‘History is Written By the Winners’ — But Who Gets to Dictate the Story of Trans History?

By: Dana Beyer | September 3rd

In the post-Jenner world, with multiple mainstream media outlets covering trans stories with increasing degrees of accuracy and respect, we are now faced with the question of who are the gatekeepers to that history. Who gets to tell the story which will become the accepted and acceptable narrative for the rest of the world?

As I’ve previously discussed, the nation’s paper of record, The New York Times, has been publishing a remarkable series on the trans experience. Aside from a few counter opinions, such as Professor Elinor Burkett’s feminist response to Jenner’s coming-out, and Dr. Richard A. Friedman’s rearguard attempt to support the resisters – those in the medical community who still are comfortable with trying to “fix” trans kids – the series has been uplifting for the trans community, and, more importantly, highly informative for everyone else.

The most recent addition was a profile of a true trans pioneer, Judge Phyllis Randolph Frye of Houston, Texas. One of the earlier transitioners from back in the ’70s, she suffered decades of humiliation and struggle and, for a time, believed she would never see this day. But this day has arrived and she’s been personally rewarded. Many of us owe her a debt of gratitude for stepping out and leading, as both a community activist and an attorney who is responsible for creating the earliest body of trans legal analysis.

The reporter, Deborah Sontag, did an admirable job of putting Phyllis’ work into context. Keeping in mind that this was not a work of historical analysis, but a profile of an individual, which excuses the reporter to a degree, the history as described raises serious questions for me. Not because it’s inaccurate in its details; because it is grossly incomplete in its roll call of players and the diversity of the movement, and a product of what today we would call the trans establishment. It’s the story you get when you call one member of the non-profit industrial complex and they refer you to another member. Inevitably personal grudges get in the way of the referrals and any leaders who disagree end up airbrushed out of the trans Politburo’s history.

In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners. [George Orwell, February 1944]

An exemplar of such a whitewashing is an earlier gross co-optation of trans history, in this case by the gay establishment, concerning the story of the murder of Private Barry Winchell at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 1999. Winchell’s fellow soldiers “gay-bashed” him to death because they perceived him to be gay. At the time he was dating a trans woman, Calpernia Addams, and in their profoundly bigoted ignorance and self-loathing they perceived her to be a gay drag queen and him, by extension, to be a gay man. In reality he was a straight man with a straight woman who happened to be trans. The gay community buried the trans aspect of the story and appropriated it instead in its fight against the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

One missing touchstone of The Times’ piece relates to the pre-internet literature of the movement. Clearly the internet, as Ms. Sontag notes, changed a great deal in the lives of trans activists, but beforehand there were a growing number of publications, such as Transgender Tapestry, Chrysalis Quarterly, and TransSisters, a Journal of Transgender Feminism. Those publications provided desperately needed information, community, support and a forum for engagement, and the International Foundation for Gender Equality (IFGE), which organized annual conferences as well as publishing Tapestry, as well as editors such as Dallas Denny and Davina Anne Gabriel, should not be ignored for the sake of the shiny new hi-tech toy.

This essay by Ms. Sontag, now slightly edited, initially erased from trans history the woman who can arguably be considered the most important trans activist of the 20th century, if not our time — Riki Wilchins. While Phyllis was running the ICTLEP legal, Riki was creating Transsexual Menace with Denise Norris, the first national movement of trans street activism (modeled on Act Up, the gay shock troops fighting the AIDS epidemic just a few years earlier).

She also started In Your Face, the first newsletter on trans-news and activism, back before there was an internet and when our sole major community organ was IFGE’sTapestry, which avoided hard news. By personally calling and (and later emailing) trans-activists in different cities, she created a news broadsheet, and hundreds were stuffed into issues of Tapestry for years. Today this seems trivial, but back in the early 1990s there was no LGB-T, and many gay newspapers refused to cover trans news because it wasn’t gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

The essay shows a photo of Phyllis at a national Lobby Day on Capitol Hill, with Riki standing right behind her, but the history failed to mention that it was Riki who organized the first dozen or so Lobby Days, a year after she had accompanied Phyllis, her wife Trish, and trans-activist Jane Fee on an impromptu visit of some Congressional offices . Her organization, GenderPAC, of which I was a member, was the first national trans political advocacy group, and, in its first iteration, all the major trans community groups sat on its board of directors. Eventually GenderPAC not only represented trans interests but expanded to embrace the greater LGBTQ community, dealing with broader issues of gender expression as well.

Today those discussions gender diversity are common, and all our legislation include protections of gender expression in addition to gender identity, but at the time Riki was ostracized for “abandoning” the trans community and has been erased from our history by the LGBT establishment as a result. The irony is evident in that the National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE) is a direct descendant of GenderPAC, as well as the National Trans Advocacy Coalition (NTAC). NCTE (on whose board I sat for nearly seven years) deserves all the praise (and criticism when it chose to ignore the historic, newly acquired protections for trans workers in all 50 states under Title VII) it receives, but as Phyllis mentions, NCTE was a continuation of her work and Riki’s which has subsequently borne fruit.

The story of the establishment of the International Transgender Day of Remembrance also left out a critical element. November 20th has been the only day, around the nation and the globe, when the community congregates each year, and its purpose is to memorialize those who were murdered or committed suicide due to transphobia and hate violence. Certainly not a holiday, but a somber day for reflection, it’s the community’s effort to educate the rest of the nation to the endemic violence being perpetrated on trans women of color in their communities.

Now in its 16th year, and created in its current form by Gwendolyn Anne Smith of San Francisco, it derives from an online list of the dead kept by Transsexual Menace and the work of other pioneering activists such as Diego Sanchez. The late 90’s was a time when transgender murders were still going largely unnoticed and unremarked outside the trans community. To counter that, Riki Wilchins, Florida Deputy Sheriff Tony Baretto-Neto, and activist Nancy Nangeroni jointly vowed to begin flying in and holding public memorial vigils whenever a transgender person fell. Beginning in Falls City, Nebraska, with the murder trial of Brandon Teena, for the next two years they did just that; visiting over a dozen cities and for the first time focusing public and media attention on the endemic murders of trans women of color.

Finally, what was arguably (I admit as a physician I’m a bit biased) the most important advance in trans history, the re-categorization of being transgender in the DSM 5 from a mental illness to a natural variation by the American Psychiatric Association, received cursory mention in the profile. The work of the activists on that effort, by Kelley Winters, others and I, and the resultant success in 2012, is as important to the trans community as the elimination of homosexuality from the DSM II was for the gay community in 1973. That effort, generally in back rooms and medical conferences more than street protests and demonstrations, took more than a decade, and it was that success that has removed the stigma of “mental illness” from the community and allowed for open trans military service, for example (discharge had previously been based on the medical exclusion of a mental illness). I have little doubt that it has also impacted the Obama administration’s accelerated embrace of the trans community during his second term, from Executive Order 13672 protecting the entire LGBT workforce in the federal contractor workspace, new labor regulations regarding employment and bathroom use, to the EEOC’s successful pursuit of justice for trans clients since the Macy decision in 2012.

I understand that we’re early in this new era; our historians, such as Susan Stryker, Aaron Devor, and Cristan Williams, will ramp up production, and more voices will be heard. But my experience in Maryland, where the gay community often undeservedly claimed credit for trans work, has already shown that remaining silent while certain segments of the community raise their voices to claim credit when it’s not due can lead, by neglect, to an ossified narrative that’s hard to repair. The same holds true within the trans community itself, where too many leaders are unwilling to discuss strategy and tactics and engage in thoughtful debate. Even more generally, whether you discuss philosophy or craft legislation, those who are in the mix on the ground floor get to set the table and the parameters of debate; those who come late can at best amend the end product.

I encourage everyone with a story to tell to do so. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, while people are entitled to their own opinions, they’re not entitled to their own facts. Nor are they entitled to rewrite history.

They say — to paraphrase Orwell, Benjamin, Nkrumah, Napoleon, Pliny, etc. — that history is written by the victors. We’re all winning, so let’s get it right from the start.

More available on Huffington Post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *