I finished reading Transgender History by Susan Stryker during my long post-Thanksgiving public transport journey. It was overall a very informative and straightforward book. It was easy to read and understand, which is a feat for non-fiction, and a contrast to Striker’s recent CUNY lecture, which was considerably more cryptic. I really enjoyed the book, it felt immediate and relevant, engaging the reader with the past 100 years of struggle for transgender rights.
The movement towards visibility has been pretty fascinating. It seems that the first people to challenge the assumption that transpeople are not only mentally ill, but also extremely perverse, were people within the medical establishment, German and Austrian psychologists and doctors. Then it was wealthier white male bodied individuals, who campaigned for the rights to cross-dress, and separately, to be granted sex-change operations. The book moves from that telling, to the history of early FTM agitators for change, who also seem to have started within the upper class, or rather gained initial success there.
Direct action, and quasi-revolutionary groups later emerged in the second half of the 20th century, with Stonewall, and it’s predecessors, such as for example, the staged sit-in that occurred at Compton’s restaurant, inspired and enacted by civil rights activists, who were also queer, many of whom were trans,-rights activists. That intersection between transpeople and LGB folks was a theme that Stryker consistently explored in relation to recent trans history.
It seems that although there was a lot of overlap between struggles during the 60s, that unity was often fractured by both, feminist lesbians, who rejected trans people as impostors of a sort, and gay men who labelled trans individuals somehow not radical enough because they were willing to seek help from the medical establishment. As transgenderism remained a disease in the medical books, certain gay activists, judged the transpeople who sought sex change operations, while some lesbian feminists claimed that by enacting femininity in a stereotypical way, transwomen mocked their struggle towards an androgynously expressed equality, and that anyone not born a woman could never fully understand and experience Women’s Oppression.
With so much fragmentation prior to the late nineteen-nineties when queer emerged as a blanket, inclusive term for a whole wide variety of folks, it is kind of nice to see how much of the old divisiveness has died down. However, recently when transgender people were left out of the new anti-discrimination law, many of those old flames were rekindled. In explanation of this political division the distinctions between homosexuality and transgenderism are offered. As well as the wide ranging differences within the transgender umbrella. People often presume that transgender people are by definition homosexual, when historically and continuously that is often not the case. While for some the distinction between gender and sexuality is obvious, many members of the general public don’t quite get what the difference is. Stryker clarifies this within her large definitions section. For anyone who is still confused please refer to the text!