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Review of Jack Halberstam's "Trans* A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability"

Mack Carlisle

It’s hard not to love Jack Halberstam’s incredibly accessible approach to challenging topics, and Trans* A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability is no exception. With gender in an ever-expanding state of flux, amid a political climate rife with hate, bigotry, and all the worst of society’s ills, Trans∗ offers an unorthodox guide. This relatively easy read affords a loosely organized play-by-play digestible enough to educate even the most resistant. Traversing such disparate references as Bowie, Prince, “Finding Nemo,” Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Monty Python,” Facebook, Lego building blocks, and so many more, Halberstam maps visualization of trans* people across media. About this intentionally meandering survey, a signature move consistent with his earlier book The Queer Art of Failure, he explains: “Rather than giving a neat, chronologically ordered account of the emergence of transgender communities and trans visibility in the twenty-first century, I want to chart the undoing of certain logics of embodiment.”

Lacking headier contextualization and theory, while also assuming some pre-existing knowledge, Trans∗, perhaps appropriately, exists in a rather inbetween position: it’s an idiosyncratic refresher on the complexities of trans existences, or an unconventional primer for a well-read audience, but it also isn’t drilling down into the deeper whys. Trans∗ offers exactly what its title suggests: “a quick and quirky account of gender variability.” Halberstam traces, as he puts it, “the record of the fabulous, inventive, dis-identificatory processes by which and through which trans* people dream themselves into the world and remake the world in the process.” In this at times very personal book, Halberstam investigates this dreaming and remaking with reference to his own life, as he writes about his ambiguous relationship to pronouns and describes his experience with top surgery in 2016, exploring a metaphor of the body as an abode that can be redesigned by an architect/surgeon.

Socially we sit on the edge of so much cultural change and an impending acceptance of gender variance. Halberstam’s book explores examples of what brought us here, and what exactly “here” is. Even the use of the asterisk in the title will be new to many readers, myself included. Halberstam explains: “As the term ‘transgender’ comes to represent the acceptable edge of gender variance, the category of trans* signifies the cost of that level of acceptance. The category takes the prefix for transitivity and couples it with the asterisk that indicates a wildcard in internet searches; it is a diacritical mark that poses a question to its prefix and stands in for what exceeds the politics of naming and recognition.” Like much of Halberstam’s writing, Trans∗ too is a wildcard as it shuffles through genres, eras, and media, pulling examples that span centuries and the globe. If nothing else, the book serves as an interesting starting point, rich with tidbits of ideas and citations from which to dig deeper.