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BOOKS Riki Wilchins discusses trans movement memoir
by Sarah Toce
2017-08-09

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Riki Wilchins founded the first national transgender advocacy group GenderPAC in 1996. She is currently the executive director of the True Child organization, a philanthropic effort leading the way in gender studies and trainings. The 65-year-old Lambda Literary Award winner may be a leader in transactivism now, but it didn't start out that way.

Wilchins was in search of transactivism stories to line her bookshelf and couldn't find any—so she understood what needed to be done. She began chronicling her story—and the stories of her friends and peers—so that current and future generations would have insight and history to explore, remember and share with their networks, too. For this reason alone, the book TRANS/gressive: How Transgender Activists Took on Gay Rights, Feminism, the Media & Congress ... and Won! makes Wilchins memoir a timely addition to the transactivism fold.

"I think it's generally accepted that transactivism is established, and in many ways is changing how the world thinks about gender," Wilchins said. "But I couldn't find any books that told the inside story of how it all started. There are several academic historical books, but nothing on those critical few years in the 1990s when it all came together and the movement really took off. Back when gay rights was still LGB, but not T. And that's the untold story I wanted to tell, from the inside perspective of those of us who were there."

In the early years, Wilchins worked on Wall Street and didn't involve herself in transactivism protests—until something changed the course of her life.

"Right after my first book, Read My Lips, was published, Nancy Burkholder got thrown out of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival," Wilchins said. "They just dumped her alone, on a dirt road in the middle of the night, miles from anywhere. That just hit me like a punch in the stomach. I'd always thought of attending, but chickened out. I knew that should have been me. It was so cold and brutal and totally unapologetic. So when I was invited to speak at the protest that grew into Camp Trans, there was no way to say 'No.' And then activism just kind of ate the next 20 years of my life."

In fact, the author and activist shared: "Looking back through the events of "TRANS/gressive: How Transgender Activists Took on Gay Rights, Feminism, the Media & Congress...and Won!" in those first years of transactivism, I can't ever imagine this was where I would end up!"

Stone Butch Blues author Leslie Feinberg is heavily featured in Wilchins' book.

Leslie seemed willing to be everywhere we needed a charismatic speaker to make our case and bring a crowd," Wilchins said. "For instance, Leslie spoke at Camp Trans and then inside the Festival to the Lesbian Avengers, and also before at the vigil we held outside the murder trial for Brandon Teena's killers in Falls City, Nebraska."

Activist Nancy Nangeroni and trans cop Tony Barreto-Neto are also woven throughout the real-life story. Nangeroni and Barreto-Neto "helped form the core of folks that planned and carried out many of our activities," Wilchins said.

Caitlyn Jenner's celebrity brought a certain spotlight to the transgender community—arguably not an always a positive one.

"Cait has been a double-edged sword," Wilchins said. "She's been incredibly brave in sharing her own struggle, and has become truly iconic. At the same time, the views of wealthy Republican transpeople don't exactly mirror those of many in the community. It's been interesting watching her educate herself and grow her political awareness. Hopefully this will continue, because she can also be such an asset. I also think she's the first of many—eventually we're going to see a lot of other celebrities come out as trans. Sometimes I wish Michael Jackson was still alive because I'm sure he would have been next."

It's worth noting that the worlds of feminism and transgender rights often intersect, but that doesn't mean they always necessarily get along.

"Both [feminism and transgender rights] seek to overturn the effects of the [gender-binary] system, so we should be natural political allies," Wilchins said. "However, that's never happened. Many early transfolks supported pretty rigid and even regressive boy/girl gender ideals. And many mainstream feminists were visibly uncomfortable with crossdressers, transsexuals and drag people. It's always been a mystery that we don't get beyond this and join forces."

Can anything fix the discord?

"I think it will take a younger and more aware generation to heal this breach," Wilchins said. "I also look to the nonbinary movement to push us past some of these political divisions and into new territory."

Wilchins also shared, "To change things you have to take risks. You have to step into that icky place that feels unsure, unsafe and exposed; where you seem to be the only one. It's that place that makes you feel a little sick to your stomach. As an activist, that's exactly where you should be. Because that's the feeling when you're doing something new and entirely necessary. Looking back, I wish I had known that. It's how I felt nearly every time we tried something new. And unfortunately, often it made me back off a bit. Now I know the right response is to close your eyes, buckle up and put your foot on the gas."

Now that we have the gas, where are we headed?

"The gay-rights movement has had amazing success in promoting forward sexual orientation rights, but it's done miserably—almost nothing—on gender rights," Wilchins shared. "For instance, the gender concerns of stone butch girls and fairy boys are still entirely neglected. No one even talks about the problem. If you think of Will and Grace, we've made it okay to be Will—who is relatively straight looking and acting—but still not Jack, who is the real 'fag.' Effeminacy in boys and masculinity in girls is still widely despised. This is something we've never discussed with the American people, in fact, we've avoided. So although the embrace of trans rights may have started with the a discussion of the right to change sexes, I think increasingly it's going to draw us into this long-neglected territory about the right to cross gender lines, to be genderqueer, to be nonbinary. Effeminate boys and masculine girls need to be loved and accepted, too. It's time we started talking about them instead of pretending either they don't exist or their only problem is their sexual orientation."

Wilchins writes regularly for the Advocate on current trans politics. Riverdale Books is releasing an anthology of her early work this winter called "Burn the Binary!" She splits her time between Washington, D.C. and South Beach, Florida with her partner Gina and daughter DJ. Learn more about the author and activist here: www.facebook.com/riki.wilchins .


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