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Trans Activism

Harris Kornstein
Date Published: 

Transgender History
By Susan Stryker
Seal Press, 2008

Pioneering scholar-activist Susan Stryker’s newest book offers a concise and accessible crash course on the history of activism for the rights of "gender deviant" people, mainly in the US and in the past fifty years. Framed through a transfeminist lens, the book provides a useful introduction for those unfamiliar with the language of transgender identities, politics, and history. Even for those of us who feel relatively experienced in genderqueer speak, there are myriad moments in history to be revealed or remembered, and Stryker’s recounting includes context and theory that is unlikely to be found elsewhere.

The book begins with an introduction to terms and Stryker’s theoretical agenda. She discusses the challenges of writing about terminologies that are historically and culturally situated, and often a matter of personal identification. For this reason, she poetically defines “transgender” as “the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place – rather than any particular destination or mode of transition.” She also offers working definitions for specific terms – and the contestations of such vocabulary – including ones that are still less common even within queer circles such as “cisgender,” which challenges the norm of “non-trans.”

The second chapter begins in the late nineteenth century, with the growth of an industrialized urban economy and the enactment of vice and cross-dressing penalties. She moves quickly through almost a century of history, touching on German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld, early social networks of cross-dressers, and the highly profiled Christine Jorgenson. It is here that Stryker’s deft ability to integrate a theoretical analysis of attitudes and patterns becomes apparent. For example, she highlights the state’s interest in maintaining the gender binary (and other social structures) as a means of maintaining its legitimacy and capitalism.

Chapter three explores moments of resistance in the sixties (including riots pre-Stonewall), and the organizations that roll out of them. Stryker delves deeply into the riots at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco (chronicled in her film Screaming Queens), and contextualizes the emerging movement within changing spatial relationships (ie gentrification), shifting medical views on the body, Vietnam, the economy, and contemporaneous social movements. She also discusses Reed Erickson – a figure new to me – a wealthy trans man who served as benefactor to these emerging support organizations.

Chapter four, aptly titled “The Difficult Decades,” explores changing views in medicine and psychology, as well as within the mainstreaming gay and feminist movements. As part of her transfeminist project, Stryker provides detailed analysis of the betrayals by the feminist movement (including lesbians), particularly of trans women (often labeled “rapists”), but also of butch women. Interestingly, she offers an argument that it was the disavowal of butch/femme culture that opened up space for the emergence of female-to-male (FTM) and trans masculine communities.

Recent struggles
In the final chapter, Stryker takes a look at the coherence of a more formal transgender rights movement, beginning in the early nineties and continuing through today. She focuses heavily on new queer and feminist theory and the re-politicization of the queer community in the wake of the AIDS crisis. The last several pages also cover the activism and cultural work that has exploded in the past few years, leading up to recent struggles for a trans-inclusive federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

While Stryker’s main strength in Transgender History is her ability to convey a large amount of historical and theoretical information with a concise accessibility, its brevity also leads to some shortcomings. The book focuses largely (though by no means exclusively) on white and otherwise privileged individuals, predominantly on the MTF spectrum. Indeed, in defining her terms she categorizes many as “subcultural,” including terms as diverse as “drag,” “bulldagger,” and “two-spirit,” but offers little in terms of definitions. Additionally, she alludes to Black and Latina ballroom culture, without delving into any of its specific vocabularies. Towards the latter end of the book, she also takes quite a bit of space discussing more discursive elements of the movement, such as debates occurring within feminist and academic circles (ie the Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival). Certainly these are useful sites for activism, yet their prominence raises familiar questions of “Whose history exactly?” and “Who is the book’s audience?”

I could envision such a project being further strengthened by delving deeper into theory around alternative forms of resistance that are embodied on a more daily basis, such as the caring relationships built within ballroom houses and communities of sex workers, or movements by indigenous people to reinvigorate traditions of more diverse gender systems. Though she does question “what conventionally counts as political activity within modern society” – protests, legal and policy work, and public education – in favor of other ideas and activities that “qualify one… as a fit subject for citizenship,” this analysis could be expanded to include more theoretical work as to what those are forms of political activity are, and how they are embodied in specific communities.

Still, I do not fault her for these omissions from this book, as there are few academics that produce analyses as grounded and accessible as hers. Stryker surely deserves appreciation, especially as someone who is not only writing, but also in the process of making, Transgender History.