Identity is infinitely flexible, but the English language is not, and Deborah Rudacille felt its limits when writing her new book, The Riddle of Gender. The Baltimore author had to use words that assign gender regardless of chromosomal or psychological subtleties, the shopworn "he" and "she" - except when one transwoman insisted on being called a "sie."
And except, of course, whenever a more common genderless term cropped up. The pronoun "I" is perhaps the most important word in the book, and not just because it skirts grammatical technicalities. "I" is the vector for the human voice, the subject of the anguished personal stories that, more than clinical definitions and social theories, are the heart of Rudacille's book about those who feel compelled to change genders.
Usually when "I" appears in The Riddle of Gender (Pantheon Books, 384 pages, $26), somebody else besides the author is speaking, whether it's an American GI who in the 1950s was castrated in order to "become a woman," or a bearded Stanford neurobiologist who was born a girl. Quoted at length, these and other transpeople explain the pain of inhabiting a body at odds with its impulses.
But sometimes, and often between the lines, Rudacille speaks, too.
Don't get her wrong: The 46-year-old Dundalk native is today and always was "a plain old white woman," although someone at a recent transgender event misidentified "the chick with the wild red hair" as a masquerading man. And one of her three children does refer to his mother as "The Queen of the Transsexuals." He's kidding, though.
Or is he? Over several years of researching the book, a history of transgender science and activism that comes out this month, Rudacille infiltrated the transgender world, where men and women transform themselves through various means - hormonal, surgical, cosmetic - into members of the "opposite sex."
Rudacille frequented cross-dresser support group meetings and shelters for transgendered youth, acutely conscious of the ill-will some members of the transcommunity bore her. More cases of mistaken identity ensued: At least one transperson suspected she was in league with Jerry Springer.
Especially in the beginning of the project, "I was grilled, I was really interrogated," said Rudacille, a science writer who also works for several medical publications produced by the Johns Hopkins University. "Trans- people have not always been served well by journalists."
Which is one reason why she decided to let individuals speak for themselves, bridging the book's chapters with intimate question-and-answer-style interviews. These conversations with transgendered historians, actors and activists help animate the book's academic portions.
"I didn't want it just to be me, my voice, telling these stories," Rudacille said. "The voices of the people come through."
As a science writer, Rudacille is a mere "translator," she said. She views her task as making the scientific history of the transgendered movement - which she traces to the first decades of the 20th century - comprehensible to the general public, who are not familiar with gene theory or queer rhetoric. A regular contributor to publications like the Institute for Cell Engineering's newsletter, she's used to this kind of cut-and-dry work.
But, in The Riddle of Gender, Rudacille does more than translate, occasionally contributing her own "regular" voice to the colorful chorus.
"Science writers don't usually inject themselves into the story," said Dana Beyer, a former ophthalmic surgeon in Chevy Chase who had surgery to become a woman and was interviewed by Rudacille for the book. But, writing as a woman who had no prior contact with the transgendered world, Rudacille "is kind of like a tour guide for people who would find this stuff completely strange."
"She's not coming at it from an advocacy position," Beyer said. "She's coming at it as a woman who wanted to educate herself," and ended up learning about both the transgendered community and herself.
"I love her voice," Beyer said. The opening words of the first chapter are Rudacille's, and she goes on to include personal anecdotes about what she learned writing the book, and how she now regards her own gender as a precarious balance, not a static trait.
Her book editor goaded her into including these private epiphanies, but they occurred naturally. After all, the book's inspiration was intensely personal, stemming from her sense of bewilderment when a lesbian friend announced about five years ago that she planned to become a man. Confusion sharpened into concern when a transwoman, Tacy Ranta, was murdered near a bar about a mile from Rudacille's Arcadia home.
"I used to go to that bar," she said. "Friendly place, $1 Guinnesses. Then one day I picked up the newspaper."
Even though she worked for Johns Hopkins, once the epicenter of sex reassignment procedures, the trangendered realm was completely alien to Rudacille, whose last book was about the ethics of animal research.
"Initially I was just as stupid as the next guy," she said.
She set to work interviewing, traveling as far as California, and reading everything she could get her hands on, from histories that discussed Chevalier d'Eon, an 18th-century French aristocrat notorious for switching sex roles, to dated scientific tracts about endocrinology experiments that once shaped the world's understanding of gender.
She also read memoirs. Better than any other source, autobiographies like Daphne Scholinski's The Last Time I Wore a Dress and Jan Morris' Conundrum articulated the sense of loneliness that many transgendered people feel.
Unexpectedly, their anguish resonated with Rudacille. She could hear in their prose echoes of the achingly difficult transitions of her own traditional life - marriage, divorce, single motherhood, empty nesting - and a sense of not belonging.
"I'm one of those protean sort of people," she said. "There are times in life when you almost feel yourself shucking off your old self."
In search of identity
She also started to scrutinize her own gender identity, which isn't as stable as she thought. For one thing, she realized she was a cross-dresser, at least by the standards of a century ago, when blue jeans would have been considered a bizarre wardrobe choice for a "female-bodied" person. Reading the gender theories of Magnus Hirschfeld, a pioneering scientist in the field, Rudacille reflected that she didn't qualify as a "womanly woman" in his view - that instead, her mixture of personality traits straddled the border between genders.
"Under his system, I would be an 'intermediary,'" she said.
The very attributes that enabled the writing of The Riddle of Gender - aggression and empathy, analytical ability and sensitivity - are "transgendered," she said.
Rudacille's next project is Roots of Steel, a personal history of the Dundalk steel industry. Dundalk is hardly a trans- gendered haven, she said - her mother, who still lives there, begged Rudacille not to dedicate The Riddle of Gender to her - but the books are in some ways related. Not only will Roots of Steel develop the personal tone that Rudacille discovered in The Riddle of Gender, but it will also explore similar transitional tensions, like Rudacille's uncomfortable sense of having switched from blue-collar culture to the middle class, truly belonging in neither.
Writing The Riddle of Gender helped her identify this internal struggle.
"I guess I've always been betwixt and between," she said.
Born: July 2, 1958
Favorite book: Lord of the Rings
Quote: "You can only learn so much from books."