Trans America. A Counter-History

Barry Reay
Cambridge 2020: Polity Press
Anzahl Seiten
256 S.
€ 21,49
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Björn Klein, Didaktik der Gesellschaftswissenschaften, Pädagogische Hochschule der Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz

Barry Reay’s Trans America: A Counter-History adds substantially to the body of research on transgender history that has been published over the past two decades. Trans America covers hundreds of people and events embedded into Barry Reay’s latest monograph. Sources range from Karl-Heinz Ulrich’s The Riddle of ‘Man-Manly’ Love from 1864 to the open source database Remembering our Dead, which assembles histories of murdered trans people [1]. Apart from a few primary sources and secondary literature books – primarily from Germany and England and a few from Australia and other places – the book covers only the United States history of trans and is therefore similar in its scope to two other seminal monographs on trans history: How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States by Joanne Meyerowitz and Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution by Susan Stryker.[2]

Reay’s latest book is divided into five main chapters. In the first chapter, “Before Trans,” he lays out the book’s aim, which is to contest the “significant structural and conceptual weaknesses in trans history: the neglect of an important period of critique in transsexuality’s early years […]” (p. 13). He wants to write a counter-history of transsexuality and transgender in modern America and writes explicitly against what he calls transsexual essentialism. This he sees manifested, for example, in Jay Prosser’s accounts of early sexological case studies. Whereas Prosser, according to Reay, reads case studies by German psychiatrist and sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902) as “transparently transsexual,” Reay argues for the “makings of transgender in the various presentations of self” identifiable in these early sexological case studies (p. 23, p. 54). Reay sees disparate formations in trans history, such as numerous cases of female masculinity and male effeminacy, too easily classified and categorized by both sexologists and historians as either homosexuality or transsexuality. The first chapter of Trans America features a short discussion of sexological influences on the medical system and its impacts in the United States, which are interestingly and fruitfully contrasted with the “sexual and gender imprecision of the streets [that] may have been more attuned to pre-trans identities” (p. 49). Raey suggests that many individuals “might better be seen as prefigurements of transgender” (p. 55).

In chapter two, “The Transexual Moment,” which covers the late 1940s to the late 1960s, Reay focuses on the era of transsexuality as well as the contested history between the medical profession and trans persons. He uncovers correspondence between the Los Angeles-based pioneer in transsex surgery Elmar Belt and Harry Benjamin, an expert and therapist on transsex, and the medical clinics in the U.S. with their international network in transsex surgery ranging from the surgeon Sir Harold Gillis in London to the then-famous MTF (male to female) surgeon Georges Burou operating in Casablanca, Morocco. This correspondence helps shed new light on trans history in the U.S., although with a focus on MTF surgery. Reay also weaves trans publications like Turnabout and Transvestia into his counter-history as well as personal histories of trans people such as Lou Sullivan, who researched cross-dressing and “experimented with transgender” (p. 77). These first-person narratives often differ from common conceptions and categorizations of transsexuality and transvestism shaped by the medical profession.

In chapter three, Reay locates a “Blurring (of) the Boundaries” in the 1960s and 70s, when the rather fixed definitional traits of transsexuality became unstable and criticized even by clinical psychologists. Categories and definitions of transness were also contested performatively by the self-narratives and interventions of artists and musicians ranging from “The Flaming Creatures” to “The Cockettes” and Andy Warhol as well as in personal ads in magazines like Drag: A Magazine About the Transvestite. These life-stories can be read as appreciation of the power of confusion and the sexual and gender indeterminacy in contrast to the rather strict boundaries shaped through the practice of categorizing. In fact, Reay argues that the sexual and gender flexibility normally associated with the transgender turn in the 1990s was anticipated in the 1960s and 70s.

Chapter four then lays out the backlash after drag became “as American as apple pie” and transsexuality a highly contested term (p. 97). The correspondence between so-called medical experts and their treatment of trans people is oftentimes painful and hard to read. Dehumanization, technicality of procedures, and moral prejudgments are rampant and “continually crept into diagnostic classifications” (p. 149). These accounts are entangled with the voices of transsex memories that reveal the trauma many transsex patients experience.

The fifth and last chapter, „The Transgender Turn“ (covering the early 1990s until today) offers a warning to the historical profession to not misrepresent and retroactively use wide terms like transgender or transsexuality to classify people who do not self-classify as such (for example house/ball goers, sex workers, and others). Moreover, the chapter allows further insight into the various approaches individuals took to make sense of and shape their selves. Concerning the vast number of self-identifications of gender and sexual non-normative people adopted over the course of trans history, this is best portrayed by a self-described sissy tranny fag who argues that we live in a gender galaxy (p. 191).

Much of what Reay weaves together is poised to help the burgeoning accumulation of the history of non-binary persons. Trans America underlines the importance of the fact that trans history was shaped at least as much by People of Color and in the streets as by white people and the medical profession. This is the challenge that not only trans history, but also the historical profession in general faces – to render the limits of the archives visible, to display what can be known, and to acknowledge whose perspectives matter. This is especially important as most archival sources from the time “Before Trans” are normative medical and juridical sources in which many trans voices are erased and silenced. Only a few ego documents are available. Despite – or maybe because of – this, trans history seems for Reay to be “on the point of inaugurating a new nonbinary turn” (p. 228). Although Reay uncovers a vast range of archival material to represent the everyday experience of trans people, it would have been plausible for a book on the history of trans in the United States to question the very binarization of categories itself to a greater extent as, for example, Marjorie Garber argued in the early 1990s in Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety.[3] Future historians of a nonbinary history will nonetheless find many primary sources and an inspiring starting point that further challenge the binary categories of male and female as well as the cultural, social and aesthetic dissonances these categories unleashed.

[1] Remembering Our Dead. Accessed October 11, 2020.
[2] Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed. A History of Transsexuality in the United States, Cambridge 2002; Susan Stryker, Transgender History. The Roots of Today’s Revolution, Second Edition, New York 2017.
[3] Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests. Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, New York 1992.

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