Review: “TRANS/gressive” by Riki Wilchins

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: In the early 1990s, no one talked about transgender people, and no one knew one. We were not on TV or in movies. What formed the visible part of the transcommunity – overwhelmingly white, urban, and middle class – was also overwhelmingly focused on conferences, surgery or hormones, and cisgender acceptance.

This was still a determinedly non-political population, often in defensive crouch because it was also constantly under attack by the media, police, local legislatures, feminists, and even LGB-but-never-T advocates.

We were a group that still thought of ourselves as a collection of separate individuals, not a movement. What made political consciousness so difficult was that there was no “transgender section” of town, where we saw each other regularly.

And mainstream society mostly ignored us. And when it didn’t, it usually made clear it despised us. We were freaks. We were gendertrash.

We lived in a transient and indoor community that knew itself only a few days at a time during conferences at hotels out on the interstate.

But all that was about to change.

Even when politics are avoided, bringing despised and marginalized people together is itself a political act. Without realizing or intending it, the community was reaching critical mass.

Even in those pre-Internet, pre-cellphone days, enough transpeople were running into one another often enough to begin realizing we could be a force, that we didn’t really need cisgender acceptance. What we needed was our civil rights.

This is the inside story of how in just a few years, a handful of trans activists would come together in the face of enormous difficulties and opposition to launch from the very margins of society what would grow into the modern political movement for gender rights.

Review:

I will never be able to express how thankful I am that a book like this exists! As most already know, civil rights history in public schools isn’t the most in-depth unit taught. Unfortunately, this leaves us to learn our history on our own. Thanks to TRANS/gressive by Riki Wilchins, we’re in luck, because this amazing book is here to teach us all about the transgender rights movement and its history.

From the very first page, I was learning things I had never known about the transgender community’s history. Perhaps I had heard it at one point, but I hadn’t fully realized that the gay rights movement initially excluded transgender/transsexual people. Heck, I never considered there ever being a time when feminist and progressive organizations thought we were delusional and not worth supporting. I also hadn’t known that “transgender” used to mean something so different than what it does today. Yet this book opened my eyes to these things all within the Foreword. So after finishing that, I knew I was in for quite a ride.

Being a young transgender man who grew up in an accepting family and community, I never gave much thought to things such as cisgender people accepting you one day then hating you the next, being made to think your opinion matters when it doesn’t, or simply how terrifying it can be to leave the house as your true self. While these problems persist for some people in the trans community today, I’ve never had to deal with them. Reading about all of these terrible things that people in my community have gone through really put my own privilege in perspective for me, and I am grateful for that.

I keep saying that this book is an excellent source of history, but I should also highlight that this doesn’t read like a textbook at all. The stories within are honest, personal, and emotional. Wilchins explains many of the stories through their own experiences, giving a personal touch to some of these historical events. In addition, many of the narrated events are emotionally charged–some negative, some positive–and readers will undoubtedly feel the pain in the retelling of Brandon Teena’s murder and the relief of gay and lesbian groups finally joining forces with the trans community. The language is also explained well enough that someone with little to no previous knowledge of transgender/LGBT+ terminology could understand what’s being said. Since so many terms need to be explained throughout the book, this is also an interesting way for those who are familiar with the community to see how the language and culture of our community have changed.

At times, these events seem to have happened in a completely different world, (or maybe that’s just me being a naive millennial). For example, nowadays, it’s acceptable to group people of sexual and romantic minorities with people of gender minorities, even though this used to be an unusual association. However, there isn’t a complete disconnect. Unfortunately, trans women of color were and still are the most targeted group in our community. It seems that mental and physical health have always been a problem in the community as well, because of such high rates of abuse, vulnerability, and discomfort with our bodies. Something I didn’t expect was the concept of not being “trans enough” to show up in this book, but it appears that policing others’ identities has always been a problem. Nevertheless, I enjoyed seeing how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.

Final thought: Trans or cis, conservative or liberal, young or old, whatever you are and however you identify, picking up this book is a good idea. Especially with the current outburst of transgender-related headlines in major news, being educated on the topic of transgender rights and history is a good idea, and TRANS/gressive by Riki Wilchins is an excellent place to start.

Thank you to NetGalley and Riverdale Avenue Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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