An interesting follow-up to Self-Made Man happened yesterday at work...
A young Asian came into the store in jeans, a dark purple hoodie, glasses, short, kind of fringy haircut, with some of the hair dyed, almost striped. Approaching my counter...
"Do you have any books on um, androe, um, I don't know how to say it, and..., androe-gynous?"
"Androgynous?", I said.
"Yes.", with a sigh of relief that I knew the word.
It seemed an apt request, as I could not tell this person's gender - here was androgynous standing in front of me. I tried to clarify exactly what was needed...
"You'd like something on androgyny? Something about gender identity?"
"Yes, something like that."
"Well, we have several different areas in the store...some biographies might be helpful, there are some novels, though they are more about the story, less about the actual struggle (I was thinking of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex as well as Wesley Stace's Misfortune). There are also some books that might be helpful in the gay and lesbian section or cultural studies, though those are more sociological and might be kind of textbook-y."
I printed out a list that came up after I typed in the key words 'gender identity'. Another one of the books that came up was As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl, which was excellent (about a boy whose genitals were damaged in a surgical procedure and his parents decided to raise him as a girl. The book was compelling and fascinating, though ultimately sad, as the subject of the book committed suicide in his 20's. I didn't tell my customer about the ending on that one.) Another biography came up that we had in stock, so I took the customer to all the possible sections (biography, cultural studies, science, fiction, sociology, and even fashion, as the customer wanted to see if there was anything on androgynous fashion).
I was very comfortable talking about androgyny and gender identity (and surely there will be a book about Chastity/Chaz Bono and her transition from female to male, which would have been mighty handy today).
Later, during my break, I was reading more of Zadie Smith. One of the pieces was a collection of movie reviews she did for one of the publications she wrote for. One of the reviews was about the movie Transamerica, starring Felicity Huffman, depicting a man transitioning to a woman. If our store had a movie department, I certainly would have recommended that movie to this customer.
Self-Made Man was Norah Vincent's choice to live as a man. She doesn't say that she identifies as a male, or wants to live as a male. She wanted to find out, from the inside (going undercover, as it were), how men are treated in our society, and how men treat others.
My young customer (late teens, maybe?) seemed to want to find out more about how one identifies as one gender or other, or perhaps how to transition from one gender or other, or maybe how NOT to identify as a particular gender, and maybe what that means.
I don't know if my young customer wanted to find out how to actually transition, or was wanting to know how one identifies with one gender or another, and here I am, just because I couldn't tell the customer's gender, I assumed that the customer has an issue. This is not necessarily so. I don't know what s/he ultimately purchased, if anything. I often don't know the outcome...