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Speaker sheds light on transgender history

By Catherine Bialkowski

Mayo Concert Hall was crowded on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 5, as Susan Stryker, a writer, historian and professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Arizona, shared an excerpt from her latest book and offered insight into the history of transgenderism.

The Women’s and Gender Studies Department invited Stryker to speak about transgender history in a lecture titled “Transgender Histories: From Sickness to Citizenship.”

Stryker, a professor of LGBT history, film and media studies and critical theory, spoke on a topic she has studied for years. She won a Lambda Literary Award for her writing and an Emmy Award for her film “Screaming Queens,” a documentary on the 1966 Gene Compton’s Cafeteria riot.

Stryker called her current project something she has dubbed a “big airport bookstore book”  a survey of “transreality,” referring to what transgender people face on a daily basis.

For so many years, people have believed that there are only two genders. She called this a myth.

“(The) root of oppression and stigmatization is that other people don’t think our genders are real,” Stryker said.

Listeners were captivated by Stryker’s eloquently worded and gender-exploring survey of the past 100 years, which touched upon the lives of prominent historical transgender figures, such as Joseph Lobdell, who suffered for years in an insane asylum and Jennie June, one of the first transgender individuals to publish an autobiography.

Stryker discussed more current influential transgender people, like Laverne Cox of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and Caitlyn Jenner, former Olympic athlete and reality star of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and “I Am Cait.”

Stryker discusses the lack of documented transgender history. (Kim Iannarone / Photo Editor)
Stryker discusses the lack of documented transgender history. (Kim Iannarone / Photo Editor)

“It was nice to hear her speak in person after reading her book (‘Transgender History’) in class,” said Felicia Selvakumar, a sophomore philosophy major. “There’s not as much documented on transgender history as there is on gay and lesbian research.”

Stryker talked a lot about the “categories and labels” that have been created in an attempt to control and correct transgender individuals.

Transgender issues “challenge the way we usually tell our stories about our bodies and our identities,” Stryker said. “Reality becomes transreality in the process of arranging itself into something new.”

In a decade-by-decade approach, Stryker explained how transgenderism was perceived, including obstacles and little victories throughout the years. In mentioning insane asylums and therapy, as well as new possibilities to change one’s body, she painted a brief yet striking picture of the realities gender-nonconforming individuals have faced.

Stryker went on to list a myriad of other transgender individuals, including Christine Jorgensen, one of the first transsexual celebrities, and Lili Elbe, the transgender woman who inspired the 2015 film “The Danish Girl.” Stryker highlighted these individuals to prove that people have identified as transgender for much longer than commonly believed.

While informative and enlightening, the lecture uncovered a side of history not usually studied outside of women’s and gender studies courses. It demonstrated that transgenderism is not something to be corrected, but rather, simply recognized, accepted and, perhaps one day, celebrated.

“Reality is just a deep and widely shared dream,” Stryker said. “Haven’t we all, at some point, swam upstream against the current of life?”


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