I first heard about The Gender Book when a friend shared with me a BuzzFeed article announcing its creation earlier this year.
"So, what do you think? Is this good? Bad?" she asked, curious as to whether I viewed the project in a positive light (as I do the "Welcoming Our Transgender Family and Friends" PFLAG document I swear by) or as something more along the lines of the more spectacular failures of socially appropriative projects like Chrysalis Lingerie or "The Genderbread Person."
I read the article and browsed through the pictures, and generally, I liked what I saw. Still, as is often the case with media surrounding the oft-debated topic of gender, I had my reservations.
"It looks good, from what I can tell. Still, I think I'll have to hold my judgement until I see the final version."
Here I am, a few months later, and I've finally gotten around to checking it out. My verdict? It's good!
The book, which is essentially a massive, 94-page collection of gender-specific infographics, may be one of the most comprehensive and user-friendly pieces of literature on the topic of gender theory in recent history. Tackling topics like gender identity and presentation, gender-based assumptions, cissexism, pronouns, the gender binary, and the transgender umbrella, the book lives up to its name, providing the reader with an engaging Gender 101 lesson.
This isn't to say that I agree with everything that has gone to print. In fact, I remain somewhat concerned about some of the information contained on their "transgender umbrella" page. Feminine men, masculine women, drag performers and cross dressers are listed under the "transgender umbrella." This creates a definition of "transgender" that I don't personally agree with (and I suspect a large swath of people who fall into those categories don't either).
To me, the question of whether or not someone is transgender is best answered by asking, "Do I identify as the gender I was assigned at birth?" If yes, congratulations! You've won the gender lottery: You're cisgender. Come collect your prize. If you don't, you may be transgender, depending on how you self-identify. Essentially, I believe that whether or not someone is trans has to be defined by that individual, and hard and fast rules for what is and isn't transgender makes for a piece of media that's bound to result in some significant controversy. That said, the material contained within the book came from survey respondents, so it's not as though the authors just made this definition up on their own.
I had a chance to chat with Mel Reiff Hill, The Gender Book co-author and illustrator, about the process that went into this project.
Parker Marie Molloy: So tell me a little bit about the project. How did you and your co-creators come up with the idea for The Gender Book? How do you know one another?
Mel Reiff Hill: Well, the idea for the project started when we were all living in this big grey house in Houston together. We were housemates: friends, dogs, and ferrets, and a questioning genderqueer trying to find their way. We had talks in the living room about the GLBT teen suicides in the news, I ranted about my boyfriend having to pay to educate his therapist, and we all just wondered why there wasn't a better, easier resource for gender-diverse folks. Then we looked around and saw who was in that room: a writer, an artist, an editor and fundraiser, and a community leader. We could write that book we were talking about. So we did. It was just a fun project at first, doodles on the porch. We had no idea it would go this far.
Molloy: How do you and your co-authors relate to the concept of gender on a personal level?
Hill: Most of us identify with "genderqueer," that in-between area. To be more specific, we're drag kings, butches, on the transmasculine spectrum. That means we were all assigned female at birth, and we now find ourselves in different levels of masculine expression and identity.
Molloy: Gender is a hot-button issue with a lot of grey area, yet the book takes some rather firm positions. How did you decide what to include in the book and what to leave out? On more highly debated topics like what identities fall under the "transgender umbrella," what made you take the positions you did?
Hill: When in doubt, we erred on the side of inclusion. And we often changed things around based on community feedback. We had a long process of dialoguing about each page with the communities represented. The problem is that often these communities themselves have very different truths and understandings around terminology. Ultimately, we had to make some choices that not everyone can agree with 100-percent, but hopefully everyone can read without cringing. To help broaden our perspective, we enlisted everyone we could find to co-author with us through short, fun surveys. You can find their responses all throughout the book. That lets us show multiple opinions without having to say "this is right" and "this is wrong." It's more about sharing the individual's truths as best we can.
Molloy: What do you you hope The Gender Book will achieve? What goals do you have for this project? Why are you doing this?
Hill: We have some huge goals. We want to lessen the youth suicide rates by showing kids they're not alone. We want one less teen sleeping on the street when they come out. We want fewer trans* folks to have to educate their health professionals. We want to take care of the same old 101 conversations to open up space for more interesting and personal dialogues. And as a teacher and an artist, this is just the only way I knew how to help.