Canadian professor Lee Airton’s new book gives readers a look at the fundamentals of gender today. Gender: Your Guide: A Gender-Friendly Primer on What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture came out this October to immediate critical acclaim, arriving at a time when it’s greatly needed. Following the Trump memo, which pivoted on the idea that sex and gender are different, Gender: Your Guide instead approaches gender as a process (how something works) rather than a fact (what something is). While the memo – and many people in the U.S. – still approaches gender as simply a fact, Airton instead argues that gender is a process that’s never quite complete.
“The question of whether or not gender and biological sex are the same thing also separates the fact and process ways of thinking. If we think of gender as a fact, then reading an ‘F’ sex marker on someone’s birth certificate is the same as knowing they’re a girl or woman[…],” Airon writes. “But if we think of gender as a process, then someone’s ‘F’ is simply shorthand for a quick survey of their external genitalia at birth.”
Airton takes on the task of educating audiences who may be completely new or still learning about the trans community. The book is oriented toward cisgender people, who will undoubtedly find clarity in Airton’s accessible writing style. Their work is also great for non-cis individuals who may want to learn more about gender issues! More than anything, Gender: Your Guide is an impactful tool for creating a world more supportive of people of all genders.
The book breaks up learning about gender into three parts: “What to Know,” “What to Say,” and “What to Do.” It finally ends with a personal narrative and self-advocacy tips for trans people.
“What to Know” covers the basics, including understanding gender as a process and social construct. It also addresses the relationship between biology and socialization, using research spanning science and the humanities, from the John Money experiments to recent trans narratives. While Airton is much more on the “nurture” side of the nature/nurture debates, they also give room for people to not entirely discount trans history beyond and before gender identity. Airton also includes exercises about how we perceive gender in order to help readers not make assumptions. With these tools alongside an outline of the fundamentals of understanding gender, they explain that gender can look like anything. Everyone is impacted by gender, whether cis or trans. This is why it’s helpful for every individual to think about their own gender.
The “What to Say” section turns to bringing about better language and practices regarding trans people, particularly about pronouns. Language is actually a huge part of supporting trans people: English is structured around the gender binary. Including new forms of speech like gender-neutral pronouns in everyday interactions is an important step toward supporting trans people. Importantly, Airton focuses on “making better mistakes.” Everyone accidentally messes up on pronouns and genders sometimes. Making sure that these mistakes are gently fixed and accounted for is a simple yet often overlooked way of approaching unintentional harm. By incorporating exercises such as writing without pronouns and strategizing how to ask for pronouns, Airton makes something the far right considers a huge controversy into a simple process.
Finally, “What to Do” continues the work of “What to Say” by looking at ways of directly taking action for the trans community. The section, which is denser than the others, is still accessible to a general audience. It looks at what Airton calls “gender-friendly language” – or gender-neutral phrases we can use in place of gendered ones. Instead of boyfriend or girlfriend, one can instead ask about someone’s partner. This doesn’t just help the trans community, but the whole queer and trans spectrum at large. The section also approaches different claims against the trans community, gender-neutral language, and other arguments mocking our movement. Airton goes on to give comprehensive explanations breaking down each of these arguments and why they don’t help anyone. The section is much more action-oriented and could be read by itself by someone who may be informed but isn’t sure how to help the community.
Introducing many new concepts into understanding gender, the guide isn’t quite like anything else available. Some parts of the book may appear prescriptivist, but Airton always allows room for the reader to disagree. Each chapter is rich in details, debates, and resources. If you’re new to gender issues and want to get informed, Gender: Your Guide is the right book for you.