Book Review: When Gender is in Question, a Guide to Understanding

Sherkin's book When Gender is in Question is not written specifically for the neutral. However, the author being a mediator and facilitator, her approach to the topic provides a fantastic foundation for the neural to be prepared for gender questioning clients. The book focuses on the experience of the transitioning person and their loved ones and as such provides a doorway to deeper understanding, to uncovering bias, and to appropriate interaction.

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Book Review of When Gender is in Question A Guide to Understanding 

by Suzanne Sherkin with Dr. Helma Seidl PhD, MSW, RSW, Psychotherapist, and Skyler Hagen

I became interested in this book after hearing Suzanne Sherkin, speak at a Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBBI) on-line event about gender and mediation.  Sherkin co-authored this book with gender specialist and psychotherapist Dr. Helma Seidle, and with her son Skyler Hagen.  The book has 9 chapters; however, I like to look at it in terms of 5 sections.  The first section goes over the definitions and terminology.  Section two details Skylar’s experience.  In Section three Dr. Seidl answers common questions. In Section four Sherkin covers gender transitioning in the workplace.  And Lastly, in section five Sherkin asks you to think about your own relationship with gender.

This book is not written specifically with the neutral in mind, however, Sherkin’s expertise as a neutral comes through in the way the book is written.  Sherkin’s approach with this book focuses more on experiences, both of transgendered individuals and of their loved ones.   The book does just what the subtitle says – it is a guide to understanding the transgendered experience.  That is not to say it is devoid of facts.  In the first section of the book, Sherkin shares the definitions and nuances of the terminology.  She talks about the difference between sex and gender.  Sex being the biological characteristics that define men and women, and gender referring to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, attributes, and activities that are culturally acceptable for men and women (p 13). Gender expression is evident in the way we dress, our hair style, our gestures, mannerisms, and voice, essentially anything that can be seen by others.  Gender identity is the internal perception of ourselves.  An important take away from this section is that gender identity and sexual orientation are independent of each other – anyone can like anyone else.  She talks about the ways sex has historically been decided using chromosomes, genitals, and secondary characteristics and the trouble with those methods. For example, if using chromosomes to determine sex there are some men are who have an extra X chromosome and some women have an extra Y chromosome.  When using genitals to determine sex, Sherkin asks what do you do with those born as intersex individuals?  There are also those individuals that have anatomy on the inside that does not match what is on the outside (p16-19). These methods alone cannot determine gender.  Even hormones are not always conclusive as individual differences in hormone levels may not match other biological factors.  In recent events, two female Namibian athletes were disqualified from the Olympic 400-meter race in Japan in 2021 due to naturally high testosterone. However, they did qualify for other races (Esesser, 2021).  Sherkin goes on to discuss important topics surrounding gender such as washrooms, pronouns, and more.  

In the second section, Skyler’s contribution to the book is his openness about his years-long journey through transitioning – what he was thinking, what he was feeling, what he was concerned about at each step in his journey, and what lessons he has learned through this experience.  He took every step very slowly and deliberated what impact it could have on him and his family.  One particularly difficult lesson he noted that different groups accepted him through different parts of his transition, however, they may not be the same groups nor what you expect. For example, as he was transitioning Skyler was an influential part of the queer community, however, now that his transition is complete and he “looks cisgender” he does not have as much influence.  

In the third section, Dr Seidle’s discusses how a transitioning member can affect the family dynamic.  She offers answers for the questions that have come up frequently in her practice whether the gender questioning person is a child, spouse, parent, or self.  This section will likely answer any questions you may have. One thing that she emphasizes is how critical it is to first ask the transgendered person how they want to be addressed and then to use their preferred way to be addressed when interacting with them.

In the fourth section, Sherkin talks about the experience of transitioning in the workplace.  She shares the struggles that transgendered people often face, not generally in meetings or formal spaces, but in the staff rooms, elevators, hallways, and in cubicles.  These informal spaces are the places that an organization shows its true culture.  Senior management and the management team have an impact on the workplace culture and on how well a transitioned person is accepted.  A plan is required for this integration to go smoothly.  Sherkin found that transitioning people want to convey to work associates that they are not changing who they are, they are only changing how they show up to work.  A particularly effective tool in preparing a workplace for a transitioning employee is to conduct training sessions where teams were able to ask questions without the transitioning person present.  One thing I really like about the book is that Sherkin is not trying to convince you.  She is simply asking for you to treat everyone with respect.  Sherkin states: “There is no need to change your beliefs…You do not have to accept the idea that someone feels that they are meant to be a different gender that the one they were born into.  The single request here is for respectful behavior.”  (p99).  This section also includes a guide for creating workplace policies, procedures and cultivating desired behaviors.  

Last, Sherkin requests her readers to reflect on their own relationship with gender. This section is particularly important to dispute resolvers.  As a mediator or neutral, it is important that your own relationship with gender be acknowledged and known so that any bias or challenges with neutrality are surfaced before you are faced with a party who may present outside your norms of gender.  Mediators do need to develop rapport with each party and create an environment that each feels heard, acknowledged, and understood.  All parties need to feel safe with their mediator.  Sherkin also reminds us to “recognize that people may not always be the sex we assume them to be” (p19).  Sherkin also asks the ultimate question in this section “Why does difference make us so uncomfortable?” (p146).

In Conclusion, Sherkin’s book is a fantastic introduction for anyone who is, or knows someone who is, questioning their gender.  It goes through the definitions and terminology you need to know.  It offers a window into the transitioning person’s experience and the experience of loved ones of the transitioning person.  It informs on how to interact with the transitioning loved one or coworker and, by default, the client who may be questioning.  The best part, the book directly asks readers to think about: their relationship with gender, their expectations surrounding gender, and what about gender makes them so uncomfortable.  Sherkin’s book can help the neutral to explore their own feelings and biases about gender to better prepare for having the transgendered client.  

Listening to the transgendered experience is critical to understanding the transgender person.  Krista Tippert said “I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly. The difference in our opinions will probably remain intact, but it no longer defines what is possible between us.”  Tippert and Sherkin both recognize that in understanding another’s experience you start to close the gap between you.  Closing that gap is instrumental in creating a better relationship, work environment, or mediation.

ENDNOTE

Esesser, K. (2021, July 27). What Makes An Athlete Female? Here’s How The Olympics Decide. Forbes.com. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2021/07/27/what-makes-an-athlete-female-heres-how-the-olympics-decide/?sh=4da0d9a34f9c. 

 

                        author

Janet Chance

Janet Chance is the owner of Chance Conflict Consulting where she is a mediator, facilitator, conflict consultant, and conflict coach specializing in working with families and workplace conflict. She has a Masters in Dispute Resolution from Pepperdine School of Law. Janet volunteers with the LA City Attorney’s Office to provide… MORE >

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