Beyond binaries

How to Understand Your Gender: A Practical Guide for Exploring Who You Are by Alex Iantaffi & Meg-John Barker (Jessica Kingsley Publishers; Pb £14.99). Reviewed by Dr Adam Jowett, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Coventry University.

As its authors claim, this book offers a ‘map and a compass in this ever-changing gender landscape’. The book is written for those questioning their gender identity but with a view to professionals also benefiting from engaging with it. The authors are both therapists, scholars and community organisers who are trans identified and have written a book they wish their younger selves had had access to.

The book is divided into a number of sections guiding the reader through an exploration of what gender is, inviting the reader to think about their own gender and reflect on whether they are comfortable as they are or would like to explore other possibilities. It also considers gender in relation to relationships and sexuality as well as communities and role models. Throughout the book there are reflective activities and lists of further resources. The authors warn that the contents may trigger strong emotional responses, and the book is peppered throughout with mindfulness exercises, encouraging the reader to slow down and take stock of how they are feeling.

The book begins by exploring what gender is before leading to more personal self-reflection. The authors also provide their own illustrative self-reflections throughout. A theme that runs through the book is an emphasis on the huge variation that exists within gender that goes beyond the simple binaries of man/woman or of transgender/cisgender. (For those unaware, cisgender refers to those whose gender matches expectations associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.)

The book invites the reader to reflect on whether there are any changes they would like to make regarding their gender while emphasising that it is fine to make no changes or that one may make changes in some areas but not others. It sensitively discusses types of changes, including changing one’s name, pronouns, identity labels, gender expressions (e.g. the way one dresses) and body modification. The book is not an instruction manual but an invitation to self-reflect on what such choices might ‘open up or close down’ in terms of their consequences and future possibilities.

As a ‘cis’ person I wouldn’t presume to suggest how useful or not this book may be for those pondering their own gender identity, however from reading other reviews by gender diverse folk it seems to be have been very well received. I would however, highly recommend this book to anyone who has a trans friend, colleague or family member, and for any psychologist working with clients in relation to gender identity. The book will not only help you to relate to the experiences of gender diverse people but it may also get you questioning your own taken-for-granted assumptions about gender.

- Reviewed by Dr Adam Jowett, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Coventry University

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