Susan Stryker and “Transgender Studies”
The identity-studies swamp grows deeper.
In 2010, as part of my research for The Victims’ Revolution, a book about the parlous and ever-proliferating phenomenon of identity studies in universities, I attended a Queer Studies conference at Humboldt University in Berlin. One of the stars of the event was Susan Stryker, a male-to-female transsexual who was born in 1961, raised in Oklahoma, received a Ph.D. in history at Berkeley, and at the time of the Berlin event was a high-profile professor at Indiana University, to which she commuted regularly from her home in San Francisco. At her session in Berlin, the deep-voiced, broad-shouldered, square-jawed Stryker spent the first few minutes serving up a jumble of standard-issue leftist comments about various aspects of postwar America; she then settled down, for a while anyway, on a single topic: the Tea Party, which she described as fascist and racist, but nonetheless saw as promising because it at least represented a “non-elite” reaction to America’s “neo-liberal” capitalist establishment.
As I pointed out in my book, Stryker’s open contempt for liberal democracy and jejune enthusiasm for a movement she claimed to consider totalitarian came off as thoughtless and insensitive, especially given that we were in a lecture hall overlooking the Unter den Linden in what had once been a part of Communist East Berlin, and, before that, a part of the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich. When an audience member stood up and confessed that Stryker’s admiration for “right-wing populist racists” made him uneasy as a German, Stryker, obviously not grasping his point (and not really pausing, I think, to take it in), obtusely reiterated that any resistance to capitalism – even if it took the form of fascism – filled her with hope.
The other day, contemplating the recent rise of Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and other violent forms of anti-democratic fascism in the guise of anti-fascism, I wondered what Stryker was up to these days. First I looked at her Facebook feed, from which I could see at once that she’s still engaged in “resistance.” Indeed, you might say that “resistance” is her mantra. I perused her Facebook postings going as far back as the morning of November 9, 2016, when she described Donald Trump’s election victory the night before as a “nightmare” and a “disaster” and declared that she had always known “never to underestimate the power of white settler economic grievances, or of fragile white masculinity, when it is channeled into racism and xenophobia.” Trump’s victory, she maintained, clearly marked the start of an era of hate and oppression, and while “I fully expect some of that hate and oppression to fall on me as a white queer/trans person,” she wrote, “my heart is truly broken for my friends in this country who are Muslim and Latinx [sic: the point of the “x” is to indicate that one is including both Latinos and Latinas], who are brown and black, who are immigrants, who speak English with an accent. Already today I am hearing from friends who are afraid to go to work or even to go outside.” In the midst of this political cataclysm, Stryker found consolation in one thing and one thing alone: the act of “contemplating the possible shape of the new resistance movements.”
Resistance! “The current state of affairs,” she has since written, in reference to the Trump presidency, “calls for many forms of resistance.” On January 13, she referred to herself on Facebook as following a “’daily act of resistance regimen.” After pondering many other names for the resistance movement against Trump, she decided that the best option was “The Resistance.” In late January, she took part in the mass act of resistance that effectively shut down San Francisco International Airport to protest Trump’s temporary immigration restrictions. On January 30, she wrote: “There are so many individual battles to fight, why not just one big collective ‘no’ to the new regime? Sooner rather than later while we have momentum from the Women’s Marches and airport occupations? What if millions of people took to the streets and demanded a new government that reflects the ideals of the majority?”
Soon afterward, she promoted the idea of a nationwide general strike to be held on February 17, writing: “C’mon all you pink pussy hat ladies, airport occupiers, taxi drivers, bodega owners, and Yiannapoulos speaking-event distruptors [sic] – let’s shut this country down for a day. Gather your tribes and posses and family members and get everybody to call in sick, not go to class, and not buy stuff. Do nonviolent civil disobedience by occupying a federal building. Hold a sanctuary campus rally at your school. Use the day to make calls jamming the phone lines in elected officials offices letting them know you oppose whatever outrage the Trump regime will be perpetrating in two weeks. Make Pennsylvania Avenue impassible [sic].”
As of a few days ago, Stryker was still busy resisting. On August 25, she took part in a successful effort to shut down a San Francisco rally organized by a conservative Christian group, Patriot Prayer, which she described as “a bunch of cowards, afraid to face the masses who see through their pu[e]rile hypocrisy about ‘free speech’ and refuse [to] cede ground to these enablers of white supremacy and anti-semitism. Way to go, Bay Area Resistance!” (Anent her charge of white supremacy, the leader of Patriot Prayer, as it happens, is a Japanese-American.) On August 26, she was at the “Stand against Hate at Alamo Square Park,” the intention of which, in her words, was to “shut…down…alt-right-activity.” She wanted, she wrote, “to be part of a mass of other people occupying public space in a way that speaks louder than the actions of others who enable white supremacy, anti-semitism, misogyny, and queer- and transphobia in the name of ‘free speech.‘” On August 27, she participated in a “Bash the Fash” (as in “fascism”) rally in Berkeley alongside members of Antifa; on September 5, she protested outside the San Francisco Federal Building in support of the so-called “Dreamers.”
At times, even Stryker’s fans have questioned the strategy underlying one or another of her displays of “resistance.” Several of them argued, for example, that the San Francisco Airport protest accomplished nothing other than to anger travelers and strengthen support for Trump. When, after “Bash the Fash,” a Facebook friend wondered why she was keeping company with violent thugs, Stryker shot back: “I’m in the ‘it’s ok to punch nazis’ camp.” Stryker never seems to be disconcerted by criticism: she’s convinced that she’s on the side of the angels, and that the forces of good need to play hardball when confronted by the forces of tyranny. When she’s in fightin’ mode, she seriously appears to believe that she’s up against the moral equivalent of Auschwitz.
One can’t help noticing, however, the rapidity with which Stryker can turn this mentality on and off. A rabid Facebook call to arms that makes it sound as if she’s on the Warsaw ghetto barricades is followed immediately – within hours! – by another in which she recounts a delightful dinner with friends at some swanky restaurant. Entries in which she paints herself as living under the boot of a fascist, racist patriarchy are interspersed with statements like “I love where I live. Corner of Alabama and Precita, San Francisco.” (She’d better love it: it’s one of the most exclusive parts of the city, with studio apartments in the neighborhood selling for $1.6 million.) In April – the same month when she attended an LGBT film festival in Moscow, her entire trip underwritten by the U.S. Embassy – she confessed on Facebook that “Sometimes, I feel very pleased with the shape of my life and what it holds.” Yet she has nothing but hostile words for the system that makes that life possible.
Stryker’s Facebook posts make a few things clear: she considers pretty much everybody who falls outside her comfort zone of “creative, intellectual, political queer folks” to be a Nazi, fascist, or white supremacist whose freedom of speech should be quashed. She has only contempt for the First Amendment. And she fully accepts the use of violence by her ideological confrères. One curious aspect of her politics is her repeated assertion that when she shuts down conservatives she’s crushing anti-Semitism. Can she sincerely believe that there’s more Jew-hatred today on the right than on the left? Or is she simply one of those leftists who prefer to close their eyes to some of the opinions held by their comrades-in-arms? In fact, anti-Semitism appears to be a matter of authentic concern for Stryker: her partner (who is female; Stryker identifies as a lesbian transsexual female) is Jewish, and they’re involved in a project to rescue an old Jewish cemetery in the partner’s ancestral homeland of Belarus. Good for them. But somehow she’s able to lament anti-Semitism one day and savage Israel and Zionists the next. It’s not very well thought through, to put it mildly.
One point needs to be made: even as Stryker has increasingly become devoted to resistance against the evil U.S. system, that system has rewarded her more and more handsomely. During the years since I saw her in Berlin, transsexuality has found its historical moment, and Stryker’s career has boomed. In 2011, she left Indiana University for the University of Arizona, where she was appointed associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and director of the Institute for LGBT Studies (a few months ago she resigned the directorship to write a book “about trans history”). When it looked as though another university was about to steal her away – for Stryker, needless to say, is what counts as a hot academic hire these days – the powers that be at Arizona “asked how they could retain me. I said I wanted to start a trans studies program.” They agreed. Voilà – the Transgender Studies Initiative, established in 2013, the first program in the world to award a degree in that subject.
That’s not all that Stryker has done in the last few years to put herself at the top of the transsexual heap. She’s co-edited The Transgender Reader 2 (2013), a follow-up to her 2006 Transgender Reader. An excerpt from the introduction to the 2013 volume, written by Stryker and her co-editor, Aren Z. Aizura, is exemplary of the book’s style and perspective: “As essays in this collection attest, current trans of color critique resists imperialist forms of knowledge production precisely by calling attention to which transgender bodies – and they are almost always the non-white ones – are made to represent the traumatic violences through which claims for rights are articulated.” Stryker and Aizura explain that the purpose of their book is to ask how transgender studies can “advance an anti-colonialist agenda, and that resist the subsumption of non-western configurations of personhood into western-dominant frameworks that privilege either ‘homo’ or ‘trans’ or assume the ontological given-ness of the concepts man and woman?” Stryker is a great admirer of Queer Studies doyenne Judith Butler – the 1998 winner of the late Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contest – but when it comes to pretentious academic gobbledygook, Stryker gives Butler a run for her money.
In addition to introducing the Transgender Studies Initiative and publishing The Transgender Reader 2, Stryker has also co-founded a journal called Transgender Studies Quarterly, of which she and Paisley Currah serve as co-editors. Published by Duke University Press since 2014, TSQ is “the first non-medical academic journal devoted to transgender issues.” Well, it is definitely non-medical. As far as I’ve been able to discern, every word Stryker has ever written about the subject is non-medical. It’s as if she lives on a different planet than the psychiatrists, surgeons, and other doctors tasked with the job of treating people with gender dysphoria. For those professional caregivers, patients who think they were born into the wrong sex pose a panoply of challenges. Not the least of those challenges, nowadays, is the current boom in the number of young people who say that they’re transsexual. Obviously, the actual rate of occurrence of gender dysphoria hasn’t skyrocketed overnight; this surge in professed transsexual identity has taken place because, at least in certain pockets of American society, transsexuality has become extremely fashionable.
How is an ethical practitioner supposed to deal seriously and responsibly with those who, infected by this trend, are itching to board the trans train? What to do when, as happens often these days, parents who are apparently desperate to seem cool and with-it respond to what may simply be a passing spate of atypical gender behavior on the part of their child by deciding that he or she should be put on puberty blockers and, as soon as possible afterwards, have his or her genitalia mangled on an operating table? What to do about the tragic fact that individuals with gender dysphoria are highly likely to be suicidal – not only before, but also after, they’ve undergone sex-reassignment surgery? And how to address the fact that a great many people who’ve had the surgery decide afterwards that they’ve made a horrible mistake and want it reversed? These are real issues – and tough ones.
But none of these matters seems to exist in Stryker’s world. They contradict the image of transsexuals that she and other activists seek to propagate – an image of strong, determined individuals triumphantly achieving wholeness and fulfillment thanks to hormone treatments, surgical procedures, and, above all, a revolutionary commitment to the idea of self-determination. It’s one thing to admit, as a 2015 article in TSQ does (rather euphemistically), that transsexuals and other “gender minorities” have “specific medical and health needs”; it’s another to accept the “medicalization” of transsexuality – to embrace, in short, the notion (which Stryker vehemently rejects) that transsexuality is a medical or psychiatric phenomenon. To Stryker, of course, it’s neither: it’s political – supremely, magnificently political. Throughout her writings on the subject, she’s constantly promoting the notion that transgender identity is an act of resistance against capitalism and its attendant evils.
Nor is the “medicalization” of transsexuality the only thing she and her Reader 2 and TSQ contributors complain about. They carp about the alleged “erasure” of transsexuals by forms that require people to check off either “male” or “female.” They gripe about the supposed marginalization of transsexuals within the “queer community.” They rage against non-transsexuals’ ostracism of “trans people” – but at the same time they condemn “efforts to normalize trans bodies,” because treating “trans people” as “normal” damages their effectiveness as allies of “anticapitalist and antiglobalization activists who engage in queering all facets of political economy.” Undermines, that is, their effectiveness as “queers.”
Like all other identity-studies specialists, moreover, Stryker and company go on and on (always as if they’re articulating a fresh insight, rather than serving up an identity-studies cliché) about the problems that supposedly arise from “intersectionality” – a fancy term for the simple notion that if you belong to more than one oppressed group, the overall dose of oppression you experience will be greater than the sum of its parts. As Stryker said in an interview last year, “I think the thing that is still underrepresented [in transsexuality studies] is trans of color issues.” While life has gotten easier, she acknowledged, for many white transsexuals living and working in certain places (such as the corner of Alabama and Precita in San Francisco), most people who are simultaneously black and transsexual still have it pretty bad: “to be trans is still to be caught up in the machinery of how our bodies are sorted and classified in hierarchies that unequally distribute life chances.”
During the last couple of years, transsexuality has been transformed with startling rapidity from an obscure attribute of a tiny percentage of the population into an object of incessant media attention and a litmus test of virtue in the eyes of the left. To do anything other than instantly accept and wholeheartedly applaud an individual’s claim to be a man in a woman’s body, or vice-versa, is now sheer bigotry. Few have profited more from this revolution than Susan Stryker. When she spoke recently at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, the priest who introduced her depicted her as nothing less than a cultural hero – a “pioneer of the transgender studies movement” and a woman of “great wisdom.” But one wonders how many transsexuals, whatever the etiology of their condition, can honestly relate to this person who, in a recent YouTube video, explained that she was “trying to work on…thinking about the difference between sex and race between biopolitical modernity”?
How long, in any event, can this transsexual moment last? The entire concept of transsexual identity is premised upon the basic biological fact that sex is essentialist; what sets the transsexual movement’s thinking about sexual identity apart from conventional views of the subject is the proposition that a person’s “morphological sex” – the testimony of his or her genes, chromosomes, naturally secreted hormones, and secondary sex characteristics – is overridden by his or her “psychological sex.” This essentialism, however, has already begun to be undermined by the quickly spreading idea that sexual identity is extremely fluid – that, in other words, in there aren’t just two sexes; that you can be one thing in the morning, another by sundown, and then something else again by next Tuesday; that a middle-aged man who identifies as (say) a six-year-old girl should not be institutionalized but taken seriously; and that several dozen sets of newly coined pronouns are required to capture the complex, flexible nature of human gender identity.
At least a couple of TSQ contributors have struggled to square this circle – to find some logically coherent way of affirming some people’s claim to have an inherent identity at odds with their morphology while also accepting other people’s insistence that their identities are unstable – but there’s no way to do it convincingly. Where, then, does all this leave the likes of Susan Stryker, whose straightforward espousal of a female identity seems, in the contemporary academy, more quaint and old-fashioned – indeed, downright reactionary – by the day? In this strange new world, the only thing that can be predicted with any degree of certitude, when it comes to the topic of gender identity, is that the winds of academic, political, and cultural fashion will continue to shift and to surprise. As these changes occur, it will be interesting to observe what kind of impact they have on what has so far been one of the most charmed careers in the American academy today.