Persephone Pioneers: Welcome Back, Julia Serano!

You might remember our last interview with writer, biologist, and artist Julia Serano. She blew us away with her 2008 book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by igniting readers through critiques on both mainstream and feminist views of gender, while challenging assumptions about societal attitudes toward trans women, gender, and sexuality.Never one to not be ambitious, Julia is now back with her brand new book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. “While many feminist and queer movements are designed to challenge sexism,” reads Excluded‘s opening lines, “they often simultaneously police gender and sexuality — sometimes just as fiercely as the straight, male-centric mainstream does. Among LGBTQ activists, there is a long history of lesbians and gay men dismissing bisexuals, transgender people, and other gender and sexual minorities. In each case, exclusion is based on the premise that certain ways of being gendered or sexual are more legitimate, natural, or righteous than others.” Serano is again simultaneously challenging and fostering the communities that she has been a part of, all while asking us to re-examine the theories, activist movements, and organizations that do just as much damage as it seeks to undo. We are delighted to have her back and will always sing her praises: Persephone Magazine, please welcome back Julia Serano.

Persephone Magazine: First off, thank you for coming back to Persephone! We had interviewed you before regarding your activism and your last book, Whipping Girl, and I’m nothing if not excited for your new release, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. Can you let us know about what led you to write Excluded?

Julia Serano: Thanks for having me back! So for me, Excluded is a natural follow up to Whipping Girl. In Whipping Girl, I discussed ways in which trans people (especially trans women) and people who are feminine are both dismissed by the straight-male-centric mainstream as well as within certain strands of feminism and queer activism. I’ve also written quite a bit about the exclusion of people who fall under the bisexual umbrella from these same communities. And I’ve learned a lot about the exclusion of other groups (e.g., people of color, poor and working class folks, people with disabilities, other gender and sexual minorities) from other activists.

Obviously, all these forms of sexism and marginalization are different, and I am not trying to conflate them or imply that they are all the same. But in studying them, it seems clear that there are parallels between all of them — in the way that they are enforced, and in the way that the marginalized group tends to react to their circumstance. Rather than merely petition for the inclusion of each excluded group on a one-by-one basis (as I did in Whipping Girl, and as many others before me have done), I wanted to try to get at the root of why we tend to create double standards and hierarchies, and how we can learn to recognize and challenge them in a more general sense. And I wanted to offer possible solutions that will help to reduce exclusion and marginalization in all cases, whether in the straight-male-centric mainstream or within our own queer and feminist communities and movements.

PM: I think one of the issues that really echoed with me in Excluded is not how the mainstream tends to marginalize already marginalized groups, but how we tend to do it to each other. It’s a little bit like airing out the dirty laundry, but also, an issue I know many struggle with regarding leading sustainable activist lives. Can you talk on how your own exclusion from certain spaces influenced this, as well as how this exclusion seems to be a bit more acceptable?

JS: As someone who has been excluded in various ways as a bisexual, femme, and trans woman, I have found that whenever I stand up for myself and protest the exclusion that I face, there will inevitably be people who will call me “divisive,” or who will dismiss my issues as a “distraction” that diverts us from tackling “the real issues.” Whenever someone argues that a particular form of exclusion is not a big deal, it is usually because they themselves are not being excluded. I realize that some people might see challenging exclusion within our movements as “airing dirty laundry.” And I am sensitive to the fact that such discussions can be misused by those who are not sympathetic to our cause. For instance, some writers have framed my writings and opinions about trans woman-exclusion in women’s spaces in a way that pits trans people against feminists, when in reality, I identify as both a trans woman and a feminist!

I would argue that there are two major reasons why we should challenge exclusion within our movements. First, when we disenfranchise people who have a stake in our movement from participating, we end up with far smaller movements with far more narrow and distorted agendas. This is obviously not a good thing. But second, and just as importantly, the way that we marginalize people within our own movements typically mirrors the way that the mainstream public marginalizes us. So while my book is ostensibly about challenging exclusion within our movements, it is really about challenging exclusion and marginalization in the most general sense possible.

PM: You argue that both gender and sexuality are complex traits, both of which are influenced by biology and society in ways that are difficult to untangle. Can you expound on why this is such an important topic for us as a culture to not be so black or white about?

I spend one particular chapter in the book making the case that both sides of the “nature versus nurture” debate are wrong, and that there is substantial evidence that shared biology, biological variation, shared culture, and individual experience all come together in an unfathomably complex manner to create both the trends as well as the diversity in gender and sexuality that we see all around us.

Countless feminists and queer academics and activists have explained why the idea that we are all biologically programmed to be gendered or sexual in particular ways is bad — it can lead to essentialism and the idea that there is some kind of universal female or male experience. And it insinuates that people who are exceptional (e.g., LGBTQIA+ folks) must be biological “mistakes.” But the truth is that a strict nurture view can be just as problematic. The sexism of Sigmund Freud’s theories, as well as the atrocities of nonconsensual genital surgeries being performed on intersex infants, or subjecting gender-non-conforming children to gender reparative therapy, are all justified by the assumption that gender and sexuality are determined solely by culture and environment. Feminists and queer activists who hold a strict nurture view often assume that, because gender and sexuality are merely oppressive social constructs, that we should all simply “do” or “perform” our genders and sexualities in supposedly subversive, politically righteous, and/or liberating ways. This not only defies human diversity, but it is also often used as an excuse to exclude people who are unwilling or unable to do their genders “the right way” (for instance, if they just so happen to be transgender, or femme, or bisexual, to name a few).

PM: What I really gravitated towards in the book was what you mention about taking a “holistic approach to feminism,” by trying to avoid much of the dogmatism and understandable, but misplaced indignation that can come with one subscribed way of “justice.” Can you tell me about how you have come to your own version of feminism, and what that entails?

JS: In the book, I talk about the problem with “fixed views” that tend to prevail in feminist and queer movements, where certain ways of expressing one’s gender and sexuality are seen as either bad or good, oppressive or liberating, as if there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. In reality, different things work for different people. But on top of that, it is completely unrealistic to expect other people to view the world the same way that we do. We each have a very limited view of the world that is shaped by our own personal experiences and desires, but also by the various types of marginalization or privileges we have experienced. The holistic approach to feminism I forward is meant to be a contextual way of challenging sexism and marginalization, one that accommodates the fact that we all have different bodies, desires, experiences, and perspectives. Rather than flat-out condemning certain ways of being, it focuses more on challenging gender entitlement — when we non-consensually project our own assumptions, expectations, meanings, value judgments, and opinions about gender and sexuality onto other people.

PM: The book is targeted mostly at those already pushed to the sidelines, but how are you hoping that it can be incorporated into more mainstream dialogue’s about gender, feminism, and other pressing issues?

JS: Well, I tried to make the book as accessible as possible, so that people who are not as familiar with many of the debates that occur in feminism, queer activism, and social justice more generally, can enter into the dialogue. Having said that, I do realize that the people who are most likely to pick up the book are folks that already believe that “Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive” is a laudable goal.

When Whipping Girl was published, I thought that trans women and femmes would probably like it, but I wasn’t sure if it would ever get recognition beyond those audiences. Thankfully it has, and it’s because those audiences helped to raise awareness about the book and the issues discussed therein. If I’ve done my job well, and if the ideas and solutions I forward resonate with people who first pick up the book, then hopefully they will start to trickle into more mainstream feminist and queer discussions.

PM: Something I’ve been seeing pop up in recent pieces regarding much of the rampant discrimination of trans women, is the comparison of “trans is the new gay rights.” It strikes me as a strange statement, especially given with the history of trans exclusion in the LGBT movement, as well as the many criticisms you bring up in Excluded. I’m wondering if you had noticed this and if so, what your thoughts are?

JS: I agree. Trans people were an essential (if not primary) force behind the Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria riots. Whenever people tell me that the trans movement is twenty years behind the gay rights movement, I always feel obliged to remind them why: We were part of the gay liberation movement until cisgender gay men and lesbians chose to exclude us.

I realize that trans people and issues have only recently started popping up on the straight mainstream’s radar, and we’re amidst the early stages of both public acceptance and public backlash. So there are some parallels between where we are now and where cisgender gay and lesbian folks were in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Sometimes that can be useful to discuss. But other times people bring this up in a way that pushes trans people aside. For example, people who have tried to leave gender identity and expression language out of ENDA legislation sometimes allude to this idea that the trans movement is “behind” the gay rights movement, when in reality we were pushed out of it!

PM: How do you feel about the representation of trans women in the media in the time since you first released Whipping Girl, to now with Excluded?

JS: Most of the trans woman media depictions that I debunk in Whipping Girl still exist today: the blatant misgendering; the assumptions that trans women are either deceptive or undesirable, that we transition for sexual reasons, that we can only be appreciated as fetish objects, and so on. But things have also changed for the better, at least a little bit. There are more and more non-sexualizing depictions of trans women. And for the first time, trans woman actors such as Laverne Cox and Candis Cayne have played trans women on mainstream TV programs (rather than having those roles outsourced to cisgender women or cis male actors donning dresses).

In general, there has been an increase in allowing trans people to speak on behalf of ourselves, in our own voices. The more that we can share our own perspectives with the rest of the world, the more likely other people will see us as human beings rather than stereotypes. Ultimately, that’s what will change media coverage of us.


You can find out more on Julia and where she will be touring on her site Excluded is now available for purchase through Seal Press and other online vendors.

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