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27 April 2010

Susan Stryker: Transgender History – a review

Susan Stryker took a doctorate in US History at University of California at Berkeley in 1992 with a dissertation on the origins of Mormonism as a case study in the formation of identity-based communities.  She completed transition to female the same year. She was a co-founder of Transgender Nation. She is the author of Queer Pulp: Perverse Passion in the Golden Age of the Paperback and Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, and edited the transgender studies special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. She is the executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society, and has a fellowship in Sexuality Studies in the History Department at Stanford University. She wrote the introduction to the Cleis Press reprint of Christine Jorgensen's autobiography. She appeared in Monika Treut’s film, Gendernauts, 1999, and wrote and narrated the short film Shotgun, 1997 about a female couple, one of whom is intersex, and co-wrote, co-directed and narrated the film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, 2005. She has taught at Harvard, UC-Santa Cruz and Simon Frazer universities, is currently Associate Professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University.
  • Susan Stryker.  Transgender History. Berkeley: Seal Press.  2008.
The first observation is that the title needs two caveats.  This is a not a history of transgendered persons and their achievements in show biz, music, sex work, computing, health work, literature, the law, religion, the military, police work, teaching, sports etc etc.  It is a history of almost only trans activism.  Secondly it is restricted to one country.

The first chapter is an introduction for a general reader explaining the  basics of concepts like gender, intersex, gender identity disorder.

Chapter 2, A Hundred Years of Transgender History,  tells of the US prior to the 1960s.  It lists many of the cities that passed their own laws to prevent cross-dressing.   I would have appreciated more explanation of this unique US custom; why it happened in the US but not elsewhere.  Stryker draws on the theory of John D’Emilio that gay and lesbian communities first evolved in the mid 19th century in the US as industrial cities grew in size and people migrated to them.

Stryker’s tale of activism starts with Magnus Hirschfeld and goes via Elmer Belt, Harry BenjaminLouise Lawrence, Virginia Prince, Christine Jorgensen.   Benjamin’s first transsexual patient is mentioned in passing, but her name, Sally Barry, is not given.  The threat of surgeons being prosecuted for mayhem is mentioned, but Belt’s way of getting around it, by leaving the testicles inside, is not mentioned.  She says that Jorgensen had a ‘successful genital transformation surgery in Copenhagen’ when in fact she did not have vaginoplasty until many years later and in the US.  The US trans women who had gender surgery before Jorgensen, Pussy Katt and Hedy Jo Star, are not mentioned.  Stryker briefly mentioned the largely black drags balls in Chicago and New York that gave trans women somewhere to go, but she fails to mention Alfred Finnie and Phil Black who did so much of the work of getting them going.

Chapter 3, Transgender Liberation, tells of the gay-transy riots at Cooper’s in Los Angeles, 1959;  at Dewey’s in Philadelphia, 1965; at Compton’s in San Francisco, 1966; and of course The Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969.  This history of riots, like the municipal anti-crossdressing laws is peculiar to the US, similar riots not having happened in the UK, France or Germany.  Stryker spends a lot of time on San Francisco, but then she is also the co-author of Gay By the Bay, 1996.  She also covers Reed Erickson, Susan Cooke and Angela Douglas.  There is a typo on p88:  Douglas’ organization was Transsexual Action Organization, not Transsexual Activist Organization.

Chapter 4, The Difficult Decades, opens with the show-biz androgyny and transsexuality that was popular in the early 1970s, the Cockettes, Jayne County, Divine, Candy Darling etc, but quickly moves into the backlash of the 1970s and 1980s.  She sees the period 1964-1973 as  a step forward in association with the mainstream androgyny of the hippies and the war protesters.  However there has been no parallel androgyny with the Bush-Obama wars.  This same period was that of the university gender identity clinics.  In and after 1973, the gay clone look came in, homosexuality was removed from the DSM, abortion rights were achieved in Roe v. Wade and the transgendered were left behind.  Further some lesbians objected to trans women in the San Francisco and New York gay pride marches, Beth Elliott was protested at the West Coast Lesbian Conference,  Sandy Stone was protested for being the engineer at the feminist Olivia Records, Mary Daly published Gyn/Ecology and Janice Raymond published The Transsexual Empire.  In and after 1980, Gender identity Disorder was added to the DSM, The Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic was closed down, and AIDS appeared.

The chapter closes with a section on trans men, mainly Steve Dain and Lou Sullivan.

Chapter 5, The Current Wave, tells of Fantasia Fair and IFGE, of the use of the new word ‘transgender’ and of queer theory (e.g. Judith Butler), of Sandy stone, of sex-positive feminism, of the destructiveness of Aids, of gay groups adding T to their names, of Cheryl Chase and ISNA, of exclusion from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, of the Southern Comfort conferences and the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy, of Trangender Menace and Gender PAC and Remembering Our Dead, transgender study conferences, Kate Bornstein, The Crying Game, Anthony and the Johnsons, and the never-ending saga of ENDA. 
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The book consists of 153 pages.  Obviously things had to be cut to keep the book short.  However I am going to mention a few things that are missing because they change the overall picture.

Despite the detailed account of transgender activism in San Francisco, the early activism of José Sarria  in the 1950s is ignored completely, as is the Imperial Court system that he co-founded.  I wish that Susan had explained why.   Is she, as are some others, of the opinion that drag performers are not transgendered in that they are supposed to be more performative than identitarian?  One would not think so from Chp 1, p19 where she says that transgender "most generally refers to any and all kinds of variation from gender norms and expectation" and a few sentences later:
"Recently some people have begun to use the term 'transgender' to refer only to those who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth ... This Book uses 'transgender' to refer to the widest imaginable range of gender-variant practices and identities".
Then why is Sarria missing?  David Carter removed Sylvia Rivera from the history of Stonewall without saying that he was doing so, and Susan Stryker has removed José Sarria from the history of transgender in San Francisco, again without saying that she was doing so, or why.  That is very Orwellian.

Incidentally, neither the Carter nor the Duberman books on Stonewall are in the further reading section.

Connected with this removal of Sarria is an over-valuation of the contribution of Virginia Prince.   In 1970, Vaughn Bodé, a heterosexual transvestite had still not heard of Virginia Prince.  There were other transvestite organizers – including José Sarria.  Susan confusingly uses the word ‘transgender’ with reference to Prince (probably because she once used it with a different meaning) but Prince adamantly refused persons whom we would call ‘transgender’ and limited her groups to male heterosexual transvestites only.  The point of transgender is that it includes all kinds of different gender positions. If what Prince advocated is referred to as 'transgender',  then modern transgender would simply mean transsexual plus the Princian groups.   I don’t think that Susan intends this, but it is a possible reading.

The distinction between transsexual and intersex has changed over time.  The only mention of intersex in this book is an account of Cheryl Chase that could have been taken from one of her own press releases.  There is no mention of her alternate persona of Bo Laurent, nor of the fact that she alienated many intersex persons by being almost the only intersex activist to endorse the DSD terminology.   At the very least, the account of Chase should have been balanced by an account, however short, of Curtis Hinkle and the creation of OII.

There is no mention at all of the Blanchard binary and the upsets that it has caused among transsexuals over the last 25 years.  However Bailey’s book on the topic is quietly found in the book’s further reading section.
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I am sure that many of my readers will find much to appreciate in Susan’s book.  However do bear in mind the caveats that I have mentioned, and after reading return to this site to find several hundred trans persons not mentioned in the book at all.

6 comments:

  1. Susan Stryker28/4/10 07:52

    Hey: Thanks for the review. I've long been a fan of this page and really admire the work that you do. A couple of corrections, and a couple of comments.

    I was executive director of the GLBT Historical Society from Jan/1999-Nov/2003. A major publication not mentioned is "The Transgender Studies Reader" from Routledge (2006).

    Thanks for calling attention to the typo re the name of Angela Douglas's TAO. I'll have to check that, because I believe it may have gone through some name changes.

    As for "Transgender History," he title that the publishers gave the book has always irked me, though I understand why they did it. They asked for a short-and-sweet history linking trans history to history of feminism and social movements in the U.S. So that's what I gave them, and suggested something like "Transgender History in the United States: Building a Movement, 1950-2005." But title is a marketing decision rather than editorial or authorial, so they went with short and somewhat misleading rather than accurate. (More to follow . . . )

    ReplyDelete
  2. Susan Stryker28/4/10 08:02

    As for the US focus--well, that's what I know best. I mention that in the intro, as well as my focus on sources from San Francisco. Seal was interested in a book they could market as a primer text for college and some high school course adoption. So, as mentioned in the previous post, some of the caveats you rightly make in your review were the result of publisher decisions, not mine.

    The other thing I should mention is that I made a deliberate choice to focus on activism, and relations to queer/feminist movements, rather than offer a fuller history. I had a limited number of pages, due to the publisher's need to adhere to template they had created for the whole series of "Seal Studies" intro books.

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  3. Susan Stryker28/4/10 08:07

    As for Jose Sarria, I certainly consider him to be part of transgender history broadly defined, that is, "gender-variant." Moreover, I consider him to have overtly politicized gender-variance. So why not include him?

    Page limits, the fact that I felt I was already spending an inordinate amount of time in San Francisco, and the fact that I know Jose and know he is adamant about not being labeled "transgender." He identifies very strongly as gay, and that he wears dresses for fun/politics. In other words, I was avoiding a fight.

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  4. Anonymous29/4/10 19:17

    What became of the documentary she was making about Christine Jorgensen; "Christine in the Cutting Room?" Was it ever made or released? I hope so! I would love to see it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "he wears dresses for fun/politics". Surely this is also true of members of Tri-Ess. As for being adamant about not being labelled transgender, is that different from the many older people who refuse to be labelled queer? The problem with having Prince and her people but not Sarria and his, is that it tilts the transgender tent and plays into the distortion that Prince was pro-transgender when she was in fact the opposite.

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  6. Anonymous4/5/10 13:26

    No book is going to be perfect to everybody. I thought the book was well done and I learned a lot.

    ReplyDelete

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