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Transgender History, Present and Future

Susan Stryker, Transgender History, Seal Press, 2008.

Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman, eds. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, Seal Press, 2010.

The feminist press Seal has carved out a distinctive niche for itself in its line of transgender authored books, still often something of a rarity in today’s publishing world.  Two recent books from Seal demonstrate the vitality of transsexual, transgender and genderqueer writings in the present day, as well as some of the ongoing political tensions between various groups in the transgender umbrella

Susan Stryker’s Transgender History is, as the name suggests, is a history of transgender people and politics of the last hundred 150 years, primarily in the United States.  Pegged as an introductory guide, this entry in Seal’s Seal Studies series is a readable and accessible primer on trans identities and politics.  Historian Stryker is an expert in the field of transgender studies, having edited and published numerous works, most notably The Transgender Studies Reader (Routledge 2006).  Though it covers some of the same  ground as Joanne Meyorowitz’s How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality In The United States, Transgender History carves out a distinct niche in its focus on the many forms of activism that trans people have engaged in over the last century.

After a first chapter primer on the many terms used in the field, Stryker moves on to a whistlestop tour of “A Hundred Years of Transgender History” which condenses an amazing amount of information into a single chapter.  She shows clearly how the influence of law, doctors and activists on the ways transsexual, crossdressing and drag communities understood themselves.  Though there was much crossover between these distinct groups, Stryker points out that transgender people were occasionally divided and antagonistic towards one another, with divisive figures like Virginia Prince drawing strict lines on the acceptability of some identities and practices and not others.

From there, Stryker proceeds to discuss the evolving forms of activism in the 1960s and 70s, as well as intersections and conflicts with the similarly emergent forms of feminist and gay liberation.  Her archival research really shines here, with thorough explanations of the socio-cultural backgrounds that led to several riots in the 1960s (most notably, of course, the famous Stonewall riot which featured many rioting trans women as well as drag queens and gay men).  This is the strongest section of the book, and narrating this radical history brings out the best in Stryker’s prose.

Further chapters on “the difficult decades” of the mid 70s and 80s and the current wave from the 90s onwards are not as strong by comparison, with as much attention to academic debates as to activism.  The latter chapter could have benefited from a more extended analysis of genderqueer and non-binary identities, practices and politics, as well as broader trends in the transsexual community (younger transitioners, hormone blockers, etc).  There is a good summary of the debates around trans inclusion in the ENDA anti-discrimination bill, but little other information about current activism.  A history of the near present is always difficult, but with trans cultures evolving rapidly Transgender History could have perhaps benefited from a little more attention to the present.

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation however could not be accused of lacking currency.  Promising to be a contemporary update of co-editor Kate Bornstein’s landmark early 90s work Gender Outlaw, GO:TNG brings together a dazzling cast of 47 writers (by my count) from trans and queer communities.  With such a large collection, there’s a distinctly cacaphonous feel to the collection, with different writers contradicting each other and speaking from wildly varying positions and mediums.  Theory, poetry, personal narratives, a transcript that accompanied a performance art piece of two people having sex, and even a vegan curry all feature, echoing the experimental nature of the work and indeed life experiences of some of the writers.  Not all of these experiments with form pay off – the collection begins inauspiciously with an introduction styled after an IM chat log, a format ill-suited to such a wide-ranging collection.  Bornstein and Bergman’s flirty discussion comes across as insidery and alienating, even to a reader familiar with the general co-ordinates of trans theory.

Some pieces involve a re-negotiation of older ideas of what trans lives mean, for instance Mercedes Allen’s piece on surgery, and j. wallace’s “Manly Art of Pregnancy.”  Others note the interactions between transphobia, homophobia and racism, notably Kenji Tokawa’s piece on how his Japanese name signifies differently across cultures – “ending in ‘i’ makes my new name sound feminine in English, while in Japanese it is very much a boy’s name.”  He notes the way naming works to suppress the fact that Thomas Beattie, “the pregnant man,” is in fact a Filipino man and argues strongly for the visibility of trans people of colour.

A third strain of pieces reflect critically on identity itself.  Gwendolyn Smith’s piece “We’re All Someone’s Freak,” which argues cogently that the conflicts of identity politics conceal a broader tendency for people to draw lines between inside and out, included and excluded, normal and freak.  Telyn Kusalik’s “Identity Schmidentity” refuses gender as a useful category altogether.  Ey would, as the chapter concludes, rather be talking about an amazing vegan curry.

Though many of the pieces entertain and intrigue, I have two major criticisms of the collection, however.  The first is the way in which the vanguardist politics (this is, after all, a new “genderation” of outlaws) of some of the pieces and conversations between the editors present transsexual women as the retrogressive element of the transgender umbrella.  This is, as Julia Serano argued persuasively in Whipping Girl (also on Seal 2007), a longstanding, often misogynistic and vicious form of erasure and it’s disappointing to see it in some of the writing here (for instance, the editors’ repeated discussion of an apparent controversy about their call for papers, and in a self-described she-male mocking another woman’s “mysterious genitals”).  Serano’s “Performance Piece” collected here stands as a rebuttal of many of the other pieces, with her asking “instead of trying to fictionalise gender, let’s talk about the moments where it is all too real.”  Roz Kaveney’s somber ritual for the Transgender Day of Remembrance brings this home in its memorialisation of murdered trans people.

The second is the way in which the role of economics in trans lives disappears from the field of study.  One is left with the impression largely of sovereign, self-defining individuals without any sense of the constraining (and productive) elements of consumer capitalism.  CT Whitley’s chapter gives a cost-benefit analysis to corporations for the advantages of hiring transgender employees, but little attention to the modes of exclusion that prevent many trans people from such jobs.  Given the high rates of trans unemployment, homelessness, survival sex work, imprisonment, and HIV infection among trans women in particular, a greater attention to the lived realities of these communities would have balanced out the solipsism of some of the more playful identity politics.

Still, there is much to like on offer here.  Both of these books  in their own way show the future of transgender writing is a bright one indeed.

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