Categories: Book Review

BookwormSez: ‘Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution’

“Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution” (Revised Edition) by Susan Stryker
c.2008, 2017, Seal Press
$17.99
303 pages

It had to start somewhere.

Someone had to make the first step, to pave the way, to stick a fork into the ground and say, “Here, now.” Someone had to be the first so that others could follow, and in the newly updated book Transgender History by Susan Stryker, you’ll see where we go next.

Opening a history book with a chapter on terms and words might seem odd but, says Stryker, “remarkable changes” over the last decade demand it. Thus begins this book, with new language for what is an old lifestyle.

Indeed, America’s first recorded “intersex” individual was Thomas(ine) Hall, who lived in the 1620s, “sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman.” Seventy years later, however, the colony of Massachusetts made “cross-dressing” illegal, and it spread: By the 1850s, many U.S. cities had ordinances against dressing in clothing customarily worn by the opposite sex.

And yet, it was hard to stop people who wanted to dress as or fully transition to another gender. Throughout the 1800s, records show that women dressed as men for battle, cross-dressers braved the frontier, men ran away from their families to be true to their feminine selves, and Native American cultures embraced transgender people. After the invention of anesthesia and surgeries were safer, “individuals began approaching doctors to request a surgical alteration of parts of their bodies,” says Stryker.

For a time, then, the movement was relatively quiet — by necessity, as the Nazis proved when they torched Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin — until American Christine Jorgensen “burst onto the scene” in late 1952 when she traveled to Copenhagen for trans surgery. Her ensuing fame didn’t signal full acceptance for trans people, but it was a start: Riots in 1959 led to activism in the 1960s, and post-Stonewall groups consolidated to lend support and work through “difficult decades” of the ’70s, ’80s, and the AIDS crisis. Today, says Stryker, though we live in interesting times of Trump and turmoil, the news is heartening. Millennials and “post-Baby Boomers” have expressed more acceptance of “transgender as part of the ‘anti-heteronormative’ mix.”

Though Transgender History is a revised edition of a book first published a decade ago, it has a fresh feel thanks to that which author Susan Stryker has added. The first chapter, somewhat of a dictionary, schools readers on new ways of talking about LGBTQ issues and individuals, while the last chapter of trans history brings readers up to the present, including topics of politics, potties, and celebrity.

What makes it unusual is that, though it’s not always chronological, it’s breezy and casually readable. There’s no stuffiness here, and no air of the scholarly: Stryker makes this history accessible for people who want a story and not a textbook.

And so, this book is a pleasant surprise. It’s easy to read, not overly wordy, and there are a just-right number of illustrations here for a reader’s enjoyment. For anyone who wants a basic, yet lively, overview of trans life in America, Transgender History is a great start.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terri Schlichenmeyer, Book Review Columnist, has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She has worked with more than 200 newspapers and nearly 50 magazines scattered in 46 states, the Virgin Islands and six provinces of Canada. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books.

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