A Review of a Transgender Book.

Transgressive: A Trans Woman on Gender, Feminism, and Politics by Rachel Anne Williams.


[This review was originally going to appear on goodreads. but it exceeds the character limit, and I don’t feel like editing it down. So I am posting it here on my blog, which I had thought of doing anyway because of nature of the review, and providing a link for readers of my reviews on goodreads.]

This book is a collection of blog posts from Rachel Anne Williams, a former Ph.D candidate in philosophy. We actually share a lot in common. Although, I was never an academic like Williams, a wrote on philosophy in a blog, and switched to writing a transgender blog. Mine admittedly is less philosophical than hers, but the philosopher (she seems to identify this as a central trait of hers) in me is still not silent there. We are both attracted to other transwoman, although she has a larger range of sexual attractions. We both transitioned late with little awareness of being a transgender woman when little, although I transitioned much later (at age 60). We’re both feminists and transfeminists. And we both felt our gender dysphoria more after starting to transition. These comparisons are taken both from the book and her goodreads’ blurb. I make no assumption that she would agree. And, I would add that we are in no way carbon copies of each other; I believe she and I are much too independent of mind to be so.

Having said this. I experience lots of sparks as I was reading this book. This is probably going to be my most intimate of book reviews. This seems right because she shared her life freely in the book.

So, let me begin as usual and try to present a synopsis. Rachel Anne Williams starts with a series of chapters on exploring what could be called tranness. Then comes chapters exploring feminism more directly including “Why I was not born in the wrong body.” Which I had read briefly before on her blog. She next writes on transitioning and its issues. Then, she has a group of chapters dealing with politics. Then come chapters more to the philosophical side of transgenderism. She closes with chapters in an autobiographical mode, not that she had not shared much of herself in earlier chapters. And she provides a good bibliography.

The following are comments based on my notes as I read the book. As I indicate some off these comments are very personal. The numbers in brackets [] are Kindle locations.

[141] “One of the things I have learned since I started writing on trans/queer topics is that the best policy is to always stay in my lane. And by that I really do mean: my lane. I should only be writing about my trans experience and not extrapolate that to other trans people because everyone is different, has a different set of life experiences, assumptions, values, beliefs, and so on, and it would be pure hubris to think that I could somehow act as a voice to represent all trans people. Nobody can do that. And if it comes off that way in anything I write below, I apologize ahead of time—I am still learning to stay in my lane.” I try to do the same thing in writing on my transgender blog. I never want to assume my experiences are exactly like anyone else’s. I am a firm believer that each one of us is an individual and should be seen that way.

[160] “But I have an even greater job for you. I want you to engage in both critical reading and constructive reading. Constructive reading is reading with an eye for improvement: how can this idea be made better? How can we work together to create a better vocabulary, a better conceptual toolkit to understand the world? But also: what am I missing? Whose voice have I left out? Am I going outside my lane? Show me. But please do it gently. In grad school, we learned a technique called the ‘shit sandwich.’ You start with a compliment, then the criticism, then another compliment. So please, make me a shit sandwich.” Sounds like good advice, I will have to try an incorporate that in my writing when writing about others views.

[246] “Unfortunately, I suspect that the human brain is wired to prefer simplistic models . . .” She was referring to individuality and diversity of transgender persons, but I think it applies more widely, and goes a long way to explain why people think in black and white terms. So much easier than trying to examine the grays in between, where life is so often lived. It also explains the attraction of the ten commandments in moral thinking. Thou should or should notplain and simple.

[258] “There are no generalizations to be made in terms of all trans women—every trans woman has a different experience of living pre-transition and post-transition with regard to privilege.” Speaking more broadly, that is why I don’t care for the inclusive “we are all the same” as a statement of acceptance for marginalized groups. It grates me to no end. I real peeve for me.

[279] “It’s a myth that gender identity is formed for life within the first five years of life. While that might be true for many people, it is not a universal truth as my own life is a clear counter-example (and internet research tells me I’m not alone).” I can personally testified that Williams is right here. I did not fully identify as a woman until I was 59, and I defy anyone to say I am not trans enough or woman enough for that matter.

[289] “I have always been attracted to the pragmatic tradition in philosophy, which connects the concept of “truth” more closely to what works for us (where the idea of what ‘works’ does imply an objective sense of running up against reality).” I find being pragmatic is a good way to live life, and yes it does have match reality or it wouldn’t work. This does not mean I live by no principles, however.

[297] “If someone’s trans identity originated in their 40s, that does not make their trans identity less authentic than someone whose trans identity originated in childhood. If someone starts painting in their 40s, does that make them ‘less’ of a painter than someone who has been painting since infancy? A painter is someone who paints. A trans person is someone with a gender identity different from their assigned gender. It’s not ‘gender identity different from assigned gender but also having emerged by 5 years old.’ It just has to be different. But the causal origins of the identity itself in terms of when it originated in the lifeline are not relevant for the authenticity of the identity.” Totally agree. I would point out that there was and can still be a push to say the person identified earlier to meet the demand of medical gatekeepers. I believe she brings up the issue somewhere in the book.

[316] “Bornstein retorts that it’s her right to reappropriate ‘tranny’ for herself just like some gay people have reappropriated ‘queer,’. . . “ I have use the identifier of “gurl” at times in the same way, as this term can certainly be a slur, but I happen to think it is cute the way it is spell with a “u.”

[339] “I don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over finding the perfect label.” The only label that is accurate of me 24/7 is Stephie. Other labels are used in context only (e.g. cook, writer, transwoman).

[355] “I have always given little fucks about what society thinks . . .” I am independent of mind myself.

[371] “We should be focusing on listening to each other, listening to our unique stories, and celebrating our differences rather than trying to fix all trans people into a single theoretical model. Why not let 1000 flowers bloom?” Yes a whole botanical garden full of which I am one.

[393] “The more I explored my femininity, the more I realized desires were emerging that told me I could no longer live a dual life. I needed to make a binary transition to the other side of the gender spectrum.” I have had intensifying feelings of femininity once I started to explore it in earnest 6 years ago, and even after I fully identified as a woman they have continued to intensify.

[418] “But in so many trans narratives we see a reluctance to talk about the nurture side of the equation.” In my case I needed both water and fertilizer 🙂

[440] “Thus, from a phenomenological perspective it seems that it was not gender dysphoria that caused transition but transition that caused dysphoria.” She was speaking of herself and I concur, it was only after I decided to transition that I began to have more serious issues with gender dysphoria, like I never considered my voice so much until I started to pass on my looks alone, or at least be gendered correctly by others until they heard my voice.

[458] “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at work and had customers—usually little children—debate among themselves what my gender is. Kids are never quite sure. And I often observe adults struggling with pronouns around me; there is a slight sense of hesitation, they are not quite sure if I’m a ‘he’ or ‘she,’ I am stoic—I have learned to not react either way because I never want to be accused of ‘tricking’ anyone. I’m just trying to be myself.” For myself at the present time I will politely but firmly say that I am not a sir if someone identifies me as one. Most people that actually hear me or respond are apologetic.

[466] “Maybe one day I will afford to have my trachea shaved down. Or maybe one day I will be able to find professional voice therapy covered by insurance.” I will first say that a trachea shave is a risky procedure. And secondly, I have found a local university whose speech lab offers free training working with a graduate student under the supervision of the professor of speech pathology specializing in feminine voice training. It cannot be the only program out there, so it would be worth the effort if you wish to seek this and inquire of universities near you for those who do not have sufficient funds to pay a therapist. Unfortunately, the speech lab is temporarily closed do to covid-19 restricitons.

[602] “But the point is not that the inclusion of trans people absolutely needs to be the number one priority of feminism. Rather, the point is that we should be strengthening our intersectional muscles in general, and listening to trans people is a fantastic exercise. If cis feminism can include trans feminism, feminism itself is in a good position to be more intersectional in all areas of life.” What might have not been said with as much clarity is transfeminism is also a subject for itself because of the intersectionality she mentions.

[630] “. . . I would have not experienced the encounter at all because the small positive of affirmation is not worth the greater negative of fear and disgust.” She said this about an instance of being cat-called, but had related that it was gender affirming. I might have felt the same affirmation, but I would also imagine I would have also experienced the fear and the disgust. I wrote this before I had an experience with it myself. This guy at a strip mall as I approached him ask “how are you doing momma.” I answer okay and continued to walk by. He did not follow, but still after a while I felt the need to get my mace spray handy. So I felt the fear, but like Ms. Williams it was also affirming.

[793] “Another powerful metaphor is software running on hardware. The metaphors are endless.” She is attracted to metaphors like I am, and sees them operating in a cognitive manner. Here I would have to differ. Software implies a programmer. Who or where is this programmer supposed to be? My preferred metaphor for the mind is that it is a huge relational database. I based this metaphor on my observation that my own mind creates connections between many and related ideas.

[804] “If I had been ‘born a girl,’ would I have become a philosopher? Given how sexist the field of philosophy is (not to mention the society itself), it’s unlikely. Yet my primary identity is that of ‘philosopher.’ Before ‘woman,’ I am a philosopher. Before ‘trans,’ I am a philosopher. Being a philosopher is more predictive of my behavior and thought than any other trait. It’s fundamental to who I am and how I operate.” I became Stephie when I full recognized my female gender identity. It does not matter if I knew from an early time in my life that I was a girl/woman. I am now Stephie, but I am also multiple’s of partial labels: a woman, a philosopher (like the author), a writer, a friend, a lover, a cook and a baker, and other things I do in my life. I also have several medical conditions, but I am not any of them. Even as I became Stephie, the core of who I am remained the same.

[899] “Furthermore, I think there is political power in making the umbrella as large as possible. The more voices are walking under the trans flag, the more power we have in the system.” I try to be as inclusive as possible, but at the same time I don’t want to put anybody under something they themselves would not want to be considered under.

[1017] “The problem is that cis identities are seen as fundamentally more healthy and normal than trans identities. And I mean “normal” as in ‘normative’ not ‘statistical.’ Trans people are obviously in the statistical minority, but that alone doesn’t make our bodies or our identities pathological—anomalous but not necessarily pathological.” Totally agree.

[1140] “It’s a strange feeling opening your mouth and feeling acutely just how ‘wrong’ your own voices sounds.” Currently, the most dysphoric moments I experience.

[1162] “I get clocked pretty much every time because of my voice.” It is pretty much the same for me. It often goes from ma’am to sir when they here my voice. On the phone I get misgendered every time unless they already know me as Stephie.

[1180] “And if you live in an area of the world that is relatively friendly to trans people, or at least not actively unfriendly, then you too can learn to say ‘fuck it’ to passing.” Maybe I can’t say fuck it to passing but I will not allow anyone to make me feel any less than who I feel that I am, which includes being a woman. I am fortunate to have built a strong sense of self through many other trials in my life. I too live in an area that is pretty trans friendly.

[1196] “In a way, transphobes use misgendering as a political weapon, to upset trans women and get under their skin, provoking anger which can then be used to ‘prove’ they’re still male socialized.” What woman doesn’t get angry. Tell it to my mom. Tell it to myself.

[1240] “I haven’t quite learned how to truly say ‘fuck it’ to passing. I still care about passing very deeply and perhaps always will.” I might not either, but as long as I am gendered correctly I don’t care very much if people know I am a transwoman.

[1245] Ms. Williams questions certain terms that are used in a non-gendered way, or could be viewed as such in certain situations. My peeve is with being included in being a guy when someone says “hey guys.”

[1248] “Did that customer just include me in their reference to ‘ladies?’ (internal leap of joy).” This not long ago happened to me when I was dining out with two ciswoman. The waitress said, “would you ladies like anything else.” I was ecstatic.

[1253] “The gender machine is deeply metaphorical: it provides the foundation for our entire understanding of culture, pop culture, songs, movies, and so on.” I wrote a blog post on this (Have You Been Gendered?).

[1328] “Often it strikes me that I am not a person in the traditional sense—a better description is that I am a becoming, a process, a field, a flow of atoms.” That is a better description of being a person. When the process stops you are dead and so is your sense of self. You may consider that you will live on in peoples memories, but those memories are processes too.

[1410] “If you watch the cis media, usually the trans people interviewed or recognized are highly passing trans people, which is unrepresentative of the whole trans community (this is especially true for the community of trans women . . .” This is exactly what I thoughtJazz Jennings and crowd.

[1492] “You might not necessarily hate your body but nevertheless desire to medically transition because you believe that would bring greater satisfaction into your life.” That’s about the same way I think of it. It’s really no different from cis-persons having plastic surgery.

[1523] “I take a non-reductionist view of transgenderism. It cannot be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions universal to all trans people, nor can it be reduced to any one physical condition, medical pathology, process of identification, and so on.” I take this to be a non-essentialist position. Reductionist arguments to me is where something reduces to something else as in biology reduces to chemistry. I am right on board with her non-essential position.

[1537] “In reality, gender is far too complicated for black and white, easy answers.” Most things in life are not black and white. Life is best lived in the gray zone. If you only think there is only one right way you will often be wrong.

[1702] “A conclusion is what you reach when you get tired of thinking. Anonymous” Lol, I love this quote.

[1745] “The truth might be out there, but it’s quite another thing to assume we have arrived at it in its entirety.” The truth is something we assign to the world as with any other meaning, what is import is if a truth aligns with the world as it is. Not all that easy to determine as the author points out.

[1788] “Ironically, most Birthers [those who think gender is totally inborn] think that consciousness and the soul can come apart from biology but not gender for some reason . . .” But, the soul is imaginary. Know one can claim to know there soul, but most people including trans people know their genders.

[1873] “The number of trans women who don’t want super large breast implants vastly outweighs the number of trans women that do . . .” Yeah, I’m finally in a majority.

[1897] “. . . most trans people do not transition because of gender expression—it’s usually about our bodies or our deep-seated sense of identity, and the clothing is usually secondary.” I don’t know about anyone else, but identity comes before appearances, although I started with dressing to explore my femininity, but found through this that my true gender was female.

[2125] “Being trans is no walk in the park. It can be a hard life. But it is also very rewarding.” I feel the same way.

[2279] “. . . which is to view humanity in terms of the radical spectrum of individual differences that make us each unique beings.” There will never be another Stephie.

[2406] “Before I get started, I need to make a disclaimer: this essay is entirely about my narrative. I not only want to speak just for myself but I believe I cannot do otherwise. Talking about trans women, male privilege, and male socialization is difficult because here, language matters. Words have power and the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ are not strictly scientific concepts—they are loaded with political, social, and personal connotations. When we choose to apply sex/gender terms to trans people without their consent we are are preventing them from creating their own narrative about their relationship to gender and directly causing pain.” This is such a great way to approach not just gender but all individuality.

[2535] “Mental metaphors” I use metaphors to look at and deal with my life. Financial metaphors were very important to me for awhile because they help me focus on needed changes in viewing my life, like being invested in something or branching out (i.e. trying new things). I have also use puzzle metaphors in relation to problem solving. And life is an adventure in dealing with stressful events.

[2849] “In my own experience, I transitioned for many reasons. I do have a history of crossdressing fetishism but to say that the only reason I decided to transition was because of that history is simply a naive and overly simplistic explanation. In reality, there was a confluence of multiple factors all pointing towards a certain transition pathway.” I cannot deny that it was the same for me. I do consider those early days as an exploration of my femininity leading to recognizing my female gender. So it had at least two functions for me.

[2876] “So I want to coin a new term: autotransgynephilia—the love of oneself as a trans woman.’ Sign me up. Hehehehe

[2907] “Mainstream trans discourse is so hung up on bio-neurological explanations of I was ‘born this way,’ focusing on brain sex theories, fetal hormone levels, and so on.” It is all biological. We are physical beings without some separate mind goo. How it got that way is a matter of several causal pathways including genetic and social. We react to social clues in a physical manner, just as physical as any genetic or non-social physical effects. Social cues may play a greater role in late recognizers like me and possibly the author. But, our brains probably developed to accept those social cues. Earlier recognition maybe more genetic and epigenetic, but there are probably some kind of environmental influences anyway.

As you can tell from most of my comments I could relate to a large amount of what Rachel Ann Williams has written in this book. This is only the second 5 star transgender book I have read. Besides the other one, they were all 3 stars or lower. The other 5 star book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Trans by Brynn Tannehill was very good, but in a different way. In that book, which was very well written like this one, there was a lot more information as it covered practically the whole spectrum of transgender issues. However, with Ms. Williams book I loved the analysis (not surprising for a philosopher) of the things she wrote about and how these issues affected her life. So, I thoroughly enjoy this book—practically every page. I enjoyed it so much I was sorry to see it end.

If you want an honest personal appraisal of transgender issues, I highly recommend this book. Some of it expresses view not usually encountered in transgender books. But I would say put on your thinking cap on before reading. Who knows you might devour the book like I did. For others interested in trans stuff I think you could still like the book. I would even recommend it in an offhanded way to bigots just to get their blood boiling, which on second thought might not be a good idea as this could lead them into performing some nasty acts against transgender people.

† If you could give a book 6 stars I would have.

3 thoughts on “A Review of a Transgender Book.

  1. Hi Stephie,
    What an interesting read! Thank you for sharing this with us.
    There are many points for discussion but I’d like to take the opportunity to comment further on two of them, if I may.
    [279] “It’s a myth that gender identity is formed for life within the first five years of life. While that might be true for many people, it is not a universal truth as my own life is a clear counter-example (and internet research tells me I’m not alone).” I can personally testified that Williams is right here. I did not fully identify as a woman until I was 59, and I defy anyone to say I am not trans enough or woman enough for that matter.
    There is a part of the brain (I can’t remember the name of it) which differs in size between males and females and which, in transgender individuals, is often (but not always) found to relate in size to that of the gender to which the person identifies. So in this respect I’m a “Birther” or, more accurately, a “Pre-Birther”. I consider that our gender identity is, and always has been, a part of us. Therefore my conclusion is that you have always been female and it was just your awareness of this that came to fruition in later life.
    [1410] “If you watch the cis media, usually the trans people interviewed or recognized are highly passing trans people, which is unrepresentative of the whole trans community (this is especially true for the community of trans women . . .” This is exactly what I thought—Jazz Jennings and crowd.
    This is one of my pet hates about the media. They either project the issue of transgenderism via drag queens or, as referred to here, they cherry pick highly attractive and well passing individuals (either male or female, but mostly female) as guests on chat shows. I suppose it’s just “baby steps” in that at least transgender people are being seen in the media at last, but it’s time for a greater truth to be told by including “run of the mill” transgender people; transgender people for whom the public may have to look twice or, better still, those who will never pass. I have recently thought about writing to some of the television networks over here in the UK on this very subject, and even offering myself up as an example of such that they could use, because an issue which I have NEVER heard discussed in the media is “trans envy”. There are so many examples in YouTube channels of highly attractive transgender people, mostly in their 20’s and early 30’s, and when I look at some of those young ladies my heart bleeds because I never had the opportunies that they have now. IF I had been able to transition in my late teens or early 20’s then, as I looked at the time, I may well have been able to pass (with the help of some voice therapy). But the passing of the years and a lack of approriate hormone treatment means that I have missed my chance, for ever, and so I feel that myself and others like me are becoming something of a hidden majority in a way.
    Apologies for the length of the comment, but it’s always good to be able to discuss these issues with you.
    Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tish,

      First, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      Second, I would like to respond. Fair enough we are entitled to our own views on life. Especially, when those views enhance your life and understanding thereof. My response starts with the fact that none of us are fully formed at birth. We are at least half potential. It is estimated that personality is 50% genetics, like your overall happiness. I had noted a quote on page 1328 that I agreed with the process view of being a person. She uses an argument in the book such as this one: if became a cook late in life, was I born a cook. It seems unlikely, and I think gender can be viewed in this way too. Some come to their gender at different times in their lives. My comments on page 2907’s quote provides a bit more nuance approach to the issue. This is how I view my life best. Could I have identified as a woman earlier? Yes, but I didn’t. Was I born as a woman in terms of gender identity? No. Was I born with potential to become a transgender woman? Most likely. Gender identity cannot be isolated from genetics because is seems highly unlikely that gender identity is a social construct, or purely so, where as gender expression is certainly socially influenced.

      I would also comment on those transgender studies that show brain differences. I do not question the validity of those experiments. But, I do think that they do not show what a lot of people think or assume they do. These scans were done on individuals who where already identifying as transgender persons vs. controls that did not. As far as I know they where taken after the gender identity had already been formed, so the development of the brain differences could have occurred later in life and not at birth. To assert that you would need scans of newborns. Then compare those who would identify as transgender persons versus those who did not to reach a valid conclusion of birth causality.

      On your reflections on the second quoted passage I want to first encourage you to challenge the media. At an earlier point in time. I had what I called the (https://stephiegurl.home.blog/2019/10/18/why-cant-i-be-pretty-like-her/ ) syndrome. These jealous longings include transwoman. Fortunately, I have overcome this to a large degree, although there are times I slip back into that mode of thinking. My above post will explain how I did this. As Ms. Williams says somewhere in the book we have been poisoned by “T” (testosterone). And some of this poisoning is not correctable, like are voices, male pattern baldness, or bone structure. Those fortunate enough to have been given puberty blockers before cross hormone treatment can even avoid those issues, except maybe for the baldness one—your screwed by you genes there. I don’t begrudge those that have been able to achieve a highly passable look or at least have very little issues with passing. I will blame the media for their slanted presentation of transwoman. A bit of blame probably lies in viewers of these media episodes as some would rather be titillated than be educated.

      I will add that you have no reason to be apologetic from my point of view for the length of your replied. I enjoy hearing what my readers have to say, provided they follow my commenting policy, which you have.


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