Identity, Equality, Humanity; How Social Roles Restrict us

Frédérik SisaA&E, General Art

Review of Gender & Sexuality for Beginners

“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.” – No. 6, The Prisoner

[img]2638|right|||no_popup[/img]Any book that challenges the politics of identity, in which the personal and the political are often indistinguishable, invariably reminds me of a memorable scene from the British TV series The Prisoner – the classic original, not the insipid, misguided reimagining. In it, a former secret agent played by the inimitable Patrick McGoohan rejects a deal for a comfortable life in the picturesque prison of the Village in exchange for revealing the reason for his resignation. Specifically, he rejects the Village’s attempt to condense him, his life, and his career – that is to say, his very own concept of self-identity – into a file and, crucially, a single symbol: the number 6. Although the series literally dealt with the conflict between a government operative and captors who may or may not be his own government, its allegory concerned the contentious relationship between the individual and society. As emphasized in the series’ phantasmagorical finale, when No. 6 is confronted by an assembly of masked individuals designated by various “…ists,” there is a fundamental struggle between the individual’s impulse to create his or her own identity and the societal/cultural tendency to impose an identity on its members.

Gender & Sexuality for Beginners, written by Jaimee Garbacik and illustrated by Jeffrey Lewis, examines arguably the most fundamental manifestation of identity politics. Much like Greek Mythology for Beginners, the book is formatted less like a comic book and more like an illustrated text – and a fairly dense one at that. The graphic design would have better benefited readers with a cleaner, more spacious layout. Nevertheless, the book’s well-researched and documented examination of gender construction and sexual orientation is first-rate. It could easily serve as a textbook for a gender studies class. Ms. Garbacik ably and accessibly summarizes a gamut of topics, including science, history, popular culture, politics, and civil rights activism. She illustrates how they work in constructing gender and sexual identities that we assume are objective and fixed in nature. In  actuality, they are fluid and subjective. Traditions, assumptions, doctrines, prejudice, preference – all of these and more are discussed in an effort to understand how they shape the constellation of expectations that define gender and sexual roles in society.

The stakes in confusing the subjective with the objective are apparent enough in political terms, as we see in the debate over gay marriage for example, or efforts by religious organizations to promote “conversion” therapies as a matter of policy to cure people of their homosexuality. But we mustn’t lose sight of the individual level, where the confusion causes so much harm as individuals are pushed, filed, stamped, and indexed into conforming to socially-constructed and prescribed identities. Failure to conform results not only in alienation and ridicule, as many who do fit into the traditional male/female roles and heterosexual identities, but also to assaults both psychological and physical. As Ms. Garbacik points out, “30 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth attempt suicide between the age of fifteen and twenty-four.” To this, we can add heartbreaking statistics of violence. In the U.S., the FBI reports that of 7,731 victims of hate crimes “20.4 percent were targeted because of a bias against a particular sexual orientation.” Also, this: “A staggering 61 percent of American trans people report having been physically assaulted as a result of their gender identity, and 64 percent report having been sexually assaulted. Given underreporting, actual figures of drastic mistreatment of no doubt significantly higher.” So people suffer, not because of who they are per se, but because of who they are in relation to how our culture expects them to be.

Unusual for a For Beginners books (as far as I can tell), Gender & Sexuality is unafraid to go beyond providing a straightforward overview of a complex topic by assuming a polemical stance.

“There may be a fundamental difference between most male- and female-assigned people that has significance beyond reproduction. But since humans are more varied within each sex than between the ‘two’, how crucial could such a trait be? Over-emphasizing a 1 percent genetic difference whose implications remain unclear while neglecting differences within the sexes is personally irresponsible, and becomes politically criminal when institutions create and enforce policies on its basis. Furthermore, does it really matter whether or not people are born with a biologically-determined sexual orientation? In either case, one’s identity is no less legitimate. People have diverse traits. All people deserve respect, basic freedoms, protection under the law, and equal representation.”

Given the history of conflict between people on the basis of their identities, whether rooted in ideology or assumptions about physiology, it’s a stance that surely applies to all manifestations of identity politics. In this sense, Gender & Sexuality is something rare: A genuinely subversive book that, better than most post-modern philosophers, undermines efforts to push, stamp, file, and index people into rigid categories, no matter the personal cost.

Although I would not have condemned the book if it had embraced heated polemics – anger, in my view, is an understandable reaction to injustice – its message is never delivered with anger, but instead with a gentle yet firm commitment to educate. The notion that how we conceive of gender and sexual orientation is not, ultimately, sourced in some inescapable truth will be deeply unsettling, particularly to partisan culture warriors. The book is valuable, then, not only because of the information it provides, but because of the compassionate stance it assumes in confronting tragically common misconceptions while advocating on behalf of the marginalized. Gender & Sexuality provides a civil foundation on which to build a cross-cultural conversation, an enticement to learn more substantively about the human condition in all its glorious diversity. It’s one of the best For Beginners books I’ve had the opportunity to read, and essential reading for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of a vital topic.

To order this and other For Beginners books, visit the For Beginners Books website.

Frédérik Sisa is the Page's Assistant Editor and Resident Art Critic. He invites you to join him on twitterinstagram, and his blog, If you have a book, film, art or fashion project you would like considered for a Page feature, please send an eMail to