A lot of my favorite feminists are the feminists who stand up to the movement. Julia Serano is definitely one of them.
Julia describes herself as “a true Renaissance woman,” which is actually just code for there really is nothing she can’t do. Serano is, at most recent count, author of the Earth-shattering books Whipping Girl and Excluded, a biologist, a musician, a performer, and an activist. What brought me to Serano’s work, however, were the things she created last: her two books that completely challenged, confronted, and defeated notions of sexism and femininity that remained strongholds even within the mainstream feminist movement.
I came of age as a feminist in college, having been pretty sheltered and innocent until I first looked around at a dorm room and realized nobody was watching me anymore. The next few years were full of revelations, brought to me mostly by folks of color, gay dudes, queer chicks, gender non-conforming people, and other revolutionaries whom I fell in love with throughout my undergraduate career. The writings and theories of more recent, contemporary feminists became intrinsic to the work I was doing in and outside of my gender studies coursework as I approached graduation, among them Serano and the entire crew of Autostraddle Dot Com.
Whipping Girl and Excluded both touch on femininity, examining how a general disdain for what is perceived as feminine contributes to both transmisogyny and the overall violently sexist society feminists are constantly trying to confront. Modern textbooks, both books examine the feminine in different realms, with Excluded talking at length about how social justice movements have failed to embrace truly inclusive and intersectional frameworks. Through her own experiences and stories, as well as her amazing brain, Serano is able to call out the movements she calls home for excluding her, essentializing her experience, and refusing to accept her person.
In order to love a movement, you have to push it. That was one of the first things I learned about feminism, somewhere in between This Bridge Called My Back and a herstory lesson about The Lavender Menace. True revolutionaries have never chosen to ride out movements or bring them to their destined mainstream success; instead, they’re the ones who jump ship and demand the movement build a new island. Since its inception (be it defined as suffrage or the seventies, whichever you prefer), feminism has been rediscovered, redefined, and reclaimed over and over and over again – each time, coming to encompass new hearts. Feminism learned to be more racially inclusive, learned to be queer, learned to be a movement that fought for the working class, learned to be multifaceted, learned to hate men (and then, sometimes, forgive them), learned to sell sex, learned – well, you get my drift. And with each coming step toward a real, multidimensional movement, there have been people pushing and prodding and encouraging it to grow.
Serano’s work has been key in sparking dialogue about trans women, their experiences, and their needs to the modern LGBT and feminist movements. Where the feminine was once disdained, she came and painted pink on it; where her experiences were looked down upon, she proved they were meant to be revered. She has dared to tell her story over and over and over again, never for the sake of sharing but each time with purpose and with the meaning to improve the experiences of those who identify with it and those who someday might.
I had the privilege of chatting with Julia for this week’s column about her moving, her shaking, and her band. And, just as I said when I walked away from the feminist theories that no longer spoke to me: I regret nothing.
Ten(ish) Questions with Julia Serano
Hi, Julia! Thanks so much for agreeing to be a part of Idol Worship. You totally deserve it!
Thanks for having me!
You wear a lot of hats – poet, writer, biologist, advocate, speaker. What’s a day in the life of Julia Serano like? Do you ever sleep?
For a long time I had a full-time job as a biologist, and I did all of my writing, performing, and speaking on top of that. So yes, during that time there was not nearly enough sleep! However, my biology position ended about a year ago because the grant that was paying my salary ended. Since then, I’ve been primarily making ends meet through writing and speaking. My typical day consists of me spending copious amounts of time on my laptop with my bird Buddy sitting on my shoulder.
What’s it like being a femme trans woman in the sciences?
My personal experience in the sciences was fine: I was out as trans and queer in the workplace, and my co-workers and supervisors were all accepting and supportive. Some of this may be because I live in a relatively queer-friendly region of the country (the San Francisco Bay Area) and was working in an academic settling rather than a corporate one. Also, unlike most scientific fields, the one that I worked in (Developmental Biology) has a high percentage of women in it – most of the labs I worked in were actually more than 50% women. So there was far less of the rampant sexism that I’ve heard other women in the sciences and tech talk about.
The femme part of your question is interesting though. I call myself a femme tomboy, as I tend to be more feminine than the average queer woman (at least in my community), but I probably strike people as more of a tomboy in gender-stereotypical environments. In the sciences (or at least, in the scientific settings I’ve worked in), I have found there to be some suspicion and derision toward both high masculinity and high femininity. In twenty years of working in biology labs, the only people I witnessed being teased for their gender expression were women who were especially femme and men who came off as especially macho. So as a femme tomboy, I kind of fit in with the norm. But if I were a very butch woman, or if I came to work wearing make up and heels, it might have been a very different story.
You’ve been working in trans* activism for quite some time. What are some of the accomplishments you’ve played a role in which make you most proud? What do you think the most pressing issues are facing the trans* community today?
I am a writer, so most of my accomplishments have come from forwarding and articulating ideas. Of those, I am probably most proud of my critiques of trans-misogyny in Whipping Girl, and for some of my lesser known work debunking psychiatric diagnoses, theories, and depictions of trans people.
I think that the issues that trans people face today are for the most part the same ones that have long existed: challenging anti-discrimination and violence, making spaces safe and accessible for gender variant and non-binary identified folks, fighting medical pathologization while gaining access to healthcare, helping the most marginalized members of our community, and so on. Too many trans people struggle to simply survive, to get through each day safely – that has to be the most pressing problem.
Excluded focuses, often, on your broken relationship with the feminist movement. What brought you to feminism, and what keeps you there? Who are some of your feminist icons and your favorite feminist thinkers?
When I transitioned to female about 13 years ago, I knew going into it that I would face traditional sexism once people started perceiving me as a woman. But the visceral experience of being sexually harassed by men, or having them talk down to me or speak to me as though I were a child, was really intense. I was really angry for a long time. And feminism helped me make sense of that anger. It gave me a framework to understand my experiences, and it gave me the tools to help challenge the sexism that I faced.
It’s always been hard for me to reconcile the fact that feminism pretty much saved my life with the fact that that there have been strong currents within feminism that have attempted to erase me and my experiences as a trans woman. I know that a lot of women who have felt excluded from feminism for different reasons probably feel similarly conflicted. And I’m sure that some of them abandoned feminism altogether. But for me, I felt compelled to try to fix the parts of feminism that aren’t working so well – the parts that lead many to feel excluded from it.
As far as my favorite feminist thinkers and icons, it’s hard for me to answer that because I have been influenced by feminists all over the spectrum, and who often hold very different views from one another. I’ll be reading one of my more “favorite” feminist thinkers and they’ll say something that I completely disagree with. Then I’ll read another feminist whose perspective I mostly disagree with, but then they’ll say something really profound and insightful.
Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Where do you normally write, and how do you assemble entire books? Excluded was a series of older writings paired with newer pieces – how was piecing that together different than Whipping Girl? What were some differences in the processes for compiling both books?
I mostly write at home, and tend to be most productive when I’m nursing my morning coffee. I have found that I’m way more productive when I am up against a looming deadline, much to my chagrin, as I have way more fun writing when I am working on whatever I want at my own leisurely pace.
Writing Whipping Girl was intense. My publisher (Seal Press) gave me a year and a half to write it – that was the longest contract they were able to offer. I had a few pieces already written, but wrote almost all of the manuscript for that deadline. I wrote almost every single morning from 5-8am before work, and did my research at night before going to bed. In retrospect, I am not sure how I maintained that work schedule for such a long time.
For the second book, I didn’t want to have a deadline. So I wrote and wrote and wrote. And wrote. The book (which became Excluded) never quite came together until I signed a contract with Seal with a deadline six months away. At that point, it was more of an editing project than a writing one. It was about deciding which chapters to cut, how to distill three chapters of ideas down into one shorter and more compelling chapter, and so on. There was a lot of writing toward the end, but it was more re-writing what I already had than anything else.
Both Whipping Girl and Excluded touch on femininity, but focused on different arenas in life. Can you speak to your femme identity for a bit, and what motivates you to make work central to femme communities?
I suppose I have a fairly atypical femme trajectory. I grew up having to hide the more feminine parts of myself. Part of my coming to terms with me being trans was allowing the feminine aspects of myself out, whether it was through “crossdressing” (in my case, dressing and presenting myself as female) or simply moving through the world as someone who was perceived as a feminine man because of my mannerisms and personality. After my transition, when I began moving through the world as a woman on a day-by-day basis, I started repressing my femininity again – in part, to avoid sexual harassment from men, but also because I found that feminists and other queer women accepted me as a trans woman if I came off as more of a tomboy.
I had an epiphany in 2005 about how ironic it was that, while I was out as queer and trans, I was still in many ways back where I was as a child – repressing my femininity so that other people wouldn’t dismiss me. And I also began noticing how often anti-feminine attitudes come into play when people try to dismiss trans women (even though not all trans women are feminine in gender expression). That’s when I began to publicly claim a femme identity. While I am not the most visibly feminine person, I am politically committed to challenging the idea that feminine gender expression is inherently inferior to, or more artificial than, masculine or androgynous gender expression.
Did you expect Whipping Girl to blow up like it did? What was it like watching your work have such a massive impact on the feminist movement and feminist theory at-large?
When I first wrote Whipping Girl, I was pretty sure that it would resonate with many trans women and other trans-spectrum people, as I was writing from that particular standpoint. But my hope was that it would resonate with femmes as well, and perhaps even garner some awareness within queer and feminist movements more generally. When the book first came out, that’s pretty much what happened, and I was really excited that it seemed to make an impact outside of the “trans and femme” bubble. But I honestly was not expecting it to be considered an important feminist text or to be taught in gender studies college courses. At the time, I saw myself as an outsider challenging the feminist orthodoxy, so I never imagined that the book would be accepted in those ways. Frankly, it was sort of surreal.
Any sneak peeks into writing that’s on the horizon?
I have a couple potential future book ideas in mind. Since Excluded just came out, I want to give myself a bit more time before deciding which to commit to for the next book project. In the meantime, I have been getting back into music lately. For years, I played in an indie-pop band called Bitesize. While we are no longer playing together, I’ve been working on some new songs that I am in the process of home recording. So perhaps they will see the light of day before the end of the year.
Whipping Girl was the most influential work that I read while coming to accept my own identity as a queer trans woman and my complicated relationship with femininity. I’m so glad to see Julia Serano interviewed here. As a woman in the sciences I’ve also noted the trend (for myself and the cis women around me) is to play down femininity – in part in my case as an effort to be taken seriously. I work at an agricultural research center with likely a higher proportion of men to women and haven’t noticed as much of a similar trend among them.
Ooh, I was pleased as punch to find this article on my refreshed Twitter feed this morning. I’ve been an occasional reader of AS for a year and this is the first post I feel compelled to comment on, only to say thank you for posting on Julia Serano! This woman is truly amazing. I am in the halfway through Excluded and have found her writing to be so valid, compassionate and accessible. Really recommended reading for anyone who considers themselves part of the queer community, or who is trying to become a part of it. Currently, the queer community does a terrific job of excluding some individuals who are already being shit on by society at large, specifically trans women and to a lesser extent, traditionally feminine presenting folks.
When I came out as a lesbian, I immediately felt this subtle pressure to “butch up” my presentation, as if presenting in a more masculine way is somehow more legitimately queer or challenging the social hierarchy in any way. Recently, I’ve watched my trans women friends respond and react to all the awful transmisogny in the media, and the entire situation really blows. I’ve been learning that as a queer person, I must continue to expose and educate myself on different experiences of other individuals in the queer community and try to fight harmful misconceptions, even though (especially because?) I don’t feel like I have a home in any community here.
So stoked to see this! (Even though I still haven’t finished reading Whipping Girl because I would finish a chapter and be actively pissed off for days, until I finally realized I had to put it aside until I was less stressed out)
I loved Whipping Girl. I read it about 4 years ago and it really opened my eyes up to how femininity is not respected, both within the queer community and the world at large.
When I came out, I started dressing more “butch” (I am not very butch, it was more tomboyish on me) because I felt that was how I should “look gay”. While it is a look/style/identity I love on other people, it is not for me. I also had a scorn of femininity, and Whipping Girl made me look at how misogynist that is.
I now identify whole heartedly as femme, and have come to that very deliberately. I realized that when I wanted to wear more femme clothes, or heels, etc., I was deciding against it because I felt it was silly and almost demeaning, or I wouldn’t be seen as lesbian, or even respected in my career.
I tried to then deliberately choose the more femme “look”, as a way to counteract that misogyny in myself and to make it more visible to others. Now I have settled into a comfortable femme-ness, and still try to explore new ways of expression, and analyze my discomfort when trying new things (am I uncomfortable because this [makeup, skirt, shoe etc] is not ME, or because it is visibly feminine?).
To me it is partly a political stance, too – to be a smart, capable, lesbian, woman, and also to be femme – that power does not need masculinity.
And I feel damn hot doing it.
ps. Femme blog rec’s are much appreciated! I have learned a lot from other femme perspectives.
It’s interesting, I had sort of a similar process in a different direction. When I was growing up, I definitely had a lot of internalized misogyny, and dressed in a sort of nondescript, I-don’t-care way that was more defined by not being stereotypically feminine than anything positive. Working through my internalized misogyny, my disdain for the overtly feminine, gave me the space to be masculine of center, to be butch. I had to understand and appreciate the path that I was not taking in order to come to a positive, deliberate identity and style of my own – an identity that was about me and who I was, not simply a rejection or downplay of something that I feared being associated with.
Ok but Julia Serano has recently said some really fucked up, stupid racist shit. So maybe she ‘s not the best person to talk to about “fixing feminism” when the problems with feminism are mostly race based. (Racism in general, issues faced by trans women OF COLOR, etc)
“As a white person, I never have to think about race, except on those rare occasions when I am in a non-white majority space… .But gender is different. Everybody has a gender.”
What kind of bullshit is that? Also, her non-apology was just as messed up. Zero love for someone that ignorant.
I felt she was talking about privilege and owning up to that privilege (in other words, being honest about what privilege she has as a white person). But I think it’s totally fair to call her on that and insist on a discussion about the issue of race. I very much disagree with you that “most problems with feminism are race-based.” Yes, racism is ONE of the key issues, but there others involving class, cis-normativity, ablism, gender-expression, etc.
Yeah, to say that white people don’t need to think about race (in the sense that it isn’t an important thing to think about) is such a bizarre comment for an activist to make that I have to wonder if that’s what she meant. It sounds more like she is saying that white people have the privilege not be defined by our race in the same way as people of color, but that all people, men included, end up getting defined by our genders?
That said, it is definitely a poorly worded statement. I read her response, and she doesn’t address people’s concerns very clearly there either. If she did mean to suggest that white people need not concern themselves with racial issues, that’s obviously false and seriously not OK. As a fan of her work, I really hope that is not what she believes.
I’m going to just leave Monika (or MHz)’s response here:
For the record, don’t really care about two white people arguing the criticism.
Great interview, I was super excited when I saw this article
i recall Johnny 5 making this fixing misconception. once. i think it was about a grasshopper.
but at least he’s an adorable companion for JS to be wrong with, together.
“In order to love a movement, you have to push it.” Yesssss. I’ve also just added Whipping Girl to my reading list.
Serano is the best for sure. I’m also a big fan of Natalie Reed, they’ve both written super great stuff.