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Author Julia Serano counters anti-transgender backlash with cautious optimism

The author of the iconic book on trans life, “Whipping Girl,” beams up to The Trans Sporter Room podcast to discuss writing and the reality of being trans in 2021 America.

Julia Serano speaks at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco for the launch of the second edition of her book, Whipping Girl in March 2016.
Julia Serano in 2016.
Wikimedia

Being a transgender American in 2021 has meant being at the center of a national statehouse-to-statehouse legislative debate that even earned a line in President Joe Biden’s address to Congress and the nation Wednesday.

Amid the maelstrom of anti-trans legislation and a community’s frustration, the word of a sage provided a deeper, and needed, context. On this week’s episode of the Outsports podcast The Trans Sporter Room, noted author, lecturer, musician and biologist Julia Serano brought that context in regards to her personal history as a trans person who found her truth more than a decade before the “tipping point” of 2014.

“It was different (then) in the respect that there was so little trans awareness that a lot of times when was explaining to people what was happening they just didn’t know. It was harder in a lot of ways to not be able to connect with people and not having them understand immediately as to who I was or what I was going through, but it also didn’t cross people’s most people’s minds that they would come across a trans person.” Serano said as she referred back to going through transition 20 years ago. “That, in some ways, made it safer especially today with all the backlash.”

Serano’s appearance on this podcast is also available to be viewed on YouTube.

“For a while it looked like we were making some progress,” she continued. “but I feel like we are very much in the backlash now. It's kind of depressing.”

In a far-reaching conversation, Serano touched on subjects from the current struggles regarding anti-trans legislation that has been in various stages of the process in 34 states. Since Wednesday, bills that would ban transgender student-athletes from participating were signed into law in West Virginia and revived and passed in Florida. She also discussed one of the biggest anti-trans talking points being sold in these fights: The fear-mongering surrounding transgender people who stand up against these measures and how “trans activist” has become latest pejorative of choice in our political discourse.

“People like to stick ‘activist’ on feeling like it invalidates you. I think in a lot of people’s mind that if you an activist then you are a little bit ‘radical’ or ‘out of control’,” Serano said. “What activist try to do is change people’s minds and change the world and that is what a lot of people are doing, right? I don’t know why people think calling people ‘activists’ is so bad, but it is in their minds.”

Serano is best known for writing a book that has been seen by many in the trans community as a cornerstone, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. The collection of personal essays, first published in 2007 and revised in a second edition in 2016, takes a deep spiritual and clinical look at the myths, misconceptions and reality of transgender women in regards to matters of femininity, sexism and misogyny.

“The one thing the book captured that many before didn’t capture was the intersection of being seeing seen as transfeminine in a world that is misogynistic and strongly anti-feminine,” she explained. “In this world we live people at least give lip service to the idea that women are men’s equal, but almost nobody is willing to say femininity is masculinity’s equal.”

With the recent visibility and backlash surrounding trans Americans, the themes of Whipping Girl take on a greater significance, especially in regard to the issue of transgender people and sports competition. “The thing that really strikes me is that there are two ways that you can caricature trans women,” she noted. “The version that I see with all the trans sport anti-trans propaganda is ‘the man in the dress’ and you see a lot of the right-wing just depict this idea of this giant man in a dress that is ‘invading’ women’s spaces. Then you have the whole opposite spectrum of the caricature of trans women as hyper feminine.”

Serano says her frustration with this latest anti-trans thrust is balanced by the positive signs in our society from the polls that show widespread opposition to discriminatory laws against trans people, to an openly supportive Biden presidential administration to the inclusion of a transgender person, Dr. Rachel Levine, as an official within that government.

“I’m cautiously optimistic and I say cautiously optimistic because it is a very dark time right now,” she answered. “This is what I feel has changed, a couple of years ago there were all these moral panic articles that were happening post ‘tipping point’ to the last few years. I think now, in the general cis majority, I hear people saying ‘Holy crap! I think this is extreme what these people are doing’.”

Check out the Outsports podcast, The Trans Sporter Room, for the complete interview with Julia Serano, including details on her debut novel, 99 Erics, and her view as a biologist on perhaps the most common anti-trans trope. Like all Outsports podcasts, The Trans Sporter Room is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and wherever you find Outsports podcasts.