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A Radical Transformation: Susan Stryker’s Fight for Trans Visibility

June 3, 2020
Susan Stryker Ph.D. ’92 was born in 1961 and earned her bachelor’s degree in letters from the University of Oklahoma in 1983 before receiving her doctorate in history from UC Berkeley. In less than a decade, however, Stryker’s graduation from Cal would quickly become the first of many awards, honors, and recognitions she garnered in her career as a professor, author, filmmaker, and activist in the trans community.
From her earliest memory, Stryker “always felt [she] was a girl even though [she] had a male body at birth,” but she didn’t start coming out publicly as a transgender woman until the late 80s.1 A few years later, in 1992—the same year she graduated from Cal—Stryker co-founded with Anne Ogborn2, Transgender Nation3, a direct-action activist group that grew out of the San Francisco chapter of Queer Nation, a New York-based LGBTQ activist organization.

Barely a year later, in June 1993, Stryker presented her essay, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” and performed an excerpted monologue at a 3-day academic conference titled “Rage Across the Disciplines” at California State University, San Marcos.4 This performance is now famously cited as a critical work and moment that placed Stryker at the forefront of the emerging, coalescing field of transgender studies.

In “My Words,” Stryker sought to articulate the rage that existed at the heart of trans organizing and reclaim the comparison of transgender people as monsters (specifically Frankenstein’s monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). She referenced contemporary cultural movements—lack of government attention to the AIDS crisis, disruptive political action of organizations like ACT UP and Queer Nation—that provided additional context and personal significance.5

Stryker wrote that the rage of the transgender community against this label of “monster” should not only be reclaimed, but also redirected. This rage could become a part of trans identity that people owned. She wrote, “…words like ‘creature,’ ‘monster,’ and ‘unnatural’ need to be reclaimed by the transgendered. By embracing and accepting them, even piling one on top of another, we may dispel their ability to harm us.”6

Rage against injustice and the experience of being compared to monsters, Stryker argued, can and should be used by trans people as a catalyst for pursuing justice. She concludes her essay: “May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world.”7

More than 25 years later, “My Words” remains foundational in transgender studies, cementing Stryker’s impact as an activist for the transgender community.

“May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world.”

Beyond her essay, Stryker has served as the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, co-edited the two-volume Transgender Studies Reader, and co-founded the first peer-reviewed journal of trans cultural studies, TSQ. She has published four books—including Transgender History, an accessible and widely taught introductory text to modern trans history in the United States—and produced three documentaries about trans experiences and moments in trans history, one of which (Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria) earned her a regional Emmy Award.

In the LGBTQ+ community, Stryker has been recognized with the Transgender Law Center’s Community Vanguard Award and the Monette-Horowitz Prize for LGBTQ activism, among other honors for her academic work in LGBTQ studies. At the University of Arizona, Stryker was Professor Emerita of Gender and Women’s Studies, served as the director of the Institute for LGBT Studies, and helped found the university’s Transgender Studies Initiative and faculty cluster hire. She is now the Barbara Lee Distinguished Professor at Mills College in Oakland, California.

Throughout her career, Stryker has always sought to use her experience and education to lend power to the trans community, be a good ally, and share how others may do the same.

“[Being trans is] the reformulation of something that is meant to be inhuman or as feared as representing an inhumanity, an unnaturalness, a monstrosity, and using that as the basis for imagining how people can be otherwise to how they are,”8 Stryker shares in a 2018 interview with them. “To make that gender transition, you confront the possibilities and potentials and terrors and dangers of what it means to radically transform.”

People are capable of remaking themselves and the world around them; the trans experience captures this perfectly. “It’s like saying,” Stryker adds, “‘This is possible. Look at me.’”9


Image credit: Susan Stryker speaks at Trans March San Francisco 2017 by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.