Exploring gender in a way even your grandmother can understand.
by Megan Smith
Sometimes, if something needs to be done—and done well—you have to do it yourself. That’s the approach that Mel Reiff Hill, Jay Mays, and Robin Mack took when they decided to create and self-publish the GENDER book, a 90-page “Gender 101” guide that discusses everything from gender identity and presentation to pronouns to the transgender umbrella.
“I have said that most of us identify with ‘genderqueer,’ that in-between area,” Mays says. “To be more specific, we’re drag kings, butches, and on the transmasculine spectrum. That means we were all assigned female at birth, and we now find ourselves in different levels of masculine expression and identity.”
After recognizing the need for more education surrounding gender and gender variance and realizing that no such introductory book existed, they combined their talents and unique experiences to produce one themselves. Mays co-authored and edited, Hill (who is a former art teacher) co-authored and drew all illustrations and infographics throughout the book, and Mack covered community relations. But the book is not solely a product of the minds of these three creators, Mays says. Over 200 people were surveyed for the book, countless interviews were conducted, conversations about each page were held with community members, and additional input from poet Boston Bostian inspired the book’s main character.
In addition to grants from the Houston Arts Alliance and The Idea Fund, the GENDER book ran an extremely successful indiegogo campaign, raising over $32,500 from 751 funders and receiving about 1,000 book orders from people in 27 different countries.
Mays and the fellow creators hope the book will become part of a larger movement occurring across the world to treat humans with dignity, regardless of gender variance. “It’s not about surgery,” Mays says. “It’s about respect.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mays, who also serves as the Community Volunteer Specialist at The Montrose Center, about the GENDER book’s goals, community-building components, and how to approach difficult conversations about gender.
Megan Smith: How did you originally team up with Mel Reiff Hill?
Jay Mays: I met Mel at a drag king workshop in 2006. We performed together in the Gendermyn, a Houston-based drag king troupe known for its super-fluidity. Then Mel became my wonderful taco-making housemate in 2010. We were living in this big gray house in Houston together as friends with dogs, ferrets, and community members trying to find our way.
Tell me a little more about Boston Bostian and his involvement with the book.
Boston is an extremely talented poet who was subletting at our big gray house. We call him a founding creator, and he inspired the book’s main character. We worked together on the GENDER book(let), our first very awesome zine-sized publication. He’s since moved on to other projects like genderpedia.net and Define: Transition. He is an avid supporter of this project and any project that supports gender justice.
You’ve said the book was created because you and your friends saw a need for more education relating to gender. I’m sure you all had different experiences, but what was the defining moment for you where you said, “Something needs to be done about this”?
Along with Mel Reiff Hill, Robin Mack, and Boston Bostian, I had talks in the living room about the LGBT teen suicides in the news. Mel ranted about their boyfriend having to pay to educate his therapist, and we all just wondered why there wasn’t a better, easier resource for gender-diverse folks. Then we looked around and saw who was in the room: writers, artists, editors, fundraisers, and community leaders. We could write that book we were talking about. So we did. It was just a fun project at first—doodles on the porch. We had no idea it would go this far.
Six suicides of young queer kids who’d been bullied were the main reason I said enough is enough. [Seeing only] two gender markers on the census was another reason. How was anything going to get done if we couldn’t be on the same page about it with a common language? And for me personally, [the thing that made it] worth me using hours of my life to make this education primer labor of love was that I wanted to work on a project that would keep me and my friends engaged in art that called us to live bigger lives and use our privilege to give access to others. Not because they didn’t have voices—we knew many people did—but because there needed to be a way to show the stories that would save people’s lives and, in turn, that would keep my soul going.
In general, why should an “average Joe” care about gender?
Most of us have a gender. It is one of the earliest parts of our personal identities. When we’re born, we are assigned a sex. I think it might give the average Joe some wiggle room to breathe when he knows his gender isn’t 100 percent inherited. For a lot of folks, if the answer is yes when asked, “Do you identify as the sex you were assigned at birth?,” then those folks are cisgender. “Cis” equals “same side.” “Trans” equals “across.” So often, your average Joe doesn’t experience any variance because it’s the water he’s swimming in. Similar to misogyny, the gender binary breaks it down to [the point where] there are only males and females. Boys and girls. Men and women. Mars and Venus, etc. When the average Joe meets a transgender person, or an intersex person, Joe can make a choice to be an ally to a person who might have a different experience of walking through the world. I think most people want to be honoring and say the right things and be educated. We all want to create space for everyone to be themselves, and sometimes an average Joe might be afraid or not know where to go to access resources [that can bridge] these educational gaps.
You did countless interviews and surveyed over 200 people as research for the book. In what format did you complete the surveys, and can you describe specific interviews that really impacted you during the process? (Of course they’re all unique!)
We wanted people’s truths about their lives, so we put out a call to create an open-ended six-question survey where participants could describe what communities they come from, how they expressed their gender, what they came up against, and where they saw the need for education. We used the social media web to huddle in as many as we could from around the world. At first, our community outreach coordinator, Robin Mack, recorded a few interviews, and one of those was with an African-American trans woman who lives in the Chicago area. After a very lengthy 401-level conversation, Robin asked her what should go in this [basic 101 primer]. She said, “If I have to explain myself and who I am one more time, I will not want to leave my house.” Also, “To my community: if you want to get to know and support me, you can’t just support the trans part of me. You have to support all of me, which starts with my race.” She had a lot to say, but those pieces stick with me.
And then there was a young transgender woman from small-town Texas that we interviewed right when she got to San Francisco. Robin and I were there for leadership training, and when we met, she said, “I really hope that you do make a book, and not just some medical book, but one that is as colorful as my life can be when I am being whatever gender expression I want to be. I hope that it’s one I can give my aunt or grandmother in small-town Texas, and she will know that not only will I be okay, but I am living a great life.”
I really like the approach the book takes. It’s not angry, belittling, or shaming for people who may still be processing all of this information or have a very low knowledge level of gender. Was that important for you when writing the book?
Absolutely! There’s ignorance everywhere, and that’s okay unless you choose to stay uninformed. When we started, there were no other resources that were short, colorful 101s for all to grasp new takeaways from and leave old, outdated education behind. HRC had a pamphlet, but it was really texty, and we wanted to use colors and illustration and real voices of real people to show how exploratory gender can be. I wanted to mix My Gender Workbook by the inimitable Kate Bornstein with something like My Grandma Has AIDS. In 1990, when most of my uncles and friends of the family were taken from us, there weren’t a lot of books to read as a 12-year-old about the subject. Later, a book called My Grandma Has AIDS rolled across my desk, and that was a guiding light for creating something simple about a very dense subject.
You pose the question to readers of the book, “What are your earliest memories of your gender?” What are yours?
Well, I’m from the South, so there were a lot of cues from my grannies about what a little person assigned female at birth should be doing—smiling, playing Barbies, tap dancing, dieting. All of my Barbies had short hair, were sexually active, and had intensely intricate personal narratives. Another memory that pops into my head is when I was about seven, I wanted to sing a Led Zeppelin song that my dad and I sang together in the school talent show. His confidence in his own David Bowie-inspired masculinity (earring, eyeliner on special occasions) told me I’d be alright dressing like Robert Plant at school with a shadow moustache, dancing like a maniac.
I’ve heard the argument from many people, including fellow members of the queer community, that gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze/hir” are “taking things too far” or “unnecessary.” Have you had similar experiences, and what is your response to situations like that?
We’ve all been conditioned in a society deeply rooted in the gender binary, where there are no exceptions to the two checkboxes: M and F. Just like the rest of nature, some humans don’t fall so sweetly into either of those categories. Language is a really powerful tool for self-determination, and obviously it can be used as a weapon. I’ve had friends leave organizations because their peers would try to talk them out of their pronouns, feeling like they were being helpful telling them they were grammatically incorrect. It really is a matter of respect. If someone doesn’t want to be called “he,” it’s incredibly disrespectful to continually force that upon someone. It’s the same lack of acceptance that leads to high rates of health and economic disparities and violence against gender-nonconforming people.
Honoring someone’s pronouns and preferred name is one of the simplest ways to demonstrate your ally-ship. It shows the other person, “Hey, I see you and I hear you and I freaking respect your right to self-identify! I will call you what you want to be called and stand shoulder to shoulder with you in whatever ways you’re comfortable. Now let’s get some ice cream.”
Overall, what is your main goal to accomplish with the GENDER book? Has that goal changed since the beginning of the project?
Originally, it was to create something that we could give to our families and community members who wanted to be supportive of gender minorities. This was before Facebook had 56 gender options. The world is changing quickly, and language is bending to accommodate more possibilities. The [latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual] replaced the diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria.”
The book includes a tear-out booklet in the back to give to others. Where and to whom do you recommend readers give their booklets?
The booklet was our very first piece that we gave away everywhere—to young people, to folks in prison, to friends, family, people you see regularly. It’s kind of a “hey, this is for you to share and spread the word!”
What kind of response have you gotten to the book so far?
We’ve gotten many, many generous cheers, thank-yous, and life-changing stories since we’ve launched the e-book for donation. Not everyone will agree with every bit of the way the book was put together. And when we had doubts, we erred on the side of inclusion. We changed things around based on community feedback. We had a long process of dialoguing about each page with the communities represented. The problem is that often these communities themselves have very different truths around terminology. Ultimately, we had to make some choices that not everyone can agree with 100 percent, but hopefully everyone can read without cringing. To help broaden our perspective, we enlisted everyone we could find to co-author with us through short, fun surveys. You can find their responses all throughout the book. That lets us show multiple opinions without having to say “this is right” and “this is wrong.” It’s more about sharing the individual’s truths as best we can.
The e-version of the book is now available for download at thegenderbook.com. When is the hard-copy book expected to arrive, how can our readers purchase a copy, and how much will each copy cost?
The book is oh-so-reasonably priced at $30, and wholesale pricing is available. Copies of the book will be in our hands in late April. Hardbacks are currently available in three places:
1) For pre-order on our website, thegenderbook.com.
2) At one of our bicoastal book launches—the Houston-area launch will be hosted by the lovely folks at the Lawndale Art Center [4902 Main St.] on May 15 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. All Houston-area donors can pick up their copies there—or come and get your copy without paying for shipping!
3) Books will also be available for sale in the Antena space at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston on May 6 from 6 to 9 p.m. So many LGBT students are doing phenomenal work at the University of Houston, and several of us are featuring our text-based projects at the Blaffer that night.
The GENDER book is proud to give back 50 percent of its proceeds to the community and would love to extend its Book Scholarship program to any community organization that’s interested in retaining a desk copy. Please e-mail [email protected] for an application.
Do you have any plans for a “Part Two” or a continuation of this project? If not, what’s next on your plate?
Well, if Routledge [the world’s leading academic publisher in the Humanities and Social Sciences] would like us to consider a Part Two, then that may be in the cards. We’re getting started with trainings, and we have some pretty huge goals. We’re headed to the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference to connect with others who also want to ease the burden of trans* folks having to educate their health professionals. [Editor’s note: the asterisk following “trans” is used metaphorically to capture all the identities—from drag queen to genderqueer—that fall outside traditional notions of gender.] We want to lessen suicide rates by showing gender-nonconforming youth and adults they’re not alone. We want one less teen sleeping on the street when they come out. We want to train people to skillfully manage these 101 conversations so that we can open up space for more interesting and personal dialogues. To me, that’s how communities get built.
And we’ll happily go on Ellen if she’ll have us!