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Queer theorist Susan Stryker reflects on 30 years of work in trans history

Susan Stryker speaking at a microphone with a hand raised to make a point.
Pax Ahimsa Gethen
Funcrunch Photo
Susan Stryker at Trans March San Francisco in 2017.

Susan Stryker has a long list of titles and awards: first executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, winner of the Monette-Horowitz Prize for LGBTQ activism, and writer of books like “Transgender History” that are considered foundational to understanding trans history in the U.S.

Just before presenting a talk at Utah State University about trans history and its connection to our present, Stryker sat down to discuss her own history and how her works go from idea to reality.

“I will find something that’s interesting and go, how do I need to tell that story?” Stryker said.

That strategy has led her to all sorts of mediums, from books to art to filmmaking, the last of which she had to teach herself in order to co-create the Emmy-winning documentary “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.”

The documentary tells the story of Compton's Cafeteria, an all-night cafeteria in a poor inner-city San Francisco neighborhood where many trans women would gather at night. It was constantly raided by police, and one night in August 1966, they decided they had enough and fought back.

“It’s one of the first known acts of militant resistance to policing and incarceration on the part of queer people, three years before Stonewall,” Stryker said. “I thought, this is an amazing story, and I wanted to put it out to the widest possible audience.”

With her background in academia, Stryker has also written a number of essays on the trans experience. Perhaps her most well-known is also one of her oldest: “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamonix.” The essay, which turns 30 years old in just a couple of months, connects the story of Frankenstein’s monster confronting its creator to the experiences of trans people.

“I thought that’s just a great metaphor for the relationship between transsexuality and medical authority,” Stryker said. “To say you are doing these things for your reason, and you’re kind of horrified at the fact that we have our own life.”

Frankenstein's Monster looks through a set of bars with a serious, slightly sad expression.
Tom McKinnon
A still from Frankenstein (1931).

The essay, which like Frankenstein’s Monster is split into seemingly disparate sections — monologue, theory, criticism, journal entry — seeks to reclaim words like “monster” that have been used against trans people.

“If you kind of invite it towards you, take it on, but transform it, and then redirect that energy,” Stryker said, “it's like, to me that feels much more powerful."

Stryker says that act of transformation also applies socially, politically and even aesthetically. It’s about reinventing what we’re given and learning how to create ourselves.

“Let’s just call that modern art, you know?” Stryker said. “And to feel that sense of experimentation, of playfulness, of creative inquiry about one’s own embodiment, and one’s way of being in the world — that to me just feels quite beautiful.”

"My Words to Victor Frankenstein” remains the most-read essay in the history of Duke University’s queer journal, GLQ. Stryker says she never would’ve expected it at the time, thinking of it as a one-off for a conference, but is nonetheless happy to see it persist.

“I like the fact that people are still reading that old piece and that it still seems to resonate,” Stryker said. “Now of course, there are some things when I read it, I’m going like, ‘That’s a really clunky line,’ or it’s like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have said it that way, I should have said it like this.’ But by and large, I’m still really happy with it.’”

Looking forward, Stryker hopes to do more public-facing work, including an art film about Christine Jorgensen, a trans woman who was (incorrectly) called the first person to get “sex reassignment” surgery and who, despite world-wide fame, Stryker says is not well remembered today.

Currently, she’s working on “Changing Gender,” a book about the evolution of gender in the U.S. from colonization to the present. And no matter what she’s working on, she says she always wants to speak on trans history in the hopes of informing and improving the present.

"I’ve got a public platform for expressing my ideas, and the fact that this is happening right at the moment when trans issues have become such a divisive, contested, polarized issue in the culture wars,” Stryker said, “I feel a lot of responsibility and obligation to speak out in this context and use whatever I know and have learned to try to make the quality of life for trans people better.”

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.