By Riki Wilchins
Photos by Mariette Pathy Allen
Before Caitlyn Jenner became America’s most famous transgender personality, Riki Wilchins was leading the fight for transgender rights. In the new first-person history-memoir TRANS/gressive: How Transgender Activists Took on Gay Rights, Feminism, the Media & Congress… and Won!, Wilchins recounts the long and winding road of trans rights from the early days of anti-trans rights in segments of the feminist movement, to the murder of transwomen such as Brandon Teena, through the fight to include trans rights in the “Gay and Lesbian” community. “This was a story that I thought might get lost forever,” Wilchins remembers. “When we did the things in this book—protesting, forming groups, demonstrating—they were obscure current events; even the gay press ignored us. Two decades later they’ve become history, but one in danger of being lost for good. Folks today see Caitlyn and Janet [Mock] and Laverne [Cox] and they think it’s always been this way. It hasn’t. There’s a backstory to all of that. There’s a place it all started. This book is that story. This is how a handful of genderqueers started a gender revolution.” What follows is an excerpt from the book, published in June by Riverdale Avenue Books, a leading LGBT publisher (www.riverdalebooks.com). In the early 1990s, no one talked about transgender people because nobody knew one. We were invisible; we did not appear on TV shows or in movies (except as deranged killers). Police harassed, arrested, and assaulted us. Courts and legislatures found new ways to strip away our rights.
Feminist theorists, psychiatrists, and right-wing bigots regularly prodded, dissected, and publicly denounced our bodies and identities: we were mentally unbalanced, “invading women’s spaces,” or “stealing women’s body parts.” Transmen were mostly ignored; transwomen of color especially suffered epidemic waves of violence that continue today.
There was no Gender Outlaw yet or Stone Butch Blues. There was no Internet or email. There was no LGBT movement, because Gay and Lesbian organizations still openly excluded transgender.
We were freaks. We were gendertrash. We were decidedly nonpolitical, waging our isolated struggles for survival alone. What little community we had emerged one weekend at a time at conferences held in lonely hotels out on the interstate. But all that was about to change, because bringing a despised and marginalized people together is in itself a political act. We didn’t know it yet, but we were about to reach critical mass.
When people start realizing that humiliation and degradation are not the result of personal failings, but of systemic oppressions, they stop begging for some social acceptance, and they start demanding their damn civil rights.
This is the inside story of how a handful of activists from an obscure community at the very margins of society launched a revolution that would challenge our most fundamental conception of bodies, gender, and sex—a revolution whose ideas would one day circle the globe.
This is the story of the birth of the modern movement for gender rights.
Gender fluidity, transgender, genderqueerness—all of this in the age of “I Am Cait”—seems to have found wings. Former President Obama mentioned transgender people. The military is finally allowing us to serve openly. We’ve made the cover of Time magazine and the front page of the New York Times. Even straight kids think being flexible about gender is cool.
I was recently interviewing a middle-aged mother in Chicago. Out of nowhere, she just mentioned offhand how her son told her he prefers to identify as “genderqueer” rather than male, because binary genders are soooo 20th century. He is 19, cisgender (someone whose gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth), and totally straight.
It wasn’t always so.
Less than 20 years ago, I hadn’t yet coined the term “genderqueer,” and even after doing so, practically no one else used it. Transgender activists were busy fighting for air, for any kind of awareness or recognition from mainstream cisgender society— straight and gay.
We had been slowly pushed to the margins of every community. Mainstream feminists wanted nothing to do with crossdressers or transsexuals. Lesbians were uncomfortable with us. And many “radical lesbians” were implacably opposed to our very existence (still are—why does “radical” so often translate to kicking the crap out of some other minority even more dispossessed than you are?).
Lesbian and gay organizations saw no reason to embrace these weird transgender people who lurked in the same gay bars and attended the same Pride parades, but seemed to have totally separate issues and, even worse, made straight people (and many gays) extremely uncomfortable.
Gay men weren’t effeminate; they didn’t run around in pastels and dresses. Lesbians weren’t butch and didn’t want to wear men’s clothes or ride motorcycles. Those were mainstream stereotypes that a newly emergent gay rights movement was eager to put behind it. Gay people were gender normative—just like straight people. Just like you and me—well, you, anyway.
But transpeople resurrected all these gender issues and put them front and center, and who needed that headache?
The Queerer Queers
As gay rights increasingly played to Main Street, trannies looked like a huge public relations nightmare—and a very avoidable one. I use the word “trannie” deliberately. It was what we called ourselves then—many of us at least, and some still do. It may have fallen into politically correct disfavor (certainly when cisgenders use it). But I’ve never considered it pejorative; rather it’s an affectionate shorthand.
All this rejection of trans was a bit weird in a gay community in which drag queens were still celebrated (on the down-low of course), gay men still teased other men with gender put-downs (“Get you, Mary!”), and “Dykes on Bikes” led gay pride parades.
But we were the queerest of the queer—too out to be in. Even among ourselves, there was self-consciousness, shame and the desire to pass as cisgender. We were mostly isolated. There was no email, no Internet to connect us. You found people by word of mouth or (more rarely) at the bars.
When I began transitioning in 1978, there were two other transwomen in Cleveland that anyone knew of—Joanne and Carmen.
They were my whole support system and basically kept me alive through the whole awful affair. I assiduously tried to fit in and pass as cisgender for 15 years. Needless to say, with my frame, voice, and height, it worked a lot better in my mind than it ever did on the street.
Even when it did work, at a certain point, trying to fill all the cisgender standards for true femininity got really old, and really tiring. It’s a good recipe for losing the last shreds of your selfrespect, and losing any sense of self-worth independent of what others think. I told myself over and over that I didn’t really want to be active politically, but the truth was that I was afraid I’d be outed or evicted or both. Constantly being afraid of what the cis-sies will do to you feels awful, but that’s the world they created for us.
After trying for years to look traditionally feminine—long hair, lipstick, high heels, etc.—I simply got tired of it. A cis woman doesn’t have to do anything special and still looks like a cis woman. But without all the war paint and femmy clothes, I looked like a man with breasts. It’s exhausting having to do all that prep just to walk out the door, get the right pronoun and not get all the stares.
At a certain point you just say, “fuck it” and decide to be you, whatever that is. So I developed this butch-y look with short hair, jeans and no makeup.
Interestingly enough, this tall butch dyke look had its advantages. Other transpeople gave me major points for being so “radical” and turning my back on cisgender femininity. Actually, I would have loved to have been more femme, but I just never thought it looked good on me. And anyway, for me, most of being femme is an “inside job,” not about what other people think or how they perceive me.
So I became a visible part of the social fringe—a transsexual— a creature that many people had not even heard of, and few knew who or what we were. Even we were not sure what to call ourselves. The word “transgender” had barely been coined.
In fact “transgender” was introduced to refer to the excluded middle ground between transsexuals and crossdressers (and drag queens—there were no drag kings yet). Genderqueer and genderfuck were not really on the horizon. We were still mostly into very binary ideas of male/female gender.
But, over time, transgender would morph into this grab bag term that included all of this, and all of us. And then, imperceptibly, inevitably, it would harden into another new identity—one with its own hierarchies and boundary issues, until one day it would become important to exclude people who weren’t “really transgender.”
It was a time when even our doctors encouraged and expected us to pass as cisgender. That was a large part of the “Real Life Test” or RLT: forcing us to live in the correct gender a year before being granted surgery. It wasn’t just to make sure we really wanted it, but to make sure we could survive in the world as cisgender-ish persons.
My doctor even announced point blank that I was a “successful” transsexual woman to the degree to which no one could tell that I was transsexual, that I could “pass”: blend in and live life as a “normal woman.” And I tried. I’d always wished I could pass, and was silently envious of those transwomen who could.
Partly as a result, there was little political activism. We didn’t think of our troubles as a group struggle, or even as political. I often thought of my own poor genderqueer body as the reason and locus for my troubles, just as much as the intolerance of cisgender people. As a result, I wasted a lot of years hating it, and myself. And self-blame—blended liberally with shame—is an effective antidote for political awareness.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t some amazing and important early efforts. In 1970 STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) was formed by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in New York City in the wake of the Stonewall Riots and powered largely by drag queens of color.
In 1992 Texas attorney (now judge) Phyllis Frye organized the first conference on transgender law: the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy. In 1994, she and activist Karen Kerin would found It’s Time America, an early lobbying group that sprouted chapters in several states.
Software developer Anne Ogborn in San Francisco would launch Transgender Nation, modeled on the street action group Queer Nation, which became an offshoot of that group. (Anne was a true original and a visionary. She left a profitable software job to go live with the Hijra—the sacred outcast transpeople of India—and in the process almost dying from dysentery. Anne could be really mind-blowing: when I first met her she was wearing a T-shirt that read, “Sex Change—Ask Me How.”)
But, for the most part, these courageous first efforts failed to scale up and catch on with the larger community. The rhythms and energy of the lives of most visible trans people were dominated by the need to find one another and connect, to share information and resources, and to win a small measure of tolerance from the cisgender world.
At the center of this effort for many of us lay the annual transgender conferences that organized the trans social calendar. In those pre- Internet days, they were crucial and irreplaceable community watering holes. The big tent-pole conferences-Southern Comfort every fall in Atlanta and the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE) months later— big tent-pole conferences-Southern anchored each year. IFGE, outside Boston—was founded in 1987 by Merissa Sherrill Lynn. It was the national information conduit for the transgender community along with its magazine, Tapestry, which was in many ways as close as we had to a national transgender newsletter.
Both were mostly focused on and for crossdressers, although the transsexual influence would grow. Tapestry had a robust personal ads section—the magazine reportedly had a huge “transfan” base of men attracted to crossdressers (one reason most early covers featured conventionally feminine cross-dressers).
As Susan Stryker put it, describing Transvestia, the first trans publication, our magazines tended to focus on “social commentary, educational outreach, self-help advice, and autobiographical vignettes.” Common topics for articles included how to find a supportive wife (or deal with an unsupportive one), interviews, transgender history, dealing with prejudice and accepting your transgender self.
These get-togethers proved so popular that new ones kept popping up. By the 1990s there was another medium or big regional conference almost every month, year-round, each with its own distinct regional flavor. Many of us flocked to these, if we could afford the travel, hotel, and admission costs. Inspired by the pioneering work of Tri-Ess and a support group founded by Virginia Prince to provide support to crossdressers, they were very oriented towards mostly straight, white, middle-aged men who needed a safe space to dress up and express themselves in feminine attire.
In fact, it all started with crossdressers—who, I might add, still do not get on the cover of Time or land their own reality TV shows. It was a historical moment so hostile to trans issues that in 1961 federal agents were prosecuting Virginia on “obscenity” charges for corresponding about dressing-up fantasies with another crossdresser.
Virginia did not lack for courage. She invited a group of individual cross-dressers to bring brown paper bags with their hose and heels and feminine attire to a hotel room, where they all put them on simultaneously, outing themselves to one another. It was an act of unbelievable bravery. It was also a deeply abhorrent activity— considered shameful and abnormal—which they knew was only barely legal and could easily get them all arrested, which would ruin both their families and careers forever.
Yet this small first gathering of transgender people— eventually named the “Hose & Heels” club— just three decades later would morph into the modern transgender rights movement. And it was all started by straight male crossdressers.
But, in the ’70s’ and ’80s, the movement of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) into the hospitals (it would eventually move back out again) was quietly creating a large, hidden wave of post–Christine Jorgenson transsexuals. By the 1990s that wave began to break, with more and more of us showing up at crossdressing conferences, looking for comfort and looking to find people like ourselves.
At first, almost all of us were transwomen, so we fit right in with all the male crossdressers But eventually transmen showed up as well, first only a couple, but then in numbers. More and more workshops addressed mostly transsexual topics like how to get “top surgery,” finding a sympathetic surgeon, and going on estrogen and testosterone.
Politics by Any Other Name Would Still Smell as Sweet
These conferences were affiliative in nature, dedicated to the social side of being transgender: sharing information, support, and advice. They were determinedly nonsexual and avowedly nonpolitical, and they were meant to be. But when you’re dealing with despised identities that are isolated and hidden, organizing them in large groups for whatever reason is highly political.
Part of this has to do with the politics of gender and lifestyle. For many crossdressers it was sufficient to be able to dress up, and then go back home. But for the transsexuals, being a gender outlaw was a full-time gig: there was no “home” to go back to. Anywhere we went we were still outcasts and trannies, and on enemy turf. That made many of us angry and desperate—emotions that were new to these gatherings.
Second, it’s much harder to keep feeling shame and self-hatred when you’re no longer the only one in the room, when you start regularly seeing hundreds and hundreds of people who are just like you. Being you starts to seem more, well… normal.
Finally, you start slowly realizing that the oppression and humiliation you’re dealing with every day isn’t personal, it’s political. Everyone is going through it. It’s not about you or your body, but about a system of cisgender intolerance and hatred for your entire group. Your group. The conferences were the first time in my life I felt part of any group. Or had any group to feel a part of.
The first time I walked into a gay bar was the first time in my young life that I didn’t feel like an outcast. But it took me 20 minutes, sitting outside in my car, to muster the nerve. The bar was off the downtown Cleveland manufacturing area simply called The Flats and it was all straight out of 1950s film noir: cobblestones shimmering wetly in the fitful street lamps, broken bottles in filthy gutters, the odd newspaper blowing down the street, with the constant sound of elevated traffic in the distance. If you put it in a movie today it would seem like a cliché.
The bar had no sign, just a plain, plank wooden door with number on it, illuminated by a single light. Small groups of men and women would go in, and I would watch them, thinking to myself, “THOSE are HOMOSEXUALS.” I had never seen one before. Neither had anyone I knew. In 1968 they might as well have been unicorns—you could read about them, but these were never ever seen in the wild. But the moment I walked in—I don’t know what it was—but I knew I belonged, and for once no one would ever tell me I shouldn’t be there. But they weren’t me. It was almost all gay men, a few lesbians huddled in a corner, and the odd drag queen.
I didn’t look like any of them. And they didn’t really accept me either. But I’d been a queer for a long time without knowing it, and I was finally among other queers. I was home, baby, and it was powerful.
I suspect the conferences were like that for many people. Other than all the crossdressers going out at night in groups, dressed outrageously and clearly having the time of their lives (“Why do crossdressers wear three-inch heels? Because they can’t find five-inch heels.”), the conferences were actually pretty tame: group breakfasts, lunches, and dinners at circular tables in giant ballrooms, speakers at a podium, and terminated by us streaming out to workshops and panel presentations in small, over-air-conditioned conference rooms. We might have been the American Bankers Convention.
But, unlike the bars, at the conferences I found lots of people like me. It was radical feeling normal and accepted, if only for a brief, three-day weekend.
Hotels on the Beltway
Feeling normal, accepted, and un-hated are powerful experiences. Moreover, they are political experiences. And I wasn’t alone in having them. As Tony Barreto-Neto, who would become pivotal in many of the actions that followed, recalled: “It was like finding a family and like-minded people who were, if not doing, at least thinking about doing something. It was affirming, it was frightening, it was exhilarating, it was liberating.”
There was a sense of suppressed potential at those early 1990s conferences. All those people, all that compressed energy, yet no real discussion of why we needed to keep gathering in these three-star hotels out on the beltway (never in city centers), served by smiling and conspicuously tolerant staff who’d been carefully briefed on our event, running into straightlaced and befuddled hotel guests in elevators and hallways (and women’s rooms!) who probably made us the highlight of their trip stories when they got home to Topeka.
I recall one occasion when the hotel failed to tell us we had been booked at the same time as a nationwide evangelical Christian gathering. The “Finding Jesus” workshops ran in breakout rooms right next to the “Finding SRS Surgeons.” It made for some unique and animated conversations between the two groups as we rode the elevators together.
We were there, in short, because we were isolated and despised and it wasn’t safe to be us and be out—particularly the crossdressers—anyplace else.
The conference was an island of safety, of gender sanity; but, like Brigadoon, it was a temporary sanctuary, an idyllic haven that quickly vanished again almost as soon as it appeared, leaving us once again stranded in our normal, everyday, transphobic lives. While we might be safe in groups of several hundred, especially at hotels where we were paying big bills, we weren’t safe alone—or anywhere else.
Even the grown, male crossdressers who would hit the local bars at night (many of whom could only dress up the rest of the year in the privacy of their own bedrooms) made sure to go out and come back in large groups and only to visit hotspots that had been carefully screened in advance to make sure they’d be welcome. And even they went out only at night.
But we didn’t talk about that much—and we certainly didn’t hold workshops and plenaries to organize politically to change it. In the politics of the moment, simply being positive about being transgender was a major step forward, which is another way of saying we were not only mocked and loathed, but too many of us had internalized that and scorned and loathed ourselves. But this affiliative phase couldn’t last for long. And it didn’t.
My intent is not to diminish the timeless contributions of people: Virginia Prince who started the first crossdressing publication and organizations; Lou Sullivan who started the first Transmen’s support group in San Francisco; Ari Kane who launched one of the first transgender conferences; or people of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who stormed the Gay Liberation barricades and went on to found STAR.
These are leaders whose actions—often brave and alone—paved the way for all that was to come. They helped open our eyes to what we could be and do. Anything we accomplished was only possible because we were standing on the shoulders of giants. All of them and more are covered in Susan Stryker’s authoritative chronicle of transgender in the U.S., Transgender History, and in Patrick Califia’s indepth documentation of the politics of transsexuality in Sex Changes.
Rather, my intent is to share the story of my own experience at the birth of what has grown into modern transgender political activism. At the time, it seemed like we were making no progress whatsoever. Looking back with 20 years of hindsight, it all now seems to have happened very quickly.
But it didn’t. Really, back then, no one would listen to us, and no one paid attention to us. We were shock value, or comic relief, freaks on the Jerry Springer Show, and not much more.
In fact, it was not until our first Lobby Day on Capitol Hill that any major city newspaper carried a “hard news” story about transgender. That was what we had to fight.
In fact, what made this movement unique was that we had to fight not only average Americans—who might deride or even despise us—but the progressive left which misunderstood us and wanted nothing to do with us, including feminist organizations, progressive groups and gay rights organizations.
It was a time when, just trying to buy food at the local grocery store, I would be openly mocked or laughed at. I’d go to my local gay community center, but they had nothing for transpeople. So that evening I would join a lesbian support group seeking help and a kind ear, and instead I’d get voted on and asked to leave. It was an interesting and lonely time.
It was also the time when a very small group of people was able to begin pushing very radical notions of gender nonconformity and fluidity—ones in the most direct possible conflict with deeply entrenched heterosexual ideals—and eventually move them right into mainstream culture.
In many ways, the emergence of transgender challenged mainstream ideals of boy/girl, masculine/feminine, and the Ozzie & Harriet nuclear family in more radical ways than homosexuality ever could and ever will.
We challenged heteronormativity right down to its roots. We couldn’t say it was just about who we loved. This was about nearly everything important about bodies: how we looked, how we could desire, what genders we could inhabit, even how we could change embodiment itself.