An Interview With Pioneering Trans Activist And Author, Riki Wilchins

I had the pleasure last week of interviewing one of America’s pioneering trans activists and writers, who began her work in the early days of the modern trans movement during the 90’s. Her history of those days, TRANS/gressive, has just been published, and here is an introduction to that work.

Why was writing TRANS/gressive necessary?

I was reading a timeline of the trans movement in The New York Times, and nothing I considered important, which I’ve written now in this book, was in there. Not Lobby Day, GenderPAC, nor the Menace. It was as if there was no organizing or protests until the current crop of trans organizations cranked up in the 21st century. I realized an entire history was being lost, and since I was in, or at least near, much of it, I felt it was time to finally write it down and set the record straight. . . or, um, queer. That’s why TRANS/gressive was written. Luckily it turned out I had saved almost every scrap of paper from the time in electronic form, so I was able to reconstruct more-or-less the entire period when the first national trans political movement crystallized.

Last week I asked you if non-binary was going to split off into its own trans movement… will it? Should it? Should it be encouraged to do so? And is the tension between younger trans people and older ones a natural phenomenon, or has something intrinsic shifted?

I think that is the question of the moment. I think younger trannies look at what we built and see not only their parents’ organizations, but their parents’ identities. Many of us – not GenderPAC or the Menace - took lots of heat for it for being very binary in our thinking. Everything was organized around trans women and trans men. The vast in-between wasn’t thought of much, if at all. But now it’s coming back with a vengeance. Kids are moving beyond binary categories entirely - identifying as genderqueer, non-binary, trix, trykes, boychix, and lots of other things. It remains to be seen if the generation that caused Facebook to offer 53 different genders will fit themselves into a movement that is fundamentally binary in its thinking and politics. As you put it to me, what bathroom access do you fight for on behalf of a non-binary person? That might seem to some like a trivial question, but if you look at its full implications, you can see just how profoundly non-binary and genderqueer kids are going to challenge our culture’s very entrenched and very binary gender assumptions.

Where will the next Transsexual Menace or Camp Trans come from – the next gender protest group, or the next institutional protest? And why aren’t we protesting more?

This is an interesting question that I wonder about a lot. Do we feel so successful that we no longer feel the need for organized, institutional protest? Or now that we’re finally sheltering under the LGBTQ political umbrella, do we feel like we have enough of a seat at the table to want to sit and talk rather than picket or protest? Or is social media encouraging young people to enact their politics online and take protests virtual? I suspect that it’s all these things – and I hope I’m wrong. There are radical changes afoot in gender – I certainly hope a radical politics emerges eventually to support it. (Maybe The Non-Binary Menace?!?)

When you shifted from trans work to gender work, you clearly saw something many others did not. Are you happy you shifted gears?

I’ve thought about this for almost two decades now, and I don’t think I’ll ever be happy with the split that came about. But I am at peace with it. At heart, the community was about trans, and I was about gender. It’s been gratifying to see things come full circle with the younger generation, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever want to live through it again.

Has trans lost its revolutionary patina, and become just another identity group looking for its place in the current society?

For lots of people (including many kids in my daughter’s fifth grade class) being trans is still radical, out there, and downright weird. With that having been said, I think for most of us in the leftwing bubble, the bloom is largely off that rose. We have a long way still to go politically, but our politics has become very settled and mainstream. This eventually happens to all movements as they mature. I do hope that the trans political leadership begins to do a better job of embracing intersections with race, class, and disability.

What’s going on with political correctness around trans, in particular, and the left, in general?

The first time I heard the term, “political correctness,” was, interestingly enough, at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I remember thinking it was extremely powerful, and wondered where it would go when it caught on in mainstream society. I barely imagined what has in fact happened, now that it has morphed from a long overdue pruning of archaic and offensive words and expressions to a constant policing of speech that smacks of one-upsmanship and “gotcha” politics. (I don’t mean to confuse this with your regularly telling me not to use the word “tranny,” which is totally different and, to me, completely justified.) Since the correct language is constantly changing – particularly around gender (I was just told last month that I should no longer refer to myself as “transsexual,” something I’ve done since at least 1976).

I generally don’t need folks to be politically correct about trans around me. In fact, I make a point of encouraging my audiences not to walk on eggshells about my gender – otherwise they just dummy up with fear and we never get to anything they really want to know. On the other hand, in Read My Lips I wrote a piece called “17 Things You DON’T Say to a Transsexual,” that included things like “You look like a REAL woman” and “Can you have an orgasm?” I think of these as thoughtless mistakes that anyone with a little sensitivity should recognize, rather than as policing language. But maybe I’m being hypocritical.

Where will the trans movement be in 2025? Should the goal be to continue the trans movement, or simply erase the cis/trans distinctions to a sufficient degree to undermine the need for one, as has been happening for the gay/lesbian movement for years now?

I think the next really big fight will be over access to hormone blockers for trans kids. It is so unbelievably cruelly traumatizing to force a trans child to go through a cross-gender puberty. It’s like forcing your own kid to be slowly poisoned by their own body, and not lifting a finger to help. Treatment for adolescents is still new. But one day it will reach critical mass, and become the standard of care.

Then the shoe will be on the other foot. You’re going to see a move to define forcing trans kids to undergo hormone poisoning by withholding treatment during puberty as a form of parental child abuse. I also think this will take at least a couple decades, but believe me, it’s coming.

I think you’re also going to see a big movement to de-binarize society. Not just bathrooms, but driver’s licenses, passports, military, the works. Once you have a critical mass of non-binary people to be accommodated, everything will have to change. In fact, I suspect the trans movement of 2025 will be much less binary, and much less about transitioning.

Thank you very much, Riki. It’s been a pleasure!