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Rubin's Self-Made Men and Green's Becoming a Visible Man

Self-Made Men: Identity and Embodiment among Transsexual Men.

Rubin, Henry. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003. 217 pp., $19.05, softcover. ISBN: 0826514359.

Becoming a Visible Man.

Green, Jamison. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004. 222 pp., $24.95, softcover. ISBN: 082651457X.

<1> In their new books, Jamison Green and Henry Rubin create two very different but complimentary works about female-to-male transsexuals (FTMs) [1 ]. In Becoming a Visible Man, Green, a long-time transgender activist and public speaker, provides a lyrical and moving account of his own experience as a transman, as well as a comprehensive overview of the some of the issues facing transmen today, ranging from the varied effects of testosterone to the pressures to conform to hegemonic masculine ideals. Self-Made Men, on the other hand, is an interview study conducted by up and coming sociologist Henry Rubin that provides the first sociological analysis to focus specifically on how transmen (rather than transwomen) negotiate issues of identity and embodiment. Despite these differences in approach and genre, however, both books compliment one another, as they shed light on the lived experiences of FTMs in America, a historically understudied group.

<2> The title of Green's book comes from the main focus on his work: the dilemma FTMs often face about whether or not to "come out" as transmen. Going over his life experiences as a masculine-appearing woman, he acknowledges that for many FTMs, bringing their bodies in line with their male gender identity allows them a kind of invisibility, as male-appearing bodies are less scrutinized in our society than female bodies or androgynous bodies. For Green, however, this invisibility is problematic, as it allows the needs and issues of transmen to go unnoticed in both larger society and the LGBT community. He recounts his own transition that at first followed the dominant therapeutic model of the time: never disclose to anyone. He goes on to tell a moving story of deviating from this model by coming out as a transman to his men's movement encounter group, and the importance of this male reference group for the formation of his own identity. He is careful not to stigmatize transpeople who chose to remain invisible but does make a compelling case for how transmen can aid in deconstructing hegemonic ideas about masculinity through the way in which they live their lives.

<3> Rubin's academic work begins with an outlining of his phenomenological framework and how he uses this approach to take seriously the accounts transmen offer about their identities and feelings of embodiment both before and after their transitions. This phenomenological approach allows Rubin to make a bold and often stunning departure from the majority of social science work on transsexuality in regard to the issue of gender identity, and the effects of hormone therapy. Discussing gender identity, he acknowledges that the majority of his twenty-two interviewees provide essentialist narratives about their gender identity, such as they "always knew" that they were male from a very early age. Rather than discounting this as false consciousness or mere narrative construction, Rubin advocates taking these accounts seriously as they have real meaning for those offering the accounts. Demonstrating this seriousness, he re-labels "sex reassignment surgery" as "gender confirmation surgery," showing that his interviewees feel that surgery does not make them men but rather simply brings their bodies into alignment with their consistent male gender identity (a point also supported by Green).

<4> With the question of hormones, Rubin creates a "sociology of testosterone" in which he outlines the ways in which his respondents see hormones affecting both their behavior and their masculine identity. His work here might be hard for gender scholars to swallow as it flies in the face of social constructionism. An easy critique would be that his interviewees are simply reading their own experiences through socially constructed cultural narratives about hormones, like testosterone makes men think about sex constantly. Rubin, however, recognizes this critique and addresses it in a footnote (which hopefully will be turned into an academic article):

As I have suggested elsewhere in this book, the interview method I have employed in this section of the book provides intriguing and informative insights about the experiences that these men have had. While this method provides important data, these claims are less easily proven in the strong scientific sense of the word . . . that said, I am confident that, no matter the limits on experientially based knowledge, there is something valuable to this form of knowledge. What these men have to say about testosterone is fascinating and will affect the ways we think about bodies and behavior. Though we might not like the news they bring us about the effects of testosterone, I believe we, both men and women, ignore it at our own peril (194).

Indeed, the sociology of testosterone he provides raises fascinating questions about the embodied feeling of taking hormones and why these accounts are so easily written off by scientific authorities who have never shared the experience. While Rubin can be critiqued for too little critical analysis of his data, his approach is a major deviation from the majority of scholarly work on transsexuals that positions them as cultural dopes who reproduce essentialist narratives to qualify for surgery.

<5> Though very different in style, Rubin and Green's works compliment and build on each other. Both books make major contributions to the history of FTM activism and community, a fairly recent development. Drawing on his own experiences with Louis Sullivan, the founder of FTM International, Green details the rise of the FTM community in San Francisco and how a small, dedicated group of men were able to make a visible presence for transmen at transgender conferences that had traditionally been MTF events. Rubin explores the issue of the Butch/ FTM border wars, taking a historical view of the ways in which lesbian feminism changed the butch/femme relationship, leading many masculine-identified women to transition. Both books are also well written and clear, making them great additions to an LGBT introductory course, or course on gender studies or transgender studies. Being more autobiographical, Green's book would work well in a Transgender 101 course, as it would be easily accessible for undergraduates. Rubin's book would work well with advanced undergraduates ready to engage in debates about gender essentialism and social constructionism. Finally, both books go a long way toward increasing visibility about the multiple experiences and lives of FTMs, making them important additions to the burgeoning field of transgender studies, as well as the field of gender studies.

Kristen Schilt


[1 ] The term "transsexual" is commonly understood to refer to individuals who live full-time in a gender other than that which they were assigned at birth, usually through hormone therapy and surgeries. I do not use the word "transgender," which is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of non-normative genders, as both books specifically deal with transsexuals. [^]