Hi Arlene and thanks for joining me on the blog today! I enjoyed your book and am excited to have a chance to chat with you about it. Could you please tell us a little bit about your book, Unbound, and what got you interested in writing about this topic?
Hi Katie, Unbound is the story of four individuals who undergo “top surgery,” chest masculinization, the same day, at the same surgeon’s office in Florida. It follows their experiences over the one year, looking at the ways younger people are modifying their bodies and challenging popular notions of masculinity and femininity. Three out of four of the individuals I document are female-assigned individuals who are undergoing gender transitions, and are seeking to align their bodies with their masculine identities.
Was there anything specific you hoped to get out of writing this book – whether learning more about yourself, learning more about the trans experience, etc?
The project began five years ago, when a friend of mine accompanied a friend of hers to the doctor’s office in Florida. She told me about the long line of 20-somethings she saw there. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about how a younger generation of transgender men see themselves. Though I had written about the sociology of gender and sexuality for many years, and taught thousands of college students, I knew very little about transgender experiences. I have known some trans women but very few transgender men. That’s due in part to the fact that until recently this population was pretty invisible.
Is there one thing (or several things) you most want your readers to take away from this book?
What I learned from researching this book is that there is no one way of being a transgender man. Even among the four individuals who stories write about, there is a great deal of diversity. Some trans men want nothing more than to assimilate into the world as men; others embrace understandings of masculinity that call into question the notion of a gender binary.
The other thing I learned was that there are vast generational differences between the ways my (baby boom) generation saw gender and sexual nonconformity, and the ways younger (millennials) see it. We wanted to tamp down gender and make it irrelevant; this generation wants a thousand genders to bloom.
Was it difficult to gain the trust of the trans men and their families, significant others etc? Were families generally excited or reluctant to speak with you?
One of the surprising aspects of this project for me was how receptive individuals were to talking to me. Transgender men wanted to tell their stories, and they wanted to contribute to a book that they hoped would offer readers a way of understanding transgender experience. There are a lot of memoirs by transgender people, and scholarly works. But there are very few books that are accessible to general audiences, that situate people’s stories in social and historical context. I hope my book accomplishes that.
Could you tell us a little bit about any research you did in addition to the many interviews? As someone who has written scientific papers, I’m always interested in the research and sources that support nonfiction books.
I used a variety of different research methods, including multiple interviews with my main subjects, theirfriends and significant others, and some family members. I also interviewed surgeons, therapists, activists, and others. And I observed surgical settings. health conferences, and other settings.
In some ways, your opinions shine through in your writing – you obviously support trans rights, for example. In other cases, especially where there is disagreement within the trans community, I thought you did good job presenting both sides of an issue. Were there any issues you felt strongly about and intentionally worked to present without judgement?
My worldview was formed in relation to second wave feminism. I came of age believing that gender is something that is imposed upon us by teachers, families, advertising, and so forth. That’s true, in part. But while researching this book I also learned that many people see their gender identities as an intrinsic part of who “they are.” That insight challenged me. The book explores the tension between my own feminist “social constructionist” position and the opinions of my subjects, which often reflected a very different understanding of the world. I wanted to write about these differences in ways that could be illuminating and fruitful, rather than divide people up into enemy camps. Particularly at this time in our history, I think we need to be able to speak across differences.
Where can readers go online to learn more about your books?
You can find my work at http://arlenestein.weebly.com or follow me on twitter @SteinArlene.
Thanks for your interest in my work!