I recently read Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect edited by Megan Rohrer and Zander Keig. It’s a finalist for a 2012 Lambda Literary Award, in Transexual Nonfiction.
In saying something about the book I give myself two assignments. The first is to say something about the book and the authors whose voices I’ve heard as I read. Here’s my attempt. These letters are from the authors’ contemporary selves, written to their younger selves, before their transitions from living with a male identity in a female body to living in a male body. They’re also, of course, written for people today who may be facing similar challenges, questions, concerns, and decisions. Because the authors are all past or very far along the road of change, they are writing with vivid clarity, bluntness, compassion for themselves and for family and friends, charm, and realism. The several voices give a variety of issues and perspectives, and the rhythmic recurrence of some experiences point out some that are of particular importance. I appreciate the way that works out.
The second part of this assignment is to comment on my own connections to the themes in the letters. These thoughts should not be taken as a profile of the themes in the book, it’s just my idiosyncratic appreciation of the book as a catalyst for reflection. I’m commenting because I wandered off, based on things the authors described, for fresh consideration of some parts of my own life. The first theme that grabbed me was the matter of what to do with the former self, for me generalized to any former version of the self. For a transsexual person there are risks in having the past known, even physical safety risks in some cases. In any case the options of losing one’s past self even to self, making the past self only invisible to others, or dealing with the reactions of others to hearing about the past self are dramatic and awful. Trying to integrate a past self and a present self isn’t a straightforward matter. I relate to this, enough said about me at this point.
Another theme that made me set down the book and ponder is the border crossing between female subcultures and male subcultures. The authors are uniquely positioned to comment on the assumptions, for example about men, that they had lived with within circles of women. Some of these assumptions were invisible to them, and then turned out to be false. As a cautionary note, this is very complex, as there are attitudes (which I think are always based on assumptions) that are somewhat more typical in one frame of mind than another. As an exercise, try to think about the possible differences in world view between a person who identifies as gender queer and a person who identifies as FTM (female to male) and a person who identifies as male. And it’s all the same person as identity shifts. Then you can read Zander Keig’s letter for further insights. (At this point I will proudly note that I am his mother-in-law.)
My connection to the theme of border crossing comes from being a Peace Corps volunteer, and the letters served as a catalyst to consider assumptions, invisible assumptions, attitudes as manifestations of assumptions, differences in perspectives among people from different backgrounds, and shifts in assumptions. In this case the authors have writen about the particular, but I read about the universal.
Stop the gender wars. This comes up repeatedly and is the last theme I’ll comment on here. If you’ve lived under pressure to learn the norms and behaviors of one gender and then achieve the outward appearance and undergo what for some was a “thrown in the pool” learning experience for another set of norms and behaviors, the idiocy of the internecine gender wars is starkly obvious. But don’t take my word for it, read the book.
So a book on FTM transitions is a great read for Peace Corps volunteers, and for people who want to be better at social perspective taking in any setting. Of course.