Review of TRANS/gressive: How Transgender Activists Took on Gay Rights, Feminism, the Media & Congress … and Won! by Riki Anne Wilchins. Riverdale Avenue Books. 2017.
I care very much about learning trans history and honoring trans elders. That’s why I wanted to read this book. It felt important to me, especially, to read a history of trans activism, as a trans activist and writer.
I am not from the same generation of trans folks as the author; I’m one generation behind, or perhaps two, depending on how you measure it. Trans communities have intense generation gaps that deeply impact frameworks, language and thinking; there are many generational divides. These days, I find myself wanting to reach both towards trans elders and towards trans youth and younger adults, wanting this very intensely. Wanting to hold on to history, especially activist history, because things keep repeating and we can learn so much from it, and also wanting to learn from younger generations, who have so much new thinking, new frameworks, new language to offer. I was hoping that this book might be a way to bridge some gaps, that it might document some trans activist history in a way that is accessible to younger generations of activists. That it could be a resource for that. I am torn about whether it actually is, as a whole, a resource for that. I mostly feel that it is not, unfortunately.
One of the key pieces is language. Wilchins uses language that is very outdated, most of the time; she is upfront about that in the foreward, to a certain extent. But in some ways, it feels like she doesn’t know r care about current language. For example, in the 90s she decided that her umbrella term for anyone who didn’t adhere to gender norms (transsexuals, cross dressers, butch women, gender non-conforming kids, whoever) was going to be genderqueer. She doesn’t use it as an identity label that people claim, but as a way she describes someone else’s gender, regardless of how they identify their own gender. She also never explains this; I know what she means because I read her first book (Read My Lips) and figured it out based on that knowledge. It may be because I identify as genderqueer that I continually found this confusing and jarring, but I don’t think so. I think it likely would be difficult for many people to parse, because it just isn’t how most trans and non-binary folks talk about gender these days. I found it especially difficult because it felt like part of what it was doing was erasing enby identities. I think a lot of younger trans and enby readers would have difficulty with this book because of language alone. And frankly, because of how intensely irreverent she is in the ways she talks about trans folks and trans identity. I found myself flinching quite often at the ways she was reclaiming the language of transmisogyny for herself, and I am fairly used to that kind of irreverent reclaiming.
I found this a very slow read; it took me a month, when many books take a day or two, unless they are books I only read before bed. (This wasn’t one of those; I definitely could not read this book before bed.) It was a slow read for a couple reasons. The first is that there were aspects of the text that irritated me enough to make me want to put it down. The second is that it has lengthy detailed descriptions of trans hating violence that felt gratuitous and were very difficult for me to read.
As a whole, it feels like this book is a bit confused about what it wants to be. It mostly seems to be an activist memoir by one U.S. based white trans activist, who did particular sorts of activism, and claims legacies and influences beyond that to other activist efforts. Except…it continually talks in sweeping generalities, makes huge claims about what was true then and what is true now, claims that go way beyond “this is my truth” to “this is the only truth”.
Near the end of the foreward, Wilchins says “it is not the story, but rather my story. It is what I experienced, what it was like to be there, and what it means now.” By the time I read that, I had already been irritated multiple times by the sweeping generalizations she was making, the way that a good portion of her statements were things that I knew personally were factually inaccurate, and was struck in particular by the frequent erasure of trans activists of color, particularly trans women of color. It comes at 7% and I had already stopped reading multiple times because I was so frustrated that because of how the foreward was written, she was implying in almost every sentence that she was telling a general trans activist history, our collective history, when in fact she was telling her own personal history. I was relieved that she wrote the sentences I quoted above, and hoped that this issue would be confined to the foreward and would not exist in the rest of the text. But, the thing is…this issue persists. She might have said once or twice in the foreward that she was telling her story, but the book wrestles constantly with attempting to tell <i>the</i> story. The best moments in it are when she lets herself tell <i>her</i> story. When she tries to tell <i>the</i> story, it is intensely pervasively white, frighteningly simplified, and very much centers particular sorts of activism. It is a story which still centers her, but speaks as if it’s everyone’s story, as if it’s universal.
There is this emblematic moment in the foreward a couple paragraphs after the passage I quoted, where the author names two other prominent white trans activists of her generation (Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein), and says that they both were focused on other projects (Leslie on socialism, Kate on writing plays) and that she felt obligated to build a communal trans politics, because she “was the last one standing when the music stopped.” This is very much the sort of activist history the book contains: a singular history of someone who felt responsible for creating a movement by herself, and thinks of herself and her efforts at the center of trans activist history.
I found myself continually getting irritated and talking back to the text, because it’s full of deeply frustrating statements like “being a crossdresser might actually be the more revolutionary identity” when comparing crossdressers to transsexuals. Or when she describes trans exclusion at the Lesbian Sex Mafia as “cisgender lesbian sex perverts were now telling pre-ops that they weren’t woman enough to get tied up and whipped…I mean, really?” as if the problem of exclusion in kink communities (and kinky people in general) are laughable. Or when she claims Camp Trans was the “beginning of the end” for trans-exclusive policies in women’s spaces, as if they are now over.
And then there would also, right next to statements like this, be really astute analysis or really wonderful and important deeply specific stories about trans activist history that I learned from. For example, a couple paragraphs after that statement about LSM she says, “It was like there was this perpetual feminist circular firing squad that mustered into formation as each new generation and group confronted the ‘problem’ of gender non-conformity, but, with no awareness of prior similar situations, it was doomed to repeat past actions.” That right there, is a gem of analysis, something that feels deeply true to me as I read and recall trans activist histories and the histories of trans exclusion. Something that is incredibly usable for activists now, because that is still happening.
That’s the thing; reading this book is like spending time with an elder who thinks they know it all: infuriating sweeping generalities, outdated language, and incredible gems all at the same time. For me, the most useful gems were in chapter 1, which is mostly about Camp Trans. There are chapters about a variety of national efforts, activism around the murders of trans folks, activism with medical institutions, local NYC activist efforts. Depending on where you are coming from, any one of these might contain gems.
After being buoyed by finding really useful analysis and important stories in chapter 1, I found myself struggling to get through chapters 2 and 3, because there are so many detailed stories about violence towards trans folks. Very very detailed. That was the other thing that was hard about reading this book, and why I often put it down. These chapters recount violence in intense detail, but the titles of them are a warning, at least. Chapter 4 discusses child abuse, including child sexual abuse and recovery from child sexual abuse, in detail, and the title is not much of a warning. On top of that, out of nowhere, in any of the other chapters, there would suddenly be a detailed story of violence targeting trans folks, or trans folks committing suicide. It made for a difficult slow read. Basically, in this book more than most, I found myself wishing for trigger warnings at the beginning of each chapter or section. Or, if I am to really be honest about what I would prefer, it would be for a discussion of activism against violence targeting trans folks that treads much more carefully around sharing details, and shares only the ones that are necessary to talk about the activism.
I want to note that there are also moments where the book goes far outside the author’s own personal experience; this felt like delicate territory that was being stomped through rather carelessly and a bit too irreverently. For example, I was troubled by the way this book discussed kink and activism in kink communities; it felt like it bordered on anti-kink sentiments. I was also troubled by the way this book discussed intersex folks and intersex activism. It gave a bunch of details about the personal experience and body of an intersex activist, in a way that felt exploitative and like Wilchins was claiming the right to tell this person’s own story. Also, Wilchins is not intersex herself, and the book presents her own involvement in intersex activism as vitally important and instrumental. (Most of the book is like that, but it reads differently in activism centering other communities.)
- Centers trans activists
- Trans woman author
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Violence, murder, trans hatred and transmisogyny including slurs, police violence and sexual assault, as well as mentions of suicide, child physical abuse, child sexual abuse, child emotional abuse. Chs 2 & 3 are esp full of detailed accounts of violence and murder; Ch 4 is where most of the discussion of child abuse, esp child sexual abuse occurs. Discussion of kink that rides the line of anti-kink. Discussion of intersex identity that contains many details about nonconsensual surgery.
- Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley.
- I have had no contact with the author.
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