- Moving Across and Beyond Boundaries
In the past decade, transgender people in the United States have witnessed an increase in the visibility of transmen, better opportunities for networking over the Internet, greater access to medical technologies related to “sex changes,” and an increase in rights and legal protections. These advancements have come along with a number of setbacks, however, such as the elimination of “gender identity” from the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act and an increase in the stringency of regulations on identity documents after 9/11. The transgender victories and disappointments that we see today are a culmination of over fifty years of community organizing and activism. In Transgender History, Susan Stryker expertly documents the multifaceted history of the transgender movement in the United States, detailing the complex structures and persistent individuals that fueled social change.
From the start, Stryker emphasizes the ever-changing and often inadequate language used to define and categorize transgender people, devoting the first chapter to transgender concepts and terminology. To encompass the diversity of gender variation and nonconformity across history, she broadly defines “transgender” as including “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” (1). The use of such inclusive language in transgender studies frequently elicits criticism for not reflecting the specific forms of oppression different groups face under the transgender umbrella.1 Transgender History ably responds to such critiques by illustrating how the meanings and significance of identity categories such as gay, transsexual, and woman have changed over time with varying degrees of overlap and distinction. Furthermore, the use of transgender and queer as catch-all terms purposely situates Transgender History in the context of twenty-first-century culture, politics, and discourse, laying claim to its own historical specificity. [End Page 646]
The organization of Transgender History does more than provide a chronological narrative of transgender mobilization. Sectioned off by relative waves in the movement, the book shows how different cultural eras have brought unique challenges and freedoms to transgender individuals. The chapters, or “waves,” are characterized as follows: from 1850 to 1950, the pathologization of gender nonconformity in medical discourse and the emerging transgender voices and social networks; from 1950 to the early 1970s, the growth of formal organizing and the rapidly developing militancy against regulatory forces, including the police, leading to a series of protests and riots; from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, extreme political backlash, rejection by both feminist and mainstream gay and lesbian organizations, implementation of new diagnostic criteria and treatment protocol for transgender individuals under the rubric of Gender Identity Disorder, population devastation by AIDS and budding FTM communities and visibility; and from 1990 to the present, increasing access to health resources and medical technologies, a rapid surge in both visibility and transgender rights and protections, and new feminist and transgender theories of power, identity, and subjectivity. Stryker should be commended for pulling together a rich and complex portrait of these important eras without mythologizing any specific event or figure as the origin of the transgender movement. She describes the Stonewall riots as the “biggest and most consequential example” (82, emphasis added) of an already growing militancy in transgender activism seen in the street fighting at Cooper’s Donuts (1959), the acts of civil disobedience at Dewey’s lunch counter (1965), and the direct action against the police at the Compton’s Cafeteria riot (1966). Stryker also does not try to reclaim these events or certain key figures as necessarily “ours” in transgender history as others have tried to, for example, with the so-called berdache and Joan of Arc.2 Instead, she judiciously documents pivotal developments that shape discourses, community, and mobilization efforts throughout the transgender movement, placing them in the context of other global affairs like U.S. foreign wars, urban development, and civil rights activism.
One of the strongest sections is the chapter aptly titled “The Difficult Decades,” which argues that the successes of the gay liberation and feminist movements came in the face of increasing transgender...