Sølvi reviews Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques (Verso, £16.99)
When Juliet Jacques started writing her Transgender Journey blog in the Guardian, I’m reasonably sure I didn’t even know what transgender was. I wish, in hindsight, I had. Perhaps it would have explained some aspects of my life.
The fact that Jacques’ blog was the first time a national paper had allowed serious space for a transgender person to openly detail their transition – ten years already into the freaking millennium – was bad enough. The fact that the paper, that supposedly represented the views of the liberal left, had until this point relegated any discussion of trans politics to writers like Julie Bindel, who didn’t believe that trans people had the right to exist, was even worse. Jacques’ writing came at a time where trans people were only just beginning to get a modicum of positive media representation. I suppose we’ve reached something of a ‘moment’ now, because trans people in the media have reached double figures.
Jacques’ book overlaps with her columns, but focuses more on the parts of her life that fit in between, before and after. She writes about her gender reassignment surgery, but doesn’t use that as a marker to cleave her life in two. She very much wants to show us that transition is not a moment but a far longer process. The monumental pressures of mental health, that are unfortunately present in almost all trans memoirs, are particularly resonant. Amongst the mostly chronological account, Jacques introduces us to the ideas of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, to the development of transgender tropes in popular media portrayals and, briefly, to the extensive histories of pre-colonial gender non-conformists. At times the memoir is just as much about art, music and the bitter confusion of growing up around the turn of the millennium as it is about her transgender life.
What this memoir – and it is primarily a memoir – shows is that there is an inescapable politics to trans lives, whether they’re stealth or “out”, that makes the questions of gender and power in society immediate. Of course, gender is immediate to everyone, but there can be little doubt that when someone who is read as a man steps out on the high street in a maxi dress, they generate very different social reactions from when they step out in a Superdry shirt and cargo shorts. The apparently gut-wrenching reaction that seems to be drawn from people when you assert yourself as the gender you are, but not the gender they perceive you to be, shows how violently society relies on a rigid gender binary to function.
The value of trans memoirs is that they can document the many ways in which this takes place. Writing them establishes something collective, something that gives names and colour to feelings that readers have, often in confusion, understood as their own inadequacies. Which is why you always wish you’d read them earlier. And so they’re certainly therapeutic. What memoirs often lack, however, is the ability to explain exactly why gender feels so oppressive, and provide a strategy for trans people to abolish their oppression. This isn’t necessarily the fault of trans writers – the development of transgender tropes has meant that, if it is to get published, trans writing must be shoehorned into a confined, often voyeuristic space. Jacques has managed to write a memoir that retains its political voltage, sharp and critical arguments that lay across the book, but which don’t rely on a “personal journey” for their validation.
What I enjoy reading are the contradictions and the un-stitched frays. That Jacques can talk about how gender reassignment surgery doesn’t immediately provide a bed of dysphoria-free roses. The prevalence of this trope – the idea that trans people walk out of the surgery, jump into the air, lit by the mid-evening sun, the frame freezes and the credits roll – is of course damaging. It suggests that all of the problems trans people face are situated on their body, and that when the body is fixed, the problems are fixed. It suggests that trans is a surgery, a moment, rather than a process that is both bigger that any one aesthetic change, and bigger than one person. This is the inherent problem with trans memoirs that Jacques starts to pick away at, something that has been overwhelmingly forced on trans people by heteronormative society. Often trans people, especially when hamstrung by a certain liberalism, find themselves defending themselves on terms set by people who don’t really want trans people to have autonomy over their bodies. Jacques reminds us to flip their demands on their heads – why do you insist on so rigidly defending an unworkable gender binary? Why must you place such great emphasis on the ludicrous idea that genitals and hormones determine behaviour?
Trans politics is burgeoning, and has been burning away for decades. I don’t think it’s always been obvious, but trans writing, memoirs included, provides some tentative gestures towards a world without a system that produces gendered oppression. Memoir writing, at the very least, can dissect and re-animate all the ghosts of a fucked-up society, and pretend for a moment that they’re dead and gone. Like Walter Benjamin said, “Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre”. Yet, because when those memoirs get published, they have often been edited as stories of fascination, or often revulsion, the fact that gender constraints fuck us all over gets forgotten. But that’s precisely the power of “gender outlaws”, as Kate Bornstein wrote – they show the possibility of a multitude of different gender expressions and identities.
As we grope towards a queer, trans revolutionary politics, writing down these histories, personal and collective, is vital. We need to piece together images of what liberation – really queer futures – might actually look like. However, it’s only through detailing the defective grossness of society that we can start to imagine something better. Jacques’ book is a welcome part of that project.