Genes, fruit flies and the Ramones with Julia Serano

picture of Julia SeranoJulia Serano (@juliaserano) may be most well known for her groundbreaking book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, but she is a person of many talents. In addition to having just released a new book (Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive), did you know that Julia is also a musician, a performer, and a geneticist with a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Physics? And although she doesn’t work as an ethnographer, she is an insightful explorer and student of culture.  Her experiences as both an activist and a biologist give her a unique perspective on this month’s theme.

We talked to Julia Serano over beer and french fries in Uptown Oakland.

EM: I don’t know anything about molecular biology, but I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your PhD and your research.

I was a life science major in college, and then I went to get my PhD at Columbia. My degree is in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, which is weird because I don’t really do biochemistry or biophysics. A lot of times the specific titles are related to history, when the fields were more separate, but now there’s more interaction between different subfields.

Most of my thesis research is related to developmental biology, and genetics and molecular biology. Developmental biology involves trying to understand how all animals and plants start out as one cell, and then they develop into animals that have different types of tissues and skin cells and nerve cells and muscle cells.

Genetics started out as a field where people found mutations — where, you know, an animal someone was studying became somewhat different. Now genetics is not only about studying mutations, but trying to understand the underlying genes. Molecular biology started out almost as the reverse, where it’s looking at specific molecules, whether they be DNA or proteins, and from there trying to figure out what they do… Mostly what I did as a developmental biologist was study questions related to how cells and embryos develop, using tools to look at the genes that are involved in that process, and trying figure out how genes work.

EM: Were you interested in that growing up?

Sort of. I was generally interested in science as a kid. I remember especially my parents and relatives getting me dinosaur books and outer space books — I was just generally science curious as a kid growing up. But then in high school when you have to start thinking about ‘What am I going to do for a living’, I really had no idea. Biology was the field that I liked the best, so that’s why I majored in it. I didn’t have any idea of what I would necessarily do with a biology degree, but I was just like, well, that’s the class I like the most, so I went into that.

This is all fruit fly stuff

Drawing of fruit fly with text from William Blake's poem "The Fly"

Saint Drosophila, CC BY-SA Sage Ross
(Poem by William Blake)

EM: Your band is called Bitesize, right, and then I saw your paper about “bitesize” (“The Drosophila synaptotagmin-like protein bitesize is required for growth and has mRNA localization sequences within its open reading frame“), so I was curious about that.

Sure yeah, yeah. While I was doing my postdoc, I was also in a band and we were called Bitesize. I remember in the lab — we were studying fruit flies; this is all fruit fly stuff — someone who I worked with had discovered a gene in which, when it’s mutated, the flies are smaller in size than normal flies, or wild-type flies. Generally if you identify a gene, you get to name it. So she was trying to come up with ideas, and I suggested to her “Lilliputian.”

She ended up using that, and then afterwards I’m like, “I should have told her ‘bitesize’! I could have had my band’s name be a name of a gene.” Then one of the genes I was working on, when I finally got mutations in it, it had a similar phenotype in that they were smaller than average. So I used it as a way to have a little inside joke and call it “bitesize.” Especially in drosophila, fruit fly genetics, there’s a tradition of people being creative with their names.

EM: There was something in your paper about protein coding…

Basically when we talk about genes, a gene is a part of DNA that is like a blueprint to do something for the animal. When a gene is turned on in a cell, you make copies of RNA. They’re temporary copies, called mRNAs for Messenger RNA. So then, mRNAs get translated into proteins. Proteins are little machines that more often than not are actually doing things in the cell.

Some RNAs get made and just float around the cell, and some proteins get made. When it’s advantageous for the cell to only make the protein in one area, RNAs can get transported or localized to that particular part of the cell. The whole thing with bitesize was about those RNAs that get localized. Usually the part of the RNA that makes that happen isn’t also the part that makes the protein. But in bitesize, the part that’s responsible for the localization of the RNA is actually in the part that codes for the protein, which is very unusual. So it was esoteric, kind of an intriguing finding — not necessarily like an ‘oh my god’, earth shattering thing. It’s possible, but it’s rare.

Bitesize, the gene

Bitesize, the gene (Figure 3)

The natural/unnatural binary

EM: I wanted to ask about the new book.

Cover of the book "Excluded"The new book is called Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It takes off where my last book, Whipping Girl, left off. In Whipping Girl I talked about different types of sexism, and especially my experiences of them as a trans woman. Being a trans woman who’s very active in feminist movements and also in queer or LGBTQ spaces and movements, there’s a long history of those movements — while they’re all trying to fight sexism in certain ways — that sometimes they exclude people who are a part of their own movements. Sometimes the way people are excluded is through — sexism! Or through the idea that certain types of genders and sexualities are more legitimate, real, natural or righteous than others.

Over the years I have been writing as a trans woman, and also as someone who is bisexual, and also as someone who is feminine — all three of which can be seen as suspect. I’ve critiqued those types of exclusive attitudes in the past, but kind of on a one-by-one basis… like explaining why trans women shouldn’t be excluded, or why bisexuals shouldn’t be excluded, and so on. In noticing the parallels between those, with this book I wanted to take a wider view and ask why we create movements that are exclusive. What’s wrong with our theories and our strategies that we create movements where a lot of people, who should feel empowered by these movements, are left out?

EM: Thinking about that, do you have a sense of what people mean when they say “natural”?

In trans politics, people often talk about the gender binary and why the gender binary is bad. I would add to that: lots of binaries are bad, and probably amongst the ones that I would like to see destroyed the most are the real/fake binary or the natural/unnatural binary… In our society we tend to see things that are natural as being automatically healthy or automatically moral, and things that are unnatural as being automatically unhealthy and automatically immoral. People are constantly using the word “natural” in this way, and we buy into it — but there are natural products that will kill you. Snake venom is natural.

As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried.

Sometimes it’s useful to talk about why things are good or why things are bad; why things are healthy or not healthy. But generally speaking I don’t see that the natural versus unnatural distinction helps us at all. What really hits me, as someone who has training in biology but also is involved in social justice movements, is that the whole idea of “unnatural” is usually used to put people down; to imply that whatever they’re doing in inherently wrong. I’ve always found it weird, because we’re biological beings, right, so isn’t everything we do natural? I just find that the idea of natural is used generally to make certain things seem better than others with no foundational basis… As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried.


EM: Do you think our understandings of the biomedical, or say, human variation, human genetic research, have any relationship to how we think about what’s natural? Do we have dumb ideas about that? Is there more information that, if we had it, we would have a better understanding?

Both biological researchers and people in the media tend to want to have their biases confirmed.  Particularly in terms of gender and sexuality, which are highly regulated in our culture, people want to believe “It’s just all natural. We’re supposed to be this way.” Given that environment, there are some scientists who carry out kind of dumb experiments, and draw too strong of conclusions when they do gender research — stronger than they would if they were studying, say, how a worm moves. I think it’s easier for the average person to be objective about non-human animals and non-human biology, than about human biology, especially when you get into highly charged issues like gender and sexuality, or intelligence.

There are some scientists who carry out kind of dumb experiments, and draw too strong of conclusions when they do gender research — stronger than they would if they were studying, say, how a worm moves.

One thing that should be stressed more is that there’s a lot of biological evidence, in addition to social evidence, showing that our society and culture and environment influence who we are. People have done experiments showing that if you spend three months learning how to juggle, there are changes in the brain associated with that. That’s how we learn. We know that our brains are biological, and also that they’re highly influenced by society. It would help if we could get beyond the whole nature-nurture thing, and realize that both are always in play.

Also… biology as it gets taught in school, you learn to put things into categories: These are dogs; these are cats. These are women; these are men. We learn to organize everything into these clear cut categories — but in biology, there really are no clear-cut categories. You can put dogs and cats into separate categories, and sometimes that’s useful, but they once shared a similar ancestor together. There is a lot of overlap between the types of genes they have, and their behaviors.

Even within biology, I think especially with gender and sexuality, where people want to believe that being normatively gendered or sexual  is a natural thing, there’s a notion that gender and sexuality happens in a clear-cut way. Sometimes when I give talks, I talk about this as on-off switches. Like “You have XX chromosomes and then a light switch gets turned on and all these things happen! You become nurturing and communicative, like magically, right?” Not only is all of that influenced by society, but also biology is a lot more complicated than one “switch”.

There are so many different factors that contribute to who we are — some of those factors being social and some of them being biological — that the net outcome is just a lot of variation in people. We tend to tolerate variation all the time in certain areas, but then we don’t tolerate it in others. So if I were to say to you that I don’t like broccoli, you wouldn’t question it; you wouldn’t call it unnatural. You would just be like “Yeah, well she just doesn’t like broccoli. It doesn’t do it for her.” We accept that people will have different interests, that people gravitate toward different occupations. People will like different bands from one another. And yet when it comes to things like gender and sexuality, and other factors that are highly policed in society, people can’t handle it.

Pre-med by Bitesize (Audio courtesy of Julia Serano)


EM: Could you tell me a little bit about the song Pre-med?

The seed of that song was a conversation I had with a friend in college… “We’re biology majors, what do we do next?” When you go into college as a biology major, people often assume that you’re pre-med, and sometimes they look down on you if you’re not going into medicine. We were talking about how there’s not just a job “biologist”, where you like learn all the biology, and then people call you up at your office and say “Hey, remind me what’s the difference between xylem and phloem?” It was a joke that always sat with me, and so many years later when I wrote the song, it was in there that of course biological knowledge doesn’t help me get a job in a factory. It’s mostly a song about being somewhat ambivalent about what you’re doing with your life.

EM: I’m curious if you have thoughts about medicalization… Are there some ways of looking at difference from a medical point of view that are helpful, some ways that are not? What do you think?

Rather than think of medicalization in terms that assume “We’re making people better,” we should consider whether we’re reinforcing ideas in the culture that are damaging for certain people.

It’s hard. Many of the ideas behind medicalization seem nice: “We want to help people.” “We want people to get better.” But especially in particular realms, the language, and sometimes the motivation behind it, is based on the idea that certain ways of being are inherently bad, while others are good. For me, the way that I think about this is informed by activism I’ve done as a trans person challenging certain psychological depictions of trans people, or diagnoses that are in the DSM. For example there are diagnoses that exist, on the one hand, seemingly to allow trans people like myself to access the medical system, because we live in a system where in order to access the means to transition, if that’s what you want, you need to go through medical channels. There needs to be a diagnosis, but the way that those diagnoses are formulated can reinforce negative assumptions about trans people. Rather than think of medicalization in terms that assume “We’re making people better,” we should consider whether we’re reinforcing ideas in the culture that are damaging for certain people.

It’s fine to say “Hey, we’re going to promote this particular treatment or this particular medicine for people who have a particular condition.” Which may or may not help people, but I think you can do it without buying into the shame of people who have that condition in the first place. I see this on lots of different levels… People talking about obesity in our culture, where a lot of the language trying to encourage people to be “healthy” plays into fat-shaming, for example, or I already mentioned depictions of trans people in the DSM  that reinforce the idea that there’s something wrong with being trans.

EM: Sometimes a diagnosis or a treatment can be empowering, like yes I have this problem, and I want to do something to change it or to feel better? But then there can be all this other stuff that comes with it about what it means…

Sure, yeah. I think it’s really, really difficult. For example I have several female friends who have taken fertility drugs in order to have children that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to have on their own. For them, some of those technologies are empowering. However, more often than not when I’m reading through a magazine and talk about fertility drugs comes up, it’s always framed like “She was devastated by the idea that she would never have her own child, but then thanks to wonderful medical technology, now she can, and now her life is perfect.” Which plays into the idea that if you’re a woman that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. Shaming, a) women who choose not to have children, and b) women who are infertile but can’t access or afford those drugs, or don’t want to take those drugs for one reason or another. It plays into this hierarchy where women who have children on their own accord with their own bodies are seen as better than women who adopt or choose not to have children.

That stuff always jumps out at me.

Oh, and one more thought about that. I think medicalization is part of our culture’s way of always patting ourselves on the back for technological advances, like every technological advance has to be good — because it’s the new cutting edge thing, and we’re moving forward into the future! If a medical advance happens and it’s just like “Well this could help some people but not help other people,” people tend not to get as excited about it. So new medical technologies, whether it’s a new designer drug or something else, tend to be framed as The Thing That Will Save People and Make People Better. I would rather have a neutral attitude towards it, without getting into hierarchies of some ways of being as better than others.


EM: Is there any other music that comes to mind when you think about this topic?

I can’t think of any well-nuanced songs… There are probably a lot of songs that touch on, for example depression meds, just because there’s a lot of that out there in our culture. The Ramones song “I wanna be sedated” pops into my head. As a culture we buy into things that we feel will make us better.

EM: Plus that song is good for everything, so.

We do live in a culture where people will choose the medical option over continuing to be the way that they are. Which, a lot of times, is a really good thing. The older I get, the more I’m into ambivalence.

Yeah, you can’t go wrong putting a Ramones song on a mix tape. I mean that’s supposed to be funny and kitschy, but we do live in a culture where people will choose the medical option over continuing to be the way that they are. Which, a lot of times, is a really good thing. The older I get, the more I’m into ambivalence. I actually have that in a chapter in my book. Whatever it is that I’m doing, there’s a tendency to be like “What I’m doing is the best,” you know, “and that other thing is the worst!” But with most things I prefer to have an ambivalent view, you know? I’m drinking a beer right now, and uh, it’s good… It’s making me happy; it’s making me relax. But it’s not like beer is always a good thing.

Or the French fries, you know, they’re tasty, but it’s something that I’m not going to eat every single day. If someone else does, maybe that’s good for them. I’m not going to do it. And I think that way with medical technology. I know with particular health things that I’ve had, sometimes it’s a struggle. Sometimes you have a choice of would you go on these medicines that have drawbacks to them, or do you kind of rough it without the medicines, but not have to deal with whatever side effects might be there. I think we want to say “I’m making the right choice,” but sometimes insisting that you’re making the right choice means that other people are choosing wrong. Almost everything in life comes with good outcomes and bad outcomes, so.

Born this way?

EM: You have written about people who are cissexual or cisgender not being aware of any experience of subconscious sex [In Whipping Girl, Serano describes subconscious sex, gender identity, and gender expression as three among many potentially distinct components of sex and gender identity.]. When someone’s experiences of these different aspects are aligned, people may think of them as one thing. And you mention how frustrating it is that people would not be able to see outside of that…

Yeah, the chapter is Blind Spots. It came out of my conversations with many people who are cisgender, where they kept stressing that they couldn’t understand where I was coming from… Or the assumption that I must be confused in a way that they are not. It was about trying to discuss that, and a lot of it is just putting the shoe on the other foot. Saying to people well, if I gave you five million dollars and you have to live the rest of your life as a member of the other sex, would you do it? Most people, when you say that, they’re like, no. So, why not? It’s a lot of money.

It’s a way to help someone realize that “Actually I think I would be really really uncomfortable if I had to live my life in that way.” In a similar way, it’s easy for people who are heterosexual to just accept that “My sexuality is natural and normal, and people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, they have the broken sexualities.” Well, what if we lived in a society where we’re supposed to be homosexual, and those were the only relationships that were condoned by society? Would you just automatically become homosexual? What would that feel like to you? Pushing people to think beyond the idea that certain ways are the natural, right ways, and other ways are wrong, broken ways…

As long as people aren’t doing anything that’s non-consensual, as long as what they’re doing doesn’t impinge on other people’s lives, then I don’t see why anyone should care. I think that there are expressions of gender and sexuality that might be non-consensual and oppressive, but most forms of it don’t really bother anyone. Whatever clothes someone wears in the morning, or whatever pronouns they want people to use to refer to them, I don’t see how that negatively impacts anybody’s lives. On a really deep level, I find it weird that people get so concerned about it. But I know that we’re in a culture where that’s how things are…

EM: That reminds me of how there’s often tension about being gay and whether it’s “innate” or sometimes innateness gets reduced to a “gay gene”. I can identify with feeling offended when people act like an integral part of your identity is something you can change as easily as you can change your socks, but another part of me is like, what difference does the precise degree of “innateness” make? If it’s not innate for someone, then is it bad? To me it’s okay no matter what. It’s just okay.

It’s a double bind, where if who you are is seen as unnatural, then you have to explain it. There will be some people who will say “It’s not a choice; I was born this way.” You know the born this way argument, which was not what I was trying to do with subconscious sex by the way. I was just trying to explain the experience. But yeah, some people will feel like “I was born this way” and then other people say “No, I choose to be gay. I’m proud of it and I choose it.” Both are answers to a question that’s only being asked to one side of the table. No one’s going around saying “Why are people heterosexual?” I’ve done a lot of research about this for writing that I’ve done critiquing psychological theories and diagnoses regarding trans people, and what becomes really clear is nobody understands why people are heterosexual. There are raging debates in the sexology world about why people are heterosexual, and no one knows! So I don’t understand, you know, why aren’t we having a conversation like “Why are people heterosexual? Maybe they’re just confused!”

I don’t think that we should depict anybody as being confused, but I do think it highlights that sometimes we only ask questions of one group without applying the same questions to the other group. And of course if you ask the average person why most people are heterosexual, they would just say some variation of “It’s natural.” You know, “Biology. It’s natural. Hormones.”

EM: So I sent you that email with a quote from your poem [“Cocky”] that I was listening to, which I think is really lovely:

Some mornings I can barely get out of bed
Because my body is so weighed down with ugly meanings
That my culture dumped all over me.
I’ve been made to feel shame and self loathing
So that everyone else can take comfort
in what their bodies mean.

It’s kind of funny hearing it in the context of what we’ve been talking about, and other things that have come out of my mouth, What I was thinking of, the negative meanings that I face, were directly related to other people, the meanings that make them feel comfortable about themselves…

In wanting to believe that our gender or sexuality is this natural, awesome thing, we sometimes imply that other people who do their genders and sexualities in other ways kind of suck. There’s just not a whole lot of awareness of that. I don’t think that people actively realize how sometimes, with their words and their assumptions, they are creating these hierarchies, and there are always going to be people who are on the wrong side of that.

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