The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.
The first edition of Susan Stryker’s Transgender History was published by Seal Press in 2008, three years before my own transition. I knew of its existence, but fear (of my own truth) kept me from picking it up, and so when a revised edition came out in the winter of last year, I made a note to myself to be sure to buy a copy. Just a few months later, I found myself in Los Angeles, at Skylight Books, urgently needing this book: Yes, for a project I was working on but, more deeply, for a sense of history—mine and ours.
Stryker, who I’ve spoken to in my reporting many times, is an invaluable historian. She’s also an incredible writer. Transgender History is a sweeping, accessible text that contextualizes, necessarily, not just transgender history but the modern history of gender in the US, and the role of gender within the broader struggle for LGBTQ+ liberation. In a remarkable 236 pages, she acrobatically captures and deconstructs, among other things, the riots that connected gay and trans liberation throughout the 1950s and 1960s (including Stonewall); how a queered perception of gender revitalized trans politics in the 1990s and early aughts; the surprisingly massive impact of 9/11 on trans bodies; the questionable idea of a “transgender tipping point”; and the crucial step Black Lives Matter took to incorporate and uplift a trans politic. She contextualizes a trans* historical who’s-who (including Leslie Feinberg, Christine Jorgensen, Marsha P. Johnson, and Lou Sullivan), and introduces the lay reader to less-familiar but not less giant figures, like the trans millionaire philanthropist Reed Erickson (whose funding was crucial to changes in trans healthcare and social services through the 1960s).
Stryker’s decades of work are distilled so cleanly in this text; it’s a feat that any writer would envy. But what really feels necessary to me about this work is contained within the apt subtitle of the new edition: “The Roots of Today’s Revolution.” This book is an answer to a moment that offers up trans people as a metaphor of authenticity, and a social movement made suddenly visible in the age of the Internet—with roots that many people don’t realize extend throughout time and space (as trans people have always existed), but that run especially deep in recent LGBTQ+ politics. In the post-gay marriage era of corporate-sponsored Pride events, this sudden awareness of trans bodies can seem totally divorced from “mainstream” gay interests—and that’s often because they have been consciously left behind by a new gay politics that prioritizes assimilation over a radical reimagining of possibility.
But our histories are entwined, and cannot ever be separated. Reading a counter-narrative history in this fragmented digital age—where there are many opinions but very few experts—is immensely gratifying, deeply disturbing, and ultimately a profound and, I believe, vital way to engage with and beyond this moment. Transgender History is a book that could not have come out of academia even a few decades ago. It is a sign of progress that it exists at all, and it is also a reminder of how fragile these recent gains truly are. My tattered copy is dog-eared and underlined, like a guidebook, or a spiritual text, or both. Because the truth is, if we are to understand this moment—as a nation, and as a community—we need to be willing to really ask how we got here, and this book is a necessary answer.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.