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BOOKS Laura Erickson-Schroth's work looks at the trans* self
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer
2014-06-25

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Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Laura Erickson-Schroth wanted to play sports with boys, wear masculine clothing and benefit from all the opportunities that had been given to her male friends simply as awards for their gender.

At home, her mother kept a copy of the Boston Women's Health Collective's groundbreaking 1971 book Our Bodies Ourselves—a publication that has been hailed as enormously significant in addressing inaccurate perceptions ranging from abortion to body image to violence against women. The book and its message proved to be a huge influence on Erickson-Schroth. "It was so radical when it first came out," she remembered. "I got to read through it when I was going through puberty. It was so helpful for me to read stories from such a diverse group of people. They were talking about things like rape and lesbianism—all taboo topics at the time—yet they were brave enough to say something."

By the late '90s, Erickson-Schroth was studying psychology in Middlebury College in Vermont. There, she became actively involved in the LGBT community. When she eventually started medical school in Dartmouth, two things happened to set her on a path that—without ever being transgender herself—would inexorably tie Erickson-Schroth to the stories, challenges, dreams and the struggle for rights and recognition of trans* people around the world.

As a med student, she met a number of transgender patients. Some of her friends who had been part of the lesbian community in college were starting to come out as transgender. "They hadn't come out when we were in college," she said. "I mean, it wasn't something people talked about too much in small town Vermont. But—once I was in medical school—people who were close to me were indentifying as transgender."

In talking to both her friends and her patients, Erickson-Schroth began to notice a clear disconnect between the transgender community and health care providers. "Health providers were seen as gatekeepers," she said. "It was hard to trust providers after a long history of [trans people] not having the best treatment. In some cases, providers were trying to be helpful but didn't know how."

An idea came to her: What if trans*people, their families, friends and the general public had a resource much like Our Bodies Ourselves? What if they could open a book and be able to access the latest information on health and wellness, how to navigate legal issues and terminology, how to deal with challenges with employment, religion and family life? What if the history, art and culture of the transgender community was discovered, laid bare and celebrated? What if there were real stories, thoughts and ideas of trans* people that were not undercut by media sensationalism?

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves ( Oxford University Press ) launched May 20 in Manhattan. It is written by and for trans* people and the gender non-conforming community. It serves as an invaluable resource for anyone interested in transgender issues and includes chapters that address—among a host of other topics—general, reproductive and mental health, medical and surgical transition, legal issues, race, ethnicity and spirituality. There is a section of the book that details the various stages of trans* life such as what it is like to grow up as a gender non-conforming child, to enter middle and old age as a trans* person and the terrible isolation that can often encompass. The book concludes with chapters that draw together the beautifully rich culture and blazing activism that has cemented the foundation of trans* history.

What makes the book so very unique is that it is not defined by one person's story or set of experiences. It is 600-plus-page encyclopedia of everything trans* that is drawn from the cumulative knowledge and multifaceted abilities of people across the country. It is the result of five years of tireless and impassioned labor from a team of more than 50 trans* authors, each of whom wrote a chapter alongside multiple contributors. "It was an exhaustive process," Erickson-Schroth said. "There were a lot of people involved at a lot of different levels. For example, there was someone who worked as the short piece editor, someone who worked as the art editor. There were people who were organizing college interns who volunteered to do research or media outreach. As far as the authors, we either took applications or reached out to specific people we knew. In terms of contributors of short pieces or art, it was the same process; we heard from people who sent in their personal stories, artwork or photography. We also went out and looked for them."

In addition, Erickson-Schroth and her team held trans* forums across the country and in Canada. Attendees divided into groups, discussed and gave their opinions as to what should be included in the book. There was also an extensive online survey that, to date, has received over 3,000 responses. "It was important for us to get together a group of diverse voices," Erickson-Schroth said. "Because—within the transgender community—there are so many opinions and so many backgrounds and we had a number of issues we felt were important to address."

The website for Trans Bodies, Trans Selves makes those issues abundantly clear, maintaining that the book contains "a worldview that supports human rights for all people. While the focus of the book is transgender and gender non-conforming people," it says, "we understand that a struggle for one group is a struggle for all. We emphasize the fact that economics, the prison industrial complex, and strict anti-immigration laws are forms of oppression employed to divide people."

Such a monumental undertaking was not always easy and Erickson-Schroth admitted there were innumerable long nights spent scouring information, amassing spreadsheets and going through call and email lists. "There was a lot of person power needed," she said. "And that came in the form of volunteers. It really was a team effort and I am so thrilled to have so many people who participated and supported us."

For Erickson-Schroth, it is the stories contained within Trans Bodies, Trans Selves that will inevitably make the book so accessible to people both within and outside of the trans*community. "I think one of the best ways to learn about a group of people is to hear what they themselves have to say," she explained. "I've heard thousands of stories and I feel so very privileged to have had my life enriched by the trans*community. I've learned so much during this process about the beautiful diversity that exists within it."

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves is not a project that ended with the very last word in the book. It is now a non-profit with an exponentially growing following via social media and on its website, www.transbodies.com . The book is the first step in the organization's mission to disseminate knowledge about trans* issues. "The first goal is to take all of the proceeds that we make from the book and use them to get copies out to as many people as possible," Erickson-Schroth said. "We hope to be able to offer the book at reduced or no cost to individuals who aren't able to pay, or schools or community centers providing support services for trans* communities."

Erickson-Schroth hopes to eventually leverage the success of the book in order to provide more resources for trans* people. "One of the most common things people told me that when I was working on this book was 'God I wish that existed when I was growing up,'" she recalled. "I think we are going to see people have more knowledge at an earlier age. That's the most important thing: hearing other people's stories and knowing that that you are not alone."


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