By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
At first glance, Deborah Rudacille would seem like an unlikely candidate to write a book about transgenderism. A straight, white, natal woman and author of “The Scalpel and the Butterfly: The Conflict Between Animal Research and Animal Protection,” Rudacille seems like someone you might expect to research environmental issues, or perhaps the ongoing mapping of the human genome.
It turns out that Rudacille was the perfect person to bring a combination of science, history, and compassion to the discussion about transgender persons in her new book, “The Riddle of Gender,” which was released by Pantheon Books this year.
Rudacille was compelled to research and write the book when a friend of hers began transitioning.
“Like a lot of straight people who have lived a hetero-normative life I was shocked, confused,” she said.
However, Rudacille was also very open.
“I did not grow up in a homophobic family,” she said, and added that her grandmother’s circle of friends included a lesbian couple. “I was never burdened with the idea that gay people were somehow ‘other.'”
One striking feature of Rudacille’s book is the interviews. Each chapter ends with an interview of a member of the transgender community. Rudacille explained that she used the interviews because, “I wanted to sort of re-create my own journey from a lack of understanding to understanding, and a large part of doing that was not reading about people but talking to people.”
“The interviews were my favorite section of the book,” she added, and explained that she chose interviews that served as bridges between the chapters.
Those “bridges” help Rudacille’s book cover ground that includes transgender individuals in history, possible causes of intersex and transgender conditions, the political friction between the transgender and the lesbian and gay communities, and more.
Past and present scientific theory and medical practice are the backbone of the book. Rudacille calls her approach “science for regular people.”
“The science part came in when I started realizing how much ignorance and bigotry were out there,” she said. “I’ve always seen science’s role as the role of education. I thought I could bring some skills of my own on the subject in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
Asked what about the topic has inspired such passion in Rudacille, who has gone on tour to try to promote her book to a wider audience, she responded, “I think that there are more and more straight people who really do get it, but the voices of those who don’t are drowning us out. We can’t afford to be silent – we owe it to our friends and loved ones in the LGBT community.”
“When I did the research on the Nazi chapter (about gender science pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld, who was ultimately driven out of Germany by the Nazis) it terrified me because I could see resonance in the present day. That’s why we all have to be vocal and out there,” she added.
As it turns out, Rudacille’s research drew on her science background in ways that surprised her. For example, DES, a synthetic hormone that was widely prescribed to pregnant women between the 1940s and 1970s, may have contributed to or even caused an increase in the birth of male-to-female trans-identified children during those years. Use of DES was discontinued in the early 70s because of a link between its use and vaginal cancer in the daughters of women who had taken it, but little research has been done on the effects of DES use on male children – including children born with male genitalia who identify as female. Such research ought to be more urgent given the scientific evidence that Rudacille has compiled which indicates that gender identity develops in the womb and is largely shaped by the hormones to which a fetus’ brain is exposed during pregnancy and birth.
While Rudacille’s science is strong and compelling, the book’s overall strength lies in the voice behind it. Imagine the hearts and minds that might be opened if more straight, white, natal women read these words of Rudacille:
I am hardwired as a heterosexual woman, and I am comfortable with that identity; it feels authentic. However, I no longer view my sexual orientation and gender identity as “normal,” generic, or “regular.” Instead, I see that my particular expression of gender and sexuality are unique to me.
Perhaps, by reading them, those readers’ minds might open enough to take in these words of transgender activist and attorney Phyllis Randolph Frye whom Rudacille quotes:
“A very important change that has yet to be made is the time we transgenders are no longer called ‘sex changes.’ After all, consider this: we are not CHANGING ANYTHING! Indeed, we are merely CORRECTING pronouns, names, manners of dress, hormones and flesh to MATCH was has always been in our brains.”
“The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights”
By Deborah Rudacille
Pantheon Books, 2005
To book an appearance by the author, contact Pamela Mullin at Random House at 212-572-2854 or [email protected].