Renowned trans theorist Susan Stryker explores the history of gender at USU
Susan Stryker is a name that most people who’ve delved into trans history and theory will know. She’s a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, was the first executive director of the GLBT Historical Society and has been recognized with honors such as the Transgender Law Center’s Community Vanguard Award and the Monette-Horowitz Prize for LGBTQ activism.
For over thirty years, she’s been writing books and essays, establishing and editing journals, and even co-creating an Emmy-winning documentary about trans experience and history. One of her current projects is a book called “Changing Gender,” which documents the ways gender has changed in North America from colonization to the present. She brought this perspective to her talk at USU with the goal of connecting trans history to our contentious trans present.
"I can think of no higher calling for me on this earth at this time,” Stryker told the audience, “than to use my work in trans history as part of introducing that real state of emergency ... in which the deep change we need for our collective survival can be realized.”
She used several historical case studies to discuss how perceptions of and reactions to transness in the U.S. have evolved, and how transness extends beyond gender or sex.
The first was about B. Morris Young, son of Brigham Young, the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Young was one of the founders of the early church’s Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association. He was also a female impersonator performing under the name Madame Pattirini—a profession which was not looked down upon or scrutinized.
“This image of him comes from the archives of the LDS church,” Stryker said. “Showing it is not intended as a gotcha moment meant to signal the hypocrisy on the part of the church's leadership regarding contemporary gender practices, but simply as an example of how things that had been made controversial in the present have not always been controversial in the past."
Reaching farther back in history, Stryker then discussed an early 1600s indentured servant named Thomas or Thomasine Hall, who at various parts of their life presented as a man (Thomas) or a woman (Thomasine). They had a physical intersex condition that gave them atypical genitalia and considered themself to be both a man and a woman.
Legally, Hall was recognized as having a dual sex status, and thus needed to wear a mix of men’s and women’s clothing. This was very different from laws in Europe, where intersex people were expected to choose a sex to live as and stick to it, primarily a safeguard against sodomy.
Hall’s story, Stryker explained, shows how society was transitioning away from one where gender could tolerate a diversity of body types within them to one that saw gender as an unchangeable combination of biology, appearance and social category. These strict categories were then used to uphold a social hierarchy.
Stryker said this is why transness is so hard for some to accept or understand: It completely defies these categories we’ve been conditioned to follow.
“Trans people do not deny the biological reality of our bodies,” Stryker said. “We insist that how we experience the reality of our biological embodiment is diverse, and that the social categories of our bodies is revisable. Making those claims is a practice of liberation.”
This is not a trans-specific concept either; Stryker spoke at length about the ties between gender liberation and racial liberation. Both had words or concepts invented to uphold an unequal social hierarchy — the terms race and slavery, for instance, did not exist until they were needed to justify exploitative labor practices. Both also must fight against concepts that are not that old, in the history of mankind, but which are so deeply ingrained they can feel like an essential part of the human condition.
That defiance of social categorization means that transness has long been used as a political weapon. Stryker gave the example of Frances Thompson, a Black woman who testified about sexual assault during the deadly 1866 Memphis Massacre of Black residents. Her testimony was used widely by Northern Republicans to push for Radical Reconstruction.
Thompson was later discovered to be intersex, and she was accused of being a man impersonating a woman, which in turn caused people to discredit her testimony, as it was believed a man couldn’t be sexually assaulted.
The polarization of Thompson’s identity was one of the tipping points in the 1876 presidential election, which ultimately ended with a deal to give Northern Republicans the presidency in return for ending Reconstruction in the South.
“While it would be an exaggeration to say that the media coverage of Frances Thompson was responsible for bringing Reconstruction to an end,” Stryker said, “it is nevertheless true that anti-trans discourse taking aim at Frances Thompson contributed to that outcome.”
She then switched to a picture of a recent New York Post article titled “Transgender Killer Targets Christian School.” As a hush fell over the room, Stryker continued, “Just as it is doing today, in the context of another deeply polarized political climate where the integrity of the electoral process is under duress and the cold, slow civil war that courses perpetually through the veins of our body politics threatens to bleed out into something high and fast.”
Over four hundred anti-trans bills were introduced this year. Anti-trans rhetoric, violence and even calls for trans genocide are spreading from far-right spaces into center-stage political discussion.
However, Stryker maintained hope, reminding those listening of their own power and capabilities.
“Why should we, whose scope of life is diminished by the reality of others, concede that we are less able than they to forge the world anew?” she said. “We who are trans, all of us who are embodied otherwise, have found within ourselves for the sake of our own survival the capacity for deep transformation. Our testimony is that this is a capacity within us all.”
And finally, after a talk focused on bringing our past into the present, Stryker ended by looking towards a hopeful future.
“Together, we can enliven a new reality, a better one that surges forth from what has been given to us towards that which still yet may be. You have asked me here to tell you these things. I ask you to make these things true. Thank you.”