As we witness a resurgence of white supremacy and fascism and the emergence of new, transformative justice movements, this article encourages a more mixed-up understanding of 1970s feminisms. Many historians have offered nuanced ways of narrating trans and feminist pasts that compel us to consider processes of exclusion past and present. Yet it seems that historians had barely begun to scratch the surface of 1970s feminist history before an ever-evolving set of binary characterizations started to eclipse feminisms' multivocal and multivalent complexities. How did “1970s feminism” enter collective memory as an exclusionary thing distinct from the experiences, labor, and critiques by feminists of color and trans and queer people of the same era? And why, when existing nuanced narratives might invite us to deeper analysis, are stories of exclusion and abjection so magnetic? More to the point, how might we highlight the mixings in the past and envision a less polarized present?
“Passing is effacement through the construction of a plausible history . . . passing means the denial of mixture.”—Sandy Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back”
Alessandro Portelli was right: our memories are not our own. He didn't put it that way, exactly. Instead, he urged historians to pay attention to the inaccuracies in people's memories when those inaccuracies prove to be collectively held, because the inaccuracies themselves are signs of the collective production of knowledges that, even when partial, misleading, or inaccurate, tell us critical things about that collectivity (1991). And it's almost always about now. Why do we narrate things the way we do? Certainly, people have marshaled history to discipline bodies and justify violences and purifying purges. But with our histories, we also create portals and connections and communities across time, a possible antidote to alienation and abjection. I find myself increasingly insisting on the importance of history, not because things were better (or worse) in an earlier time but because, as cocreators of collective memory, we're all doing it one way and another, and it matters how we tell the story.
Consider that Sandy Stone, artist and theorist of technology and gender, was making a pitch for history when she encouraged us to refuse to narrate our lives as single nodes within binary oppositions and “old constructed positions” that perpetuate our own effacement and erasure. Stone called on us to instead represent “the complexities and ambiguities of lived experience” and embrace “the power of continual transformation which is the heart of engaged life” (Stone 1991: 295). In the twenty-first century, as we witness a resurgence of white supremacy and fascism and the emergence of new, transformative justice movements, I join the plea for a more mixed-up sensibility. More specifically, like so many others, I want to invite a transfeminist history that, to paraphrase Beth Elliott, “bothers to ask” those who were there what happened.
We have already so much good scholarship and community knowledge about transfeminist history.1 Many feminist contexts now consciously have trans, queer, and POC (people of color) at their core. Over the last fifteen years, historians, including Susan Stryker, Stefania Voli, Simon Fisher, Cristan Williams, and others, have offered nuanced ways of narrating trans and feminist pasts that compel us to consider processes of exclusion past and present (Stryker 2008; Voli 2016). Yet it seems that historians had barely begun to scratch the surface of 1970s feminist history before an ever-evolving set of binary characterizations started to eclipse feminisms' multivocal and multivalent complexities. In less than one generation, the “second wave” became aka “white feminism” and “trans-exclusionary feminism,” and now, 1970s feminists is often used as a shorthand genealogy of today's racist and trans-exclusionary feminists (TERFs). How did “1970s feminism” enter collective memory as the exclusionary thing, distinct from the experiences, labor, and critiques by feminists of color, trans and queer people of the same era? And why, when existing nuanced narratives might invite us to deeper analysis, are stories of exclusion and abjection so magnetic? More to the point, how might we highlight the mixings in the past and simultaneously envision a less polarized present?
The stakes for us now are really quite high. The still-open wounds of conflicted relationships between and within heterogeneous and unstable groupings in the 1970s bleed into new injuries caused today by people who wield hate in the name of protecting (white) women. Yet if we write off “1970s feminism,” we lose feminism's deeply questioning, queer, coalitional and anti-imperialist past; we miss some relevant grappling of that era, and the way that the grappling itself offers useful lessons. When we separate feminist/queer/trans and of color from so-called 1970s feminism, we may also miss some ways that feminist, lesbian, and queer of color and trans activists grappled hard to develop critical insights and knowledges that move us today.2 As artist, performer, and filmmaker Hanifah Walidah most pointedly offered, “My point is not about competing politic, my point is about the destructive energy harnessed from an absolute dismissal of your elders. You poke holes in your own revolutionary bubble when you diminish the revolutions had before your own. These precious human beings, these spiritual reservoirs just an arms length away who, for decades, have been navigating their humanity through the same muck you are just now becoming acquainted with” (Walidah 2015).
At the most basic level, we need to know that trans women and men were also the movers and shakers of—indeed integral to—even the most iconic feminisms during the 1970s. It's possible to narrate histories in ways that don't perpetuate the abjection and removal of trans from feminism. In this article, I put a more kaleidoscopic lens on the most familiar stories in transfeminist history in order to show one (not the only) possible approach, and also to reflect on collective memory and why it matters.
I'm thinking about the lure of plausible histories. In the 1970s, medical practitioners recommended that transsexuals who transitioned create a “plausible history” that would tell a story of their lives in one consistent sex; the idea was to erase all traces of medical and social transition so that one's now medically legitimated identity would be more secure. The plausible history version of one's life involved, as Sandy Stone put it, learning to lie and erasing oneself by a denial of mixture and change. A plausible history may be crucial to living in one's gender; it may be a matter of life and death. But we need to see that a plausible history enacts a denial of mixture and change not only in the trans person's life but also for everyone else. It stabilizes everyone else and suggests that they were always and naturally that which they are. Normative categorical distinction depends on perfectly hiding the mixing and traces of change. Perhaps this is how we created a story of feminism into which decade after decade trans enters as new and still silenced.
We do need to correct the contemporary transphobic discourses that frame trans women as intruders into women's spaces; we do also need to continually correct the historical record by showing that it was separatists attacking trans women, not trans people, who caused the violences. We can do this without simultaneously eliding the complexities of activisms in that era and without effacing trans women as subjects. Doing so requires that we resist binary opposition and characterization. As Sandy Stone suggested, “The constructed oppositional nodes which have been prefigured as the only positions from which discourse is possible all but guarantee that we [trans people] cannot speak” (1991: 295). Constructing new oppositional nodes does not take us mixed-up peoples very far at all.
Alternatively, many things transform when we refuse plausible history and stabilizing oppositions. Think for a minute about what happens to feminist history and trans history when Patrick Califia explains that the man he is now used to be—in the early 1970s—an outspoken antitrans lesbian feminist (1997). Most of us can probably understand how a person can manifest antitrans and then out-as-trans ways of social being. But feminism changes too, doesn't it? We can look again at feminist articulations knowing that trans was integral to all of it. My goal here is to highlight feminism's incoherence for generations of scholars and activists who need more than easy critiques of exclusion. History itself can offer rich enough material with which to grapple and develop transformative insight.
Let's mix up the most familiar tropes that are designed to teach second-wave feminist exclusion of transgender women (and which might be the most common way that teachers bring historical trans people into introductory gender and women's studies lessons). I mean these: In 1973, Beth Elliott, a white musician, was forced off the stage at the West Coast Lesbian Conference because she was a transsexual; in 1973, Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican street queen, founder of STAR House and participant in the radical Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, was forced off the stage by feminists at Christopher Street Liberation Day in New York City; and in 1977, Sandy Stone, a white sound engineer, was fired from her position at Olivia Records—the largest feminist recording company of the era—because she was transsexual.
These well-worn narratives do more than recount exclusion. In their easy repetition and denial of mixture, they naturalize the separation of trans from feminism. Feminism then passes as a coherent subject, with no implication that it might contain within it a potentially lifelong trans history. Posing static opposition between feminist and trans histories may in fact secure normativities that reinforce racist, ablest, and classist hierarchies and perpetuate the abjection of trans people. We might ask, what in these narratives are Sylvia Rivera, Beth Elliott, and Sandy Stone other than abjected objects of hate?
As historians and filmmakers have shown, trans women's and men's own words are readily available; it's possible to find and amplify the perspectives and lives even of people no longer with us, and to know them for their work and play, not just as lightning rods for transphobia. We are building a new epistemology of activist histories that could make it impossible to think feminist without also thinking trans, and that might blow open for review all manner of naming. Within trans studies, we have so many tools with which to narrate the mixtures, the slippages across named categories of recognition. Even the most familiar stories can be read through a transfeminist lens to engage what Stone (1991: 299) called “a myriad of alterities” and Donna Haraway (1992) called “the promises of monsters.”
Emphasizing the mixing can help us better grasp the work of people who themselves emphasized mixing. For example, scholars have recently turned to the work of civil rights activist, lawyer, and priest Pauli Murray to think about the relationships between embodiments and practices of justice. From 1940 on, Murray argued that white supremacy and male supremacy were simultaneous in origin and effect. While most scholars fast forward this insight to the black feminism articulated by the Combahee River Collective, a recent article by historian Simon Fisher suggests that we stay with Murray in the 1930s and 1940s long enough to comprehend Murray's biracial and gender transing experience. Not least, Fisher argues, we can't fully understand the strategy of nonviolent resistance in the early Civil Rights movement without attending to the mixed embodiment of Pauli Murray who, with intimate partner Adelene McBean, enacted the first recorded utilization of nonviolent resistance against Jim Crow in 1940 (2016).
Writing under the pen name Peter Panic, Murray explained that binary race and binary gender are segregations that are not natural or inherent to bodies. Rather, they can only be produced and maintained through violence. That is, Peter Panic/Pauli Murray emphasized that the violence of binary segregation is enacted not only between distinct bodies but also upon individual bodies. Fisher (2016: 99) quotes Panic/Murray using quite telling words to explain the failures of binary segregation: “there are those who don't fit” because they are in themselves “‘all mixed up.’”
Fisher illuminates Murray's unresolved, unsolved dilemmas of nonbinary gender as well as race. Light-skinned and proud of being black, Murray wrote plenty about persistently longing to be known as male and had from the late 1930s through the 1940s implored endocrinologists for testosterone treatment, only to be repeatedly recommended “female” hormones instead. In Fisher's words, “Racial and gender nonnormativity crossed paths explicitly on Murray's body” (Fisher 2016: 98). As someone not easily read as white or black or male or female, Murray “was acutely aware that the power to name her/his race and gender was rarely in her/his hands” (Fisher 2016: 96). Fisher's attention to mixing gives us new ways to understand Murray's embodied, category-crossing vision of nonviolent resistance. And this in turn may suggest that civil rights, feminist, and transgender articulations might not have been as separate as they have been made to appear.
To show what a close transfeminist reading of the 1970s can reveal, and as an antidote to the rehearsed exclusion trope, I draw on a combination of Elliott's own words and those of others (almost all of it readily available in archived or published materials).3 In 1971, a nineteen-year-old Beth Elliott found a new home and family after being rejected by her parents who could not abide her transition from male to female. As had countless other women, Elliott had just discovered the welcoming culture of the national lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). With no apology for her florid language, she exclaimed, “We were witnessing the emergence of an incredibly diverse group of women . . . suddenly, we could explore what we wanted, how we wanted to live together, what kind of a community we could grow. . . . Our lives were about love, beautiful sexual expression, poetry, art, music, and reveling in being women . . . loving other women. . . . It was a very sweet time, a time in crazy and overly idealistic synch with the rest of the counterculture, and a time when many of us truly did care about each other as sisters” (Elliott : 2).4
As an artist, author, and countercultural, young, white, middle-class woman, she was enchanted to become part of a community that celebrated lesbians, be they married, mothers, or—like Elliott—women who had been assigned male at birth. Happy to have a new home, she threw herself into working for DOB and, in turn, was asked to run for, and in 1971 was elected, vice president of the San Francisco chapter. That Beth was transsexual mattered to her coorganizers in DOB in two ways. First, chapter members adored Beth for her unabashed delight in being a lesbian; she had perspective, too, as she had risked family and livelihood to validate lesbian lives, women's lives, and feminist lives.
In addition, Beth contributed to growing feminist critiques of mainstream medicine, as she helped her associates see that the difficulty of obtaining surgery was a matter of familiar sexist and homophobic oppression. The Stanford clinic through which Elliott was pursuing transition required her to declare that she was heterosexual and wanted only to be in a conventional marriage with a man. They also expected Beth to replace her androgynous hippie-lesbian style with one more normatively feminine. Already living as a woman, Beth had to hide her lesbian life from her medical caregivers. Once the clinic did finally approve Elliott for surgeries, the costs were out of reach. Her struggles with the medical world were not simply a side effect of being transsexual but were inherent to a medical system that differentially distributed care.
As others have shown, the medical elaboration of the category “transsexual” in the 1960s and 1970s depended on excluding from trans-related health care people of color, people who were not wealthy, people who didn't look a certain way, people with physical or intellectual disabilities, and people whose sexuality was suspect. Through such exclusions, medical institutions simultaneously constructed the category of “transsexual” as functionally white, able- bodied, well-educated, heterosexual, legal subjects who were convincingly feminine according to dominant standards.5 Against a backdrop of more abjected figures, “the transsexual” was thus posited as a very rare and medically mediated subject who could be medically rehabilitated to pass as socially viable, legal, and sane.
Though the majority of trans people could not do so, Beth Elliott successfully navigated the hierarchies that allowed her to be known as an articulate, funny white woman whose lesbian sexuality could be kept secret from the medical world while also celebrated in feminist and lesbian communities.
In 1971, Beth attended the Gay Women's Conference in Los Angeles (LA) where she was embraced by the fun-loving cadre known as the Orange County Dyke Patrol, as well as women involved in the LA chapters of DOB. “We were creating a culture of enjoying being together, caring for each other, and having fun together . . . our lives and our love were good things. Where others were deadly serious about finding the correct feminist political line, we had words of wisdom from the Orange County Radical Lesbian Feminists. . . . ‘If it's worth doing, it's worth doing with joy’” (Elliott : 3).
As those relationships deepened over the next year, they began to plan another conference for 1973. One planning meeting recorded this conversation among them:
“This conference, if we can pull it off, could just begin to unify lesbians, not just in California, but in the whole country.”
“Yeah, let's make it so that lesbians who are interested in politics can get together and discuss where they've been and where they're going, and their relationship to other movements, the women's movement, the gay movement, you know, like we talked about.”
“Right. And . . . let's have an art exhibit, the first national lesbian art exhibit, can you imagine that?”
“Far out! And music, and poetry . . . by and for lesbians!”
“Yeah right on! Politics, culture, with workshops for activists and non-activists . . . ”
“It seems to me like we're talking about all the ways that lesbians express themselves.”
“But should it be for all women or just lesbians?”
“That's impossible. Even it we wanted it to be for lesbians only, how could we tell?”
“Yeah Right, ha! I can just see us. . . . Please raise your right hand, sister, and repeat after me, ‘I swear upon the honor of my dykehood that I am a bonafide lesbian.’” (McLean 1973: 16)
Conference organizers joked about this, but in various parts of the country, some were hoping to set a specific agenda for the movement as a whole that included establishing a more disciplining definition of lesbian and of feminist, categories that might be certifiable through telling: not simply telling as in self-disclosure but telling as in, “We know and can tell what you are.”
This was no idle threat, as the San Francisco chapter of Daughters of Bilitis had just undergone a cataclysmic change when some newer members insisted that a transsexual—specifically, Beth Elliott—had no place in the organization.
These newer members turned Elliott into a screen that, by being so personalized, masked a larger conflict between newer, radicalized members who wanted DOB to be more out and more separatist, and older members. The older, arguably more cautious and in some ways more assimilationist members wanted DOB to be a resource for a greater diversity of women—many of whom had no other contact with lesbians, many of whom were married and isolated and could not live out lesbian lives; the older core of DOB refused to adopt purist definitions about who could and could not be considered a lesbian. New, young members, politicized through adherence to an emerging separatist politics, and in their refusal of sexism and male dominance, focused on defining Beth Elliott as a transsexual and not as a woman or lesbian. Eventually, many long-standing members stopped attending chapter meetings, and the now younger organization voted to bar transsexual women from DOB.
Beth was shaken by the experience, but her conference coorganizers in LA wanted to see this as an idiosyncratic blip led by a few purists, rather than as a threat internal to feminism. The LA organizers loved Beth for her artistic talents and wicked sense of humor. She was charming, and she knew how to make connections. They insisted that she perform at the conference's opening night because, after all, she was also a foremother in the growing popularity of lesbian singer-songwriters.
At 7 p.m. on opening night, organizer Barbara McLean (1973: 36) wrote in her pocket diary, “I can't believe it, it's beginning. FAR OUT. This place is so packed there's not even aisle room. . . . There are straight sisters here also. There is every conceivable type of woman here. The show has begun, the music sounds so good! There's electricity in the air, women throwing their arms around each other, I feel as though I'm plugged into an outlet . . . the crowd goes wild! These are magical women!” Indeed, with an attendance of over fifteen hundred women coming from twenty-six states and five countries and representing 129 lesbian organizations or collectives, it was the largest event of its kind to date. Participants were head over heels.
At 9 p.m., Beth Elliott took the stage. Most audience members might have seen something like this abbreviated version: two women came onstage; one grabbed the mic away, yelling that Elliott is a transsexual and a rapist, and insisted that she not be permitted to perform. Chaos ensued; somebody called a vote. Then another vote. Twice the audience voted to keep Elliott on the stage. A small group of protesters left, and a shaking Beth Elliott performed to a standing ovation.
That's the iconic story we hear most often, with no before or after. It was a violent moment, and along with other similar incidents, its repercussions are still felt to this day. For this reason, it deserves an analysis informed by a larger archive.
By all accounts, organizers were blindsided by the attack, many of them insisting that “no one saw it coming.” The decision to vote was not a collective one but was made in haste by one or two organizers, perhaps to defuse the increasingly physically threatening protests. Perhaps they knew the audience would vote overwhelmingly to keep Beth onstage. But the damage that comes from putting people's belonging up to a vote was not easily, if ever, undone.
All through the rest of that night, Robin Morgan, author of Sisterhood Is Powerful, rewrote her keynote speech to clarify a melee that left many audience members perplexed. The next day, rather than talking for forty-five minutes on the conference theme of unity, Morgan spent an hour and a half criticizing women who work with men, steamrolling the conference organizers, and elaborating her hatred of transsexuals.6 As conference participant Pat Buchanan wrote shortly after the conference, “Robin . . . blames the continuing position of the oppressed on our low level of consciousness. . . . She seems to feel . . . that this consciousness can be raised by her attack on everything in sight” (Buchanan 1973: 6–7). Not least, Morgan attacked Beth Elliott as “a male transvestite, an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer with the mentality of a rapist,” terms that would ripple through some feminist and right-wing political platforms to this very day.
For the next two days, many conference participants debated whether biology is destiny, whether our sexist and racist socialization can be overcome, and whether men are trying to take over the lesbian feminist movement. Many felt their discussions had been “shut down” and “bombarded” by Robin Morgan. Many were “bewildered” by the scuffling and blaming and wondered if they had missed the memo that would have explained what the problem was.
Simultaneously at the conference, the Black Women's Caucus organized for hours, designing and writing a statement offering black feminist perspectives on activism. Reporting from the racism workshop, they reiterated the priority that race had in their lives and must have in the movement. Most tellingly, they stated in their short position paper, “We want it to be understood perfectly that we are here, though few.”7 Perhaps some among those authors recorded their moment-by-moment conference experiences in their pocket diaries, but those entries did not become part of the published conference record. In the print record, the sheer number of pages devoted to the separatist commotion and fall-out nearly eclipsed the work of the Black Caucus. The parts of the conference that are thus most accessible reinforce the view that in such spaces, race was a separate issue, and one somehow irrelevant to the anxious need to define (or refuse to define) woman in relation to sex assignment.
It is critical that we acknowledge the violences in real time and the elisions from the historical records. It is important to discover how the seeds of transphobia managed to take root, how that transphobia submerged efforts to address racist exclusions, and why generations later we might be perversely attached to this legacy.
The archives of print matter may in fact point us in the direction of narrowly defined feminist formations. As I have elaborated elsewhere (Enke 2007), all but the most alternative publications select for the most organized, and those most able to retain their rhetorical agency within dominant discourses. We can find every speech that Robin Morgan delivered and also the evidence that Morgan changed her speeches when she published them in her book. Look at the difference it makes: in the 1973 speech, she lambasted organizers for inviting Beth Elliott; in the rewritten speech she published in 1977, she deleted those comments to erase any suggestion that Elliott had not merely been “invited” but actually had been a core community member (Morgan 1973b: 1977). In her rewrite of the speech, Morgan bolstered her charge of transsexuals as “gate crashers,” enhanced the length and violence of her attack against Elliott, and simultaneously left readers and future generations without even a hint that masses of feminist lesbians seemed to put little or no stake in what a woman's birth sex assignment was or might have been.
Robin Morgan's charge that Beth Elliott was an infiltrator and rapist out to destroy the movement became so influential that eventually the largest feminist publications and music venues of the 1970s and 1980s literally blacklisted author and musician Elliott. Though exiled from much of the movement's media, Elliott didn't lose her rhetorical agency so much as take it elsewhere, literally, to the suburbs. For nearly two decades, we don't see her in named feminist archives.
Yet it's not hard to find a transfeminist history. We can find it in Beth Elliott's own history: who she was before and after the LA conference, and how she became an author under the pen name Mustang Sally—a pen name born of exile—and wrote for publications such as TransSisters. We can listen to her life in her music, read her novel and numerous genre-bending short stories, and learn more about her work in health care, countercultural venues, and suburban community formations; we might find that her equally genre-bending spiritual attunement—also born of grappling within and outside existing communities—has something to say about coming through wreckage with the ability to laugh and still get shit done.
We can also go back to the conference itself for a moment and consider the standing ovation and the group who took the stage and said, “If Beth Elliott can't perform, then no one performs.” What would feminism look like if we focused on conference participants who shouted out that they themselves could equally well be trans women, participants who, in the face of hate, turned toward rather than away from identification with Beth? They suggested in nearly so many words that all personal histories might be merely plausible, constructed to pass.
Or we could publish the words of the conference organizers who never questioned the belonging of Elliott and other transsexual women.8 Barbara McLean, reacting in all caps at the attempted take-over of Elliott's performance, wrote: “OH GOD NO. . . . This woman is insisting that Beth Elliott not be allowed to perform because Beth is a transsexual. Beth was on the San Francisco steering committee for the conference, a part of the original group that gave birth to the idea last October, in Sacramento. She's written some far-out feminist songs. That's why she's here. No. We do not, cannot relate to her as a man. We have not known her as a man” (1973: 36). MacLean wrote at length about not only Morgan's rhetorical baiting but also her perspective as an organizer. Combined with Elliott's autobiographical account, there was so much more to all of it, some of it personal, some of it global.
At the time, conference participant Pat Buchanan offered what we might consider a trans-temporal lens when she explained that being born with a vagina did not make one a feminist; as she asserted, all feminists had had to learn to not oppress women. In suggesting that everyone was in some senses “new,” she challenged those who denied mixing within themselves and within feminism. Buchanan (1973: 6–7) asserted that politicization as woman, lesbian, and feminist required changing ourselves, not simply sitting on what we were born with.
Without that mixing in our historiography, we are left with definitions of feminist and lesbian that are always-already so exclusive of transgender that their separation appears almost natural and trans keeps on being new—whether intrusive or intriguing. A transfeminist lens allows us to historicize this relationship.
Some years after the conference, Robin Morgan nearly admitted that she had gone on the attack because she was insecure to give a keynote at a lesbian conference when she herself was not a lesbian—at least not by most definitions, including her own; perhaps she feared she'd be put up for a vote too. Morgan's speech at the conference in fact began with a remarkable defense of her credentials in lesbian space: after trashing women who worked with men, she explained that her husband was a feminist, a feminine man, and a founder of the faggot effeminist movement.9 A few men, it turned out, were OK. Morgan used her faggot effeminist husband to claim proximity to radical lesbianism while simultaneously refusing to be queered or transed by transitional subjects like Elliott. Her attack against Elliott attempted to achieve distance from transsexual, distance from the abject, in which the abject this time is figured as—in Morgan's words—the “male transvestite gate crasher,” a figure construed as mentally ill, disenfranchised, and perverted; the most marginal and least known; and somehow the most dangerous.
Morgan's speech was so damaging in part because she offered a plausible history: a story of oppositional nodes that naturalized the citizenship of beings who don't have visible and narrative markers of transition or whose lives were more neatly crafted within stories of social sex/gender coherence. Echoing settler-colonial and segregationist discourses, Morgan's speech denied the porousness and violence of the boundaries that constituted “woman.” By displacing all mixture onto transsexual subjects, Morgan securitized female-assigned sex as the foundation of feminism. Female-at-birth assignment thus could bolster trans-hating feminists as they developed mastery of their own embodiment and a narrower feminism that refused to be transed.
Insecurity, trauma, and/or a desire for community are no small matters for people needing a better world, and they shape community and exclusion in powerful ways. Patrick Califia explains this clearly as he describes his relation to Beth's expulsion from DOB. If you haven't already studied it, the full passage is worth close attention:
Ironically, my own history contains a period of transphobia. . . . As I tried to locate myself in San Francisco's . . . lesbian community, I heard that the DOB had recently purged a male-to-female transsexual who had been an officer in their organization. This event was still a hot topic, and one of the ways I made friends with other dykes was to express my approval of the purge. It made me really angry and unhappy to encounter opposition from a woman I respected, a former bar dyke and diesel butch who . . . became a feminist. She had actually been present at the stormy meeting where this woman was ousted, unlike most of the rest of us who were talking about it, and she had not liked what she saw. “This doesn't feel okay to me,” she said, “[Beth] worked harder than anybody else in DOB. She gave a lot to that organization. There was no good reason to kick her out. She hadn't done anything wrong except be a transsexual. You wouldn't believe some of the vile and vicious things other women said to her. And she just sat and listened to all of it, kept her dignity, and answered them back without losing her temper or calling anybody names.” (Califia 1997: 113)
To consider some of the additional effects of print media, let's take a look at a photo of Beth at the West Coast Lesbian Conference that was part of the Los Angeles Free Press's coverage of the conference. This is the moment Beth is being put up for a vote; her dark expression bears both pain and solidity, possibly masking the intense trauma and fear of the experience. It stands in marked contrast to other photos of Beth from the era in which she appears playful and radiant. While the moment was deeply horrible, we might wonder what the photographer and the Los Angeles Free Press were intending to show when they made this choice about how to represent Beth. We don't see the audience here at all. The photo frames Beth not as part of a community but as virtually alone; only the most observant will notice that a woman sits next to Beth, holding her hand, bearing witness, enacting solidarity. How do we, then, highlight the support that the newspaper elided?
I first saw this photo without its accompanying caption, and I found it so expressive of the complex fierceness of the moment. When we look closely, it invites so much inquiry and grappling. But when we see it in its originally published context on a full-page spread with caption in place, we can also see how complexities get shut down, how the possibility for complex collective memory is foreclosed before the conference is even over. The lengthy article does not discuss what happened to Beth on opening night, but it dumps volumes of commentary into the photo caption. The caption reads, “Trans Sexual Beth Elliott almost caused a riot Friday night when the former man entertained at the lesbian conference” (Koblin 1973). Now we must additionally consider how brutally collective memory forms around the expected, and how the most ignorant sources might also be the most broadly accessible.
Remember this: feminism was in no place monolithic or resolved. Through a transfeminist lens, Sandy Stone's exclusion proves to be less settled as well. The exclusion trope narrates her as the explicitly named target of scholar Janice Raymond's 1978 book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, in which Raymond argued that all transsexuals are men who rape women. Exclusion narratives recount that—due to controversy Raymond stirred up in 1977—Olivia Records ousted Stone.10
A transfeminist history might start by simply learning more about Sandy Stone herself: how she was instrumental in getting the medical world to revise its guidelines and criteria for treating gender identity issues, that she published numerous works of science fiction and was an early computer designer, and that she is a filmmaker, performance artist, and internationally acclaimed professor of media studies. We could learn more about how she transitioned while she was mixing (how poetic is that?) and engineering Gold Records for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Perhaps simultaneously, we'd learn more about the queer history of the rock industry that Sandy experienced to be “very supportive” and “compatible” with her transition (Stone, pers. comm., April 7, 2011). The point is not to claim her success in mainstream institutions (though we still need to ask why Stone's PhD work under the mentorship of Donna Haraway is considered foundational to trans studies but not to feminist and queer studies). Rather, it's to suggest that we can teach better with Sandy Stone's own work.
We could learn more about the Olivia Collective that never questioned how integral Sandy's sisterhood was to that woman-only family. As Sandy experienced it, “You didn't really ‘go to work’ for Olivia; you became part of that collective. It was really a sisterhood at that time, and in a very deep way. I didn't feel so much that I was being hired, so much as that I was joining a family, one in which we share common goals and beliefs, the primary set of those goals being to make music and politics at the same time” (Stone 1995: 17). It would have been a little hard to separate the unease Janice Raymond generated in women's communities when she circulated vitriol about Olivia “hiring a man” from ideologies about “male” and “female” styles of music mixing. Olivia started receiving letters (a collection of them by a single author signed by different names) complaining about Olivia's engineering and the fact that the recording company hired “a transie.” Soon, as happened elsewhere, everything from volume to lipstick became signs by which feminist credentials (or genital assignment) might be measured. Olivia, for its part, sought dialogue to learn more about what things were important to their audiences, only to discover that dialogue is not always possible. Like the organizers of the lesbian conference, Olivia was “in shock” to find itself at the center of a small but powerful maelstrom of antitrans sentiment.
We must note that no one at Olivia asked or wanted Stone to leave despite pressure from the outside to fire Stone; as the collective made clear in an official press release in 1977, “Sandy is a person, not an issue,” and she “has chosen to make her life with us, and we expect to grow old together working and sharing” (Olivia 1977a).11 In the lengthy press release, we find nothing short of transfeminist articulations. After noting the criticisms leveled against Olivia and providing definition and insight about transsexuality as a reality, the collective places Sandy firmly within the feminist project of recording women's music: “Sandy Stone was referred to us as an excellent woman engineer perhaps even the Goddess-sent engineering wizard we had so long sought.” With Sandy's participation, the women of Olivia collectively considered, evaluated, learned, and grappled with the personal, political, and medical implications of transsexuality and whether and how this might be relevant in Sandy's experience and membership in the group.
In evaluating whom we will trust . . . our focus as political lesbians is on what her actions are now. If she is a person who comes from privilege, has she renounced that which is oppressive in her privilege, and is she sharing with other women that which is useful? Is she aware of her own oppression? Is she open to struggle around class, race, and other aspects of lesbian feminist politics? These were our yardsticks in deciding whether to work with a woman who grew up with male privilege. We felt that Sandy met those same criteria we apply to any woman.
The press release never questions that Sandy is a woman; in fact, the perspective offered is that people who would raise such a question not only objectify and stigmatize Sandy but in fact do damage to all women and feminism in general, stripping us all of integrity and denying our potential growth. Sandy and Olivia experienced “a tremendous amount of support,” as is reflected in letters and pieces published in women's periodicals across the country. Stone herself ultimately chose to leave the recording collective because she feared that the “absolutely intractable, small, but extremely moral” group would stir up a boycott of the company, then operating on less than a shoestring. How is it that “small but extremely moral” groups gain so much power over the terms of discourse? Sandy answers with caution about falling into our own versions of “constructed oppositional nodes” of discourse: though magnetic, they inevitably silence.
If transfeminist articulations got submerged in the 1970s, we can see them later emerge in the elaboration of feminist and queer theory. Gayle Rubin's 1984 article “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” is widely regarded as a foundation of feminist and queer theory. But in a later conversation with Judith Butler, Rubin explained her motivation for writing that piece: “Incidents and issues forced me to question the wisdom and relevance of feminism as a movement and theory. One was the debate on transsexuality [in the mid-1970s]. . . . The discussion really flipped me out because it was so [here Rubin and Butler say in unison:] biologically deterministic. When it erupted in print over the hiring of Sandy Stone by Olivia Records, . . . I found [it all] rather distressing to say the least” (Rubin 1994: 285). If we reread some of these foundational works according to their trans-infused origins, it might help us tell a more mixed-up history of feminism.
As we better understand on-the-ground struggles, we can also consider a transfeminist history that stems from those like Sylvia Rivera who were not finding themselves within named feminist organizations. It's a lens that can articulate the work of Sylvia Rae Rivera and other people of color who created shelters and food banks to protect queer homeless youth even as they themselves were often homeless and incarcerated. Iconic transfeminist formations such as STAR House can help us comprehend the necessary mixing and incoherence that must be embraced in activism organized around antipoverty work, shelter, health care, gender justice, and legal status.12
This kind of work requires exceeding institutional naming. As so many scholars have suggested, occupying already-constructed categories such as “transsexual,” “disabled,” and “feminist” requires biographical confirmations in the form of scripted disclosures and visual signifiers and passing institutional criteria that privilege those who are already the most legal, legible, and legitimated while disappearing those who are “all mixed up.” As Sandy Stone wrote in 1991, “Here at the close of the 20th century, we find epistemologies of white male medical practices, the rage of radical feminist theories, and the chaos of lived gendered experience meeting on the battlefield of the transsexual body. . . . [The transsexual body is] a hotly contested site of cultural inscription, a meaning machine for the production of ideal type. . . . A tactile politics of reproduction constituted through textual violence” (Stone 1991: 294).
I watched as my own trepidations shaped my read of Dianna Hunter's new memoir about the lesbian back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s. I took a deep breath when I came to a chapter about the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference. I noted how self-reflectively Hunter confesses that her memory has changed and she has unknowingly revised history, morphing the story of what she experienced in 1973 according to cultural and neurological shifts not of her making. She acknowledges huge potential for error. Still, I feared just which parts of subsequent culture have most shaped her memory. The conference occupies a short paragraph in what is otherwise a classic road-trip chapter:
My memories of the conference itself are much more sketchy. What I know for sure comes mostly from my research decades later. . . . My memories of the conference consist of weird and idiosyncratic scenes and impressions. . . . I also recall a reading by Kate Millett from her new book, Flying, and some interruption of Robin Morgan's keynote address that I didn't understand but later learned was a trans activists' demonstration, an early blow in their argument with radical feminists over who qualifies as a woman. (Hunter, forthcoming)
I study Hunter's words over and over to discern what she has and has not said. I consider that she probably wasn't there on opening night to see Beth interrupted onstage. And the audience did in fact voice protest at Morgan's endless vitriol. Hunter called it a “demonstration,” and I trust from other clues that she would likely view it as a valid action. This is an author who has taken care to appreciate cultural shifts, such as the way her cohort used to think about their style in the languages of “sexuality” where we now use languages of “gender.” She loved women's space, no question; but, unlike Robin Morgan and some others, she may not have believed in a birth-assignment definition of woman. If I stick to what's on the page, I see that Hunter did not weigh in at all on whether trans people or trans-hating feminists had the better interpretation of who qualifies as a woman whether in or outside women's space; it was not her question or concern, even though the story most available to her was that trans activists intruded on Morgan's apparently unmemorable keynote.
I'm left with more questions about narration and collective memory: how did the memoirist slide so close to the common transphobic trope about what happened? What does it take to more surely interrupt narratives that put trans women outside feminist and lesbian spaces and history? Why is it that the trope of trans-women intruders and disrupters is so much more culturally available, so much more memory producing, than what actually happened, the records of the conference organizers themselves and several others who have written memoirs, and our own histories and voices as trans people? I need also to ask myself why a transphobic version came alive in my reading of the memoirist's noncommittal wording. But to be honest, I'm still trying to dispel the fear that collective memory has the power to excise us all over again.
I'm not convinced of continuity or rupture from the 1970s to today, but I do feel a long series of ripple effects in antitrans narratives, such that the simplest references to trans within feminist space seem to throw more pebbles into the turbulent waters. How do we stop tossing in more rocks, especially when it so often seems like there aren't enough lifeboats to carry us all?
Taking my cue from historical evidence, transfeminist methods of reading can create lifeboats (or at least teaching tools) by helping us articulate a more complicated set of movements that were thoroughly imbricated with queerness and transness, while also attending to the coalescences and ruptures that changed people and moved movements.
We proceed knowing that not only individuals like Pauli Murray might be “all mixed up” but our movement histories as well. What if we allow feminist and transgender history to be all mixed up? As Sandy Stone put it, “We might find . . . that the identities of individual embodied subjects are far less implicated in physical norms, and far more diversely spread across a rich and complex structuration of identity and desire, than it is now possible to express” (1991: 298). I would like to build on a history with this in mind.
1. This work is rapidly growing (and far too great to list here), as transfeminist activists write their memoirs, give interviews, and produce art, music, scholarship, film, zines, and other expressive media. Historical projects include memoirs, biographies, and films featuring activist histories and the work of specific individuals such as Miss Major, Sylvia Rivera (2001), Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Riki Wilchins, and Lou Sullivan; monographs such as C. Riley Snorton's Black on Both Sides (2017); online archives such as the Digital Transgender Archive and Transgender Berkeley; and interview and oral history projects such as the Trans Oral History Project (see also Williams 2016).
2. Janet Mock rooted her memoir in the work of black feminists who came to consciousness in the mixed ferment of 1970s—Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and bell hooks, each grappling with their own discomforts and blind spots with structures of gender (including) transsexuality, sexuality, class, imperialism, and race; we might note, too, Gloria Anzaldua's efforts to articulate a mixed-gender sensibility as a “mestiza consciousness” in her still relevant Borderlands/La Frontera (1987).
3. The first edition of Elliott's memoir Mirrors (1996), personal interview (Elliott 2009), unpublished manuscript and personal e-mail correspondences, Lesbian Tide (1973), and other sources as noted.
4. Elliott (2011) revised “Fear and Loathing,” which appears as the last third of the most recent edition of her memoir, Mirrors.
5. The literature on this is voluminous, much of it produced by trans people during the 1960s and since. See Meyerowitz 2004; Stone 1991; Diagnosing Difference (dir. Annalise Ophelian, 2009); and Major! (dir. Annalise Ophelian and StormMiguel Florez, 2015).
6. Morgan's original draft of the speech, available at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives (Morgan 1973a), critiqued the relationships between (nonlesbian) feminists and lesbians and criticized women who work with men. The speech as given at the conference, later transcribed in Lesbian Tide (Morgan 1973b), intensified these critiques, specifically lambasted the conference organizers, and added a pitched attack against Beth Elliott, transsexuals, and women who work with transsexuals.
7. “Black Caucus Position” signed by R. D., Charlene, Suzanne, Joanne, Pat, Diane, Marchel, Roslyn, Ardena, Margaret C., Margaret S., and Mary (Black Caucus 1973: 19).
8. As Jeanne Cordova explained in an interview years later, “We didn't care about transsexuals one way or another. LA activists weren't purists, and we certainly weren't threatened by transsexuals' participation” (quoted in Faderman 2006: 190–91).
9. Morgan's husband, Kenneth Pitchford, was one of the three white authors of The Effeminist Manifesto (Dansky, Knoebel, and Pitchford  1997), which articulated principles by which gay men might generate feminist, antimasculinist, and antisexist politics and ways of being. The term effeminist to name a small movement may have been popularized partly through a 1971 Berkeley-based newspaper called The Effeminist and the 1972 New York publication Flaming Faggots, soon renamed Double F: A Magazine of Effeminism.
10. Every student of mine who has read Judy Dlugacz's account of the company's early years has first expressed outrage that the author “didn't admit how Olivia booted Stone”; it is easier for them to believe that authors would cover up a transphobic act than question whether it might have happened differently (Dlugacz 1988: 28).
11. As Stone puts it, “To the best of my knowledge, there was never a faction within Olivia that wanted to oust me” (1995: 18). See, also, Olivia Collective 1977b.