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Transgender History, second edition
The Roots of Today's Revolution
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Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events. Chapters cover the transsexual and transvestite communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change, which spanned from 1966 with the publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon, and lasted through the early 1970s; the mid-'70s to 1990, the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the '90s and '00s.
Transgender History includes informative sidebars highlighting quotes from major texts and speeches in transgender history and brief biographies of key players, plus excerpts from transgender memoirs and discussion of treatments of transgenderism in popular culture.
ALTHOUGH THE TITLE of this book is simply Transgender History, the subject is both narrower and broader—narrower in that it is primarily a history of the transgender movement in the United States, concentrating mostly on the years after World War II, and broader in that transgender, once a very expansive term, now fails to fully capture the complexity of contemporary gender. And although this book bears the same title as the previous edition first published in 2008, the revisions needed for this second edition to adequately address the remarkable changes of the past decade are extensive enough that the second edition is a substantially new book. The text of the first edition has therefore been updated throughout—particularly in the first chapter—and a new chapter has been added at the end.
Piecing together this story of trans history in the United States was a big focus of my professional life as a historian for nearly twenty years. As a transsexual woman I’ve also been a participant in making that history, along with multitudes of other people. Although I try to tell that story in an expansive and inclusive way, what I have to say is unavoidably informed by my own involvement in transgender social movements, by my other life experiences, and by the particular ways that I consider myself to be transgender.
I’m one of those people who, from earliest memory, always felt feminine-identified even though I was assigned male at birth, even though everybody considered me to be a boy and raised me as such, and even though my body was apparently a typical male body. I didn’t have any good explanation for those feelings when I was younger, and after a lifetime of reflection and study I’m still open-minded about how best to explain them. Not that I feel the need to explain them in order to justify my existence. I know only that those feelings persist no matter what. I know that they make me who I am to myself, whatever other people may feel about me or do toward me for having them.
The fear of being ridiculed, stigmatized, or discriminated against, as well as my own early uncertainty about how I would act on my transgender feelings, led me to hide them from absolutely everybody until I was in my late teens, in the early 1980s. That’s when I first started opening up privately to my romantic partners about my sense of self. A few years later, in the second half of the 1980s, I found an underground queer community; until then, I’d never knowingly met another trans person. I didn’t come out publicly as trans or start my medical and social transition until 1991, when I was thirty years old.
When I started living full-time as an openly transsexual lesbian woman in San Francisco in the early 1990s, I was finishing my PhD in United States history at the University of California, Berkeley. Transitioning was something I needed to do for my personal sense of well-being, but it wasn’t a great career move. However wonderful it was for me to finally feel right about how I presented myself to others and how others perceived me, making the transition from living as a man to living as a woman had negative effects on my life. Like many other transgender women, I spent years being marginally employed because of other people’s discomfort, ignorance, and prejudice about me. Transitioning made relationships with many friends and relatives more difficult. It made me more vulnerable to certain kinds of legal discrimination, and it often made me feel unsafe in public.
Because for many years I had lived in the world being perceived as a well-educated, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white man before coming out as the woman I felt myself to be, I have a very clear measuring stick for gauging various kinds of oppression related to embodiment, gender, and sexuality. Transitioning put my skin in the game of resisting those oppressions in a new way. Because I have experienced misogyny and sexism, my transgender experience informs the strong commitment I feel to feminist activism that aims to make the world a better place for all women and girls. Because I now live in the world as a woman who loves women, and because there are times (more common in the past than now) when I’ve been perceived as an effeminate gay man, I also have a direct experience of homophobia. My transgender experience is thus also part of why I feel a strong commitment to lesbian, gay, and bi rights. Although I have a stable sense of being a woman rather than a man, and have taken a lot of steps to get my body, my state-issued IDs, and other paperwork aligned with my sense of self, I know that I can never align everything the way cisgender people do and that there will always be some discordance and incongruence. For me, that means that, even though I identify as a transsexual woman, I am also, in practice, unavoidably gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary.
Being perceived or “passed” as a gender-normative cisgender person grants you a kind of access to the world that is often blocked by being perceived as trans or labeled as such. This lack of access, created by the way the world is organized to benefit people whose embodiments are different from my own, limits the scope of my life activities and can therefore be understood as producing a disability. And just as my transness creates an overlap for me with disability politics whether or not I am otherwise disabled, it intersects as well with other movements, communities, and identities that also contest the negative effects of living in a society that governs us all by norming our bodies. I feel that being trans makes me kin with intersex people, fat people, people who don’t embody beauty norms, people on the neurocognitive diversity spectrum, people who are “enfreaked” for whatever reason—whether or not I am any of those other things apart from the ways they intersect with being trans.
Although I can’t claim that being a white transgender person gives me any special insight into the experience of minoritized communities of color, I do as a transsexual experience the injustice of being targeted for structural violence through being labeled a kind or type of person who is not as deserving of life as other people, within a social order that tries to cement me into that often death-dealing hierarchy based on some of my body characteristics. Because transness sticks to my cut flesh even though I am white, it provides me with a basis not just for antiracist white allyship with the struggles of people of color but also with a real commonality of interest in dismantling a system that relentlessly sorts all of us into biologically based categories of embodied personhood deemed more or less worthy of life. I am determined to bring what I know from living my trans life to that larger and deeper struggle. Still, as a white transgender person who has come to this insight only over the past few decades, as one who can still stumble and fumble in my coalitional work in spite of my best intentions, I know I have a lot to learn from the accumulated centuries of experience-based wisdom, social critique, life skills, and freedom dreams that millions of people of color have developed for themselves to survive within colonialism and racism.
Starting in the early 1990s, I’ve had the privilege of using my education as part of a transgender movement for social change. I became a community-based historian, activist, cultural theorist, media-maker, and eventually an academic who has tried to chronicle various dimensions of transgender experience. The ideas and opinions I share in this book first crystallized more than a quarter century ago when I was part of a very politically and artistically engaged queer community in San Francisco, now sadly somewhat dispersed and depleted by the city’s increasing income disparities, its relentless gentrification, and the displacement of many nonwealthy people. All of this is to say that my point of view is both generationally and geographically specific. I worked for many years at the GLBT Historical Society, one of the world’s great repositories of queer and trans archival materials, and as a consequence the parts of transgender history I know the best are the ones closest to lesbian and gay life. I’ve worked and taught and been a visiting scholar at universities in cities from one end of North America to the other as well as places in between—the Bay Area, Boston, Vancouver, Indiana, Tucson—and have had the very great privilege of being able to travel frequently, for work and for play, to countries in Eastern and Western Europe, the Near East, Southeast Asia, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand. All of these experiences—as well as my incessant snooping around online and participating in social media networks—hopefully help broaden some of the limiting provincialisms undoubtedly embedded in the stories I tell about the things that are most familiar to me.
Writing and revising this book have been ways for me to summarize some of what I’ve gleaned from the life I’ve lived over the past few decades and to pass it along to others who might find it somehow life-sustaining, or at least useful, and, if nothing else, interesting. I hope it gives you something you need.
CONTEXTS, CONCEPTS, AND TERMS
Foundations of a Movement
Transgender is a word that has come into widespread use only in the past couple of decades, and its meanings are still under construction. I use it in this book to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender through which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly described or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to challenge the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place, rather than any particular destination or mode of transition, that best characterizes the concept of transgender that I develop here. I use transgender in its broadest possible sense.
Until fairly recently, transgender issues have been presented as personal issues—that is, as something that an individual experienced inwardly, often in isolation—rather than being seen in a wider social context. Thankfully, that’s changing. Most of the literature on transgender topics used to come from medical or psychological perspectives, almost always written by people who were not themselves transgender. Such works framed being trans as an individual psychopathological deviation from social norms of healthy gender expression and tended to reduce the complexity and significance of a transgender life to its medical or psychotherapeutic needs. There have been many autobiographies written by people who have “changed sex,” and an increasing number of self-help guidebooks for people contemplating such a change, or for people seeking a better understanding of what a loved one is going through, or for parents of children who express their gender in ways that run counter to the dominant culture’s expectations. But both the medical and self-help literatures, even when written from a transgender or trans-affirming perspective, still tend to individualize rather than collectivize trans experience.
This book takes a different approach. It is part of a rapidly growing body of fiction and nonfiction literature, academic writing, documentary films, television shows, movies, blogs, YouTube channels, and other forms of DIY cultural production by and about trans people that places us in cultural and historical context and imagines us as part of communities and social movements. It focuses specifically on the history of trans and gender-nonconforming social change activism in the United States—that is, on efforts to make it easier and safer and more acceptable for the people who need to cross gender boundaries to be able to do so. It’s not designed, however, to be a comprehensive account of US transgender history, let alone a more global history of being trans. My goal is to provide a basic framework that focuses on a handful of key events and personalities that help link transgender history to the history of minority movements for social change, to the history of sexuality and gender, and to feminist thought and politics.
Back in the 1970s, the liberal feminist movement popularized the slogan “The personal is political.” Some feminists back then were critical of transgender practices such as cross-dressing, taking hormones to change the gendered appearance of the body, having genital or chest surgery, and living as a member of a gender other than one’s birth-assigned gender. They often considered such practices to be “personal solutions” to the inner experience of distress about experiencing gender-based oppression—that is, they thought that a person assigned female at birth and passing as a man was just trying to escape the poor pay (or no pay) of “women’s work” or to move about more safely in a world that was hostile to women; a feminine person assigned male at birth, they thought, should work for the social acceptability of “sissies” or “queens” and be proudly effeminate instead of pretending to be a “normal” woman or a “real” one. Feminism, on the other hand, aimed to systematically dismantle the social structures that created gender-based oppression in the first place and that made women the “second sex.” Mainstream liberal feminism wanted to raise women’s consciousnesses about their own private suffering by grounding that experience in a political analysis of the categorical oppression of all women. It wanted to offer men an education in feminist values in order to eradicate the sexism and misogyny they (knowingly or unknowingly) directed at women. This sort of feminism was, and still is, a necessary movement to change the world for the better, but it needs to have a better grasp on trans issues.
One of the goals of this book is to situate transgender social change activism within an expansive feminist framework. Doing so requires us to think in different ways about how the personal is political, and about what constitutes gender-based oppression, and about how we understand the historical development of feminist movements. Generally speaking, “first wave” feminism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries focused on dress reform, access to education, political equality, and, above all, suffrage—the right to vote. “Second wave” feminism, also known as the “women’s movement,” took off in the 1960s and addressed a wide range of issues that included equal pay, sexual liberation, lesbianism, reproductive freedom, recognition of women’s unpaid work in the household, better media representations of women, self-defense, and the prevention of rape and domestic violence. A feminist “third wave” emerged in the 1990s, partly in response to the perceived shortcomings of earlier generational inflections of feminism, and partly to focus on emerging issues. Third wave feminists considered themselves more sex-positive than their mothers and grandmothers—staging SlutWalks rather than Take Back the Night marches, making feminist porn instead of denouncing all pornography as inherently degrading to women, supporting sex-worker activism and self-empowerment instead of imagining themselves as rescuing disempowered women from prostitution. They were more interested in contesting body-shaming politics, in having a subversive or ironic relationship to consumer culture, and in engaging in online activism through social media. There’s even talk of a fourth wave, taking shape in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, that is more attuned than its predecessors to the politics of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, techno-literacy, and spirituality.
More important than parsing the various generational “waves” of feminism, however, is the emergence of what has come to be called “intersectional” feminism. Rooted in black and Chicana feminist thought, intersectional feminism calls into question the idea that the social oppression of women can be adequately analyzed and contested solely by concentrating on the category “woman.” Intersectional feminism insists that there is no essential “Woman” who is universally oppressed. To understand the oppression of any particular woman or group of women means taking into account all of the things that intersect with their being women, such as race, class, nationality, religion, disability, sexuality, citizenship status, and myriad other circumstances that marginalize or privilege them—including having transgender or gender-nonconforming feelings or identities. Intersectional perspectives emerged in the second wave but divided it into different camps and continue to cut across all subsequent feminist formations. One powerful strain within contemporary trans movements for social change is rooted in intersectional feminist perspectives that first emerged in the second wave but more often than not finds far more congenial and supportive alliances in third (or fourth) wave movements that are explicitly trans-affirming. Feminisms inclusive of trans people still fight to dismantle the structures that prop up gender hierarchy as a system of oppression, but they do so while recognizing that oppression can happen because of the consequences of changing gender or contesting gender categories as well as being categorized as a member of the “second sex.”
To reconcile the relationship between transgender and feminist politics—to create a transfeminism—it is essential simply to acknowledge that how each of us experiences and understands our gendered sense of self, our sense of being a man or a woman or something that resists or mixes those terms, is a very idiosyncratic personal matter, related to many other attributes of our lives. It is something prior to, or underlying, our political actions in the world and not necessarily in itself a reflection of our political beliefs. It is neither radical nor reactionary to embrace a trans identity. Nontransgender people, after all, think of themselves as being women or men, and nobody asks them to defend the political correctness of their “choice” or thinks that their having a sense of being gendered somehow compromises or invalidates their other values and commitments. Being trans is like being gay: some people are just “that way,” though most people aren’t. We can be curious about why some people are gay or trans, and we can propose all kinds of theories or tell interesting stories about how it’s possible to be trans or gay, but ultimately we simply need to accept that some minor fraction of the population (perhaps including ourselves) simply is “that way.”
Because members of minority groups are, by definition, less common than members of majority groups, minorities often experience misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination. Society tends to be organized in ways that either deliberately or unintentionally favor the majority, and ignorance or misinformation about a less common way of being in the world can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and mischaracterizations. On top of that, society can actually privilege some kinds of people over other kinds of people, with the former benefiting from the exploitation of the latter: settlers benefited from the appropriation of indigenous lands, slaveholders benefited from the labor of the enslaved, men have benefited from the inequality of women. Violence, law, and custom hold these social hierarchies in place.
People who feel the need to resist their birth-assigned gender or to live as a member of another gender have encountered significant forms of discrimination and prejudice, including religious condemnation. Because most people have great difficulty recognizing the humanity of another person if they cannot recognize that person’s gender, encounters with gender-changing or gender-challenging people can sometimes feel for others like an encounter with a monstrous and frightening unhumanness. That gut-level reaction can manifest as panic, disgust, contempt, hatred, or outrage, which may then translate into physical or emotional violence—up to and including murder—being directed against the person who is perceived as not-quite-human. One has to ask why the typical reaction to an encounter with nonprivileged forms of gender or embodiment is not more often experienced with wonder, delight, attraction, or curiosity.
People who are perceived as not-quite-human because of their gender expression are often socially shunned and may be denied such basic needs as housing and employment. They may lose the support of their families. Within modern bureaucratic society, many kinds of routine administrative procedures make life very difficult for people who cross the social boundaries of their birth-assigned genders. Birth certificates, school and medical records, professional credentials, passports, driver’s licenses, and other such documents provide a composite portrait of each of us as a person with a particular gender, and when these records have noticeable discrepancies or omissions, all kinds of problems can result: inability to cross national borders, qualify for jobs, gain access to needed social services, and secure legal custody of one’s children. Because transgender people typically lack the same kind of support that fully accepted members of society automatically expect, they may be more vulnerable to risky or self-harming behaviors and consequently may wind up having more health problems or trouble with the law—which only compounds their already considerable difficulties.
In the United States, members of minority groups often try to oppose or change discriminatory practices and prejudicial attitudes by banding together to offer one another mutual support, to voice their issues in public, to raise money to improve their collective lot in life, to form organizations that address their specific unmet needs, or to participate in electoral politics or lobby for the passage of protective legislation. Some members engage in more radical or militant kinds of activism aimed at overturning the social order or abolishing unjust institutions rather than reforming them, and others craft survival tools for living within conditions that can’t at that moment be changed. Some make art or write literature that feeds the souls of community members or shifts the way others think of them and the problems they face. Some do the intellectual and theoretical work of analyzing the roots of their particular forms of social oppression and devising strategies and policies that will bring about a better future. Others direct their attention toward promoting self-acceptance and a sense of self-worth among members of the minority community who may have internalized disempowering attitudes or beliefs about their difference from the dominant majority. In short, a multidimensional activist movement for social change often begins to take shape. Just such a movement to address trans social justice issues developed in the United States over the second half of the twentieth century.
Terms and Concepts
Trans issues touch on existential questions about what it means to be alive and take us into areas that we rarely consciously consider with any degree of care—similar to our attitudes about gravity, for example, or breathing. Usually, we simply experience these things without thinking about them too much. In the everyday course of events, most people have no reason to ask questions such as “What makes a man a man, or a woman a woman?” or “How is my body related to my social role?” or even “How do I know what my gender is?” Rather, we just go about our everyday business without questioning the unexamined perceptions and assumptions that form part of our working reality. But gender and identity, like gravity and breathing, are really complicated phenomena when you start taking them apart and breaking them down.
Because of this complexity, it can be helpful to set out some more technical definitions of words that we use in everyday speech, as well as to define some words that we don’t usually need to use at all, before getting into the historical story. Spending a little time discussing terms and concepts can help bring into view some of the hidden assumptions we usually make about sex and gender and helps introduce some of the arguments that will play themselves out in the chapters ahead.
- "This timely and relevant book should be required reading."—Portland Book Review
- "An invaluable text for anyone who wants to better understand evolving concepts of gender. Essential."—CHOICE
- "Ground-breaking and all-around excellent"—Autostraddle
- On Sale
- Nov 7, 2017
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press