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social sciences

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Transgender Activism  
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Transsexuals in San Francisco formed C.O.G. (Conversion Our Goal) in 1967, which, after a series of internal schisms, became the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, and later the Transexual Counseling Service, both funded in part by the Erickson Educational Foundation.

Transgender Activism and Gay Liberation

By the later 1960s, some strands of transgender activism were closely linked to gay liberation. Most famously, transgender "street queens" played an instrumental role in sparking the riots at New York's Stonewall Inn in 1969, which are generally regarded as the origin of the contemporary glbtq rights movement.

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Sylvia Rivera, a transgender veteran of the Stonewall Riots, was an early member of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance in New York; along with her sister-in-arms Marsha P. (for "Pay It No Mind") Johnson, Rivera founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970. That same year, New York gay drag activist Lee Brewster and heterosexual transvestite Bunny Eisenhower founded the Queens Liberation Front, and Brewster began publishing Queens, one of the more political transgender publications of the 1970s.

New York transsexual activist Judy Bowen organized two other short-lived groups, TAT (Transsexuals and Transvestites) in 1970, and Transsexuals Anonymous in 1971, but neither had lasting influence. Far more significant was Mario Martino's creation of the Labyrinth Foundation Counseling Service in the late 1960s in New York, the first transgender community-based organization that specifically addressed the needs of female-to-male transsexuals.

On the West Coast, militant transgender activism found its leading figure in the person of Angela Douglas, a contentious yet effective advocate of transgender rights. Douglas had been active in GLF-Los Angeles in 1969 and wrote extensively about sexual liberation issues for Southern California's counter-cultural press. In 1970 she founded TAO (Transsexual/Transvestite Action Organization), which published the Moonshadow and Mirage newsletters. Douglas moved TAO to Miami in 1972, where it came to include several Puerto Rican and Cuban members, and soon grew into the first truly international transgender community organization.

Another influential West Coast figure was Beth Elliot, one of the first politically active transsexual lesbians, who at one point served as vice-president of the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the lesbian organization, and edited the chapter's newsletter, Sisters. Elliot became a flashpoint for the issue of MTF (male-to-female) transsexual inclusion in the women's community when, after a divisive public debate, she was ejected from the West Coast Women's Conference in 1973.

The 1970s

The 1970s were a difficult decade for transgender activism. These years were marked by slow, incremental gains as well as demoralizing setbacks from the first flushes of success in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s in Philadelphia, the Radical Queens Collective forged effective political links with gay liberation and lesbian feminist activism. In Southern California, activists such as Jude Patton and Joanna Clark spearheaded competent social, psychological, and medical support services for transgender people.

Across the country, it was becoming easier for transgender people to change the gender designations on state-issued identification documents and to find professional and affordable health care. In 1975, the city of Minneapolis became the first governmental entity in the United States to pass trans-inclusive civil rights protection legislation.

On the other hand, most gay, lesbian, feminist, and other progressive activists distanced themselves from transgender issues. Largely as a result of the emergence of new political ideologies of gender, transgender people--particularly transsexuals--came to be seen as dangerously reactionary in their cultural politics, as people who had a false consciousness of gender oppression and who sought to mutilate their bodies rather than liberate their minds.

Anti-Transsexual Discourses

Feminist ethicist Janice G. Raymond caused particular harm with her paranoiac Transsexual Empire, which was published in 1979 but drew on anti-transsexual discourses that had been developing at the grassroots level for nearly a decade. Almost incredibly, Raymond argued--and many of her readers believed--that transsexuals were the mindless agents of a nefarious patriarchal conspiracy bent on the destruction of women.

Raymond characterized female-to-male transsexuals as traitors to their sex and to the cause of feminism, and male-to-female transsexuals as rapists engaged in an unwanted penetration of women's space. She suggested that transsexuals be "morally mandated out of existence." As a result of such views, transgender activists in the 1970s and 1980s tended to wage their struggles for equality and human rights in isolation rather than in alliance with other progressive political movements.

The 1980s and the Emergence of the FTM Community

In 1980, transgender phenomena were officially classified by the American Psychiatric Association as psychopathology, "gender identity disorder." When the AIDS epidemic became visible in 1981, transgender people--especially transgender people of color involved in street prostitution and injection drug subcultures--were among the hardest hit. One of the few bright spots in transgender activism in the 1980s was the emergence of an organized FTM (female-to-male) transgender community, which took shape nearly two decades later than a comparable degree of organization among male-to-female people.

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