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“We’re creating hierarchies, even if we’re not aware of it”

An interview with Julia Serano

by Rebecca Rose

Photo JuliaSerano.com
Photo JuliaSerano.com

Interviewing Julia Serano is incredibly intimidating. She is a trans and feminist icon who has written two books: the cult-classic, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, published in 2007, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, released in 2013. She has invented words used by theorists and activists alike. She even has a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics. Thankfully, she also has a very disarming giggle.

This Wednesday Serano will be discussing her most recent book at a talk hosted by DALOut at 7:30 PM at the Goldberg Computer Science Building.  I spoke to Julia last Thursday from her home in Oakland, California.


Rebecca Rose: Two themes you write about a lot, which you offer as explanations for why trans women in particular face such harsh discrimination, are sexism/misogyny and society’s disdain for femininity.

Julia Serano: I felt that it was really important to challenge misogyny in general. [To talk about] how the idea that women are inferior to men is a huge source of the disdain that trans women face. Not only are we transgressing gender norms, we’re doing it in this direction that goes against the way that we think about gender in our society. Also, to challenge this idea that femininity is inferior to masculinity.

As someone who is a feminist and has been really inspired by many of the feminists who came before me, I found [that] within certain strains of feminism, there’s a tendency to fight on behalf of women but at the same time buy into what I would call misogynistic ideas about femininity. These are ideas [such as] femininity is automatically an act whereas masculinity is natural.

RR: I was reading your “Empowering Femininity” piece in Ms. Magazine, expanding on what you wrote in Whipping Girl. Something that really resonated with me was around the idea that feminine traits are not only put on, but are put on for men. I was putting on makeup at a bus stop the other day and this man walked by and said, “you don’t need that”. And I was so pissed off by that.

JS: As you should be.

RR: Really you’re telling me what I need to do to be attractive to you.

JS: When I was moving through the world as male, I was never really a masculine person, I dressed in T-shirts and jeans and nobody really said anything or paid much attention to me. When I first started presenting as female and dressing femininely all of the sudden it’s like all of the spotlights are on you. People just feel very comfortable saying things about how you look and how you dress, and sometimes they’re absolutely well intentioned comments. I think that that’s part of the way that in our society we assume that people who are dressing femininely or presenting themselves femininely are craving attention […] and specifically in a lot of people’s minds people assume that you’re craving masculine or male attention.

RR: In Excluded (the “Reclaiming Femininity” chapter) you say you “take issue with the notion of framing ‘femme’ as transgressive or subversive, because unlike conventional femininity, it occurs within a queer context.” As a queer femme this is something that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around.

JS: I think there’s a flip side of that coin that might imply that those other women who are feminine but not queer in their sexuality are reinforcing the system.

That concern runs throughout the book Excluded and it was something that I first experienced as a trans women when I first came into the queer community and became involved in feminism. Some people would say, “oh you’re reinforcing the system because you’re feminine” or they see you as being gender conventional.

My main point was to say, “hey, when we do this we’re creating hierarchies, even if we’re not aware of it and we’re not intending it, and those hierarchies can lead to some people feeling like they’re excluded from movements that should be broad.”

RR: You also talk about what you think femmes all have in common.

JS: I think that one of the things that femmes have in common is we are all feminine in certain ways, but we’re not seen as conventionally, stereotypically, ideally feminine. Some of us might be feminine but we’re queer in our genders or sexualities. Some of us might be feminine but we’re not seen as adequately feminine because [we] might be fat, or disabled or might be a woman of colour.

RR: You wrote Excluded from the perspective of a bisexual, femme, tomboy, transsexual woman. Can you touch on some of the experiences that made you write Excluded?

JS: I would say that within the feminist and queer communities there is I think anything from indifference to antagonism towards feminine gender expression, and towards trans people more generally but especially trans women. Also, within queer communities there’s often a lot of antagonism towards people who identify as bisexual, or who fall under the bisexual umbrella. There are all sorts of reasonings or theories and logic that people will use in order to justify those feelings.

So in the first section of the book are a number of different essays that I wrote in response to very specific ways in which I was excluded or felt excluded as a trans woman, or someone who’s bisexual, or someone who is femme. [In the second section] I try to suggest new ways of thinking about gender and sexuality and sexism and marginalization. [Ways] that will help us challenge, basically all forms of oppression without creating movements that single out certain people and exclude them.

RR: You talk about bisexuality in Excluded. I know that that’s something you most recently came out as?

JS: [Laughs.] It turned out that I came out as bi the year after Whipping Girl was published, which is a little bit interesting because I call myself a lesbian throughout. It was in 2008 that I started calling myself bisexual, literally because I was no longer in [a long-term, lesbian, monogamous] relationship and I was starting to date again and so I was actively being bisexual [Laughs again].

RR: In Halifax I’ve noticed more activity around bi activism in recent years. Are you seeing that as well?

JS: I don’t know that I’m seeing more here [in the Bay Area] but I would definitely say that in the last two to three years I’ve seen a steady increase on the internet; invitations on Facebook to events or articles that I see people posting. There’s [also] Shiri Eisner’s recent book called Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution that’s a really amazing activist book. I think that there has been a resurgence lately.

I feel like there has been a more recent push back against bisexuals that I partially address in Excluded. Especially I feel like there has been a lot of pressure over the last three years, of people saying “oh well the word bisexual enforces the gender binary”. [In Excluded] I argue why that statement is not only wrong but is also very problematic.

RR: There are currently several trans women, specifically trans women of colour, in mainstream media and pop culture. That’s a recent cultural shift.

JS: I think that that’s really amazing. I know that there has been a discussion within transgender activism and trans circles, particularly between white trans people and trans people of colour, about how not only are trans people of colour disproportionately affected by transphobia, by trans specific violence. But there’s also this tendency that happens within activist movements where a lot of times the people who become the most well-known, the most visible representations of the movement, tend to be the people who are the most privileged.

I think it’s wonderful for specifically Lavern Cox and Janet Mock, who are the two trans women of colour who have garnered some of this media attention. Those two have [also] done an amazing job of not just taking that success, but using it to help other people. For example, Lavern Cox has done a lot of work for trans people and trans women who are basically caught up in the prison industrial complex.

I would say that just as a side note that everything that has happened over the last few years is basically beyond my wildest imaginations. The idea that I see trans news stories, issues faced by trans people regularly on the news, I never would have imagined that happening in my lifetime.

RR: Do you have any lesser-known trans women writers, activists or artists that you would want to turn people on to?

JS: Last year Imogen Binnie wrote a novel called Nevada, which is really amazing.

In addition to that, I haven’t read these books, but these are all books that are on my reading list. Topside Press, if people are not aware, is a trans-centric small book publisher. There are three that I have been hearing really good things about: He Mele A Hilo by Ryka Aoki, I’ve Got A Time Bomb by Sybil Lamb and A Safe Girl To Love by Casey Plett.


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