The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You
Gender, sex, and queer theory aren’t exactly what come to mind when I think of an easy read. I remember being duped into reading one of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s books, Sexing the Body, which begins with the story of a female athlete, Maria Patino, stripped of her medals when it was determined by doctors that she had been born with a condition known as androgen insensitivity. She was biologically male, but her body did not respond accordingly.
After this first anecdotal queer foray, Fausto-Sterling dives head first into the theory and science of it all. Although wildly interesting, theory is something that I can only take in small doses, and Sexing the Body took me some time to read. This is where S. Bear Bergman’s book enters at a seemingly oppositional point in style. The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You is a collection of essays on queer and transgender issues that begins like the story of Maria, and continues in this vein for the duration of the book while still getting the important, theoretical points across and engaging the reader in a way that almost no queer theory book has before.
This is not to say that Bergman’s book isn’t smart. It is. It’s full of big words and heady concepts, but ze delivers them in a way that is thoughtful to the reader, a kind of fireside chat of topics that are usually spoken about in academic settings. Bergman’s gift of storytelling illuminates the evolving nuances of queer and trans life, and one of the greatest elements of hir book is that ze has a way of making the personal not only political, but public and shared as well.
Most essays begin with a story from Bergman’s life, and then weave the details of the stories, which deal with queer life in practice, into queer life in theory. Some essays are on the cutting edge, like “Passing,” which deals with the use, or misuse, of a word that inflicts responsibility of understanding onto the person in question. Not only does Bergman discuss the problematic use of this word, ze offers a solution-reading-that assigns responsibility to the observer. Other essays, like “The Velveteen Tranny,” is an honest and heartfelt look at Bergman’s dissatisfaction with the sexes and genders that are culturally provided–even the non-normative ones-and ache that surrounds the desire to feel real.
The essays in The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You are at times hilarious, thought provoking, sad, and even painful. Few books discuss queer and trans topics in such a personal way, and this book does a great service to contributing to the growing canon of queer literature. By making hir experiences visible, Bergman provides yet another narrative within the LGBTQ discourse, and lengthens the spectrum of possibility even further, one essay at a time.