Tuesday, July 31, 2012

booknotes: just-before-august round-up

As we reach the end of July it's time for another catch-all post of mini-reviews for books I've read but haven't had time to substantively review. CrowGirl and I are busy with life in the upcoming months of August and September (among other things getting married and going on our honeymoon) so anticipate light posting around here until October.

Virgins: A Novel | Caryl Rivers (St. Martin's 1984; 2012). Rivers' novel about Catholic High School seniors coming-of-age in the 1970s is being re-issued this fall as an e-book; I received an advance review copy and read it on a sweltering afternoon earlier this month. It was a quick and satisfying beach (or in this case bathtub) read, and reminded me of nothing so much as the film Saved! -- though obviously with a different set of historio-cultural references. The characters are Catholic, not Protestant Evangelical, and no one gets knocked up by their gay friend while trying to turn him straight. Instead we have the earnest Catholic-college-bound Peggy, her boyfriend Sean (bound for the priesthood), and Peggy's looking-for-trouble Constance Marie ("Con"). Since I've started writing smut I'm more intentionally interested in how sex scenes play out in novels -- and I will say (mild spoilers!) I was pleasantly surprised by the positive and tender nature of what we're calling these days "sexual debut"; both Sean and Peggy are enthusiastic participants and neither appear to regret their decision -- nor attempt to bookend it with marriage. It's always heartening to see teen sex (or, you know, any sex really) portrayed in positive yet realistic ways.

The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousnesses and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice | M.G. Lord (Walker & Co., 2012). I picked up a $1 advance review copy of Lord's brief biography of Taylor at Brattle Book Shop after hearing an author interview on the RhRealityCheck podcast. I was particularly intrigued, listening to the interview, by Lord's description of the Production Code Administration and how Taylor's films were often a process of push-and-pull with the authorities over themes of gender non-conformity, defiance of religion, homosexuality, abortion, etc. Unfortunately, The Accidental Feminist spends less time on the evidence of censorship, revision, and defiance that can be mined in the archives and the films themselves -- and more trying to convince us, on precious little evidence, that Taylor herself was a driving force in ensuring "feminist" readings of the characters she portrayed on screen. While a fresh examination of Taylor's career may be in order, I felt throughout that Lord was over-egging the cake and that her case could have been strengthened -- or at least clarified -- by more attention to the historical context. Particularly surrounding feminism, in which Taylor came of age and rose to stardom. For example, in Lord's reading of  Giant (1956) she argues that Taylor's character -- the East Coast bride of a Texas rancher -- is somehow more feminist than the rancher's gender-nonconforming spinster sister, in part because Taylor's Leslie is more feminine. Troubling on multiple levels, this analysis ignores the way in which butch single women in cinema during this period were often coded dangerously lesbian, sociopathic, and feminist. To champion Taylor's character in part because of her gender conformity seems distinctly ahistoric as well as not very feminist, at least to my way of thinking! All in all, not recommended if you're looking for a cultural history analysis of the role Taylor and her filmography played in gender debates of the 20th century.

The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996 | Charles Kaiser (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). For some reason, this past month, I found myself reading two of the standard histories of queer life and activism in America -- the first being Kaiser's history of gay New York from WWII through the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Like Marcus' Making Gay History (see below), Gay Metropolis draws heavily on personal reminiscences. I particularly enjoyed the stories told by interviewees who had come of age before gay liberation or organized activism -- men and a few women who recalled falling in love and having same-sex relationships in times and places were those experiences had little political resonance. Though obviously political ramifications if the individuals were caught, arrested, fired, blacklisted, or otherwise discriminated against. Despite the subtitle's claim that this is a history of "gay life in America," it focuses heavily on urban areas and largely on a gay male population that moves through various metropolitan areas on the east coast -- most notably New York City. Taken for what it is, however, this is a highly readable narrative with a number of valuable first person accounts of the social, cultural, and political experiences of gay and lesbian folks in 20th century urban America.

Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights | Eric Marcus (2nd ed.; Perennial, 2002). Originally published in 1992 under the title Making History, this ambitious oral history of gay and lesbian activism since the 1950s draws on over sixty interviews with prominent figures in the movement to tell an on-the-ground narrative of the fight for equal rights from the Mattachine Society to Lambda Legal and ACT UP. These oral histories are heavily edited into gobbets of personal reminiscence interspersed with contextual notes by Marcus. As with any "pure" oral historical narrative, I found myself wishing at times for more analysis. However, these oral histories will be invaluable sources for historians in years to come -- and I devoutly hope that Marcus has taken steps to ensure the unedited versions are secured in a repository somewhere to be accessed and utilized by researchers in perpetuity. His interviewees are both well-known names (Larry Kramer, Randy Shilts, Ann Northrup, Barbara Gittings) and lesser-known individuals whose actions have nonetheless had a profound effect on our understanding of the queer experience and often had a major influence in the political arena. For example Steven Cozza, a teenage Boy Scout who campaigned for the Boy Scouts of America to rescind their policy of excluding non-straight members, or Megan Smith, one of the techies behind PlanetOut -- an early Internet space for queer socializing and activism. I'm glad to have added this volume to my reference library.

(As a side-note, this book is responsible for the only literature-based pick-up I've ever experienced, when a waitress at the restaurant where I was waiting for Hanna saw me reading it and suggested I might enjoy Provincetown's "Girl Splash 2012"; after all the porn I've read on the subway THIS is what inspires the overtures? And they say history isn't sexy.)

Breeders: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers | Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender, eds. (Seal Press, 2001). I was pleasantly surprised by this anthology of essays by mothers about their journey to and through pregnancy and parenting. It contains a diverse mix of voices --a range of ethnicity and class, geographic locations, family shapes, and parenting styles. We get Allison Crews' meditation on teenage motherhood and her decision not to surrender her son for adoption ("When I Was Garbage"), Sarah Manns essay on the path she and her wife took toward adoption ("Real Moms"), and Ayun Halliday's heartbreaking "NeoNatal SweetPotato," scenes from the stay she and her daughter faced postpartum in neonatal intensive care. Stories of parenting in violence-ridden urban slums and yuppie enclaves, stories of parenting on the road and in the backwoods with no plumbing and (gasp!) no email. Stories of upper-middle-class striving and stories of precarious food-stamp subsistence. Every reader will find a few pieces irritation inducing, a few pieces deeply moving. Parenting -- and family life more generally -- is particular: We all make decisions based on resources and circumstance and what we believe is best for both ourselves and families. Because family formation is in the cultural spotlight right now thanks to wrangles over marriage equality, divorce, abortion, evolving gender roles, assisted reproductive technology regulation, etc., our personal decisions are interrogated and judged -- and usually found wanting by someone, somewhere. And in turn, we find ourselves judging the decisions of others. I'd say the strength of Breeders is that it gives us a series of windows into the myriad ways in which pregnancy, birth, and parenting intersected with the lives of women at the turn of the millennium.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

booknotes: america and the pill

Footnote-mining Bodies of Knowledge and The Morning After brought me to Elaine Tyler May's America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (Basic Books, 2010).  May is an historian of mid-twentieth century America family life whose previous work includes a history of childlessness in "the promised land" and the family in Cold War America. Her parents were also, incidentally, involved in the development and early clinical trials of the birth control pill, so her personal history is also intertwined with the story she seeks to tell about Americans and the introduction of hormonal contraceptive pills from the 1950s to the present.

America and the Pill is a highly readable, solidly-researched history of the development, distribution, and use of the birth control pill in America since the fifties. In seven brief chapters (I read the book in an afternoon) May describes the development and testing of the pill, its promotion by politicians and thought leaders interested in population-control, its use by married couples, the pill's role in the sexual revolution, the search for hormonal contraceptives for men, "questioning authority," and public use and perception of the pill today.

Clearly written as an introductory overview, this history begs for further elaboration on a number of points -- for example, the complicated relationship between individual use of birth control and national and international attempts to limit population growth. I would also be interested in a further exploration of how perceptions and use of the pill as a method of birth control relates to concerns about the spread of sexually-transmitted infections. For example, can we see a significant shift in what populations use the pill vs. the condom before and after the advent of AIDS/HIV?

I would also like to see further elaboration on the discourse concerning libido and hormonal birth control, since concerns over low libido remain a primary barrier to developing a male birth control pill, while women's persistent reporting of side-effects of the pill, including lowering of libido, have been glossed over as psychosomatic or unimportant when compared to the goal of limiting population growth. May offers an interesting historical perspective on this issue:
Although today's pill may not suppress libido more than the original oral contraceptive did, women today may well experience the effect of the pill differently. For many in the first generation of pill users, the intense fear of pregnancy diminished women's libido to such an extent that when they went on the pill and that fear disappeared, their sexual pleasure was increased considerably. Today there is no longer the terror of facing an illegal abortion, a ruined reputation, banishment to a home for unwed mothers, or a hasty marriage. ... With so many contraceptive options available to women today, some are unwilling to compromise their sexual pleasure of the convenience of the pill (149). 
While women's sexual pleasure is here understood in tension with their desire to manage their fertility, men's sexual pleasure (even their gender identity) is situated in their ability to procreate -- with no corresponding desire to limit family size. May quotes one medical doctor who in 1970 wrote in the Boston Globe that "generally speaking, a man equates his ability to impregnate a woman with masculinity. And all too often the loss of such ability really deflates his ego" (99). Presumably, many individual men in the 60s and 70s desired to take measures to ensure their partners did not get pregnant -- but while medical personnel and the public at large understood the fear of pregnancy and/or the desire to limit or space pregnancies as a legitimate concern for women, it appears they did not assume the same for men.

I felt at points that May was deliberately writing for a lay audience (that is, an audience of non-historians, or those unfamiliar with the history of twentieth-century medicine). For example, when she describes the clinical trials of the birth control pills which were undertaken without informed consent on populations such as mental patients and prisoners, she is at pains to point out that such trials were standard operating procedure until well into the 1980s when such violations of bodily autonomy and ethical mismanagement became the subject of public debate and regulation. At times, May's efforts to contextualize the clinical trials spills over into what feels like a bit too much post-facto justification. For example, when writing about the trials conducted in rural Puerto Rico in the mid-50s she writes,
The developers of the pill were particularly concerned about its safety. They put in place elaborate precautions to monitor the health of the women who took part in the trials, such as frequent medical exams and lab tests. Study participants in impoverished areas received medical attention vastly superior to what was normally available to them. ... By the standards of the day, the studies were scrupulously conducted (31).
While all of these statements may be factually accurate (and I have no reason to suspect they are not), these passages feel a little too much as if May is trying to forestall protests about how these trials were conducted, protests which -- while not undermining the data collected -- would certainly be legitimate. What sort of pressure were poverty-stricken Puerto Rican women under to participate in the trials, for example, if the healthcare they received as a result was "vastly superior to what was normally available"? Obviously, it's important to understand these medical protocols in the historical context in which they happened, but it feels a little like May is trying to preempt discussion of ethical implications.

These passing editorial moments aside, May has written a great introduction to the historical context of the birth control pill that will be an enjoyable -- and historically robust -- read for anyone interested in the topic of women's and sexual/reproductive health, history of medicine, history of the family, and related fields.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

booknotes: i do, i don't

A few months ago, Hanna found me a copy of I Do, I Don't: Queers on Marriage edited by Greg Wharton and Ian Philips (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2004) on one of the $1 used book carts of which there are so many in Boston.* For obvious reasons, I picked it up a few weeks ago and finally started reading it. Here are a few thoughts.

The usual proviso for anthologies applies here. Some pieces I found illuminating, though-provoking, well-written "keepers." Others I read a paragraph or two of and skimmed to the end, not feeling obligated to spend my time on a piece that was not altogether coherent, or just didn't offer anything I found to be original on the subject to hand. Which is, as the title implies, marriage of the non-heteronormative variety.

Published in 2004, this anthology feels dated. It's weird to say that about a book less than a decade old, but in the landscape of political debate over marriage equality and queer identities, eight years is practically a geologic age. In 2004, Massachusetts was just on the verge of making same-sex marriage legal and Prop 8 was still in the distant future. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was still in effect, and with George W. Bush' in the White House the DOJ was still enforcing DOMA and the idea of a president coming out in support of my right to marry my ladylove was laughable (or would have been, if I'd had a ladylove to contemplate marry yet!). Suffice to say, readers will find some of the language and pressing debates herein slightly stale on the tongue.

At the same time, personal narratives of courtship, partnership, love and hate, household dissolution, and the process of decision-making when one's personal choices have been highly politicized don't entirely lose their timeliness. In I Do, I Don't contributors argue for their own marriages, and for the right of their friends to marry (despite the fact the author eschews the act themselves), or make passionate pleas for queers everywhere to "just say no" to marriage as an institution, to turn their attentions (our attentions) elsewhere. Marriage, in this volume is an object of desire, of derision, a practical decision, a romantic undertaking, a bid for the mainstream, a leap into the radical unknown. Don't come to reading this book expecting an agenda in the singular: queer folk, like any other class of people, are a heterogeneous lot and herding us is like herding proverbial cats. If we ever did get our act together to have an agenda, I doubt we'd ever agree how to act on it!

Definitely a volume worth checking out if you find it cheap and/or at your local library. I'm particularly interested in comparing its contents to that of Here Come the Brides! (2012) which I currently have on hold at the public library.After I read it, I'll let you know how the conversation has shifted since 2004.

UPDATE: My review of Here Come the Brides! can be found here.
*I'll say it before and I'll say it again: $1 books are 90% responsible for the overflowing state of our bookshelves because, seriously, so many books can be justified with, "pfft! for a dollar ...!"

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

booknotes: transitions of the heart

Last week I picked up a copy of Rachel Pepper'sTransitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children (Cleis Press, 2012). The anthology collects personal essays by mothers whose children identify somewhere within the trans/genderqueer spectrum. I was pleased to see the volume at our local library (Brookline Public), and after posting about it at Twitter a colleague of my father's back in West Michigan actually went and looked for it at the public library in my hometown -- and found it! (Yet another reason that Herrick District Library continues to be awesome.) It's heartening to see how trans issues resources are making their way into mainstream spaces.

Transitions is a moving collection of very personal stories, and I hesitate to reduce the nuances of each to general themes. One of the strengths of the anthology is, in fact, the diversity of stories. Mothers from across the United States (and a few from Britain) describe the fears and joys of parenting a trans child, whether that child is transitioning on the eve of retirement or just entering kindergarten. Families are Euro-American, African-American, Latin-American and Asian-American. Families are queer, single parent- or blended-family homes, as well as your husband-wife-kids prototype. There are urban professionals and rural hippies, Bible-thumping Baptists and Jewish-Italians. Generational themes emerge that are in line with what the authors of The Lives of Transgender People observe: that the experience of trans folks who came of age in the 70s or 80s, and even the 90s, is markedly different and often more agonizingly isolated than for youth of later generations. Parents or earlier generations also look back wishing they had had more support through their child's transition, more resources to help them navigate. Understanding therapists and parental support networks (both on and offline) emerge as much-needed lifelines throughout these contributions.

I was struck by the number of mothers who articulated a sense of grief and loss for the child they thought they knew (the daughter they "lost" in order to gain a son, or the son who "died" in order to give birth to a daughter). Grief is often a component of change, and all of us (trans or not) "lose" our earlier selves in some measure as we grow older. My own mother has articulated the sense of loss for certain stages of our development as we aged -- though that loss was always accompanied by the joy of new discovery and expressions of selfhood. Tracie Stratton articulates well the bewilderment of grief that accompanies many mothers' reactions to a child's assertion of transness: "I did have moments of really missing my daughter Isabelle, who in reality was never there ... How could I miss a little girl who was never a little girl?" (115).

I keep writing "parents" as I type this review, and then having to go back and replace the word with the more precise "mothers" -- because fathers are a strikingly absent voice in this anthology. While the anthology is framed as one for mothers' stories, I couldn't help but wonder about that choice. It seems to reinforce the assumption that mothers are the primary managers of their children's well-being and the ones with the primary emotional investment in their growth. The fathers who emerge in these narratives are most often anxious and angry (though a few very supportive spouses can be glimpsed between the lines). It is often the fathers who resist cross-dressing or cross-gender play, particularly in their sons, and a few mothers even wrote about fear of losing custody of their child due to an ex who was unsympathetic to gender variance and accused the mother of child maltreatment.

One final theme I noticed in Transitions was the persistence with which mothers located knowledge of transness in gender atypical behavior and play. For example, the desire of a child assigned male at birth to dress in pink sparkly clothes, or a child assigned female at birth who was inconsolable at her first period. Some mothers tried hard to separate gendered behavior from innate sense of self, reassuring sons that they could like the color pink or play with dolls without having to be a girl, and reassuring daughters that they didn't have to wear dresses or play princess -- that girls could like sports and Spider Man too. But children, particularly preschool-aged kids, were insistent that this behavior actually signified a deeper sense of themselves as a different sex. The feminist in me feels for mothers who want their children not to feel bound to certain behaviors due to their gender identity, and I imagine when transness is layered on top of the highly gendered world in which we raise our children the result is a maze of choices exhausting (and often threatening) to navigate.

Finally, what Transitions makes clear is how crucial it is for all of us to work toward a world in which trans folks of all ages are welcomed as part of the human community, free of gender policing and the threat of emotional and physical violence. As Anna Randolph writes, in the closing selection in this book:
Even if it is true, it is not helpful to me when you say to me 'your child is transgender' without knowing anything about us. It has been implied that I am harming, even abusing, my child by not letting her transition at age nine or ten. You do not know or bother to ask about our circumstances, or attempt to understand why I make the choices I do. You do not see the many ways I convey my love and acceptance to my child while keeping her safe. You are not responsible for every aspect of this child's well-being, I am ...

... Before I could let my child transition, I needed to know she was in a relatively safe school and neighborhood. I had to assemble a strong team of providers, including a supportive pediatrician, psychiatrist, therapist, and endocrinologist. It was essential that we had a supportive community around us, including a welcoming church, family, and friends. More than anything, I needed my child to be sure she was ready. I believe she has always felt this way, but was unable to claim her identity until she felt support from her other parent, and felt safe enough and strong enough to handle the hard stuff (194).
So there's the laundry-list of work to do, folks! Let's get cracking, so that fewer and fewer parents have to fight so hard and long to advocate for their child's ability to be themselves in the world. Transitions was a worthwhile read, and I really hope they follow it up with a volume in which fathers of trans kids share their own stories of "love, struggle and acceptance."