Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity

Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity. Arlene Stein, New York: Pantheon Books, 2018, 339 pp.

Unbound opens in a waiting room in South Florida, where Ben, a young transgender man, anxiously awaits his turn to see the plastic surgeon who will masculinize his chest. Readers visit this waiting room time and again throughout the book. Collapsing physical space with the emotionally charged moment just before life-altering surgery, the waiting room is pivotal in stories of surgical transformation. But it also does methodological work. It is in the waiting room that sociologist Arlene Stein finds and connects the people whose stories she tells. Unbound focuses on four young transmasculine people in the United States. While their life stories and aims for body modification differ, what links them is their desire to have their breasts removed or reduced in order to have flatter, more masculine chests. Characterizing her interlocutors as “gender dissidents,” Stein frames her research with the question, “what does it mean that more and more female-assigned individuals are choosing to masculinize their bodies today? What might it tell us about how our notions of gender are changing more generally?” (p. 10).

Unbound is a motivated exploration of transgender masculinity rather than an argument about it. Stein uses the stories of four people whose varying paths to chest surgery and reasons for undergoing it facilitate reflections on sex, gender, and masculinity in the contemporary United States. Unbound is, as Stein notes, a book “for general readers who may have limited acquaintance with the transgender world” (p. 20). Stein acknowledges that at the outset of the project, she was just such a person. In confessional moments throughout, she shares the ways her own ideas about gender and transgender changed through the research. These moments are effective invitations to similarly inexperienced readers to reflect on and possibly undo what they thought they knew about transgender masculinity.

The book’s main character is Ben, whose identity as trans is refracted through detailed interactions on social media and in ongoing dynamics with his parents, who also participate in the research. The book’s opening chapters provide a deep dive into Ben’s life story—his family, childhood, anxious puberty, young dating life, early suicide attempt, and arrival at first a lesbian and then a trans identity. Stein uses the contours of Ben’s story to explore basic concepts of sex and gender, and to show how public discourse about gay and lesbian liberation in the United States in the late 20th century helped make “transgender” a legible political and personal identity.

As Ben’s life story moves into young adulthood, Stein explores the history and contentiousness of psychiatric diagnosis as the condition for accessing transition-related health care in the United States, and the role of the Internet both in connecting publics and in providing a platform for young trans people to share their stories and navigate their changing public identities.

The chapter at the middle of the book, Designing Men, provides a brief overview of the surgical technologies used to masculinize chests. Stein shows how the U.S. market for these services has been shaped by private capital, insurance restriction, and good old-fashioned marketing. Here, the topic of psychiatric diagnosis is explored in more depth through interviews with mental health providers who work with trans folks and specialize in navigating complicated histories of antagonism and mistrust.

As Ben’s story is left mid-stream, readers meet Parker, whose experience of and desire for masculinity draws new issues into view. Parker is “a bad boy, a player,” (p. 140) who mugs for photos in sports jerseys, brags about his dating exploits, and is frequently recognized by others as male. In relaying Parker’s story, Stein explores some implications of transitioning at work—e.g., how shifting legal and personal identities are managed with coworkers and how customer interactions can become strained by a person’s changing appearance—and interrogates the white, male hegemony that Parker expressly aims to embody. Parker’s post-operative recovery takes Stein into a recovery house, where she talks with several patients about their family lives and romantic partnerships. Dating and sexual intimacy can be challenging for many of the trans men she talks to, including Lucas.

Lucas identifies himself as a “queer trans man” who is also non-binary. Committed to social justice work both professionally and in his personal life, Lucas rejects dominant models of masculinity that he finds “emotionally shut-down, racist, and misogynistic” (p. 168). His goal is to dissolve barriers between gendered categories and to embrace his masculinity and femininity at once. As opposed to Parker, who wants others to see him as unquestionably male, Lucas claims his transgender and non-binary status proudly.

The book’s final character is Nadia, a butch lesbian who no longer wants to have breasts but has no plans to transition. This desire, and the line it seems to blur between lesbians and trans men, launches what is Stein’s most autobiographical chapter of the book. Naming herself as a lesbian who came of age in a feminist moment that embraced androgyny and women-centered politics, she discusses how she and her peers have struggled with the question of what the growing number of trans identified young people means to lesbian communities. In conversation with her friends and colleagues, Stein acknowledges that her subject position has shaped her thinking on trans masculinity, outlining feminist and late 20th-century lesbian politics and values of embodiment. In places, the text takes turns between nostalgic reminiscence and sanguine reparation. At times, Stein seemed less interested in understanding Nadia’s story than in working through her own anxieties.

Unbound ends by linking back up with Ben, now post-surgery and waiting to recover alongside other people readers have met along the way. Stein revisits each of them to talk about how the surgery they all longed for had changed their lives. Although Ben is very pleased with his procedure and sees big improvements in his life, he learns that its impacts are limited and that a newly operated body poses problems of its own.

The strength of this book is its accessible personal narratives, which allow a light engagement with a broad range of topics and issues of importance to the transgender men and others Stein engages in interviews. Readers inexperienced with these issues will find clear explanations but won’t be alienated by myopic or complex analysis. This strength is, at the same time, the book’s considerable limitation. It does not introduce new research or push theoretical conversations in any new directions. Readers who are trans themselves, who have spent time in trans communities, or have done much reading on the topic will not find any striking new insights here. What they’ll find instead are well-crafted personal stories that intertwine with thoughtful and accessible reflection.

Divided into 10 short chapters, each around 20 pages long, the book is eminently teachable and would be suited to undergraduate courses introducing cultural anthropology, medical anthropology, or gender studies.

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