Juno Roche concludes their latest book, Trans Power, with a discussion of trans children. They cite an example of the type of news story receiving frequent and controversial coverage these days: young children who wish to “change genders”. At a time when the question of whether to allow children and youth access to hormones and puberty-blockers dominates headlines in places like the US and UK, Roche points out it is, as always, the children that offer hope.
“Thank fuck,” they write, seeing the bright side to an otherwise sensationalized story. “Thank fuck that we are finally beginning to realize that we control and own gender rather than it controlling and owning us… thank fuck that we, or more specifically the younger trans we, are taking gender by the scruff and refusing to be enthralled and captured by it in a submissive lifelong struggle to fit into its prescriptive and punishing remit.”
“The [news] story felt like a day to celebrate, and celebrate we must because the train has already left the station and it’s not going back in the shed.”
Roche turns the story on its head, pointing out that however badly it’s been sensationalized, the broader message this sort of story reflects is that a more fluid and open understanding of gender is finally beginning to permeate the broader society. As increasing numbers of children grow up with a more flexible understanding of gender, they are demanding, quite sensibly, the right to exert greater control over their own gender identities and expressions.
It has of course been a long and difficult road to advance society to this stage, and Roche, who made a name with their previous work, Queer Sex, continues to occupy an important critical and radical position on the topic. Their latest book, Trans Power: Own Your Gender, is neither a historical survey nor even policy-minded, so readers should not come looking for basic explanations of trans issues or coming out stories. The conversations in this collection are more advanced yet equally urgent.
Framed as a collection of interviews, Roche argues compellingly that even trans advocates need to remain open and flexible in their understanding of gender, and avoid falling into the binary traps which still lurk everywhere, even within the trans rights movement. Above all, Roche argues for the embrace of trans as an identity category of its own, offering a powerful paean to the beauty and sufficiency of trans bodies and identities. Not everyone wants to identify and be identified along the traditional gender binary, and “the word ‘trans,’ as a destination, has the capacity to truly shake the patriarchal structures to the ground.”
“Transness really is new space. Transness is uncontrolled and uncontrollable by patriarchy…Trans is beautiful,” they write.
Hand in Water by TheDigital Artist (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
It’s an innovative approach – a sort of manifesto couched in the form of an interview collection. When Roche sits down with their more well-known subjects – Kate Bornstein, for instance, and their partner Barbara Carrellas – Roche avoids insipid questions about their lives and the history of the movement (although fascinating biographical and historical details inevitably emerge through the discussion). Instead, they dive straight into more complex issues, and draw their interviewees into advanced and provocative conversations about what it means to be trans and what sort of tensions emerge between one’s personal and constantly shifting sense of self, and the types of fixed, binary identities that traditionalists are so obsessed with imposing on everyone.
Roche opens with a deeply introspective essay, interrogating their own feelings about surgery, binary gender identities, and the intersection of the two. The essay, like their interviews, is uninhibited in both language and detail; an intimate interrogation of body and self. What does it mean for a trans woman assigned male at birth to call an “upcycled” set of genitalia a ‘vagina’? Words are important – and for many, recognizing that it is a vagina is important.
For others, however, it seems a misnomer, as it implies a certain essentialism rooted in a binary set of gender identities, female and male. What if one wishes to acknowledge and even praise one’s genitals as a new, creative expression not of conventional femininity but rather of one’s own transness? Is there space for both of these conceptions (and others too) to co-exist in a society that is so used to either/or; white and black; female and male?
“I struggled to hold onto the word ‘woman’ as I lined up with every other trans person in the ever-increasing line for surgery,” they write. “But…I have to give those words ‘woman’, ‘real’ and ‘vagina,’ away…Those words for me and my body don’t fit or feel appropriate anymore. I don’t feel connected in any constructive way to the set gender binaries. I want to detach what little binary memory or actuality remains, not reattach it, through my transition, to the other side. I want only to be known as trans; not woman, not man. Woman or man, for me, muddies my transness. Femme or masculine muddies my transness.”
Hence the book’s title – Trans Power.”
Trans is empowerment and autonomy – inhabiting my frame and my frames of reference,” they write. “I have no desire to achieve an acceptable ‘binary-balance’ for the world to be able to pigeon hole me as a ‘trans woman who looks and acts woman enough to be allowed in.'”
Trans Power is a manifesto for just that: a celebration of trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own; a vibrant open space in which people are free to explore and design their own gender expression, and to change that expression when and as necessary. It’s a destination that is in a state of constant becoming; a journey whose voyage is its own end.
Importantly, Roche recognizes that not all trans folk might feel the same way. Embracing everyone’s right to adhere to an identity and expression of their own choosing – and most importantly, their right to change it when they so desire – is fundamental to this broader understanding of trans.
It’s sadly ironic that transphobes trumpet the example of people who ‘regret’ their transition (minuscule number though they are) as some sort of proof that trans rights should be curtailed. If anything, those cases are an example of precisely why expansive trans rights are necessary: imprisoning people in a gender binary simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for cis people and it doesn’t always work for trans people either. A world which is more accepting of fluid gender identities is one which would be open and supportive of everyone’s choices, even when those choices change.
Roche’s interview subjects are varied, diverse, and fascinating, and they each further the discussion opened by Roche in their introductory essay. In addition to big-name subjects like Bornstein and Carrellas, they feature a number of lesser-known performance artists, models, drag performers, museum curators, and more. Their interview with Tyler and Fiona explores trans identity in the context of disability, interrogating the role that ‘being seen’ plays in transition, as well as the parallel vulnerabilities involved in negotiating a relationship and negotiating gender identity.
Their interview with Museum of Transology curator E-J Scott explores important aspects of trans masculinity. Trans masculinity is often erroneously conflated with a desire for hyper-masculinity, a misunderstanding Scott eloquently dispels.
“To think that trans men who identify as men fit into a box of hyper-normativity is to lack vision for the potentiality of transness,” he explains to Roche. “It is actually that we can be an aspirational new model of masculinity that is not toxic… growing what [masculinity] means is what is progressive and exciting about it.”
They discuss the struggle for “surgical parity” and what it says about patriarchy that more work has been put into developing and refining genital surgery for trans women than for trans men. Given that the majority of surgeons are men, what does this say about their concentration on creating “perfect” vaginas, while not applying nearly as much effort on creating “perfect” male genitals?
In Roche’s discussion with Iraqi-British nonbinary drag performer and writer Amrou Al-Kadhi, they discuss the experience of gender socialization in non-western cultures, and the fetishization of femme persons of colour. Al-Kadhi’s fluid negotiation of gender expression is troubling to cis white male sexual partners in particular.
Photo: The Gender Spectrum Collection ( GenderPhotosVice.com / Creative Commons)
“As a femme person of colour, my inhabiting any structures of masculinity, which they perceive as their birthright, quite literally turns them off,” they observe.
Snapshots hardly do the conversations justice; they’re short but range across complex and challenging terrain. Other interviews explore equally intriguing topics, with a dozen interview subjects in total.
On a literary level, Trans Power also offers a creative and innovative approach to writing memoir. Unlike some interview collections, Roche weaves a great deal of themself into the narrative. The deeply personal introductory essay is a point of departure into the themes Roche raises with their subjects; the interviews are thus incorporated into a broader process of personal exploration. Each interview opens and closes with extensive personal reflection and commentary from Roche. Sometimes these are reflections on things their subjects said, but often they are seemingly unrelated. Sometimes the conversations trigger traumatic personal memories; sometimes they fill Roche with hope and help them deal with challenges they didn’t know they faced.
In the process, the reader learns a lot about Roche themself: their process to and beyond transition; their experience as someone living with HIV; their experience as a sex worker. They offer glimpses of their past struggles with drugs, and share their experience of sexual assault as a teenager. Roche is, in essence, the 13th subject of the book, and their copious personal commentary constitutes a form of interview with the self. It’s an innovative way to write, and they pull it off superbly. The reader emerges from the book feeling a close and intimate connection with the author, evocative of taking a deeply intense journey together. The book, which starts off by throwing out an array of difficult, painful reconciliations and unfulfilled desires, gradually works through them and concludes with a sense of joyous celebration and pride in one’s transness. It’s a journey well worth taking.
The Practical Consequences of Weighty Ideas
Important as they are, it’s difficult to engage in these kinds of conversations because necessarily complex and advanced ideas about gender get so quickly and easily appropriated by those seeking to constrain and curtail trans rights. This makes books such as Trans Power all the more essential, in that they ensure the movement for trans and gender rights doesn’t settle into a restrictive complacency, as the price of an uneasy compromise with the binary status-quo. That Roche undertakes the attempt is courageous enough; that they succeed so well in navigating this difficult and complex terrain a testament both to their willingness to share their process of personal and intimate introspection, as well as their ability to convey complicated ideas to a broad audience.
Roche’s writing often sounds theoretical, but there are deep practical implications. The profoundly entrenched gender binary continues to shape medical access to hormones, surgery, and other resources that are so crucial to many in pursuing gender-affirming medical treatment. At present, access to these things is rooted in permitting, under carefully controlled circumstances, certain people who meet specific criteria to pursue a realignment of their bodies along the gender binary: the basic concept of ‘male to female’ or ‘female to male’, guided by a set of institutionalized norms.
For some, that works. For growing numbers of others, it does not. Instead, they would prefer to dwell along various other points of the gender spectrum, of their own choosing. They want to be more selective in choosing which elements of gender expression they adopt, and which medical options they access. They want to express their choices in terms and language of their own choosing, not those of the binary that has already caused so much harm.
“I am not placing fault with the medical structures that support gender realignment, because they exist within the same patriarchal and sexist confines and context,” Roche writes. “But one of the most common things I hear now is genderqueer, nonbinary and gender fluid people worrying if the current system of gender therapy and realignment will take them seriously and listen to them if they don’t want to take a binary pathway: if they don’t have an A and a B in their lives.
“There’s real fear that they will either not be taken seriously, or that they will have to adapt their desires to fit a binary pathway. This doesn’t mean the system is broken, rather that the system needs to be reviewed alongside our contemporary notions of womanhood, feminism, masculinity and toxicity… We have to allow for shades of grey, and rather than just asking if people feel like a woman or feel like a man, let’s encourage people to describe how they feel, then hear them and trust them.”
It sounds so simple, and indeed it should be. But as always, the expansion of freedom and rights for some is perceived as a loss by those who benefit from the existing system. Emancipation – which should be a good and beautiful thing – is perceived as a threat by those who experience privilege, even imperfect and constrained privilege, within the flawed status quo. In the present moment, this includes of course men who benefit from the patriarchy and the rigid policing of its gender binaries.
But it also includes, sadly, some women who consider themselves feminists (the so-called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs), who have surrendered their feminism in a sort of devil’s bargain with the far right, and campaign vociferously against trans rights. These activists are causing real harm, and inflicting sustained violence on women and young children by seeking to prevent access to hormones and puberty-blockers for youth; by lobbying against recognition of the innate personhood of trans people; and by seeking enforcement of the institutionalized medicalized binary pathway to treatment for adults.
“There is of course a horrible kickback, a spiteful and often violent kickback, a set of people determined for the world to remain exactly as they see fit because the narrowness of the bandwidth works for them: a white cis male and some white cis female bandwidth,” Roche writes.
“The gender binary doesn’t even really work for those people attacking us now from their binary perches. They seek to use gender to harm others and control others. If the gender binary worked so well for them, they wouldn’t be attacking us as they’d feel safe and secure, nestled in the arms of the gender binary.”
It’s a critical point, which Roche emphasizes in their conclusion. For those who feel unsettled or afraid at the idea of other people’s freedom, this says more about their own fragmented and unexplored sense of identity than it does about any threat to society.
“This isn’t a minority trying to enforce their ideas onto the majority but it is a minority saying that gender doesn’t really work for anybody, not in this way, not in the way we are held prisoners to gender, like Stockholm captives en-masse born into gender slavery, on both sides,” writes Roche. “Look at the suicide rates for young cis men trying to be young cis men. The gender binary is a broken, harmful construct being kept alive by a few people who feel without it they won’t exist and a few people for whom it works day in and day out by allowing them unfettered access to power and privilege.”
Trans Power is a fascinating collection of interviews, but more importantly it is a passionate, provocative, and stirring manifesto for a radically emancipated understanding of gender and one’s right to inhabit whatever position one desires on the gender canvas, or to create one’s own. “Gender should feel like a gift to grow into at our own pace, with reconfiguration if desired,” Roche writes.
Young gender questioning people are realizing that, Roche observes in their conclusion, and as difficult as the struggle has been, in this Roche finds cause for celebration and hope. Young children identifying as trans is neither a simple fashion trend nor sign of immaturity.
“The empowerment and autonomy we see in young trans folk who wish to express their gender any way they choose is testament to the loosening of gender demands and expectations that we have all collaborated to change over these past years,” they write. “Perhaps we all need to calm down and recognise that young people questioning their gender is the perfect outcome to feminism…”