Read My Lips cover art

Read My Lips

Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender

Riki Anne Wilchins
Firebrand Books, Ithaca, New York, 1997
ISBN 1-56341-091-7 Paperback $16.95
ISBN 1-56341-091-5 Hardcover $28.95

Reviewed by Jamie Faye Fenton

I have been looking forward to this one all summer. Riki Anne Wilchins is an intriguing person: Energetic, enigmatic, opinionated, ambiguous, intensely political. Riki radiates a 120 decibel provocative attitude. Her ideas are interesting, and to my analytic mind, certainly wrong. I want to learn more so I can challenge her to a debate; maybe even toss a pie "In Her Face.”

The package comes. Inside is a 6.5" x 8.5", 232 page paperback book with two shots of Riki on the cover, as a garter belt femme and a leather-clad butch. The full title: Read My Lips, Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. While I love the photos, adore Sex and Subversion, I am fervently hoping that Gender does not End.

I dive in and jump around. It didn't expect this. The history and photographs draw me in. I get out my highlighting marker.

Riki Anne’s Ride

Read My Lips is many things. A biography of Riki Anne, an account of the transexual experience, a compendium of earlier writings, a primer on postmodern philosophy and gender theory, and both a history and a manifesto of a new political movement. As these themes are interleaved, I must untangle them to summarize.

Riki on back cover Riki Anne began as Richard. A survivor of incest initiated by the father. Family, school, friends, all try to inculcate the masculine. The download fails.

Riki transitioned and underwent SRS in Cleveland in 1980, when gate-keeping was even worse. Transexual lesbians were not supposed to exist. Transexuals were seen as male freaks and unwelcome in women’s spaces.

Riki’s incest survivor support group goes into turmoil when a pre-op is revealed. Why would a caring, supporting group wish to exclude someone who is in almost every way just like them? This leads her to consider the many other trans-people she knows who are pushed to the margins, suffer, and die. While often the subject of study by outsiders, none of the research products have made trans-persons lives better.

Eventually it hits her: "I am trapped in the wrong culture - not the wrong body." Trans-identity is a political category whose tyranny must end. To deal with the pain, and to make sense of her life, Riki Anne starts thinking and doing.

A Politics Beyond Identity

Social Categories

Being thought of as "tall" is a simple example of a social construction. The category of "tall" exists only because people are making comparisons. Gender is also a social construction, a product of the judgments of others. For a transexual, life is a gauntlet and being read is a hatchet-blow. Bodies, like clothing, are the subject of fashion.

The varieties of intersexuality illustrate that the two standard categories of male and female leave much out. The perception of these categories is a product of gender seeking an explanation in our bodies. Sex is a product of gender - not the other way around - we are seeing what we are taught to expect to see.

The Cultural Invention of Homosexuality

Queer philosopher Michel Foucault is best remembered for presenting the concept of Power as a productive and regulative constituent of culture: The Influence of Actions on Actions. An example of its deployment is the modern invention of the category of Homosexuality. Along with the identity and its benefits we get juridical structures - cultural mechanisms for determining who is included in a category and how they are permitted to behave. This is the trap: giving a group an identity marginalizes others and lays the groundwork for regulation. We can see this in the current state of the Gay Liberation Movement. As their cause is advancing, they move to the center, often forcibly excluding constituents like the drag queens who started it all at Stonewall. It was more fun in the radical beginnings.

The Limitations of Identity Politics

Most political groups define their constituents as an "identity" - a move that excludes others that fail the definition. For example, a gay group may claim they are about sexual orientation, not gender, which glosses over the fact that partner selection is a gendered act. Any determination of identity introduces an "us and them" binary opposition. Extending the definition to include more terms still creates "thems". Identities produce winners and losers. Goal: a politics beyond identity, one that declares oppression as the real enemy.

Gender and Our Bodies

Gender is special. Unlike other categories, gender goes to the core of our being. Is it an essential part of ourselves?

At lesbian gatherings, Riki gives a "Show and Tell" workshop - its latex glove time! All observers concur: "its a cunt all right" and that usually wins them over. But consider non-op Holly Boswell. Why is she anything less? And what about Intersexuality? Genital ambiguity causes discomfort and is a major cause of loneliness. Why must we gender our genitals? SRS technology favors appearance over sensation. Why can’t we have SRS to become an intersexual?

Francis Vavra as the Genderizer Bunny Junior High health class curriculum illustrates how cultures attach meanings to the body. These meanings are confused for trans-people: they do not bind to the right places. The social police use shame, and then violence, to force us to match. Trans-people react by playing along and burying feelings which are unearthed later. Can there be a way to organize yourself without identity?

The Subjective Experience of Gender

Is not gender identity grounded in feelings about yourself? Do not people "feel like a woman" or "feel like a man"? Two usual arguments are: gender identity naturally exists; or that it flows from the natural body. Problem: other categories don’t work this way - and such explanations can’t explain why an androgynous female reports feeling "like a woman" when wearing woman’s clothes.

Even the fundamental interpretation of our perceptions requires us to think using symbols assigned by culture to combine and synthesize concepts taught by culture. Even our bodies themselves are converted into symbols. For example, bras and skirts are cultural tools and symbols that impose femininity on young women. These garments have the dual role of constraining feminine activities and functioning as cultural signs which eroticize the body. When we wear something or think something, culture does a magic trick, creating the illusion of an essential gender identity.

You can’t fight language - it is crucial for social functioning and cognition. Gender is a performance on the social stage. In an exhausting form of "method acting", trans-people adapt emotional camouflage. Part of the transition process involves learning to re-read your body. Before then, many trans-people seek the "other" gender in other’s bodies.

We do not seek a "Gender-Free America" - or world; rather the freedom to choose our meanings.


The Erotic is treated by western culture as a pseudo-science. Other cultures create an art of the erotic. Neither works perfect. Gender includes "what turns us on" and "what gets us off". In the erotic, diferences abound: hard/soft, top/bottom, femme/butch, penetrating/penetrated. Sex is the vicarious experience of the other. Even here, meaning seems to have priority over sensation. "The erotic is grounded on power difference; proclaiming what to show or hide, give or withhold what is legitimate, and what is pleasurable. It erases bodies, acts, and desires which do not meet its aims."

A Chronicle of Menace

Interspersed is the recent history of gender-activism, rendered in narrative and through the superb photographs of Mariette Pathy Allen. It is an inspiring story. Here is some of it.

Riki Anne Today

Joan Nestle, a mentor, asks Riki: "Where do your selves meet?" How do a lesbian, pre-op, a woman, a femme, an addict, an incest survivor, a post-op TS intersect? She wants her body back. At the sex club it all comes together in a 3 way sex scene with Riki Anne in the middle. She relives each identity, the pain and ambiguity. Intensity builds and the rational recedes. She comes.

Riki Anne is the executive director of GenderPAC - which stands for Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, a group composed of individuals and organizations, "dedicated to pursuing gender, affectional, and racial equality". Her recent involvements include demonstrations against IGM, the genital "corrective surgery" of intersexed infants; and the protest of the rape of a Haitian immigrant by several New York City police officers.

Riki concludes with an Interview of Herself - which asks and answers most of the hard questions that come to mind.

Jamie wearing a TS Menace teeshirt


I went into this sparring for a debate. I came out dizzy. The book goes round robin: personal experience, political act, theory, …, about 7 times. These orbits pulled me through my own past and its alienations. I won’t be the same. Just like Riki, not even a long list of labels can pin me down. Now I know I don’t need to be.
Q: What do you get when a Postmodernist joins the Mafia?
A: An offer you can’t understand.

Riki Anne did it right. She accurately presents basic postmodern philosophy. Gender is an excellent venue for this. Her method of going from the bottom up, intermixed with accounts of her past and present actions, helps ground the theory in life, essential for getting it across in 5,000 words or less to a popular audience. It keeps it moist too.

Some of it still seems strange. Here are some lingering thoughts:

My big insight: The mind/body distinction is just another false binary opposition. Sex and gender are not two different things. Virginia Prince is wrong. It really is a rainbow all the way down.


I found this book most worthwhile and recommend it. You will learn about yourself.

In honor, I propose a brand-new category, just for Riki Anne: she gets to be the original Transcend-Gender Activist. May she inspire many more.

-- Jamie Faye Fenton   &nbspComments:

To learn more about the concepts and context for Read My Lips, visit some of these links.

Read My Lips includes 18 Things You DON'T Say To A Transexual, or more precisely a list of 15 common questions and comments made to transexuals and what they reveal about the attitudes of the interlocutor.

Also part of the anthology is Click - Hello?, a metaphoric telephone run-around.

Riki Anne has other writings available on the Transgender Forum web site.

For more, visit the GenderPAC web site

Riki’s friend Nancy Nangeroni also tracks events in the trans-activism area.

Kate Bornstein and Martine Rothblatt are two other noted transgender writers with similar ideas.

Pat Califia's recent Sex Changes is a meticulous analysis of transgender politics.

Read My Lips draws upon the ideas of Michel Foucault, particularly his The History of Sexuality, deconstruction pioneer Jacques Derrida, and especially those of Berkeley professor Judith Butler.

Mary Daly and Janice Raymond are two well-known hostile feminist critics of transgenderism, unfortunately with minimal web presence. Nancy Nangeroni wrote an excellent review of Raymond’s Transsexual Empire. Another critic, Andrea Dworkin, has more of her writings on-line, alas on a slow server.

There are many critics of Postmodern Philosophy. One amusing send-up is Chip Morningstar’s paper How To Deconstruct Almost Anything. Last year the nerd vs. fluffy war really got going with the Social Text Affair, which began as a hoax but has sparked much thoughtful reflection.
Photo credits: cover photos by Mariette Pathy Allen. The Genderizer Bunny and Jamie Menace photos by Jamie Faye Fenton.