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Book review – Is transsexuality in the air we breathe?

On the playground children answer the riddle of gender with “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails” or “sugar and spice and everything nice.” It’s an unsatisfying answer that reduces people to a few stereotypical elements and leaves out a great deal, but at the same time stays with you.

Deborah Rudacille’s Riddle Of Gender is similar. The book offers a history of transsexuality, interviews with transsexuals and Rudacille’s theory of the cause of transsexuality. Written as popular science, Rudacille’s fascination with transsexuality is clear. To her, the riddle of gender is about why we are male or female and, in particular, why transsexuals have a body identified as one gender so strongly identify as the other.

This “plain old white woman” (her description) is writing for a non-queer, non-trans audience. Her unnamed western and medical biases also speak to both her background and intended audience. She describes herself as having moved from her initial concern and confusion about transsexuality to becoming an advocate of “freeing ourselves by finally outlawing discrimination based on gender expression.”

Rudacille never moves far away from a condescending, doom-laden view of transsexual lives. Repeatedly, she expresses sympathy, but cannot empathize. She paints transsexuals’ lives as harsh and hard, leaving out anything positive. There is nothing celebratory. Save me the hand-wringing – the telethon isn’t doing us any favours.

It’s only in the last third of the book that Rudacille presents her own answer to the riddle trans-sexuality presents. In chapter seven, “Fear Of A Pink Planet,” Rudacille explains transgendered and transsexual people as “neurologically intersexed,” as having an intersexed condition of the brain. She rejects the idea that Gender Identity Disorder (GID) is a mental illness: “It was abundantly clear to me that the people I was meeting were not mentally ill… they were regular people who had been dealt a tough hand by life, and were dealing with it as best they could.”

Noting an increase in the number of trans teens, and examining environmental research and animal studies, Rudacille comes to the conclusion that transsexuality could be the result of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. She proposes this theory to a variety of experts. John McLachlan, who has done extensive work examining the effects of environmental estrogen, responds “absolutely… transsexuality could be due to hormone problems.”

Rudacille feels that we are willfully ignorant of the possible effects of environmental and pharma-ceutical endocrine disrupters. Psychologists are especially unwilling to consider this as a possible cause for transsexuality as it would end their role as gate-keepers to transition. If we cease to consider transsexuality a mental disorder, psychologists no longer have a role in treatment. If transsexuals’ “lives and gender identities may have been turned inside out by an environmental toxin,” then to consider them mentally ill is degrading, prevents them from getting appropriate care and contributes to a societal stigma.

Rudacille, however, makes no suggestions of how to wrest transsexuality from the psychologists, leaving transsexuals with more riddles and no proposals for exploring them further.

Rudacille assumes that society will be more understanding and accepting of trans people if their existence can be shown to be due to something external to them, of which they are innocent. While this tact has been popular in various social movements, and heralded by some gay advocates, it is neither effective nor respectful. Trans people need to be accepted and have rights because they are human like everybody else, not because they can be explained.

The theory of hormonal interference causing transsexuality seems sound, but at the same time it’s reductive, leaving out all possible other contributing factors. It also limits transsexuality to a modern phenomenon, when certainly people with similar urges existed in earlier times.

The first two-thirds of the book feels like a reader of North American writing by, for and about transsexuals. The excerpts aren’t bad, but the summaries tend to be less interesting than the source material, most of which are readily available. This Cole’s Notes version lacks the passion, detail and poetry of the originals.

What Rudacille does well is cover the breadth of the literature, from the hostile The Transsexual Empire, which characterizes trans women as pseudo-females, tools of the patriarchy created to destroy the lesbian community; to first-person accounts like Dylan Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore A Dress.

She creates an interesting and disturbing narrative, from trans people demanding service and, if they had money, receiving it to doctors and psychologists controlling what services are available and who, if anyone, should have access to them.

Rudacille alternates her chapters with excerpts from interviews with trans people. Presented in a question and answer format, these allow contemporary trans people to describe their experiences in their own voices, albeit directed by her questions and agenda. They are powerful pieces that speak to Rudacille’s immense amount of research and to the trust and access trans people invested in the author.

Her final call to action is foreboding: “[G]ender variance is neither a fad nor a revolution. It is a biological fact. Our continuing failure to acknowledge this fact virtually insures that there will be more… individuals whose pain can not be assuaged by a syringe or a scalpel and who die violent and premature deaths… individuals [who] have been sacrificed to an illusion, the belief that the spectrum of gender contains only two colours, black and white, and nothing in between.”

Her call to action is unlikely to reach those who aren’t already listening for it. It’s hard to imagine that many non-trans people who were not already sensitive to trans issues will have made it this far.

The Riddle Of Gender is an interesting, challenging read. For an outside view of trans issues it is unusually understanding. It’s probably good for those who will probably not read it, and too limited for those who will.