In the past two decades, the word “transgender” has found a place in our everyday lexicon, featuring in headlines, TV shows, books, movies, and conversations in a wide variety of spaces. Yet, even as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have become household names, trans people continue to navigate a society where a common understanding of what transgender really means — what it is to be trans, to change one’s name or pronouns, or to undergo a physical transition — is not yet a given. This is true for trans men in particular, who have fewer public models of transmasculine identity. That’s why I was so excited to read Arlene Stein’s recent study of transmasculine identity and experience, Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity, and even more excited for the chance to speak with her about her experience writing the book.
R.E.: At the beginning of the book, you describe a few encounters and conversations with friends that got you curious about the experience of transgender men, and especially the phenomenon of top surgery. Why do you suppose the transgender experience holds such interest and importance even for those, like yourself, outside the transgender community? Why was it so important for you to answer that curiosity, and to share the answer with the world?
Arlene: I have taught the sociology of gender and sexuality for 25 years, publishing books about lesbian identities and religious conservative campaigns against homosexuality, among other topics. And I’ve been an activist. Like many feminists of my generation, I assumed that feminism made it easier for people to live in whatever bodies they had inherited, to dress as they pleased, for women to play team sports, and to pursue varied careers. Why, I wondered, would one need to alter one’s body to live as a particular gender? Transgender people were peripheral to my world, and to the gay and lesbian movements in which I came of age. But during the past ten or so years, the trans movement had become impossible to ignore. I owed it to my students — and to myself — to get up to speed.
And then a friend of mine accompanied a friend of hers to a plastic surgery clinic in Florida and told me about the long line of younger female-assigned individuals she saw there. They were undergoing chest masculinization (“top”) surgery, many of them as part of gender transitions. Who were they, I wondered? What were they seeking? And I had big questions, too: How can we account for the extraordinary rise of transgender visibility? What is the relationship of trans to the LGB movement and to the project of sexual liberation that was so central to my generation? How do transgender men construct a sense of masculinity? Listening to the stories of young transgender men and transmasculine individuals who were seeking out top surgery seemed like a place to start.
R.E.: When you wrote the book, what kinds of readers did you hope would pick it off the shelf?
Arlene: I wrote Unbound primarily for people who have an interest in the new conversations about gender that are cropping up, but who don’t really have access to them. Perhaps they are curious and, at times, confused about the dazzling changes afoot. Some may have family or friends who are contemplating gender transitions, or have already transitioned. Often when I write, I have a few people in my head, an imagined audience. For this book, they were the parents of one of my subjects, Ben, a transgender man in Maine, who is a primary character in my book. When I met them, Ben’s parents were grappling with their child’s decision to transition, and searching for ways of understanding him — and the issue in general. I thought if I could address their concerns effectively, and offer a bigger picture analysis of the changes afoot in our gender landscape, that would be a useful contribution. I see myself as a sympathetic observer who can also offer a critical, analytical lens. Of course, I hope that queer and trans people will also read the book and gain something from it too.
R.E.: A major theme in Unbound is the idea of a “medical model” of transgender identity, or the idea that “transgender” is a medical diagnosis that can be treated through medical interventions (e.g. hormone therapy, surgery, etc.). Your study suggests that, at least among some of the trans community, we’re seeing a shift away from medicalized models. What do you think the broader implications of that shift might be?
Arlene: My research began in a medical context, a surgical office, but quickly moved far beyond it. The medical model sees transgender as a condition that needs to be addressed — and cured. It locates gender within individual bodies. As a lesbian feminist who came of age during the 1980s, and as a sociologist, I know that gender is also enacted in social contexts: in the family, on the playground, in the workplace. It’s not simply an individual matter. When I started my research, I was ambivalent about the role of medical professionals [in transgender issues]. I was highly critical of the role that medical experts played in pathologizing benign social variations such as homosexuality. It wasn’t until 1973, after all, that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.
And yet I had to acknowledge that many transgender people want nothing more than to access body modifications — cross-gender hormones, plastic surgery. What is so interesting is that a younger generation of transgender folks are accessing medical technologies and at the same time challenging one of the core assumptions of the medical model: that the world is divided into men and women. They are asserting their right to access medical technologies on their own terms.
So while I followed people who were engaged in the act of masculinizing their chests on one random day, what I found is that younger transgender men have varied understandings of what they’re trying to accomplish through that procedure.
R.E.: You take time in the book to consider the experiences not just of binary trans men, but of people who could be called “transmasculine” without necessarily being men. Can you speak to that decision as a sociologist and writer — why are those stories important to include in this conversation, and how do they shape your understanding of the transmasculine experience?
Arlene: I did not know who I would meet in that surgeon’s office that day. To my surprise (and delight) I encountered such a broad range of experience — even in that small sample. Of the four individuals having surgery the day I visited, one person identifies as a man (Parker), another (Ben) as a transgender man (that is, he wanted to disclose his history wherever possible), and a third (Lucas) identifies as a genderqueer transman. The fourth person I followed, Nadia, is a butch lesbian who continues to identify as female — a masculine female. She wants to assert her right to live as a female without breasts.
Even though three out of the four were undergoing gender transitions, they complicated the assumption that transitioning means migrating from one clearly-defined gender to another. They seem to understand that they must be legible to others as a particular gender in order to live in the world. And yet, in talking to them, one finds something much more complicated. Many see gender as a continuum, rather than a binary.
R.E.: Another perspective that you give a great deal of space to in the book is the experience of the friends and, especially, families, of transgender men. Why are these voices important to hear?
Arlene: The popular image of transgender people was consolidated in the era of “transsexualism,” when the medical establishment imposed strict protocols for those wishing to modify their bodies. Those images, which date from the 1950s and 60s, tended to see trans people as solitary individuals who undergo body modifications alone, who live fairly lonely lives. There’s some truth to these stereotypes: in an earlier era, when the stigma against “changing sex” was so strong, it was very difficult to be openly trans. Individuals were often forced to go underground, changing their identities post-transition, and trying their best not to disclose their pasts.
Stigma still exists, of course, but it is fading to some extent. Many younger trans people are demanding the right to change their bodies and to remain connected to their friends, families, and communities. They showed me that when someone undergoes a transition, parents and friends also transition too, in a way. They must refashion their relationship to the person transitioning. Frequently, they’re also led to question commonsense understandings of what makes a man a man, or a woman a woman. Because transitioning is never something which is done alone, I wanted to include the voices of parents, friends, significant others, therapists, and also medical professionals.
R.E.: Towards the end of the book, you speak of a generational divide in our understandings of gender. Why do different generations feel so differently about gender? How do you suppose changing understandings of gender will play out in the material world?
Arlene: My generation of second-wave feminists idealized women and also wanted to minimize the differences between men and women. We argued for gender equality, embraced androgynous styles, and made it fun and sexy to be lesbian. We tried to tamp down gender differences. Today’s younger generation, in contrast, is claiming gender as a source of personal meaning and as a key aspect of identity. Rather than tamping down gender differences, it says: let a thousand genders bloom. And they’re willing to make use of body modification technologies in the service of gender self-expression. It’s a bit mind-boggling to some of us in the older generation. It’s fascinating, too, as I found out in the course of researching this book. Many of us are trying to play catch-up. I hope that my book plays a role in helping general audiences understand the brave new world of gender politics.