Persephone Pioneers: Julia Serano

Julia Serano is a writer, biologist, curator, spoken-word artist, and musician. Whew. Her 2008 book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, ignited readers by offering a critique on both mainstream and feminist views of gender. As a trans woman, she offers a unique perspective on sexism, cis-sexism, feminist and queer communities, and the argument that femininity is an empowering, yet often demonized, trait that needs to be celebrated. Based out of Oakland, California, her writing has been included in Word Warriors: 30 Leaders in the Women’s Spoken Word Movement, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, as well as AlterNet, Bitch, Feministing, Out, make/shift – a list that can go on for what seems forever. She holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from Columbia University and is currently a researcher at UC-Berkeley in the field of Evolutionary and Developmental Biology; she spends her spare time with her spoken word, her curating, and her innumerable other talents and accomplishments. There is really nothing she can’t do: Persephone Magazine, please welcome Julia Serano.

Persephone Magazine: You are the author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, a look into the gap between biological and social perspectives on gender, as well as pervasive cultural attitudes towards trans persons. What led you to write this collection of essays?

 Julia Serano: After I transitioned back in 2001, I began writing and performing spoken word. A lot of my pieces had a definite feminist bent, focusing on the ways in which I was treated differently, inferiorly, as a woman compared to how I was treated when I was perceived to be a man, and the stereotypes and assumptions people have about trans women, most of which are also steeped in traditional sexism. Then for a couple years, I became involved in the issue of trans-woman-exclusion from women’s spaces, specifically the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which further politicized me. In 2005, I put together a chapbook of essays called On The Outside Looking In (which still exists on my website) about those issues. All those subjects eventually became the foundation of Whipping Girl.

PM: Why did you want to confront these assumptions about gender and femininity? Did you ever feel the pressure for the book to reflect more of your personal life?

JS: Anti-feminine sentiment runs rampant both in mainstream society and in the feminist and queer circles that I inhabit. I feel that it is one of the most prevalent forms of sexism still to this day. The femme movement has done a lot to challenge it, but few others have.

I often describe Whipping Girl as a collection of personal essays, some of which are more personal, and others that are more essay-ish. There are a lot of personal anecdotes thrown in, but they always serve the main point I am trying to make in the essay. I never felt any pressure to make it more personal, as my publisher and I were always on the same page about the fact that this was a collection of essays about gender politics, rather than a memoir or autobiography.

PM: How do you think the experiences of trans women differ to those of trans men?  Do you feel that there is more support for one group say then another or is that missing the point?

 JS: While there are definitely similarities in the obstacles trans people face, I think that traditional sexism does create differences between trans men’s and trans women’s experiences. The idea that maleness is more legitimate than femaleness leads people to incorrectly presume that trans men transition to obtain male privilege. Since women are so regularly sexualized in our culture, people presume that trans women transition primarily for sexual reasons. This leads the public to focus their fascination, sensationalization, and demonization onto trans women while largely ignoring trans men. Both trans men and women are hurt by this dynamic, but I think trans women are more negatively affected.

In the mainstream world, I don’t think that there is much support at all for either trans men or trans women, But within queer and feminist communities, there is definitely more support for, and celebration of, trans men. Especially in queer women’s communities.

PM: Most of Whipping Girl seems to argue on the need for a shift in the ways we perceive femininity, mostly by undoing a lot of our male-centric assumptions of it. Why is femininity so scapegoated? How do we change these assumptions?

JS: Feminine traits include being verbal and communicative, being effusive and expressing one’s emotions, being nurturing and showing concern for other’s well being, and wanting to surround one’s self with aesthetically pleasing objects, whether in decorating the spaces one inhabits or in the clothing and accessories one dons. These traits are all scapegoated in our culture because they are generally associated with women. So traditional sexism targets both women and femininity.

I think that historically cis women who have been drawn to feminism have mostly been those who felt most uncomfortable with stereotypical femininity. As a result, they challenged the idea that women are inferior to men, but they continued to buy into the patriarchal assumption that feminine traits are inferior to masculine ones. Like the culture as a whole, many feminists and queer people (both lesbian and gay) still believe that femininity is weak, frivolous, manipulative, and artificial, whereas masculinity is strong, serious, sincere, and natural. I think we can change these assumptions by recognizing that traditional sexism marginalizes both those who are female and those who are feminine. We can challenge them by calling out anti-feminine sentiment wherever it occurs.

The amazing Julia. Image courtesy of Juliaserano.com

PM: As a biologist, you must have come across many perspectives on gender that seem to just be a veil for misogyny rooted in the name of science. But it also seems that social constructs don’t give a lot of room to the legitimacy of actual experience. Can you talk about these two points and how they paint the discussions we are having on gender? How are they limiting? How are they valid?

JS: In Whipping Girl, I took on the “nature versus nurture debate” because I feel that trans people are marginalized by both biological determinist perspectives (which assume that we are “defects” or have “disorders”) and hard-line social constructionist perspectives (which ignore trans people’s self accounts and view us as “reinforcing” the patriarchy, or heteronormativity, or what have you). Also, social constructionist claims that gender is just a construct, or merely a performance, inadvertently marginalize trans people because our genders are already seen as “fake” and “inauthentic” (whereas cis people’s genders are seen as natural).

These days, I describe my view of sex, gender, and sexuality as being “holistic.” Holistic refers to the fact that clearly both biological and social forces influence how we are gendered and sexual. This gets beyond the very narrow idea that it must be one or the other, but not both. Also, biology and culture are not monolithic, but rather provide lots of variation. Each person is biologically unique, and also uniquely socially situated. I think this helps to explain trends that exist in gender and sexuality, but also explains why many of us are exceptional, falling outside of both social and biological norms. I know this is a brief explanation to a complex question. But I plan to address this more in depth in my future writings.

PM: The issue of trans violence seems to be finally coming up in the media, mostly due to the recent attack on Chrissy Polls at a Baltimore McDonalds, as well as the deaths of Marcal Tye, Chrissie Bates and Lashai Mclean. In what ways is the media helping people to understand the urgency of these situations? What do we need to do to guarantee better legal protection for trans persons? Here in New York, we don’t even have legislature that includes protection from hate crime based on gender identity.

JS: To be honest, I don’t really follow the media too much these days, so I can’t really say how they might be helping. But if I were to make one recommendation to the media, it would be to stress the fact that there is a lot more than “trans violence” going on here. Several research studies have shown that in the overwhelming majority of trans violence incidents, the victims are usually poor, people of color, and/or people on the trans female/feminine spectrum. In other words, these incidents are not only transphobic, but they occur at the intersection of transphobia, classism, racism, and misogyny.

PM: Writing great books and articles aside, you are also a spoken word artist, an event curator, biologist, activist, and have participated in countless projects like Gender Enders and Bitesize. To put it gently, you got a lot going on.  How do you keep your creative and motivational juices going? How does your own self-care figure into that?

JS: Well first, I seem to have a lot of accomplishments because I am getting up there in years! GenderEnders was a performance series I curated from 2003 to 2006. Bitesize was an indie-pop band that was my main creative outlet from about 1998 to 2005. We are on an indefinite hiatus because our drummer no longer lives in the Bay Area anymore. Having said all that, I still have a lot on my plate, especially since I have a 40-hour-a-week day job on top of my writing and performance.

I have never had a problem getting the creative juices going – I usually have something that I want to get off my chest or my mind. Self-care has become a bigger issue for me lately. I used to be one of those people who was constantly on the go, jumping from deadline to deadline. But in the last year or so, I’ve had some health issues, most notably, an auto-immune condition called psoriasis. Like many auto-immune conditions, it is often triggered by stress. So I’ve had to decrease the number of deadlines in my life, make sure I get a full night sleep each night, etc. It has definitely cut into my productivity, but at least now I am creating at a sustainable pace.

PM: What great stuff can we look forward from you in the not too distant future?

JS: So I am working on book number two. I am more than half-way finished, but it will still take a bit of time to complete. In the meantime, I have just launched my new blog, so interested folks can catch some of my newest writings there!

Here are a couple other things going on: I have pieces included in two anthologies being released this fall: Trans/Love (edited by Morty Diamond, published on Manic D Press) and Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica (edited by Tristan Taormino and published by Cleis Press). I also have some college/university talks and performances coming up. And also, Girl Talk: A Trans and Cis Woman Dialogue, which is an annual show that I co-curate with Gina de Vries and Elena Rose (aka, Little Light), hope to go on tour next spring. For interested folks, the entire 2011 Girl Talk show is now available on YouTube:

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