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Transcendent ed. K. M. Szpara

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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
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K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.

It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.

Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.

A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.

One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.

That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.

The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.

Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.

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Love Beyond Body, Space & Time ed. Hope Nicholson

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Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is a collection of indigenous science fiction and urban fantasy focusing on LGBT and two-spirit characters. These stories range from a transgender woman undergoing an experimental transition process to young lovers separated through decades and meeting in their own far future. These are stories of machines and magic, love and self-love.
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Love Beyond Body, Space & Time occupies an important place in science fiction: not only centring queer voices and narratives, but also centring Indigenous voices and narratives, a group all too often left out of discussions of the genre. Not all the writers in the anthology are themselves Indigenous, a point Nicholson acknowledges in her Editor’s Letter, but all the stories feature Indigenous characters, cultures, and themes.

Love Beyond Body, Space & Time opens with three nonfiction pieces. Nicholson’s opening letter is largely a disclaimer about this not being her story to tell, but the others are more interesting; a piece on two-spirit stories as survivance stories in science fiction by Grace L. Dillon, and a piece on the historical and present day role of two-spirit people in Indigenous communities by Niigaan Sinclair. Both are fascinating essays, situating some of the things the anthology is doing in a wider cultural discourse and a wider social model, and providing multiple possible frameworks with which to approach the stories within.

There are a couple of absolutely outstanding stories in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time. Daniel Heath Justice’s ‘The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds’ reads as a fable, with a very obvious moral; it’s well written and beautiful, as the best fable are, and with the poetic style and lack of specificity that much living myth has. Its queerness is explicit, varied in kind, and powerfully central to the story, and to the model of diversity in which Heath Justice is invested in the tale.

In stark contrast, ‘Né Łe!’ by Darcie Little Badger is straightforward science fiction, albeit with mythic resonance; it’s also a sweet lesbian romance story, that is impressively moving in its simplicity and with very strong characterisation over its short length. In similar vein is ‘Valediction At The Star View Motel’, a lightly fantastic story of young love, passion, and memory; Nathan Adler takes on the racism faced by the Indigenous community, including some of the racist policies applied to them, whilst also keeping at the core of the story the simplicity of young love.

The strongest story in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, by my lights, is Gwen Benaway’s ‘Transition’. Benaway writes a transition narrative that deals with the difficulties of being trans in a cis world; the way every day involves armouring up and self-defence strategies to keep cis violence from breaking out against one. It’s also a story of community and history; Benaway builds into the very bones of the story the acceptance of trans people by at least the Indigenous community she chooses to present. The mythic fantastic creeps in around the edges of the story, which is essentially mimetic, and ‘Transition’ emerges as emotionally resonant and incredibly powerful.

At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Aliens’ by Richard van Camp is a frustrating piece, which if the reader accepts and enjoys the voice in which it is told might well work. However, it feels too mannered for the attempt at naturalism it is making, and the treatment of gender diversity as a big secret and major revelation at the end of the story is a frustrating one, playing into a number of harmful tropes and a deeply problematic presentation of gender diversity. Similarly, in ‘Imposter Syndrome’, Mari Kurisato writes a transition narrative that uses an alien transitioning to human as a metaphor for gender transition; seeing human trans people in fiction is powerful, whereas in this collection especially, this treatment of transness felt painfully out of place. Kurisato’s style and characterisation are excellent, and there are some really brilliant ideas in the piece, which makes the fundamental failure all the more frustrating.

Failing in a different way, ‘Perfectly You’ by David Robertson just doesn’t emotionally connect. This attempt to tell a romantic story feels strained and emotionless, essentially empty of real content; there isn’t really enough ground on which to build the payoff Robertson wants to give, and the strongest parts of the story are those in which he is building that ground.

In the end, Nicholson has engaged in an important project in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, centring Indigenous queer people, but it’s a deeply flawed execution of that project; we need more anthologies like this, but next time, more stories like Heath Justice’s and Little Badger’s, please!

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Just Girls by Rachel Gold

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Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. She was an out lesbian in high school, and she figures she can stare down whatever gets thrown her way in college. It can’t be that bad.

Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag College, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.

New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.
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There aren’t many trans narratives out there, so when one comes recommended strongly, I’m always going to perk my ears up, as I did for Just Girls when it was recommended by a friend at Eastercon in Birmingham this year…

Just Girls is an odd book for a trans narrative. After all, much of the transphobic abuse we encounter isn’t directed at a trans person, but at a cis person who pretended to be trans to protect a hypothetical trans person they didn’t know; but that doesn’t make its portrayal any less real. Similarly, there are times when Gold straightforwardly reproduces the arguments of TERFs and other transphobes in order to have characters counter them – often ineffectually or without really having another character doing so, as if the rest of the dialogue is missing. As such, this is an odd book, that seems to be reproducing a lot of the abuse it is trying to highlight; this isn’t helped by a strange avoidance of consistent language (trans, transgender and transsexual are all used, in overlapping and often interchangeable ways).

Where Gold engages with sexual and intimate partner violence, she’s much better; it’s explicitly described in retrospect, although not at the time, and controlling behaviours are conveyed very well, and the consequences to the characters are real; Just Girls makes it a secondary core of the novel, although the ways it is tied into the trans narrative is slightly strained.

Of course, there’s more to Just Girls than intimate violence and arguments with Germaine Greer (who Gold namechecks as wrong). The whole book is a slightly overlong, complicated set up for an ending that feels a little too neat for the complexity of the story Gold is telling; she sets up love triangles, squares, and polygons of all kinds, and then knocks them down into simple pairings, in a rather frustrating and reductive way that fails to engage with the possibilities of, for instance, polyamory. On the other hand, some of the elements of the plot are carried off really well – Gold’s description of augmented reality gaming is fun and immersive, and her idea of gamifying social justice activism is an interesting one with true real-world application.

The place where Just Girls really thrives and falls is in its characters. The non-protagonist cast are really well drawn, although there is a strange dichotomy between “good” people who all get trans issues instantly and without question and “bad” people who are vilely transphobic, with nothing in between (and no “bad” people who are bad but not transphobic). The LGBTQIA Alliance members are fantastically portrayed, as are the geeky friends Ella makes; but the standout secondary character for me is Nico, the genderqueer friend Ella made at school who changes hir/per/yos pronouns as and when they become bored of them.

Ella herself, narrator of half of Just Girls, is a slightly annoying character; for someone so interested in science, it seems to barely be an interest of the narrative, just dropped in occasionally for flavour, and her trans narrative and her love triangle is really all there is to her, something the story and the internal monologue keep coming back to in unsubtle ways. Tucker is more interesting; her own mixed emotions are much better portrayed and much more richly human, and the third-person limited frame of her sections allow her to breathe a bit more, Gold’s writing tending to be better in these sections and much more able to create a character from the outside than in.

In the end, Just Girls is a worthy book, but I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile one: it can’t quite decide what it wants to do, except argue for trans acceptance, and it can’t quite decide how it wants to do that.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

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As the city rebuilds from the onslaught of sorcery that nearly destroyed it, the Great Houses of Paris, ruled by fallen angels, still contest one another for control over the capital.

House Silverspires was once the most powerful, but just as it sought to rise again, an ancient evil brought it low. Philippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal—to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic may be more than he can bear.

In House Hawthorn, Madeleine the alchemist has had her addiction to angel essence savagely broken. Struggling to live on, she is forced on a perilous diplomatic mission to the underwater Dragon Kingdom—and finds herself in the midst of intrigues that have already caused one previous emissary to mysteriously disappear…

As the Houses seek a peace more devastating than war, those caught between new fears and old hatreds must find strength—or fall prey to a magic that seeks to bind all to its will.
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Back in 2015, I reviewed House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard’s introduction to the world of a Paris broken by magical warfare and the emergence of the Fallen. de Bodard has returned to that world two years later with The House of Binding Thorns; does it live up to the high bar of its predecessor?

Whereas House of Shattered Wings had a strong focus on Silverspires, House of Binding Thorns shifts focus to a dual one; on Silverspires’ rival, Hawthorn, who we only saw as dark antagonists in House of Shattered Wings, and on the dragon kingdom in the Seine, which was only a bit part before. This shift in focus means de Bodard does a lot of new of worldbuilding; each place she shows us has such a sense of rootedness and geographical specificity that it really feels inhabited, lived in, aged and fallen. The whole world’s decrepitude takes different forms; de Bodard isn’t content to just let Paris fall, but it has to fall in ways that make sense for the part of Paris it is – whether rusted, or faded grandeur, or the mold of the dragon kingdom, each one evokes a past golden age as well as showing us the gaps between the aspirations of characters and the realities of their situations. Places are as much characters as the people are.

That only works because House of Binding Thorns is full of very human people, from the returning Philippe and Madeleine to the expanded role of Asmodeus, and the new characters – the dragon prince spying on Hawthorn, Thuan; the Annamite Houseless Françoise and her Fallen lover Berith. de Bodard has four protagonists and three major viewpoints in the novel, an impressive number to handle (Asmodeus is a protagonist but never a viewpoint); but she does it deftly and with a clear demarcation of shifts in viewpoint, as much in writing style as in physical markers of line breaks. The narrative control here is much stronger than in House of Shattered Wings, and the occasional messiness that plagued the first book is definitely cleared up here for a more streamlined reading experience.

That applies to the plot too; The House of Binding Thorns is a deeply political novel with tangled intrigues moving into and through each other. The factions within Hawthorn, and within the dragon kingdoms, as well as outside groups, all of whom have different agendas and who can be at times unfortunately unwilling to recognise that there might be more factions at play than they initially assumed, each have their own plans that intersect in ways that de Bodard keeps a very tight control of. Everything that happens here has had its trail laid earlier, to a greater or lesser extent, and things refer backwards and forwards in interesting ways; de Bodard lays strands of plot to the side temporarily only to pick them up again later, but in a very deliberate way that really builds the novel.

Thematically, The House of Binding Thorns is an expansion on the ideas of House of Shattered Wings, and an interesting one; it looks at power, and different kinds of approaches to it; it looks at what being a part of something bigger than oneself can mean; it looks at conceptions of sacrifice, and what one might be willing to sacrifice; and in Madeleine’s sections, it looks at addiction and PTSD with an intelligent and sympathetic eye, without cliche. de Bodard never lets theme overtake story, so The House of Binding Thorns moves at a good pace; it isn’t a fast novel, but it’s not sprawling either, more a kind of stately procession that turns into a bit of a brawl at the close, but intentionally and in a very controlled and clear way.

House of Binding Thorns is a grand and striking expansion upon the world of the Dominion of the Fallen, and a powerful novel from de Bodard, who really brings her full talents to bear on every aspect of the book. A distinct level up from someone who was already a master.

DISCLOSURE: Aliette is a good friend, who I’ve hosted here for guest spots in the past and will again; and I purchased a Tuckerisation in the novel for my partner.

If you found this review useful, or if you’d like to help choose what I review next month, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman

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FAIRYTALES FOR LOST CHILDREN is narrated by people constantly on the verge of self-revelation. These characters – young, gay and lesbian Somalis – must navigate the complexities of family, identity and the immigrant experience as they tumble towards freedom. Set in Kenya, Somalia and South London, these stories are imbued with pathos, passion and linguistic playfulness, marking the arrival of a singular new voice in contemporary fiction.
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Fairytales for Lost Children came across my radar primarily through Roxane Gay, but the idea of a selection of short stories based around immigration, homosexuality, and African life was immediately appealing.

Osman’s collection is a short one – barely 150 pages – and made up of 11 stories and illustrations; the art is line drawings in what we might describe as a traditional African artistic style, but also incorporating Arabic and elements of modern political cartooning into it. They bear at first glance little relation to the stories they illustrate, but give a flavour of Fairytales For Lost Children; the mixed cultural heritage, the imagery of gender-transgression, and in many cases a certain flirtiness to the portraiture combine to create a sense similar to that of the stories.

Those stories are a revelation. Osman’s writing is incredibly human, incredibly gentle, and incredibly visceral; by gentle, I don’t mean that Fairytales for Lost Children pretends life is better than it is, but rather than Osman slips into the lives of his characters, brings the reader with him for a brief snapshot, and then slips out again. Whether it is Zeytun, the protagonist of ‘Earthling’, a schizophrenic lesbian who has to deal with the loss of her sister, or Hassin, of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, an immigrant in London who is isolated and longs to build a relationship, Osman creates whole characters, human characters, in a very short space, and brings them painfully to life. There is a degree to which most of these stories are tragedies, but at the same time, some have true catharsis at their close, such as ‘Earthling’; despite being on the surface horrendous stories, they have a sense of rightness and closure about them too.

Fairytales for Lost Children is ineluctably erotic; almost all the stories include Osman describing sex, although the stories of women loving women tend to have less of this, but ‘My Roots Are Your Roots’ is practically pure pornography, beautifully evocative erotic writing that mixes at once the idea of immigrant communities, the homophobia that traditional families sometimes bring with them, the exclusion from both community and country that this can create, but also the idea of the gay community and the community of love. It’s a strange story, at once dark and light, sexual and playful but also threatening; of release and ending all at once, wonderfully.

Osman is also wide-ranging. His stories touch a mix of experiences; queer youth (‘Shoga’, ‘Fairytales for Lost Children’); queer life in Somalia (‘Watering the Imagination’, about being the parent of a lesbian; ‘Shoga’ again); about being an immigrant (‘The Other (Wo)Man’, among others); about mental illness (‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’), but also a variety of different kinds of queerness. As well as homosexuality, and the gender-transgression of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, there is the genderqueer protagonist of ‘Pavilion’, presented with humour and affection by Osman, but without becoming a comedic character; Fairytales for Lost Children never sympathises more with oppressor than oppressed, but does have a certain sympathy for the oppressor, the straight, the cis. Osman seems to understand the imperatives that make people discriminate against, attack, verbally abuse queer people; and he presents those who do this as human too, especially the relatives of the queers he is portraying.

It’s a fascinating, beautiful, haunting collection that won’t leave the reader happy, per se, but will leave one satisfied and wanting more all at once; Osman, in Fairytales for Lost Children, has unleashed a truly amazing collection on the world that every queer-basher, and every racist anti-immigrant demagogue, should be forced to read. It drips empathy off every page, and that’s a rare, and beautiful, thing.

Normal by Amy Bloom

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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.
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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.