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“Introduction to Transgender Studies” by Ardel Haefele-Thomas: a review

“Introduction to Transgender Studies” by Ardel Haefele-Thomas:
a review by Pauline Park

Harrington Park Press recently found this website and sent me a copy of “Introduction to Transgender Studies” by Ardel Haefele-Thomas with a request that I review the book; I am happy to do so but I cannot say that my feelings about the book are entirely unmixed.

There is certainly much to applaud: this is “the first introductory textbook to the field of transgender (trans) studies,” the author proudly proclaims in the preface and it is indeed something to be proud of to put together the first textbook intended for an undergraduate student audience; and there is a lot of very good material in between the soft covers of this book; but while many of the 461 pages contain useful information, there are also significant errors of fact and interpretation that must be noted in any review of the book.

To begin with, it is worth commending Harrington Park Press for publishing the first textbook of this kind written by a member of the community; Adele Haefele-Thomas identifies as ‘non-binary trans,’ in contrast to so much of the literature of the transgender studies, written by academics who are not identifiably members of the community in any way; clearly, this book is informed by the author’s own personal experience as well as that of other members of the community; and one of the most original elements of the book is the inclusion of short writings by them, coming at the end of each chapter and labeled ‘writings from the community’; the author clearly attempted to reflect the diversity of an exceptionally diverse community. I was also happy to see the range of material in this book, which includes not only the standard definitional material but also chapters on history and the arts, all too often given short shrift in books such as these. Haefele-Thomas argues persuasively for the need for the book, based in good part on the author’s own experience teaching transgender studies at Stanford University, in the LGBT studies department at the City College of San Francisco and in the women’s studies department of Berkeley City College. All of this is to the good, but there are also a number of problems with this book, some large, some small.

I’ll begin at the beginning with “Sex and Gender: Stories and Definitions,” chapter one of the book. Haefele-Thomas makes the odd choice of introducing the term ‘differences of sex development’ on page 4 and then on page 5 writes that ‘DSD’ also stands for ‘disorders of sex development,’ noting that “many people find this term offensive”; why not begin by stating that ‘DSD’ is a controversial term that actually designates ‘disorders’ and then note that it could be used as an abbreviation for ‘differences’ rather than ‘disorders’? While this book is intended as an undergraduate textbook, a sentence or two or a decent footnote would seem to be in order to note how controversial the introduction of the term ‘DSD’ was and still is both within and outside the intersex community as well as the role of Alice Dreger in developing it.

On p. 14, Haefele-Thomas writes, ” The term Two-Spirit should be used only by Indigenous people. Non-Indigenous people who use this term are appropriating a part of Indigenous culture”; taken literally, the author seems to be suggesting that even using the term ‘Two-Spirit’ descriptively of Native Americans is ‘appropriation’ if one is not indigenous oneself; I suspect that Haefele-Thomas means only that non-indigenous people should not use the term ‘two-spirit’ as a term of self-identification; but if so, the author should state that clearly.

A far more serious problem is the author’s discussion of social constructionism vs. biological determinism, where Haefele-Thomas gets into rather deep waters, asking the question, “does etiology matter?” but providing what strikes me as a rather unsatisfactory answer, suggesting a ‘dialectical methodology’ to resolve the differences between the two contending world views, writing, “The synthesis lies in rejecting the interpretation of inherited biological makeup and learned sociocultural performance as oppositional poles on an explanatory continuum, and instead viewing them as components of an intricate dialectic through a complex process of *bidirectional causality*  and yielding widely diverse yet bounded sex and gender manifestations” (p. 120). I really do not know what Haefele-Thomas means by this and I frankly doubt that the author knows. Biological determinism and social constructionism are inherently incompatible discursive formations and Haefele-Thomas seems to fall into congeries of confusions by conflating social constructionist theory — which I would say does not admit of ‘causation’ at all — with ‘social’ or ‘environmental’ causes of gender identity. It is one thing to assert the rather conventional ‘compromise’ notion that biological and/or genetic factors interact with social and environmental ones to shape identities; it is quite another to conflate social causes of identity and behavior with social construction theory, which would see biological determinism as a problematic discourse precisely *because* of its focus on etiology (the ’cause’ or ’causes’ of transgender identity); conversely, no biological determinist would ever admit to the social construction of identity (transgender or otherwise) because accepting such a notion would mean rejecting biological determinism altogether. We find ourselves in deep waters indeed at the end of chapter three and I wonder if Haefele-Thomas would have done better to avoid the topic altogether or simply to describe the two competing perspectives; what the author might have done was to focus on competing ‘essentialist’ vs. ‘social constructionist’ world views with regard to sexuality and gender rather than trying to synthesize the contradictory and incompatible approaches of biological determinism and social construction theory.

Unfortunately, the problems with this book do not end with chapter three; in chapter four, Haefele-Thomas offers a potted history of transgender activism while making some serious factual errors in describing the campaign for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act and Sylvia Rivera’s role in the attempt to get the pending legislation revised to include gender identity and expression (pp. 149-150). Here, I speak from direct personal experience, having been involved with that effort; in fact, unlike Sylvia Rivera, I participated in the one and only meeting with the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly (Steve Kaufman, openly gay chief of staff to Assembly Member Steven Sanders); the author’s description of Sylvia Rivera’s role in this drama gives the impression that Sylvia Rivera’s deathbed plea for transgender inclusion in the bill played a significant role in that history, but it did not; by the time she made that plea, the cake had already been baked; the description of the affair that Haefele-Thomas offers makes for a good story but it is not an accurate description of the history of that legislation, specifically of the final act in that drama; should Haefele-Thomas revise this book for a second edition, I would be more than happy to provide the author with the direct observation of a participant in that legislative history. Haefele-Thomas also goes off course in the author’s description of the history of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), writing that “Fearing that the bill would not pass with transgender inclusion, the sponsors dropped gender identity from the bill” (p. 150). Once again, I can speak from direct personal experience in the history of this legislation, having participated in the formation of the ‘United ENDA’ coalition of hundreds of national, state and local organizations advocating for transgender inclusion in the bill. Barney Frank certainly opposed transgender inclusion in ENDA for years, but he eventually capitulated and agreed to introduce the gender identity-inclusive version of ENDA in April 2007; the crucial moment came when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled the inclusive version in September 2007 and instead introduced the ‘gay only’ version without consulting any LGBT organization other than the Human Rights Campaign (HRC); and it was clear to me that the reason for that decision was so that Republicans would not have the excuse of voting against ENDA because it was transgender-inclusive; Pelosi wanted a sexual orientation-only version of ENDA to use as a stick to beat Republicans over the head with in the upcoming 2008 Congressional elections but did not count on the enormous backlash from the LGBT community, which for the first time rose up as one to denounce the perfidy and insist on the inclusive version of the bill. As with SONDA, I would be more than happy to speak with Haefele-Thomas about ENDA should the author revise this book for a second edition; it seems to me inarguable that any book — a textbook for undergraduates just as much as a peer-reviewed article for a scholarly journal or a university press-published book — should get the facts right when telling the history of any community and especially a marginalized community such as this one.

Unfortunately, the subchapter on SONDA and ENDA is not the only place where Haefele-Thomas gets the history wrong; the author also makes some serious mistakes with regard to the Chevalier/Chevalière d’Éon and Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), two figures whom I have blogged about and thought a good deal about. First, there are some small errors in chapter eight on “Four Historical Figures Who Cross-Dressed”: e.g., one subchapter is entitled, “King Louis XVI Orders Women’s Wear,” when the subchapter refers (correctly) to Louis XV, the king who was sovereign when the Chevalier/Chevalière d’Éon served the French crown.

“From 1777 to 1785, when d’Éon returned to their childhood home in France, the new king *ordered* d’Éon to wear women’s clothes,” writes Haefele-Thomas (p. 281) Gary Kates, who literally wrote the book on d’Éon (“Monsieur d’Éon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade,” 1985), says that Louis XV told d’Éon that he could be a man or a woman but not both — a far more interesting injunction to the Chevalier and an observation by Kates based on extensive research of original documents from the period. Haefele-Thomas also suggests that d’Éon might have been intersexed, but Kates does not and there is no evidence to support that notion. It is almost certainly true that d’Éon was the first person in post-Roman European history whom we might call ‘openly transgendered,’ but Haefele-Thomas seems too intent on turning d’Éon into a ‘transgender warrior’ (to use the term that Leslie Feinberg made the title of a book about figures I would call ‘proto-transgenderal’) to understand d’Éon as s/he might have understood her/himself, unlike Kates, who goes to great lengths to understand d’Éon’s self-conception as well as to engage in a thoughtful critique of it; as I read his book, Kates believed that d’Éon was anatomically male from birth to death and that s/he created a substantially fictional story about being female but being raised as a boy to satisfy his/her father’s desire for a son in order to explain him/herself to the world after his/her ‘transition’ (what today would be called a ‘social’ transition, given the unavailability of modern sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in 18th century France; the Chevalière’s Roman Catholic piety in later life has to be understood in that context.

As jumbled and confused as the subchapter on the Chevalier/Chevalière d’Éon is, unfortunately, the subchapter on Jeanne d’Arc is worse. Haefele-Thomas cites Leslie Feinberg’s 1996 book (Leslie Feinberg, “Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Ru Paul.” Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) in the bibliography to chapter 10 and unfortunately, Haefele-Thomas follows Feinberg in labeling la Pucelle ‘trans,’ referring to Joan as  “a trans religious figure” (p. 358), though of course Joan herself could not possibly have identified as ‘trans,’ given that no one in 15th century France used that term; nor is there any evidence that Joan identified as a man. “Ultimately, the judges sentenced her to death because of her refusal to dress in women’s clothes and act in ways they thought women should act,” Haefele-Thomas writes (p. 359); but as I have written elsewhere on this site, such a notion is a complete misunderstanding of Jeanne d’Arc (“Joan of Arc & the sues & misuses of history: LGBT queer historiography,” 18 December 2017).

In 15th century France, it was usual for warriors on horseback to wear armor; while it is true that those warriors were invariably male, it simply is not correct to describe armor as ‘men’s clothes’; in fact, armor is not ‘clothing’ in any ordinary sense, but rather equipment appropriate for the profession of a warrior. There is no evidence that Joan wore men’s clothes (as they would have been understood in her day) off the battlefield; nor would she have worn armor off the battlefield, as no one wore armor off the battlefield (except in jousts or similar tournaments), as it was incredibly heavy and terribly restrictive. The court that condemned Joan to death was a ‘kangaroo court’ convened by the English to condemn her to death; understood in the context of the time, the charges related to wearing armor were more of a pretext than the real reason for her being burnt at the stake; the central reason for her execution by the English was her military leadership of the enemy French forces — and to describe Joan of Arc as ‘trans’ as both Feinberg and Haefele-Thomas do is to use history for contemporary political purposes.

Haefele-Thomas falls into the same trap of essentializing of identity and identity politics as Feinberg, characterizing the young Frenchwoman from Domrémy as if there were no significant differences in the social construction of (trans)gender identity in France in 1430 or in New York City in 1969 or 2010, for that matter; the “Transgender Warriors” approach to history that both pursue with regard to Jeanne d’Arc takes her entirely out of historical context — and in the process produces rather bizarrely ironic discursive practices, constructing a transgender hero out of a woman who in contemporary France is beloved by the far right as the very epitome of French nationalism. But such is the danger of writing transgender history to advance a contemporary political agenda.

These issues notwithstanding, this “Introduction to Transgender Studies” is a significant contribution to the curriculum of LGBT Studies and I would be happy to work with Ardel Haefele-Thomas on addressing the issues laid out here should the author and publisher think my assistance would be helpful in that regard.

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