What’s Wrong Here? One Daughter’s Rendering of Her Dad’s Gender Transition

In the Darkroom (Metropolitan Books, $32) by Susan Faludi, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of Backlash, is a wide-ranging investigation of her Hungarian Jewish father’s life. This is an intelligent, well-written, often moving book. Beyond its painfully detailed portrait of Faludi’s father, a Holocaust survivor, it is full of information on Hungarian history and culture in general, and the Jewish community in Hungary in particular. But Faludi’s overarching concern is her exploration of her father’s belated gender transition —at age 76 —an exploration that recycles some of the most hurtful, harmful stereotypes of male-to-female transsexuals.

Faludi portrays her father, now Stefánie, as abusive, sometimes violent, profoundly narcissistic, manipulative and dishonest. After a divorce from Faludi’s mother that included physical assault, her father abandoned Susan for decades. When Stefánie announced her gender transition, however, Faludi traveled to Hungary to renew their relationship and undertake the research that culminated in In the Darkroom.

Throughout her book Faludi portrays her father’s transgender identity as bound up with psychological and behavioral problems. While that may have been true for Stefánie, Faludi never makes it clear that transgender identities are not inherently pathological, and that—unlike her father—most transgender people are not psychologically disturbed. Instead, she presents her father as typical of male-to-female transsexuals, of which I am one. For Faludi, this means a parodically exaggerated, masturbatory, misogynist caricature of femininity which evades psychological problems by focusing on what Faludi derisively describes as “identity.”

Faludi does not say this, so let me say it for her: Stefánie is no more representative of other male-to-female transsexuals than she is representative of other Jews. If Faludi had presented her father, who often bragged about being a clever, deceptive, manipulative cheat and liar, as an exemplar of Jewish identity, the book would be widely recognized as anti-Semitic.

But anti-trans stereotypes are much less familiar than anti-Semitic stereotypes, and so the book’s representation of trans identity has been praised, even by those who should know better. For example, Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times review praises In the Darkroom for portraying male-to-female gender transition as “fulfill[ment] of erotic fixation.” Goldberg does not seem to realize that, since the early twentieth century, male-to-female transsexuals have often been dismissed as mistaking erotic fantasies for psychological identities, a caricature that is alive and well among cultural conservatives and anti-trans feminists alike.

The problem is not that Faludi shows her father eroticizing femininity before transition and obsessing over clothing, make-up and so on afterwards. Some trans women—and, for that matter, some non-trans women—do just that. The problem is that she portrays her father and other male-to-female transsexuals as clumsy, ridiculous female impersonators who embarrass ourselves by presenting ourselves as women, and bully others into pretending to go along.

Though Faludi dives deep into the cultural and historical roots of her father’s Hungarian Jewish identity, she ignores the cultural and historical roots of her father’s ideas about women—a striking omission for a feminist cultural critic. Nor does Faludi acknowledge that many non-trans women also associate femininity with sexuality, and are strongly invested in identifying and asserting themselves as women.

By the end of the book, Faludi has grown to understand and accept her father, but not transgender identity. Her penultimate chapter equates the growing respect for trans identity in the U.S. with the rise of Hungarian neo-fascist nationalism and its enforcement of a factitious “Hungarian identity”: “Back in my father’s motherland, as in the U.S. media, questions of identity were in full flower…. [T]he Hungarian Supreme Court had issued a ruling in support of the identity prerogatives of the political right…. The court’s…words could have been lifted from the identity-sensitive speech codes of a college campus or the ‘Preferred Gender Pronouns’ directives of the blogosphere.” Faludi’s rhetoric suggests that promoting respect for preferred gender pronouns is akin to the takeover of Hungarian legal and political institutions by the anti-Semitic nationalists who admire fascism.

Ultimately, Faludi achieves what Goldberg calls “a complex act of forgiveness” with regard to her father. But this book’s strengths should not obscure the fact that In the Darkroom presents male-to-female transsexuals as sexual fetishists, the fight for transgender rights as “a slogan on the presidential campaign,” and respect for trans identity as the moral and political equivalent of neo-Fascism. Faludi has an abused daughter’s right to describe her abusive father as she wishes, but neither her sufferings nor her father’s sins justify her unconscious tarring of all transgender people with the same brush.

Joy Ladin is the author of a memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life: a Jewish Journey Between Genders, a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist, and seven books of poetry. She holds the Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University.