Transgender History

Stryker - Transgender History


Stryker, Susan.  Transgender History.  Berkley: Seal Press, 2008. 

Subject:  Stryker’s book is an introductory survey to transgender history, presenting some of the basic understandings of transgender identities, as well as providing a narrative of history involving transgender individuals.

Summary & Author’s Main Argument(s):  Stryker begins by briefly defining twenty key terms that she feels are necessary to understand before she begins her narrative of transgender history.  The most important of these are sex, gender, secondary sex characteristics, transgender, gender identity disorder,&  gender identity. Sex is something that is perceived to be biologically determined (and represented by genitalia), so: male & female.  Gender is historically specific and socially constructed, and this is “man” and “woman,” and thus is not necessarily determined by a relationship to the physical body.   Secondary sex characteristics are “bodily “signs” that others read to guess at our sex, attribute gender to us, and assign us to the social category they understand to be most appropriate for us…[they] are the aspect of our bodies that we all manipulate in an attempt to communicate to others our own sense of who we feel we are.”  A gender identity is the subjective sense of fit within a particular gender category – and for most people, the gender identity that one is assigned at birth (boy/girl) matches with what they feel.  But transgendered people reveal that some people form a “sense of oneself as not like other members of the gender one has been assigned to, or to think of oneself as properly belonging to another gender category.”  Gender identity disorder is important, because feeling transgendered was considered a disorder or psychological pathology for most of its history.

Stryker’s definition of transgender is broad, referring 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 the gender” (1).  This includes individuals who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery to make their sex better match their gender identity, but Stryker argues that transgender also includes people who just don’t somehow fit into the normal, prescribed gender roles, such as effeminate gay men, butch lesbians, drag queens and kings, and even heterosexual cross dressers.

Stryker argues that the transgender movement for social change began in the US after WWII, but actually has roots that trace back until the 1850s.  Similar to how urbanization and capitalization allowed for the emergence of gay and lesbian communities, transgendered people were able to form communities during this time, too.   Stryker also acknowledges the central role that science and medicine have played in regulating and attempting to define transgendered-ness.

The book also does a good job at depicting how the nature of the state’s power made life particularly difficult for transgender people:  the “bureaucratization of sex” defined only two options for people: male or female.  Of course, transgendered people may not feel that they fit in either category, or more likely, their outer appearance may not match their inner understanding of themselves.  Being transgender, therefore, made it difficult, or impossible, to gain access to particular governmental, or otherwise bureaucratic, resources, such as driver’s licenses.  The work of Virginia Prince in the 1960s did much to promote transgender causes (such as the ability to change the gender designation on state-issued identification documents).

In the 1970s, upper-class white transgender individuals began creating community with each other in isolation, in fear of losing their jobs and security.  At the same time, multiracial groups of militant revolutionaries (which must been seen in the context of the gay liberation, radical feminist, and general countercultural movements) were claiming space for themselves in the streets of America’s major cities (89).

By the end of the 1970s, though, the transgender cause had lost its gay and lesbian allies, namely because by then, the gay movement had taken on a more gender-normative expression of male homosexuality (95), and the radical feminist and lesbian movements turned on transgender individuals, because they saw them as further male intrusion and domination (female to males were seen as abandoning women, and male to females were seen as the ultimate expression of men “raping” women by intruding inside the world and body of women, beginning on 102).

Even as homosexuality was removed as a psychiatric disorder by the APA in 1973, Gender Identity Disorder was created as a new category of psychopathology in 1980.  Stryker argues that its possible to see how the social power of science shifted from a concern with sexual orientation to a preoccupation with gender identity by the 1980s (113).  Gay and lesbian activists were so successful in their civil rights activism, Stryker argues, that it became politically impossible for psychiatrists to treat homosexuality as a mental disease.  Instead, the focus went to people, not whose sexuality was in question, but whose gender was deviant.  As stated above, Stryker argues that gay, lesbian, and feminists activists “left” transgendered peoples and pursued their own goals, leaving them at the mercy of psychiatrists.

The situation improves in the 1990 when theorists like Judith Butler begin arguing that gender is not just a means of oppression for women, but is like a language in which people express themselves.  This allowed for more acceptance of people who did not fit into “normal” gender roles.  The rise of the “queer” or “genderqueer” identity in the 90s also showed the coming together of “gender minorities,” though Stryker suggests that the nomenclature of “LGBT” represents a re-splintering of the groups.

My Comments: This is a very helpful overview of US transgender history in the past 150 years, and can definitely be used as an introductory book even for undergraduates.  She discusses some theories in the introduction, and then moves on to the narrative in the last chapters, while interlacing just enough theory to display how the events are relevant.

One of the greatest strengths of her book is how she shows that all of the major events in transgender history must be understood in their historical context.  For example, transgender causes could not have seen success in the 1960s and 70s without the overall “gender bending” of that era: longer hair for men, different clothing for women, the sexual revolution, etc.

Categories: Book Review, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Transgender History

  1. Pingback: Transgender History | A Curious Wanderer « Enfemme

  2. Pingback: History Is Personal | A Curious Wanderer

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