Serena Freewomyn

Book Review: The Riddle of Gender

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | August 16, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Harry Benjamin Syndrome, intersex, John Money, transgender

Just when you think you've got the mystery of sex and gender all figured out, a new study or a book comes along that throws a monkey wrench into the equation, and you've got to start all over again. 51FXZAFK2ML._SS500_.jpgDeborah Rudacille's book The Riddle of Gender does exactly that. Rudacille was inspired to write the book when her friend told her that he wanted to transition from female to male. Rudacille didn't know very much about what transgender meant, but she wanted to support her friend. So she started to interview everyone she could in order to better understand what her friend was going through.

The book opens with different scientific explanations for why people are born transgender or intersex. I tend to lean on the side of social construction - I believe tat the majority of our gender traits are learned behavior. But after I read The Riddle of Gender, I began to understand that there are a lot of things that are hardwired into our DNA. Rudacille never settles the nature/nurture debate, but she does argue that nature loves diversity and that transgender and intersex babies are a part of that diversity.

If you're a social constructionist, don't worry. Rudacille's interview with author and historianDr. Susan Stryker brings the debate back to the nurture side of the equation. One of my favorite sections is when Stryker says:

That's not to say that there aren't real physical differences between bodies, but we have this cultural belief about the relationship between someone's sense of self and how they interact with other human subjects, and how that relates to their physical embodiment, and we materialize gender through the body in accordance with certain cultural assumptions. That's part of the radicalness about transgender politics in the latter part of the twentieth century -- that it just flies in the face of that construction. Part of why we (as transpeople) are so marginalized is that we offer this very radical critique of a very pervasive set of assumptions about gender. (p. 56)

The entire book is like this. It goes back and forth between nature and nurture, never settling the issue. Rudacille applies the same objective treatment to her analysis of the controversial Dr. Harry Benjamin and Dr. Jon Money. Both researchers are simultaneously loved and loathed by members of the transgender and intersex communities. Rudacille argues that they are neither absolutely good or absolutely bad. She does, however, provide a historical context for understanding them and their beliefs about sex and gender.

I really enjoyed the format of The Riddle of Gender. It's a mix of scholarly writing and personal interviews with members of the trans community. Each scholarly chapter is followed by one or to interviews, so you never get completely overwhelmed by the academic language of the book. I'll admit that I found the picture on the cover of the book a little off-putting when I first saw it. But after opening the pages, I found that you really can't judge a book by it's cover.


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It certainly looks interesting!