Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review of Transgender History

This is a guest post by the ever brilliant Allison McCarthy. Her most recent work is,

La Otra EspaƱa: Reconciling a Daughter’s Bilingual Confusion ma

image The Seal Press Studies series provides concise primers on womanist/feminist issues, combining sidebars, images and text into an easy-to-read format of five chapters and 150 pages. Historian and author Susan Stryker has compiled an introductory text for the series, Transgender History. Like Shira Tarrant's Men and Feminism, Stryker brings together a unique blend of academic and conversational perspectives into an important discussion on trans history, political movements, and the critical issues facing these communities today.

Despite the daunting amount of material Stryker surely must have sifted through in preparing this book, the author effectively incorporates her extensive background knowledge on trans activism with 101-level concepts. The first chapter, "An Introduction to Trans Terms and Concepts," offers a glossary to explain both the past and current uses of concepts such as cisgender privilege, gender identity, genderqueer identity, and a host of other essential terms. She also notes that even the term transgender contains meanings which are "still under construction," suggesting an intellectual movement of savvy terminology which continues to evolve.

Susan Stryker is first and foremost a historian, so her extensive research really shines through in this book. Her second chapter, "A Hundred Years of Transgender History," summarizes the momentum of the trans movement from social, political, and medical perspectives. I found this section to be the most enlightening, as I learned about important figures such as Lou Sullivan, an activist for transmen in San Francisco who compiled a guidebook on making the FTM transition. In the final chapter, she also denotes the attempts at erasure of "T" in LGBTQI discussions. Before reading, I had almost no idea of the threats and intimidation used by some mainstream gay and lesbian groups who insisted that transgender movements had no place in the struggle for same-sex rights.

The author's strong intersectional lens shines clearly on all of the history covered. Throughout the text, Stryker critiques the mainstream trans movement's erasure of communities of color, as well as those whose sexual identities were seen as politically transgressive. Sylvia Rivera's contributions, for example, are often overlooked because of her status as a woman of color, despite her having thrown the infamous beer bottle which ignited the Stonewall riots. Stryker also notes the class privilege which enables expensive surgeries for transitioning, as well as documenting how those who choose not to transition via surgery are frequently Othered within transgender movements.

If only the book could have covered more! It's obvious that Stryker is a fiercely intelligent and well-versed in transgender history and theory, yet the book's brief format constricts her from elaborating on certain topics, such as Trans Liberation. The book is not as U.S.-centric as some feminist texts, but a wider global perspective is missing, which I again attribute to the book's length. I greatly look forward to Sunday's podcast and the chance to hear her thoughts on radical feminist opposition to transgender activism. This is a book for womanists, feminists, and all allies who hope to broaden their base of knowledge on transgender history.

Editors Note: On Sunday Allison, Monica and I will be interviewing Dr. Stryker on our blogtalkradio show at 8pm EST.