Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Testosterone Files

Valerio, Max Wolf. The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2006.

I happened across this book by chance at an exhibitor’s table at the National Women’s Studies Association's (NWSA)
annual conference this past June in Oakland, CA. (Other purchases I made that day include Dhillon Khosla’s Both Sides Now: One Man’s Journey Through Womanhood, Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back, and Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle’s The Transgender Studies Reader.)

I was excited to see The Testosterone Files because having already run across essays of Valerio’s in the feminists texts This Bridge Called My Back (edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua) and This Bridge We Call Home (edited by Gloria Anzaldua and AnaLouise Keating), I was looking forward to what Valerio would bring to a memoir of his “transformation from female to male.” It also helped that Seal Press, a reputable feminist press whose other publications (e.g. Colonize This, Cunt, Listen Up, Body Outlaws) I’ve enjoyed and used in the classroom, was the publisher. And, there was also that the back cover blurbs were by authors whose work I have also enjoyed--Susie Bright, Patrick Califia, and Michelle Tea.

Before going on, I have to stop here and say that I applaud Seal Press for making Valerio the first male author they have ever published (in a single-authored text). They went outside their usual “By women. For women.” focus--a focus that I not only support, but cherish. Just as valuable to me, however, is that a book like The Testosterone Files was able to be published. It may not be by a woman, but it certainly presents some interesting analytical challenges for feminists and women that I think are very much in keeping with the rest of Seal Press’ publications. So, cheers to Seal, and a happy 30th anniversary to them!

But back to the book itself...

If you can’t already tell, before I even opened the book to start reading it, I was already coming to it filled with particular expectations. I actually think that we often/always approach books, among other things, in this manner. In this case, though, I was fortunate enough to be aware of what those expectations were from the beginning. In particular, given Valerio’s past associations with This Bridge Called My Back and This Bridge We Call Home, I was looking forward to race and feminism being figured in more centrally in The Testosterone Files than other FTM texts (memoir and otherwise).

While by no means have I exhausted the entire genre, I’d have to say that in my readings thus far, I’ve been hard-pressed to find a FTM text that leaves me feeling satisfied with its treatment of race. So, admittedly, The Testosterone Files had a lot to live up to...perhaps too much.

Frankly, I’m torn...I’m definitely glad to have read the book, as well as to own it. I will proudly display it on my bookshelf (where self space is at a high premium). As a trans text, I think that its focus on testosterone (as opposed to surgery) helps to stretch the boundaries of the genre, and of how we think about trans itself. Like other FTM texts, there is much focus on the body and its physical transformations, but because the emphasis isn’t on surgery it offers something to those readers who either want to transition without surgery, or simply have to transition and live without surgery due to other constraints (e.g., affordability, or lack thereof).

Even though Valerio makes clear in the text that he experienced discomfort with his breasts, and that it was because of the lack of being able to afford top surgery that he hadn’t had surgery (well, until he wrote this book!), the need for surgery becomes an undertone in the text--ever present but not overwhelmingly so. Instead, what dominates is talk about testosterone.

“The hormones really work.”

It’s a realization that Valerio seems taken aback by. He writes, “The hormones…I’d read about testosterone and its dramatic effects in his [Lou Sullivan’s] booklet, but I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that it could be this good. This transformation is a miracle” (103).

Like other similar texts, Valerio describes the changes his physical body undergoes as he begins to inject testosterone--the disappearance of his extra fat, the coarsening texture of his hair, the changes in his skin. Interestingly, Valerio also describes the changes his bodily emotions undergo with the effects of testosterone. I say bodily emotions here because Valerio makes clear that it’s not just about emotions disconnected from his body, but precisely the way in which his body, because of its changing chemistry, processes emotions differently than it once did, ultimately resulting in different physical manifestations of those emotions.

Specifically, he finds that testosterone has limited his ability to physically cry as he once did, and instead has increased his aggressiveness. When I first encountered these testimonials of his about how women are biologically predisposed to cry and men to fight, something in me tightened. My initial reaction was to get defensive and to wonder how a text that I thought would be so feminist could so blatantly reinforce traditional gender stereotypes. Then I remembered that there are grains of truth in most stereotypes, and that what was important was to not overcompensate by trying to make the argument that not all women cry at the drop of a hat, or that men can cry, but rather to respect and honor Valerio’s experiences. In this way, The Testosterone Files, has been invaluable to me in challenging my understanding of myself as a feminist, gently helping me to grow further into the kind of feminism that inspired me from the beginning--one that not only prized difference, but saw our power coming from those very differences (thanks Audre Lorde!).

As I said earlier, however, despite the ways in which The Testosterone Files added to my knowledge and understanding of another man’s transformation, I was disappointed that race wasn’t a more central issue throughout the text. There are moments when Valerio writes about his Native heritage, about his mother and being on the reserve, about passing as white at some times, and Latino at others, but these are but moments, and conversations about race don’t seem to be sustained throughout.

In the end, I feel like the book Valerio wanted to write about was about testosterone above all else. In that respects, he succeeded. The book I wanted Valerio to have written was about negotiating racial and feminist consciousness and politics in a context of FTM transition. I recognize that my disappointments in The Testosterone Files are not Valerio’s failings, but rather signs of my own longings.

In fact, there are many gems in Valerio’s book. Here are just a small handful:

(6) “There are infinite permutations of identity, now identified as ‘transgender,’ currently in vogue in queer communities: ‘FTM dyke butch,’ ‘dyke boichix who cross-dress,’ ‘genderqueer tranny fag boi,’ and ‘biofemme transgender lesbian.’ Let there be no mistake: Everyone has the right to be who they are or thing they are at any moment, to shock, to piss off, to repossess, to realign their scrotum, tits, attitude, skin color, hair color, outfit, and cheekbones! Everyone has a right to be admitted to that exclusive, sexy party. And it’s beginning to look as though everyone wants to be. That said, I am skeptical and ultimately wary of enthusiasm for these new ‘queer’ self-congratulatory and self-conscious ‘transgressive transgendered identities.’ After all, the desire to have all your options open and never close a door behind you is very American. The belief that you should be able to make any choice at any time. We consume commodities, lifestyles, and now identities with the avidity of jackals with one finger on the remote control and another on the index to our crotch.”

(107) “If the physical transformation is so complete and so convincing, it is irresistible. This incredible and nearly absurd act, this act that feels so illogical, so defiant, so completely wondrous. I will take on the risks, the rejections, the possible pain, the long-drawn-out changing of the physical form. And I know I can make it work. The idea makes me so excited I could burst. If this transformation is possible, I know I will not settle for anything else.”

(141) “Endocrinologic sex is determined by the ration of testosterone to estrogen. The bodies of men and women generate both estrogen and testosterone, so in the strictest sense, estrogen is not exclusively a ‘female’ hormone and testosterone is not exclusively a ‘male’ hormone. It is the ratio of estrogen to testosterone in the body that determines whether the person is male or female.”

(147) “I was convinced I was a lesbian. What does that identity mean now? What will it mean to me in years to come? Was there something redeeming in all those years, in spite of the fact that I eventually chose to leave? Or did I waste all those years of my life?”

(149) “This change in perception is due to the fact that when you see someone, you unconsciously compare them to yourself. You are your own standard.”

(150) “I’m beginning to discover just how many of our “perceptions” are contextual—in contrast to, or grounded in, who we are, relative. Perceptions could be as much about the relationship between the observer and the observed as it is about actual definitive observations.”

(270) “There are modalities or shades of perception and feeling more apparent to men than to women, and vice versa. Just as there are colors that certain animals or insects can perceive that humans can’t. Because we have never experienced these colors, which are outside of the range of our human senses, we live our entire lives as though they don’t exist.”

(337) “It was Marie-France Boisselle who first taught me about risk, ambiguity, and peril. Then Marie-France Alderman, she wrote, ‘The thread that runs through Monika Treut’s Female Misbehavior…is about imagining and imagination’s conditions; mainly, willingness to befriend ambiguity and peril…Ideologies cannot accommodate such adventurous goals. Art can. People can. We go on imagining; that is how the civil rights movement started, that is how feminism started.’”


At 8:21 PM, Blogger Max Wolf Valerio said...

Thank you so much for your sensitive, perceptive comments regarding my book, The Testosterone Files . I was impressed that you enjoyed it and got so much from it, and got it, even though it turned out to be different from your expectations.

I have linked to this post in my "old" blog, "The First Steps". I hope that's ok. I may link to it in my newer and more active blog, "The Wolf Man Howls" on typepad. Again, I hope that is ok. Let me know if it is not. I just think your thoughts on the book are well-rendered and thoughtful, and I would like to share them.

BTW - the work I did with Gloria was not really "typical" of the majority of writing I have done in my life. I mostly have written non-narrative avant-garde poetry and although I am political, I don't as a rule write highly legible political texts. My website: has a few of my newer poems, and I think they would illustrate that the majority of writing is non-narrative and not topical (although there are some love poems there!).

I do plan to follow up my memoir with a book of essays, and a book of fiction -- so there will be more political writing eventually. I am an iconoclastic person and not too enthused about identity politics in general, although I do understand, naturally, its importance.
Thank you again for your interest in my work!

Thank you again!

Max Wolf Valerio


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