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There is nothing so basic to human thinking as gender, nothing so fundamental. Not knowing whether someone is male or female is like missing a crucial piece in a social puzzle that makes the motif blurred as long as it stays hidden. And most of the time we want to construct distinct portraits of each other! It makes our lives easier, it makes understanding others seem easier! It guides us when thinking about, interacting with and interpreting others. A person whose gender is difficult to decide may intrigue us, but the practical part of us doesn't appreciate fuzzy pictures; it wants indisputable indications of what gender someone belongs to. However, with other species in the animal kingdom we tend to be less particular. A fish is first and foremost a fish, and the we can interact with birds and even domesticated animals such as cats and dogs without necessarily having to be sure about their gender. Gender is thus a piece of human, social information that we seem to think we cannot live without. However, some people feel they cannot live because of it.
The Praeger Handbook of Transsexuality takes us through the different stages of a gender transition process that a small number of people go through every year in order to match gender with mindset. It is the kind of book that helps one to start thinking about an issue -- in this case 'gender' -- in a different, more complex way than our colloquial thinking allows us to. Throughout its pages, it shows how there is nothing natural about our binary classification male/female, just something simple and practical. History, medicine and personal experiences all show that there is more to gender than either/or, more than just a neutral description of biological facts. In discussing transsexuality in a clear, concise, straightforward manner, The Praeger Handbook of Transsexuality puts gender in a perspective that makes new sense of its complexities.
As to definitions and concepts, the field of transsexuality, corresponding with its contents, remains in flux. From a traditional point of view it is concerned with gender anomalies and what lies in between or outside the two "normal" states of being (e.g. man or woman) -- concepts that have made life and self-identification difficult for people in the transsexual community. Thus it is not surprising that the field is not characterized by strict definitions and fixed positions. The Praeger Handbook of Transsexuality does, however, introduce the reader to facts, thoughts and concepts that make the multi-faceted field of transsexuality graspable. It is not a book that has a strong philosophical, anthropological or even theoretically psychological perspective on its theme, nor is the language technical. Instead, fifteen easily digestible chapters cover aspects such as hormone therapy, legal rights, family and social issues, biological basis, psychological basis, historical basis and surgical conditions. Heath is the kind of erudite writer who combines passion, commitment and objectivity into a non-pedagogical, educative, thought-provoking tone.
The Praeger Handbook of Transsexuality is a perfect book for getting a basic introduction to the varied dimensions of gender transition processes, for understanding the basic implications of transsexuality, intersex conditions, the basis of gender identity atypicality and its consequences. It is a handbook for anyone whose work involves the understanding of people. Nevertheless, I encourage anyone at all interested in knowing more about gender to read the book. It will inevitably broaden the mind and make you more well-informed about the costs of not fitting the patterns that direct our society, as well as the efforts of striving for another, truer existence. To transcend traditional genres of being is not for free, but the process may, however, lead to freedom.
© 2008 Minna Forsell
Minna Forsell is a psychologist, recently graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works as a writer, translator and research assistant. She hopes to pursue a career as a researcher in the field of environmental psychology.
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