Jamison Green's Review of Transgender Good News|
This review by Jamison Green appeared in Transgender Tapestry, the magazine of the International Foundation for Gender Education.
Psychologist, scientist, and theologian Pat Conover applies her skills to interpreting the complex social phenomenon of transgender experience through the lenses of scientific and spiritual inquiry. She brings us good news indeed.
There is much to digest in this complex treatise. Conover writes smoothly and thoughtfully, the way a college professor might speak if she were concerned with ensuring her students understood her, rather than trying to dazzle them with erudition. Conover really has something to say, about which she cares deeply. It is a message that will resonate with transgendered people and it deserves a larger audience.
A primary concept that Conover drives home very effectively is the concept of "haystack thinking. We are so accustomed in our reasoning style to look for the "needle, the one truth at the bottom of the intellectual stack, the single principle from which our logic springs in every argument: if this, then that. Simple, clean, unencumbered reason; how scientific! Conover's message is in large part that life does not always resolve its quandries in straight-line thinking. The world is more complex than that, especially the transgendered world. I also appreciate the way Conover describes the overlaps between the sexes that our culture imagines as so distinctly different. Surely, as Conover says (indirectly), the world would be a safer place for gender-variant children if parents could embrace the richness in the spirits of their young ones instead of rigidly recreating the world they fear by attempting to enforce conformance to that dichotomous, gender stereotyped world.
I found some minor irritations in Conover's text: typographical errors that should have been corrected; terminology like "bigender, which, though parallel to bisexual, I would have preferred to see as bi-gender to avoid distracting visualizations as I tried to cognate this unfamiliar term; frequent references elsewhere in the text (perhaps unavoidable when trying to present a complex text in a linear format like text); and too many references to old source material (newer material would be useful for younger readers and academics). Conover also describes a commonly-held assumption that "at conception everyone is on a track to develop as a female (page 21), which is technically not true. More recent research has shown that there is a neutral pathway of fetal development and that significant events must occur to create what we label as a female result as much as what we label a male result (see particularly the work of J.A. Graves documented in various issues of journals such as Reproduction, Fertility and Development and Nature Genetics in 2000 and 2001.)
Apart from these minor discomforts, Transgender Good News is a stimulating guided tour of different ways to thinking about transgender experience and gender variance, an encouraging and hopeful exploration of Conover's own process of learning to view her own bi-genderedness in a positive way, of coming to terms with her faith (through texts of many faith traditions), and confronting many of the anti-trans ideas that have been promulgated by the likes of Janice Raymond, and the androgyny critique of theologian James Nelson. And I absolutely LOVE chapters 3 and 4, possibly the most thoroughly cogent critical reviews of the traditional literature on transgender and transsexual theories created to date.
I also found Conover's take on the nascent transgender community interesting: "There is no natural requirement that transgender people form a transgender culture. (p. 195). I agree with this statement, and I also acknowledge the truth that many transgender people want only to be men or women, not transpeople. Yet I also see a groundswell of transformative thought occurring in younger people today, largely because of the insistence of members of Conover's generation on open dialogue about gender variance. I think often members of any older generation (in which I include myself) do not see the effects of their own work, and they also have the all-too-human tendency to project their own experiences onto others. Conover at least acknowledges that the best hope of any future transgender culture (if we can manage such a thing) would be a truly multi-cultural world where diversity is honored and respected – which is what I believe is the real potential of transgender experience and consciousness. Conover's book is a step in that direction, whether she intended that or not. All Conover wanted to do was explicate transgender experience and expression and demonstrate logically that it can be a channel for God's grace. A bold undertaking; a journey on which it is worth accompanying her.