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Voices of transformation.

Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs

Edited by Jonathan Ames

Vintage, 319 pages, $13.95

THE TRANSGENDERED, of all the groups that might be said to fall under the umbrella term "queer," are perhaps the most misunderstood. In fact, it's problematical to say that they're part of the queer community, since many transgendered persons would dispute this classification. Perhaps the safest definition is to say that the transgendered are those who identify with the gender other than the one they were born with physically. (And of course there are those who are born with ambiguous genitalia--once called hermaphrodites but now referred to as intersex.) How individuals in these situations respond to their condition is another matter: some choose not to reveal it, others dress the part either some or all of the time (transvestites), and still others decide to seek medical help to transform themselves into the woman or man that they'd always felt themselves to be (transsexuals).

Of course gender isn't defined entirely by biology--it's as much a construction as it is a set of physical characteristics. Because gender is so fundamental to our individual identities, those who have challenged the boundaries of gender have usually faced some degree of social opposition, in addition to the personal trauma resulting from confronting such a profound crisis of identity. But if society has traditionally marginalized the transgendered, it has also been fascinated by them. American popular culture provides ample evidence for this observation. The subject has long been a Hollywood favorite, from farces like Victor/Victoria to dramas such as Boys Don't Cry. Literature is also rich with transgender stories, such as Jeffrey Eugenides' 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex.

Still, there are a good many people who don't really know a lot about the experience of the transgendered, and in particular about transsexuals. For one thing, there isn't a generic transsexual experience in the same way that most gays and lesbians share in the "coming out" process. While it's true that transsexuals undergo a process of self-discovery and revelation somewhat similar to "coming out," the transsexual identity and sexuality are much more amorphous and complex. Not all transsexuals identify as homosexual, or queer, for example, and not all transsexuals respond to their sex change in ways they might have expected. Transgenderism and transsexuality are phenomena that defy easy categorization.

Perhaps the best way to approach an understanding of transsexualism is to encounter the personal stories of those who have lived it. This is the impetus for Sexual Metamorphosis, edited by Jonathan Ames, a popular writer and performing storyteller. Ames doesn't identify as queer (in any sense of the word), but his fascination with the topic of transsexualism is deeply personal, as he makes apparent in his introduction to the book. He selected the excerpts for the anthology from books and manuscripts in the Kinsey Institute collection at Indiana University, where he was studying when he conceived the idea for this book.

Though Ames confided that this is "by no means a perfect selection," it is a very good one. It casts a wide historical net, beginning with a case history from Krafft-Ebing's 1886 study Psychopathia Sexualis and ending with memoirs from as recent as 2003. It's also fairly representative of the range of transsexualism: for example, though female-to-male transsexualism is not as common as the male-to-female variety, four of the fifteen pieces in the book deal with MTF cases. He includes selections from writers, academics, and physicians, as well as working-class men and women, some of whom identify themselves as heterosexual.

While all of the selections deal in varying degrees with the complex psychological and social issues associated with transsexuality, there are some that describe, in almost heroic detail, the physical aspects of the transformation and their often unexpected consequences. Mario Martino's "Emergence," for example, offers a personal account of what it's like to be the recipient of a surgically created penis. As difficult as some of the details are to read, Martino's description sheds light on a topic that's rarely discussed, at least in mainstream literature. Renee Richards, one of the more famous transsexuals, describes in glorious detail the emotions and sensations that accompanied her first orgasm as a woman. Richards' account is one of the richest in the collection, in part because Richards is a physician and brings a clinical acumen to her observations.

There are some excellent writers represented in this collection. In an excerpt from her 1974 book Conundrum, noted travel and history author Jan Morris brings all of her literary talents to her own personal account of her sex change. Her descriptions of how her children and her neighbors accepted the transformation is one of the more inspirational pieces in the book. There are, of course, heartbreaking stories of families driven apart by a parent's revelation that he or she wishes to change gender, such as Deirdre McCloskey's Crossing (1999). Even the lesser writers in this book make for some compelling reading. Ultimately, these stories should appeal to anyone who's interested in issues of identity and the quest for selfhood--these stories are all testaments of the self's desire to celebrate itself, and life.
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Title Annotation:Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs
Author:Nawrocki, Jim
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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