jan Morris’ Conundrum and Renee Richards’ Second Serve. It wouldn’t be until I was well into my 20s before I would even see a copy of these books.
These books, naturally, focused on the experiences of their subjects. While the Jorgensen book is a classic, the Richards’ book is much less of one. All three tell – by design – a limited narrative based around the author’s own experiences. They tell their readers their histories, but they don’t necessarily tell their readers where to find resources or information beyond what little the author provided.
What I really wanted was a tome that could tell me more about my experiences and me. I was seeking a book that could give me resources and information to prepare me for living my life as a transgender woman. That book was simply not in existence.
It was still some time before I could locate a fairly local support group and other resources. There was no Internet at the time, no “search engine” with which I could readily find nearby resources. In my neighborhood, you found ads for the local trans support groups in the back pages of the “Swinging Singles” rags sold in the seedier parts of town.
Between then and now, the transgender community has blossomed. The rise of the aforementioned Internet allowed people from across the country to quickly and easily network with each other. Transgender people began to organize, began to reach out in new ways, and began to work with larger LBGT groups for inclusion. Support groups grew up. Popular culture still lagged behind, but even that began to slowly shift.
More books came out. Ground was broken with texts like Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, Loren Cameron’s Body Alchemy, and Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors, amongst others started the trend. It continues with Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There. Still, even with those great, powerful texts, one thing remained lacking. There was no single, solid compendium of resources.
That changes now.
The other day, a sizable box appeared on my doorstep. In it, was a thick, softbound tome containing nearly 650 pages of detailed information about being trans. The book in question is Trans Bodies, Trans Selves edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth and published by Oxford University Press.
The groundbreaking feminist-created tome Our Bodies, Ourselves inspired the book. That text, published in 1971, was the first text on women’s health written by women and for women. Borrowing that notion, this book is truly written by transgender people, and designed for transgender people. It is not a book written by neither a non-transgender medical professional nor an academic, but speaks directly to its transgender peers.
It also provides a wide variety of voices: rather than suffer from the unavoidable self-focus of an autobiography, it provides space for a great variety of transgender people to share their knowledge and their experiences.
I mentioned the thickness of the book above, and there is very little wasted space in those pages. Designed to encourage people to flip through and read at their leisure, the book includes sections titled “who we are,” “living as ourselves,” “health and wellness,” “our relationships and families,” “life stages,” and “claiming our power.” Each section is further broken down into a handful of subsections, and further peppered with boxed sections written by transfolks who speak well to the sections in question.
This is the book I wanted to find when I was that young kid prowling the local library branch. It was the text I could never find, but always wanted to. This book would have made my own transition that much easier, and would have given me a sense of community that I simply could not find near me.
That said, I want to tell you that this book also teaches me today. It touches on topics I’ve never seen put in print, and talks about them in ways that are honest and refreshing. I don’t feel “talked down” to or patronized by the writers or editor. Each section is, in my opinion, pure gold.
I think of how much has chanced for the transgender community since my days in the library stacks, let alone when I was managing the earliest days of my transition. The community has dramatically changed since then.
I have to assume that the next decade or two will be equally transformative. I lack a reliable crystal ball, but I suspect we will continue to embrace new mediums, and continue to grow and mature as a community.
This book, though, I feel may be a large component of our community as it goes forward. I want to see this text continue to evolve like its feminist counterpart – and I want to see it in our libraries and support groups for decades to come. It may be a key to our very future.
By Gwen Smith