Trans/Portraits: At the Norwich Bookstore
Transgender (trans): An umbrella term used to describe many different people whose gender identities and expressions do not conform to the gender they were assigned at birth. -- Author Jackson Wright Shultz, Trans/Portraits, Glossary of General Terms The transgender community presents important issues--social, ethical, medical and legal. Or so my colleague and I learned, throughout a decade of a course we offered to both Dartmouth Medical and Vermont Law School students on the intersection of law and medicine. For this topic, several transgender individuals from the Upper Valley would volunteer to attend one class. Jack Turco, M.D., also a guest, along with my DMS colleague, would explain the biological how-to and I would present some legal cases involving employment, divorce, child custody, and estates. The transgender guests would tell the stories of their lives. Years later, it is the guests, and what they said, that my students and I remember. Nothing educates like stories; apparently human beings are wired for the narrative. Jackson Wright Shultz, scholar, activist, teacher, and writer knows this. His book, Trans/Portraits: Voices from the Transgender Communities, just published by Dartmouth College Press, contains the words of thirty-four transgender people. They talk, in real-people rather than academic style, about their transition experiences in small towns and big cities, the need for not “going it alone,” and how race and class may make a difference. In the final chapter, called Accidental Activists, they recount the many ways they try to advocate, including protests, mentoring a young person, or insisting on rights and respect in their workplaces. In many states, discrimination against transgender people in major areas of life, like employment, is still perfectly legal; that is one kind of battle. There is the ever-present and everyday issue of who gets to use which public bathroom, labeled as they often are as Ladies and Gents with no real definition. (If you are not a transgender person, you may think this is not such a problem. Picture yourself having to define yourself by some binary and not wholly spelled out standard every time you need to use a public toilet.) Pronouns: are he and she still up to their task or do we need new ones like ze that are gender-neutral and to the current ear, may look and sound awkward? (Wait, didn’t they say that about Ms.?) Shultz’s book contains helpful basic information that is fun to learn. There is a timeline of transgender history in the United States that includes the lesser known and the well-known, like Christine Jorgensen, who became a media phenomenon as a result of her gender reassignment surgery in Denmark. If you are of a certain age, you may remember her on late night talk shows in the 1960s. Renee Richards, in 1977, became the first transgender person to play in the US Open after a court ruled her eligible for the women’s division. Shultz also provides glossaries of general and medical terms, particularly appropriate as he begins the book with a chapter called “The Vocabulary I Had Been Lacking,” stating that transgender people themselves needed words, language, definition in order to speak about their reality. If you are not trans, and want to think and speak about this, you probably need the vocabulary too. It is the stories, however, that will stick. They are poignant and powerful, funny and sad, and surprisingly (or not), varied. They come from transgender men, women, people who have declined to call themselves either, Jews, Christians, gardeners, soldiers, nurses, police officers and ministers. They are young, or they have been around for a while. Shultz’s dedication page reads: “For Those Whose Truths Haven’t Yet Been Told.” With this book, at least some of those truths have been. Jackson Wright Shultz will be reading from his book at the Norwich Bookstore on January 20 at 7 p.m. Reservations are recommended.