August 23, 2020

Zagria on Transgender History 3: Key Transgender People and “The Tipping Point”

Zagria is the researcher, writer and editor behind “A Gender Variance Who’s Who”, the most extensive repository for transgender history on the web. In part 1 of our interview we talked about how she does her research. In part 2 we discussed key concepts of gender variance. In this part we ask her about trans people who have influenced her thinking. We also look at recent political and cultural trends, including the increased visibility of transgender men.

April Ashley, transgender Vogue model and actress in the 1950s and 60s. Photo Ken Walker.

Most influential transgender person

If you were to pick one person from transgender history who has influenced you the most, who would that be? And which trans and  gender variant persons are the most underrated, as you see it?

There was no internet when I transitioned in the 1980s. The most famous trans women were performers such as Coccinelle and April Ashley. I never thought that I was going on the stage. So there is no one such person. I was influenced in many things large and small by the individual cis and trans women whom I knew. 

Some trans persons have been overrated, as I see it. Overrated does not mean that they did not achieve anything. It means that a lot of attention has been directed to them while other people who have done as much or more are ignored.

The following have been given a lot of press and academic attention. They don’t need more. The attention would be better directed to those in the underrated list.

Some examples of those overrated: John Radcliffe-Hall, Gertrude Stein, Lili Elevenes (Elbe), Caitlyn Jenner, Major Griffen-Gracy, Sylvia Rivera, Virginia Prince, Jack Bee Garland, Susan Stryker.

Underrated:  Most activists etc in South America, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. North America/Western Europe is well reported, but at the cost of the rest of the world.

Some underrated individuals: Barbara de Lamere, Masha Bast, Janine Roberts, Diana Sacayán, Simone Heradien, Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi. Sally Mursi, Yollada Nok Suanyoy, Rachel Webb, Toni Ebel, Demet Demir, Marie André Schwidenhammer, Chloe Dzubilo, Johnny Science, Brenda Lee, Marcello Di Folco, Alejandro Portadino. There are many, many more.

The transgender tipping point and backlash

We have moved from the 'transgender tipping point' to 'the transgender backlash'. How does the historian in you see and understand current events? You have been an LGBT activist since the 1970s. Are there lessons learned we should take into consideration these days? Are you an optimist or a pessimist as far as the future of the transgender community is concerned?

I was concerned rather than pleased with the so-called ‘tipping point’. Whenever there is something like that, it is, more likely than not, followed by a backlash. And here we are.

It is a shame that the press gives so much attention to badly-informed billionaires – Jenner then, Rowland now.

The passing of non-discrimination laws that include mention of gender identity is a definite step forward. I could have used such in the 1990s when it was apparent that I did not get a job because there were rumours about me.

The bathroom debate

Some of the fuss led to unwanted results. I am thinking of venues that announced that out of “consideration for trans persons” all their toilets would now be unisex. Not in my name.
Zagria (private photo)

An incidental nice thing about becoming a woman is that in general the toilets are nicer. It is good when a venue adds one or a few unisex toilets in addition to the ladies and the gents. But I always go in the ladies, not the unisex.

I think that well-meaning cis persons are having problems re the difference between trans and non-binary. We are two different groups with different requests.

Reason for optimism

The major reason for optimism is the high acceptance rate among young persons for both sexual and gender variance. Of course Brexit showed that what young persons desire, the political system does not deliver. At least not in the short term.

Some of the wish list from those who were young in the 1970s has been largely achieved: gay rights, gender recognition, marijuana decriminalization, no-fault divorce etc, (depending where you live) but the environment is much worse, and war-mongering and assassinations by the big states is even worse.

Transgender surgery is now well-established. Penile Inversion was invented in 1956; rectosigmoid vaginoplasty for trans women and metoidioplasty for trans men in the mid-1970s. So basically we are still being subjected to a technology almost 50 years old. While most of us have no regrets, should there not be further technological advances by now?

The pandemic

How are you coping with the Covid-19 crisis? Do you see any trans specific challenges we should address during these troubled times?

As a retiree I am not yet affected financially. When I did work, I was a contractor - so I would have been laid off. I certainly have much to keep busy. The only problem is not being able meet people and go places. But that is quite minor compared to the problems of others.

The only policies directly aimed at trans persons are those countries that decreed that men and women are to go out on alternate days, and then did not recognise trans women as either.

However… While some billionaires are further prospering during the crisis, many in the precariat are losing most of the little that they had. Trans persons are over-represented in survival sex work and zero-sum jobs. In fact anyone who does contract work is badly affected.

As employed people are laid off in thousands, I would expect most trans employees to be among the laid-off rather the retained. This will be partially because many employers use the Last-in, First-out principle, but also because – even if not openly transphobic – this is an excuse to be rid of trans persons.

This year’s pandemic is only an episode in the bigger crisis of the interrelated crisis of climate changes, elimination of wild areas, plastic pollution, other pollutions, inequalities of wealth, warmongering, refugee crises etc etc. AIDS, Ebola and Sars were contained. Future pandemics may not be so.

Trans male visibility

From my standpoint I see a huge difference in the way transmasculinity and transgender men are seen these days. The FTM side of the community has become more visible. Moreover, the late Lou Sullivan is no longer the only visible gay trans man around. The cries about 'rapid onset gender dysphoria' do, at least, reflect the reality that more trans men come out of the closet. What is your explanation for this shift?

Trans history was dominated by trans men until around 1950.


Seattle/Portland before then: Kauxuma Nupika; Harry Allen; Ray Leonard; Robert Gaffney; Alan Hart;

London before then: Wynsley Swann; Gluck; Joe Carstairs; Victor Barker; Toupie Lowther; William Holtom; Bill Allen; Mark Weston; Robert Allen; Michael Dillon; Jonathan Ferguson; John Thorp.

US trans men since Lou Sullivan: Patrick Califia; Malcolm Himschoot; Dante Gill; Dean Kotula; Lynn Benton; Jack Halberstam; Anderson Toone; Johnny Science; Max Wolf Valerio; Lazlo Pearlman

Harry Allen (1882 – 1922) musician, bartender, barber and transgender man.

Trans men have always been with us. The only thing that has changed is the attention paid to them.

Certainly the press in the past has been a lot more interested in trans women. Journalism was a dominantly male profession. Some say the slant is because of the male chauvinism of journalists. From their perspective, trans women are perceived to be giving up male privilege, and of course any woman would want to be a man so there is no story there.

‘Rapid onset gender dysphoria’ is controversial. Does it really exist or is it an invention of the media?

Have you seen any reliable account of a supposed ROGD person who has progressed such that we would regard them as a trans man? I would expect in any such case, when more details come out, that he had been yearning for years to be masculine. The ‘rapid onset’ being only apparent. 

Gay Liberation Front

You are an alumna from the Gay Liberation Front. Has this affected your approach at all?

For the ancient Greeks, philosophy was a guide to living.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the major philosophers of the 20th century but his philosophy did not help him to accept his homosexuality.

Gay Lib never had a philosophy spelt out at length (although see Alan Hodges & David Hutter, With Downcast Gays, 1974). But it had a powerful slogan: 'It is not the individual who is sick, it is the society.'   Or alternately phrased:'It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives.'   The latter was later used as the title of the 1971 film by Rosa von Praunheim. 

It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives,
German movie by Rosa von Praunheim.

Similar ideas were endorsed by Les Gazolines [French gay organization in the 1970s] and Transexual Menace.

These radical philosophies gave rise to certain axiomatic values which have influenced me and many others.

Gender variation is of course a natural variation. This is reflected in word choices: transsexuality not transsexualism; transvestity not transvestism.

The requirement for medical assistance does not make transness a medical condition. Sports, birthing and abortion are all normal activities which are assisted by medical professionals. 

Inclusiveness and free speech

Another axiom is inclusiveness. Distinctions between drag and trans, or by sexual orientation are not important. Cis persons also should be free to experiment with gender and clothing. A significant number of drag performers move onto the trans journey. Many of the supposedly ‘heterosexual’ transvestites were actually on the down-low (we saw how Virginia Prince was doing the same sexual acts with a man as a bambi-sexual gay man does).

Trannie, transy were good words in being umbrella terms covering transsexuals, transvestites and drags. Their demonization by the language police was a misstep – and hopefully they will be reclaimed by the next generation. I discussed this in detail a few years back. 

Take  Sylvia Rivera.  Which of the trans words is the most applicable? Some say that she was a transvestite – but certainly she was not so in the Princian sense. ‘Transvestite’ of course has lots of meanings and usages but most of them imply some degree of switching between the genders. Others say that she was a drag queen. Again the primary meaning of drag queen is female impersonation as done on a stage. What about the 21st century concept of gender-queer? – a term not available in her lifetime, but a term with a good fit.

Crossdreamer, gender-queer, non-binary. These are recently developed concepts. Like Transgender and Gender Variant these terms can be retrojected and applied to persons in earlier decades and lead to insights about the person. This process has hardly started. We do need an extensive history of Crossdreaming, of Gender Queer and Non Binary.

As for free speech: For centuries and until very recently positive statements about being trans were repressed, and most writers forced into self-censorship. Censorship is not in our interest. While it is good that social media have given a voice to reply to the media elite, the current demands that those who disagree with us be silenced is not converting or persuading them.

Yes, the equivalents of no-platforming and cancel culture were used against us in previous decades, but the institutionalization of them now will enable them to be used against us again more easily in the future when the tide has turned further against us.

Marriage is a mental commitment between two (or more) persons. There are reasons to register one’s marriage with the state (taxation, moving to other countries, etc) but a common-law marriage is just as authentic as a registered one.

Regarding “Intersectional”: Trans activism works best when allied with LGB+, feminism, anti-racism, anti-imperialism etc.

In the next part Zagria talks about how it is to live as a transgender person.

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