By: Pat Califia
Published By: Cleis Press, 1997
Text From Back Cover:
What would it be like to grow up in a society where gender was truly consensual? If the rite
of passage was to name your own gender at adolescence, or upon your transition into
adulthood? What would it be like to walk down the street, go to work, or attend a party, and
take it for granted that the gender of the people you met would not be the first thing you
ascertained about them? If you could change your sex as effortlessly in reality as you can
in virtual reality, and change it back again, wouldn't you like to try it at least once? What would
it be like to live in a society where you could take a vacation from gender? Or, even more
importantly, from other people's gender? What if we all helped each other to manifest our most
beautiful, sexy, intelligent, creative, and adventurous inner selves, instead of cooperating to
If these questions frighten, offend, or annoy you, you are one of the people who stand to benefit
from transactivism -- although it probably doesn't feel like your benefactor. And if these
questions amuse, engage, and challenge you, you're probably a transactivist already. Welcome to the
Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism is a researched look into the relatively short history
of transsexuality. She does this by examining the literature that has been written about, and by,
the transgendered, and analyzes, and in some cases criticizes, the literature.
Each chapter of the book deals with one step futher on in the history and literature, starting with
the quite famous Christine Jorgenson, and working up to what lies in the future of transactivism.
Chapter One deals with the first transsexual autobiographies. She goes in depth on
the life stories of Christine Jorgenson, Jan Morris, and the much lesser-known Mario Martino.
She mainly summarizes these stories, though she does point out how they took their trials and
difficulties rather well, seeming to portray them as less important - I suppose that when blazing new
trails into what's mostly unknown, it's very necessary to have such an attitude. One difference in the
books is that while Mario does discuss sexuality and its place in his life, neither Christine
nor Jan seem to give it much room, as if they'd almost given it up as the price for their changes.
Chapter Two looks at the work of the doctors and professionals who were responsible for
starting the changes that led the medical establishment to look at transsexuals as people who
weren't sick and deviant, just people who had been dealt an unlucky hand that could be repaired.
Dr. Harry Benjamin is the most notable, but it also covers work by psychiatrist Richard Green,
and psychologist John Money. Califia's constant criticism through the chapter is that they all
seem to treat it like any disease, with clear symptoms and criteria for success that doesn't
fit the variety in the human condition. She holds them responsible for the current attitude that
all transsexuals should feel the same way about their bodies beforehand, and should all become happy
little heterosexuals, fitting in all nice and properly into the gender stereotypes.
Chapter Three looks at the backlash that soon appeared, coming out of the
feminist movement. She covers the most
famous anti-transsexual book, The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, but also
Catherine Millot. What really makes this chapter interesting is how the author describes how she
went from being anti-transsexual, to standing up for transsexual rights (including authoring this
Chapter Four goes into detail about gay historians, and their portrayal of the berdache and
other "third-gender" groups, along with passing women. She looks at
Gay American History, written by Jonathan Katz, work by Walter L. Williams, Will Roscoe,
and Ramon A. Gutierrez. She focuses on pointing out how the third-gender people in various
cultures, along with passing women, have been painted as gay and lesbian heroes, while the
historians have downplayed how those people broke gender norms, to the point of being outside them.
Chapter Five looks at the autobiographies of transsexuals from more recent times. She delves
into Renee Richards' story, and the incredible and distinct differences in her story from those
of Jorgenson and Morris, both in her life, and what she goes into detail about. She also looks at
the autobiography of Mark Rees, a transactivist in the United Kingdom, and how it seems to be one of
the first autobiographies to really address sex, and sexual gratification, as true parts of being
a human being.
Chapter Six deals with literature concerning the partners of the transgendered, as she describes
them, "The Invisible Gender Outlaws". There is not a lot of literature in this area, so she focuses
a lot on The Transvestite and His Wife, by Virginia "Charles" Prince, even though its focus on
transvestites doesn't really cover the same area she's been discussing. She analyzes this book,
along with articles from newsletters, and points out the problems that can be caused by such a
relationship, especially the ones the book seem to gloss over or dismiss.
Chapter Seven looks at contemporary activism, and evidence that the trans community is not
content fitting into traditional stereotypes, but trying to make differences in society. She looks
at the ICTLEP conference (the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy)
and the changes it's having on the community, along with covering the situation at the
Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (along with Camp Trans). She mentions the activism caused by
the brutal deaths of Brandon Teena and Tyra Hunter.
Chapter Eight takes a glance into the future of gender activism. This chapter focuses mostly
around Kate Bornstein's book, Gender Outlaw, which goes beyond a simple personal story, to
present new ideas and perspectives, and makes the claim that it's society that is pathological by
forcing people into genders. Califia critically examines Bornstein's various claims, and gives an
interesting perspective on the issues.
Overall, this is a high quality book that can sum up much of the history of transsexuality and its
obstacles, and give the reader a good understanding of where things are today.