Trans people are not just under attack in the media, in sports, in school curricula, or in bathrooms, but also in the very basic care we need to stay alive. With the increase of anti-trans legislation and the general lack of care for the lives of trans people, it’s more important than ever that cis people do what they can to speak up for the trans and gender nonconforming people in their lives (and not in their lives). But one thing that I think has been glaringly obvious over the past couple years is that many cis people — and I’m talking about the well-meaning cis people here, not the bigots — need a little help understanding exactly what it’s like to grow up, come out, and live fully as a trans person in this country and in this current moment. Don’t get me wrong: There is certainly plenty of information out there they can access to help them understand, and I’m not excusing their lack of effort in that regard. But I have often, in the course of my trying to make people see what it’s like to be trans and nonbinary, wished there was something comprehensive enough that could, at the very least, give other people some foundational knowledge they can use to propel them into some more radical education on the realities of our lives.
In his vital, timely new book He/She/They, Schuyler Bailar provides an extensive repository of fundamental facts and explanations for the most common experiences and aspects of trans people’s lives and how they live them. Bailar, who first made headlines for joining Harvard University’s men’s swim team and becoming the first trans athlete to compete in an NCAA Division 1 college sport, first made waves by openly sharing his story on social media. Since his early days on the Harvard men’s swim team, he has transformed into an activist and educator advocating for the inclusion and care of trans people in every part of our society. He/She/They condenses his experiences discussing the importance of using the correct pronouns, trans inclusion in sports, and how trans healthcare can save lives into a go-to text for anyone who is looking to step outside of the increasingly politicized and often unproductive conversation on what it means to be trans and gender nonconforming in the U.S.
With a combination of personal narrative, reporting, and scientific and historical analysis, Bailar has crafted a text that works as an accessible and compassionate reference for both people trying to become better trans allies and for people who are exploring or questioning their gender identity. Bailar divides the book into four sections that tackle different conversations on gender, trans identity, and what it’s like to exist in the world as a trans person. “Gender and Me” is a thorough explanation of the various descriptions and the terminology trans people use to identify themselves, the reasons why the sex and gender binary aren’t so cut and dry, why it’s important to use the correct pronouns, a short examination of the history of gender and gender nonconformity, and some myth dispelling in regards to gender dysphoria. “Gender and Others” is directed straight toward the potential allies reading the books and takes on the difficulties and joys of coming out for trans people and the ways people are explicitly and implicitly transphobic in their everyday lives.
“Gender and Society” is the largest section of the book and really expands the scope of the book to take a deeper look at some of the arguments and conversations that have become increasingly politicized in recent years. Here, Bailar discusses what life is like for trans children and how children can help people think outside the binary better, what the debates about bathrooms and sports get wrong about trans people and how we live our lives, the struggles of being trans and having other marginalized identities, and what dating looks like or can look like for trans people, among other important conversations. And finally, “Gender and You” concludes the book with a call to action for all cis allies to take more of an active role in educating themselves and standing up for trans people in every aspect of their lives.
As Bailar writes later on in the book, “The exercise of looking beyond one identity — be it transness or Blackness or Asianness or disability or queerness — is an exercise in peering into humanity” and that is the opportunity he provides here for the potential readers of this book. While some of it is directed at trans people and people who think they might be trans, the majority of the text provides some increasingly crucial information for people who live outside of those experiences. At every turn, it reminds readers that no matter how far from their own identities trans people might be, we’re all worthy of care, respect, love, and liberation from the systems attempting to destroy us and prevent us from looking after one another. While the book doesn’t get into the radical politics of transness and queerness, it is undeniably a helpful tool in helping cis people — especially cis family members and close friends — understand why their support and advocacy is so critical and necessary, especially right now.
Throughout the entirety of the book, Bailar does his best to break down complex ideas and information into the most accessible, understandable, and memorable pieces he possibly can, and that is what gives the book so much power. His conversational style quite literally invites readers of all backgrounds into the text and brings us along for a masterclass in providing a quick and seamless guide to a beginning understanding of some of the most important issues of our time. He is not only extremely generous in what he shares regarding his personal life and experiences but also generous in the way he treats his readers. Although he is trans and has learned a lot in his work as an advocate and educator, he doesn’t assume to be the authority on trans life and never speaks down to or about the people who are struggling to understand.
This is what makes He/She/They so useful in my opinion: it’s a non-confrontational look at what it actually means to exist as a trans person in the world and just asks that the reader reflect on what they’re learning and implement this new knowledge into how they move through our society. And I’d recommend suggesting it to as many well-meaning cis people as you possibly can.
He/She/They by Schuyler Bailar is out now.