What does it mean to be male or female? Is who we are determined by sex or gender? Novelist and psychotherapist Amy Bloom takes us on an intimate and humourous journey into the world of transsexuals, crossdressers and hermaphrodites, a group larger and more “normal” than most of us would imagine, and meets people who defy society’s stereotypes, being both like and unlike everyone else.
Pulling apart the fibres of our assumptions, Bloom brilliantly stitches together a revised, contemporary view of happiness, human nature, identity, self, and above all – what’s normal.
The blurb above has a serious error that I feel is in dire need of correction, because it gives the impression Normal is less nuanced than it is. Bloom, in this volume, has stitched together three separate essays with her prologue and afterword, one each on the separate (overlapping) worlds of transsexual men, crossdressers and hermaphrodites. This review will cover the volume as a whole, though it will pick up on issues in the individual essays.
The first thing to note is that this was published in 2003, and the essays, although revised somewhat, were written over the decade preceding that for media publication in The Atlantic and The New Yorker; Bloom’s ideas about gender, especially in regard to issues which mess with the binary, are rather dated now; and that Normal assumes, for much of its content, a gender binary that can be somewhat flexible but is still, on the whole, intersex people aside, a binary. That is rather less clear in her work on male transsexuals, but in her other essays there’s a very strong tendency to assert the binary as the absolute and deviation from it as strange – and to be interpreted as a part of the binary.
However, that isn’t to say this book doesn’t have its merits. Normal has enormous empathy for those discussed, even if Bloom can’t really understand them (crossdressers excluded, actually); she puts across their cases well and demonstrates why their acceptance matters and how we ought to expand our ideas of gender to include them, but that expansion is still very fine. She is clearly, in fact, an outsider looking in, commenting on these communities for the enlightenment of others, doing something between speaking for them and letting them speak through her; in the case of the transsexual men, the degree to which she gets into arguments about medical treatment without actually discussing it at all with the patients themselves is rather distressing, especially given how long she spends on how disgusting, weird, distressing and essentially ineffective she (and indeed the surgeons doing it) think it is.
This is thankfully in stark contrast to the chapter on intersexuality, wherein the brutality and subjectiveness of the surgery is made very clear; here at least Bloom centres her subjects and this is the strongest section of Normal, since she spends much more time discussing the people and less talking about her prejudices about them. She also opens it fantastically with a passage designed absolutely to create empathy with intersexual people by highlighting the appalling way they are treated by the medical profession, and the degree to which this doesn’t reflect their reality even remotely; and there is some brilliant discussion of intersexual advocacy.
The worst section, though, is that on male crossdressers. Bloom appears to have met two specific, overlapping or linked communities of male transvestites, and drawn her broad conclusions from that; Normal has no sympathy for these men, despite suggesting we should accept them, and instead makes us sympathise with their long-suffering, unhappy wives. The whole treatment of transvestites is exoticising and Othering, refusing to even think about understanding rather than simply discussing and psychologising them. Furthermore, from this specific group – of married closet transvestites – Bloom is generalising out to all transvestites; thus that a Baptist minister may get sexual gratification from crossdressing because of the hypocrisy of it leads her to conclude that all transvestites are hypocrits, an insupportable conclusion.
In the end, the primary problem with Normal is an almost inevitable one; despite some great elements, largely in the chapter on intersexuality but also some in Bloom’s writing on transsexual men, the essays are largely dated and very much from the perspective of an outsider, thinking binarily, looking in.