What do you think of when you think of gender? Female and male? Skirts and slacks? Uggs and Axe? Common conception draws a solid line between the “feminine” and the “masculine.” But what happens when you don’t fit into either category?
The poem “Cocky” by writer, poetry slam champion, trans activist and trans woman Julia Serano, puts it best: “When a man is defined as . not female / And a woman is defined as . not male / I am the loose thread / That unravels the gender of everyone around me.”
Serano will read her spoken word poetry at the Aut Bar at 8 p.m. and will give a talk tomorrow called “Transsexual and Trans Feminine Perspectives on Sexism” in Lane Hall at 3 p.m.
Serano was born in a male body, but gender-identifies as female. In short, she’s transgender, and according to the University’s Spectrum Center website, “Transgender is an umbrella term describing people who do not ‘fit’ into traditional gender categories.”
She has lived as both a male and female. One might think the difference between seeing the world through a man’s eyes versus a woman’s may be marginal, but Serano begs to differ.
“When I was transitioning from male to female, there was a year of my life where people were (just beginning to assume) I was female,” she said. “It was definitely a shock to the system.”
Different types of gender-based sexism immediately became noticeable to Serano during her daily life.
“There were a lot of things I could have expected would happen, like receiving cat calls or having men talk over me. But it’s another thing to experience it for yourself first hand,” Serano said. “But I have to say there is also sexism that I encountered when I was male-bodied.”
The sexism she experienced in a male body was based on the presumption that men are “predators” or untrustworthy – mothers would become visibly bothered when Serano interacted with their children. Now, however, “These days I’m in the same situation, but now people see me as female, I can interact with the child and it’s not a big deal,” she said.
Her own “anger and frustration” over sexism sparked a creative and activist urge in Serano. She’s a poetry slam champion in Berkeley, San Francisco and San Jose. Her poems (like “Cocky”) are socially and politically charged indictments of gender stereotypes.
Serano has also published a book of essays titled “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity,” which demystifies modern conceptions of “the transsexual” as the spectacle seen in shows like “Jerry Springer” or in films like “The Crying Game.”
“If you’re seen as male or seen as female, people make assumptions about you, and these assumptions don’t always fit who you are,” Serano said. “I think all of us experience different types of sexuality assumptions that we have to navigate, and these create obstacles in our lives.”
Music is another outlet through which Serano demonstrates her emotions and opinions. She’s the lead guitarist, vocalist and lyricist of a San Francisco Bay-area band called Bitesize, which has been around since the late ’90s.
“Bitesize lyrics are kind of on the silly or surreal side with a kind of deeper point,” she said. “They talk about difference a lot, and this is something that has always interested me, not only in lyrics, but in my writing about gender.”
Serano classifies the band as a “noise-pop or indie-rock band.” The sound is bass-driven and almost punkish, and the lyrics describe the feeling of growing up, with all its confusion and complexity.
“A lot of (the songs) relate to things I experienced during my teenage years as someone who’s had the experience of feeling like a misfit,” she said. “And I think that’s something all of us, whether queer or not queer, will have experienced at some crucial time in our lives.”
Serano’s various works all fit together because they make-up her identity as a trans woman, activist, poet, writer and musician. Ultimately, her experiences have proven to be the most influential.
“A lot of what drives me is having the experience, as a young child, back when I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, where there was almost no talk whatsoever about transsexuals. The word ‘transgender’ wasn’t even used back then,” she said.
Through it all, her anger about sexism, her interest in activism and her desire to have trans issues more publicly addressed, she’s found a way to channel everything into something she’s truly devoted herself to: writing.
“I’ve somehow learned how to take pride in struggling with something internally and figuring it out,” she said. “And then, as a writer, getting the chance to write it down and share it with the world.”