Question: Beginner’s Gender Reading List?

Amy asks…

What are some general-audience level sources about gender performance? I am giving a speech about performativity to an audience who, for the most part, will not have been at all exposed to the concept, and while I will be drawing from Butler and the like, if you know any less academic sources I could draw from, I would really appreciate it.

Please post your response in the comments below.

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Posted by on May 2nd, 2010 at 08:00 am

Category: questions 17 comments »

17 Responses to “Question: Beginner’s Gender Reading List?”

  1. K

    “Female Masculinity” by Judith Halberstam if I remember correctly…

    Anything by Kate Bornstein

    “The Drag King Book” by Judith Halberstam and Del LaGrace Volcano

    sections of “Genderqueer” by Joan Nestle, Riki Wilchins, etc.

    wish I could attend it!


  2. mc

    I second both books by Jack Halberstam, who is ridiculously easy to read, but yet incredibly deep. Anything by S. Bear Bergman, also some wonderful online (and short) xtra columns by Ivan Coyote – there are some great ones in her collection about gender bending.
    Morty Diamond’s From the Inside Out, and lots of other trans anthologies/autobiographies.


  3. G

    Please please please don’t just draw from the 3rd chapter of Gender Trouble. I’ve seen a lot of misreadings of Butler from people who have limited their reading of GT to just a few key pages and not looked at her larger argument. Her article, “The Question of Social Transformation” is also good. Still academic, but shorter. Documentaries like Paris is Burning and The Aggressives are good, too. Good luck.


  4. mc

    oh, there are also great online sources – Sinclair Sexsmith’s blog (and lots of other great links from that). And stuff on youtube too, including some of Halberstam’s lectures, and Coyote’s performances of her readings.


  5. CXW

    Not explicitly about performativity, but well worth a read for “beginners” (and others, I suspect, in that it’s written from the perspective of a cis-gender woman) is Cynthia Eller’s “Am I a Woman?”.


  6. Jesse

    I’d say Gender Outlaw. Most of Bornstien’s books aren’t super acedemic, and use ideas and concepts that most people can understand and relate to.
    Also, here is a great article on ftf drag, which addresses the issue of gender as performance is a common theme throughout:


  7. Anonymous

    These may seem a little esoteric (pun intended) but I would skim through Ariadne’s Thread by Shekhinah Mountainwater and The Satanic Witch by Anton LeVay, they both describe something akin to gender expression in the language of the four elements/four temperments, but its not just about personality gender is a major theme in each


    Ms. Mountainwater was a second wave seventies feminist, Mr. LeVay was an intentional provocatuer who liked to tweak the California liberals he lived around, so their gender politics may not be for everyone but I think its worth looking over for something on the subject thats a little more colorful and accessible than an acedmeic feminst or queer theory approach

    oh woah woah woah, I almost forgot one of my all time favorites: Notes from Outside the Gender Spectrum by Andrea Zanin its not a book its an article from the now defunct publication Other Magazine, again some of the gist of it is available online


  8. Renae Ann

    Would Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl” fit in here?


  9. amy

    Kit Yan is good for this kind of thing. :)


  10. Oliver

    Give some caveats with Butler, simply because of how that bit of Gender Trouble has been used to justify transphobia (my experience: a bloke once said to a couple of us that if we’d read the chapter, we wouldn’t be trans, silly us).

    “Female Masculinity” is misgendering to some of the folk in there, because some of them are trans men or on the trans male spectrum.

    …actually, it’s bloody hard to think of a book about the performativity of gender that doesn’t sneak in some transphobia. Which is frustrating, because that need not be the case. Sorry I can’t offer any positive help!


  11. mc

    In Jack Halberstam’s defense, Halberstam does sort of border trans and butch – Halberstam personally identifies as he, if I’m not wrong, and writes excellently on the complexity faced by very butch women and transmen (as Halberstam himself has noted he is in the position). I’m not saying that it’s impossible to read any transphobia into it though – everyone has different experiences.


  12. Izzy

    Just for fun, if your looking for a web comic, is one of my favourites.


  13. Anonymous

    Performativity does not mean that gender is totally nonexistent or optional. I think using Butler and co. to justify transphobia may involve a misinterpretation of performativity as entirely voluntary.


  14. Bee

    You have a lot of good suggestions here, but if you want to look at something even more “general audience” and less academic, try flipping through Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook. It’s especially useful for setting up very basic framework of gender performance, complete with examples.


  15. Oliver

    @Anon – you’re right, of course. The point is, where exactly does that really common misinterpretation come from? Does it come directly from problematic aspects of particular texts, or are they just clever-sounding things that transphobes use to justify themselves? (I actually have no idea, I only know the basics about performativity).


  16. Anonymous

    @Oliver – It probably comes from the post-structuralist academy’s insistence on writing in as obfuscatory and confounding a manner possible. It is pretty easy to skim Butler and come away with the idea that gender is voluntary, because the clearest parts of _Gender Trouble_ are the parts where she says “One cannot be a gender, one can only do gender.” The remaining parts- the exegesis of Freud, Ingiray, and co. especially- are notoriously unclear.

    Even if you get through the whole book, you could still probably come away with some wrong-headed ideas if you wanted to. It is only in her later works (notably in _Excitable Speech_, I think) when she talks about interpellation, that is, being “hailed” into your gender by society like one hails a cab, that it becomes really clear that Butler, at least, does not view gender performance as a purely personal, voluntary action.

    TLDR; My main point is that works on performativity in general, and Butler especially, are very difficult, so people who want to use it to justify transphobia can quote-mine, and it’s sometimes hard to say where they’re going wrong.


  17. J

    I’d like to second Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. As an added bonus, In that book she also explains how and why gender deconstructionists have used their beliefs to invalidate trans identities.


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