For my fifth of my 20BooksofSummer I made a small substitution, staying on-list but promoting this one over “Black and British” because it’s also Pride Month, so I wanted to get this one reviewed by the end of the month. This is another book I bought with my Book Token Splurge in June 2020 (and although you could castigate me for not having read the BLM and gender related books I bought them, I also haven’t read the horse book I bought then; it’s how my habit of buying too many books and my habit of reading them in acquisition order make things fall!).

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Juno Dawson – “The Gender Games: The Problem with Men and Women From Someone Who Has Been Both”

(18 June 2020)

Gender and I were always heading for a showdown. It was only a matter of time, and it’s a battle not yet won. (p. 4)

Much like Akala’s book, this views a particular topic, in this case gender, through the means and lens of a narration of the author’s life and personal experiences. Like with Akala, we find polemic, humour and careful referencing, frustration at the past and present and hopes for the future, but here, rather than race and class, we’re examining gender.

Juno is a person who is in the process of going through gender transition during the writing of the book, becoming the woman she always believed and wished she was.* She’s very honest and open about her previous identity as a gay man, forcing herself to adopt stereotypes more and more, ending up a gym bunny with a big beard, absolutely shocked to the core when she realises after talking to a friend that not all gay men have wished from childhood that they were born female. Once this has hit home, she realises she can’t not go down the transition path – and while we do then get a lot of intimate detail about that, not everything, not stuff about operations, etc – because that is personal and I really admire Dawson for drawing the line there.

[*I understand from reading “Trans Britain” that not every person with gender dysphoria has a narrative that goes right back to childhood, and that cisgender people, let alone clinicians, should stop looking for that when establishing whether to ‘accept’ a trans person’s identity. However, Dawson did identify this way; but she is at pains to remind us that everyone’s journey is different and also that trendy or ‘sudden onset’ trans identity is a description invented by broadly anti-trans groups, but people can discover who they are at any age or life stage.]

So after a memorable scene where Dawson comes out for the second time to her mum, and a useful chapter separating out sex and gender (there is a further glossary in the back, too), we follow her life through from early childhood to the time of writing, examining various other topics around gender as we go, whether that’s rape culture, toxic masculinity, sex and relationship education, gendering of toys, perceptions of motherhood and childless women, the sad divisions between some feminists and trans activitists, privilege … It all flows very well and is clearly the production of someone who knows how to write and organise material, but also knows how to confide and be revealing while maintaining boundaries.

Dawson is nicely careful about who she is speaking for. She knows she has had male privilege (though as a small, slight, gay man, not the full male privilege a straight or more imposing man would have) but uses that to interrogate the messages she was given and the female-orientated messages she could avoid. She make it plain she is wary of putting words into the mouths of trans people of colour or trans people with disabilities and mentions intersectionality and its special issues often. She’s so careful about the words she uses and I (as a cishet white woman) definitely don’t feel I’m being ‘mansplained’ to, as some people have accused her of doing (for a start, she’s a woman).

Anyone who thinks that transitioning is a choice or trend should be very aware of how gruelling it is and I don’t think anyone would stick it out for more than a week unless they absolutely had to. (p. 227)

This is very clear and something that probably needs to be spoken. Whether or not people go down the route of chemical or surgical procedures, and certainly for those people born before puberty blockers were able to help people who needed to transition not go through two separate puberties, it’s a hard path to walk that it’s unlikely anyone would walk if they didn’t absolutely need to. Those of us not on that path are exhorted to be kind and be supportive, to act as much as we can, to fight on women and minority groups’ behalf in the call to action at the end of the book (there’s also a great call to not assume that more ‘masculine’ women or more ‘feminine’ men are unhappy with their gender and want to change it; to just let people BE, which is refreshing).

An insightful, occasionally a bit rude, very open and honest read which has huge value.

This was book number 5 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!