Book report: “True Selves” revisited

(I posted a version of this message in a forum maintained by Helen Boyd, author of “My Husband Betty” and “She’s Not the Man I Married.” Helen asked if she could share it on her blog, enGender. I said sure … as long as I could share it with you! —Trish)

2013-08-22-true-selvesWhen people are trying to learn about transgender issues, they’re often referred—by IFGE, PFLAG  and others—to a 1996 book called True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism for Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals, by Mildred Brown and Chloe Rounsley. It’s gained something of a reputation as a “Rosetta stone” for explaining transgender issues to people.

I’ve owned True Selves for years, but for one reason or another, I never got around to reading it, until last week, when—on a whim—I pulled it from the shelf and started going through it.

Well. To put it nicely, I don’t think it holds up. I guess, being generous, I would call it “quaint.”

To put it not-so-nicely, I think it’s a terrible book to give to anyone who has a loved one who is transgender, or to someone who may be transgender, transsexual, gender-queer or otherwise non-binary conforming.

True Selves—and I know I’m oversimplifying here—pretty much says that unless we’re seeking genital surgery, we crossdressers and gender-queers are disordered people with sexual fetishes.

And if we are seeking permanent gender re-assignment, True Selves tells us we will have strife-filled, heart-breaking, miserable lives.

These are not exactly the messages I would want to give my family and friends if I wanted them to understand my feelings.

I hate to dump on True Selves, because much of it still rings true, at least for me. For instance, I can identify with many of the people who Brown and Rounsley interviewed. In 1996, they performed a valuable service—they attempted to illuminate a completely dark cave, and wrote an extremely thorough book, making a huge contribution to the (then meager) literature about transsexuality.

The year True Selves was published was the year I graduated from a major university. I spent many, many hours in our library, reading everything I could find on transsexuality. I didn’t find much, and what I did find either wasn’t good or was hard for a lay person to understand. I wish I’d been able to read a book like True Selves back then.

But looking at True Selves from a 2013 perspective—after a lot of other people have produced books, magazine articles and websites about being transgender and/or transsexual, many of which were probably inspired or informed (at least in part) by True Selves—the book is almost offensively out-of-date. Back then it was sympathetic, but now it seems patronizing—it’s like reading a book from 1960 on being “homosexual,” or a book from 1930 on being “Negro,” or pretty much any 19th century book on the proper role of women.

At this point, I would not be comfortable recommending True Selves to anyone, except to understand “where we’ve been” or “where we were”—in other words, as a period piece, because our understanding of gender identity has gone way past True Selves over the past 20 years.

I don’t think True Selves should be dropped down the memory hole, or ignored or removed from libraries or anything of the sort—I think there’s a lot of good information in the book that gives it the potential to help many people.

But it is badly outdated and—unless the authors choose to re-write and revise it—those LGBTQA groups recommending True Selves should probably make sure they include some big caveats along with their recommendations.

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