Asa trans lesbian myself, I found Susan Stryker’s insights on trans people’s role at this point in world history incredibly illuminating.
Susan is an internationally renowned professor of gender, a historian, author and filmmaker. A former director of the Institute of LGBT Studies and founder of the Transgender Studies Initiative at the University of Arizona, she is the author of several books about LGBT history and culture including Transgender History and was co-editor of the Transgender Studies Reader. As a filmmaker she directed the documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria which predated the Stonewall uprising and was also a consulting producer on the highly acclaimed Netflix documentary, Disclosure, an in-depth look at depictions of trans people in Hollywood and its impact on trans lives and culture.
I started by asking Susan about her thoughts on trans rights and healthcare in Ireland coming from her own perspective in the States. “I honestly know more about what’s going on in the UK because it’s just the situation over there seems like the house is on fire. It seems that Ireland is rather calm in comparison to what’s happening to your neighbours across the water any other direction, honestly. There’s been some rather progressive legislation and policy at the national level. I’ve followed the abortion debate in Ireland more closely than I followed anything around trans issues.
“I’m going to be cynical and say what you’re describing in Ireland, with regards to trans healthcare, seems to be a very common state of affairs for any state-funded health service, not just in Ireland or the UK, but Canada and Australia. The bureaucracy around it and the state interest in, I would call, producing legibly, gender normative subjects, is quite high. It’s a lot to negotiate when you’re a trans person.”
Comparing Ireland to the landscape of healthcare in the States she warned, “It’s true at some level, that the market capitalist approach to everything is just so woven into the fabric of governance here, that you can pretty much get what you pay for, and nothing else. It means a lot of people can’t access it for financial and class reasons. So that’s the cynical part. Don’t do it like we’ve done it over here, please.”
Regarding her upcoming talk, she addressed some of what will inform her keynote address. “The theme of the conference is ‘Lesbians in Solidarity’. I really want to speak not just on trans issues in lesbian studies and the lesbian community, but more broadly about who we are in solidarity with each other. I want to take a very broad view as things shift into this weird, fuzzy grey zone of quasipost-pandemic life. The kinds of challenges to democratic society, that anti-trans rhetoric that has been amplified by certain strands of feminism is now part of a much broader reactionary, anti-democratic, often ethno-nationalist and religiously conservative movement.
“It’s part of the shifts towards a more reactionary, anti-democratic kind of politics and so I feel like I need to address that. But part of it, it’s just pure pleasure. I’m looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues and being in both the academic and lesbian community.”
We also discussed being a trans woman within the wider lesbian and academic community. “There was Simone de Beauvoir saying one is not born, but rather one becomes a woman and there was Janice Raymond saying male to constructed females, so called transexual lesbians, are rapists trying to infiltrate the women’s community. I knew that I wasn’t that latter thing and Simone de Beauvoir made a lot of sense to me. I had a sense pretty early on as an 18 or 19 year-old that the issue of trans lesbianism was something that was debated within lesbian communities and that there were different positions on it. And so, as I was with people in loving relationships in my 20’s those questions about when to disclose and how to disclose and negotiating our own genders and sexualities and relationships, it was something that I feel like I did with integrity. I have tried being a public person to talk about issues that come up around trans issues, lesbianism and queerness, the LGBT community and sexual sub communities. To be a trans lesbian in the academic profession, and to bring my academic training to the community I feel I do my best to thread those needles and have good intention in what I do. I also recognise I’m gonna step on landmines, and things are gonna blow up in my face, and that there are some people who are just ideologically opposed to what I represent, or whose own negative experiences of gender get triggered in their encounters with me.
“It’s a hard path to walk sometimes because you have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, even as you’re trying to enact what solidarity and belonging and participation and community means to you.”
I was interested in her take as an out trans historian for over three decades on the changing tides as a result of greater trans visibility. “I do think the tide started turning in 2014/15, that was maybe the high watermark for the liberal trans rights movement. Around that time, you start to see a resurgence of gender critical and TERFy feminism, a lot of which was coming out of the UK, and we are in a period right now of retrenchment. The part of me that’s speaking from the wisdom of my 60 plus years circling the sun, is that the pendulum’s swaying, don’t freak out too much.
“But then the other part of me that studies history and thinks about longer term patterns is quite anxious. The world order that’s been in place since the end of World War Two is crumbling and at a deeper level the world that came out of the expansion of European colonialism is also crumbling. On the one hand there are a lot of injustices in the way the world has been structured for half a millennium. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think that what might come will be better, that’s my deepest concern.”
On the current international political landscape and populist far right, Stryker said, “They have learned to weaponise trans identities as part of broader antidemocratic reactionary politics. I feel like a storm has started. It really behooves all of us to think with a lot of clarity, to not be in denial about how bad things could get. We’re entering a really dangerous and volatile period of world history.”
Given her insights, I then asked what can be done to combat this. “I really feel not just trans people, but many people who are in minoritised positions who are the targets of these kinds of ethno-nationalist, reactionary political movements, we all need to really figure out ways to take care of each other collectively, without thinking that state and society are always going to be on our sides. In the US context, I turn for wisdom to Indigenous and African American communities who’ve lived under occupation for half a millennium. It’s like, you are 400 years into the afterlife of slavery, how do you live and have joy and find meaning in life? There are cultural resources there. There’s historical wisdom and the experience of those communities that I think many of us who are targeted in different ways could learn from. I think, increasingly not in terms of, how can we win, how do we survive?”
Given this context, her prescription was that of tapping into the wisdom of trans experiences. “I think what trans people need to be thinking about doing in this moment of history is bearing witness, giving testimony. You just say, I know that change is possible, I know you can have the strength to survive. This isn’t some trans superpower, figuring out I can change. It’s a capacity that everybody has. That articulation of everything that’s bad and wrong and hard about our lives is not the story that serves us best right now. It’s not seeking redress for grievance but actually saying trans is strong and beautiful, and we have learned some things and we have something to offer to the world. We need to be expressing that truth. Trans people can be stepping up as examples of how to address the deepest things and find purpose and joy in life. That is the message we need to be putting out and that’s a theme that will show up in my talk in Cork.”