Rating (out of five): ΔΔ

You know the phrase, “I couldn’t put the book down”? After reading Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors my reaction was the exact opposite. I couldn’t put the book up. Leslie Feinberg is a hero for many people, including myself. Feinberg’s personal gender story, Stone Butch Blues, is a story I can relate to in many ways. After reading Stone Butch Blues and having heard Leslie Feinberg speak at the Translating Identities Conference in 2005 I was sure that Transgender Warriors would be a good read. That was not the case, however.

Transgender Warriors aims to be a history of people who do not conform to traditional gender roles. Instead the book ends up being an outlet for the socialist ideas Feinberg adheres to. Often Feinberg veers off-topic, making comments such as, “McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts were in full frenzy…,” writes about factory strikes and denounces capitalism. This review is not saying there is anything particularly wrong with socialism. It is simply that if one wants to read a book about socialism they can go read What Is the Real Marxist Tradition? or The Communist Manifesto. If you’re looking to read about the history of gender nonconformity Transgender Warriors is not the book for you.

Feinberg goes into detail at times about persons who transcend gender roles and characteristics, which is fine. But in addition, Feinberg goes too far by calling various people in different cultures transgender. This may not make sense at first but keep reading. The term “transgender” originates from Latin and English. The word “gender” in Latin means 'kind', 'type', or 'sort'. Feinberg comes off as being yet another colonizer within the book when Feinberg takes apart important spiritual symbols for Native Americans and places the Western label of transgender, first made popular in the 1970’s, onto those Native American customs. It is offensive and potentially degrading. Feinberg’s book is disempowering rather than empowering in that sense.

This book is one example of many that indicates there is a big problem with the word “transgender,” which is that the term “transgender” is too broad. Merriam-Webster’s definition of transgender is, “Having personal characteristics (as transsexuality or transvestism) that transcend traditional gender boundaries and corresponding sexual norms.” It is too broad for several reasons, one being that traditional gender boundaries vary from culture to culture. In one country, for instance Scotland, it may be acceptable for a male to wear a skirt and in another country the action is reviled. Does it make the male in Scotland transgender to wear a skirt? In addition, traditional gender boundaries may change within a culture. Women playing an active role in the U.S. military used to be a rarity. There are women throughout U.S. history who disguised themselves as male in order to be in the military. Would we call these women transgender? Would we call female soldiers of modern age transgender? Where do we draw the line?

In many instances Feinberg claims that persons from various cultures are transgender. Unless someone has a medical diagnosis (and sometimes not even) since when is it okay for someone to label someone else transgender? For instance, Feinberg claims that the infamous Amazon warriors were transgender. This was because, as Feinberg writes, “To the Greeks, these Amazons were masculine women who bore themselves like men.” This is the biggest failing in the book. It is ludicrous to say that individuals are transgender because their gender expression is different than modern-day societal expectations. Many people would take offense to being labeled transgender by another person on the basis that they do things that aren’t considered traditional activities for their assigned gender. Imagine calling a woman transgender for being athletic or being good at mathematics, or calling a male transgender for cooking or cleaning.

Certainly, the Amazons cut off one of their breasts because one of their primary weapons was the bow and arrow. Feinberg, however, tries to indicate that this is further evidence of the Amazons being transgender. Maybe some of them got breast cancer in one breast. Who knows? The point is that it is impossible to look back at other cultures of which there is not much knowledge and try to fit those culture’s customs into a convenient box to prove something. Feinberg assuredly had the best of intentions, but it ends up being a discredit to Transgender Warriors.

I cannot completely knock the book. The pictures included throughout the book were very beautiful and meaningful. It seems though there are too many images and not enough content. Transgender Warriors is enlightening in the sense that it does describe aspects of history in a different way and opens the readers’ mind to new concepts and events throughout time. This goal could have been fulfilled in a very different way.

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