I’ll admit that, as a trans person myself, I might be just the smallest bit biased when choosing a rating, for what may be the first event at Edinburgh International Book Festival to feature two trans people on the same stage. As I sit waiting for the talk to begin, I’m finding it really heartening to see so many older people in the audience. I get chatting to the woman next to me, who looks about sixty. She feels the same way.
This event was chaired by Sarah Crown, former Guardian books editor and director of literature at the Arts Council. The two speakers, CN Lester and Juno Dawson, are the authors of two books about transgender identities, Trans Like Me and The Gender Games. These books complement each other neatly, Lester’s being more academic and Dawson’s more conversational, though both involve extensive research and have elements of memoir.
The speakers spent some time unpacking terminology which might have been confusing to the audience: ‘sex’ versus ‘gender’, ‘genderqueer’ and most importantly ‘cisgender’, a term that simply means ‘not transgender’, but has been known to ruffle feathers in the cis community.
It was thrilling to hear so many of my own frustrations, fears and hopes so beautifully articulated, in front of a crowd I myself would be too scared to speak to. Dawson’s metaphors were especially vivid, particularly when it came to discussing ‘biology’, a term used constantly to undermine trans identities despite the fact that the biological realities of sex are much more nuanced than just ‘male’ and ‘female’; said Dawson, ‘biology is a stick I’ve been clobbered with’, ‘biology is a wooly jumper, pull on it and it falls apart’, ‘biological determinism (the idea that your genitalia determines your gender identity) is thin ice.’
Lester then articulated a feeling that was particularly poignant for me, as a nonbinary person (neither male nor female), that we are often gendered not as man or woman but as a ‘failure’. Lester described a ‘gender hierarchy’, a concept most of us, especially women, will be at least peripherally aware of, with men at the top, women in the middle, and then genderqueer and nonbinary people, who don’t fit into either category, firmly at the bottom of the heap.
But there were hopeful notes as well: Dawson took pains to point out that ‘privilege isn’t pie: you don’t get less because someone else gets more.’ There’s enough social progress to go around. Add to that the simple fact that ten or even five years ago we would not have seen two transgender people on a stage talking about their books. During the Q&A, a woman stood up to ask how best to support her granddaughter, who is transgender. Another person asked how best to be an ally to trans people. At the end of the talk, as we all filed out, the woman next to me asked what ‘nonbinary’ meant, and I told her.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival and it’s programme click here.