Barry Reay

Trans America: A Counter-History is a history of trans from the nineteenth century, to the transsexual moment of the 1960s and 1970s, the transgender turn of the 1990s, and the so-called tipping point of current culture.

NOTCHESWhat is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?

Barry Reay: Trans seems to be everywhere in American culture. Yet there is little understanding of how this came about. Are people aware that there were earlier periods of gender flexibility and contestability in American history? How well known is it that a previous period of trans visibility in the 1960s and early 1970s faced a vehement backlash right at the time that trans, in the form of what was then termed transvestism and transsexuality, seemed to be so ascendant? Was there transness before transsexuality was named in the 1950s and transgender emerged in the 1990s? Trans America explores this history: from a time before trans in the nineteenth century to the transsexual moment of the 1960s and 1970s, the transgender turn of the 1990s, and the so-called tipping point of current culture. It is a rich and varied history, where same-sex desires and identities, cross-dressing, and transsexual and transgender identities jostled for recognition.

The origins of this book lay with an awareness that despite the prominence of what is now called trans in contemporary culture, there was a shortage of comprehensive trans histories. I began my book as an attempt to provide such a history. Then, as I wrote it, I found that many trans people, when exploring their transness, said that they had longed for what CN Lester has called ‘the comfort of companionship’, examples of contemporaries or people from the past who had experienced similar uncertainties about sexuality and gender, and I realized that my book might provide such comfort. Hopefully, readers will read my book for both its wide-ranging historical approach and (for some) its offer of solace. 

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic?

BR: I have been interested in sexuality and gender for some time, and the topic of transgender certainly draws these strands together. I have also long been fascinated by the historical construction of identity: the shifting languages and configurations of sex and gender. I did not set out to write a book on transgender but (as so often in my academic career) drifted into the topic. Over ten years ago, when working on another topic, I visited the San Francisco History Center in the San Francisco Public Library and came across the diaries of the gay trans man Louis Graydon Sullivan. It was the power of these diaries and the complexity of their narrative that drew me into the broader subject of trans history.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? (What sources did you use, were there any especially exciting discoveries, or any particular challenges?)

BR: Research entailed a weaving together of a wide range of sources: primary and secondary, printed and manuscript, archival, specialist and popular, written and visual. The historian of trans history is fortunate in the existence of a sophisticated theoretical literature; the academic journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, is exemplary in this respect. There is a developing literature of trans memoirs and a growing portfolio of trans photography. Such sources are too numerous to list here, though the book will give a firmer idea. I use the vast literature of sexology, psychology, psychiatry, and modern surgery – though that does not mean that I have been captured by what is usually called the medical model, where trans is viewed through the lenses of the medical and psychiatric experts, the gatekeepers of transition. Then there is the archival material across numerous archives, galleries and private collections.

As for exciting discoveries, there were many. I anticipated that categories like transvestite, transsexual, transgender, and trans might be fruitful to rethink US history, but soon realized that it was the slippages and overlaps between these types that were the most informative. As most dictionaries will explain, trans means across, beyond, over, and between; it can also denote change, transformation. Trans America includes those with transgender bodies before transgender emerged as a descriptor; those who cannot be categorized as either transvestite or transsexual; cross-dressers who modify their bodies but who are not transsexual; those who wanted to be homosexual rather than heterosexual after their bodily reconstruction; and those who consider themselves beyond classification. Trans America locates and contests some of the more significant structural and conceptual weaknesses in trans history: the neglect of an important period of critique in transsexuality’s early years; a claimed recognition of systems of technology and therapy and notions of sexual identity that were far more tentative, contested, and fragmentary; and a neglect of other forms of trans expression both before and after the transsexual moment of the 1960s and 1970s.

The reader of Trans America will encounter trans in its various forms, what Rogers Brubaker has termed the trans of migration (transsexuality), the trans of between (gender blending), and the trans of beyond (those who transcend categories, though, ironically, find a new category as nonbinary). Trans America examines the time before transsexuality, when those aware of their nonconforming gender managed an existence – even sought out surgical and hormonal solutions – under a cultural framework where inversion (as it was known) was interpreted as a species of homosexuality. It encounters people who lived their lives almost oblivious to the medical and psychiatric experts, or who consciously carved out ways of being and seeing that did not adhere to the dominant categories of gender and sexuality or of transsexuality and transgender. It meets both those adept at negotiating their way past the gatekeepers and those who avoided them completely: self-help is a recurring theme in trans history.

Trans was formed in the streets as much as it was in the consulting room and surgery. Trans America shows the importance of cross-dressing in trans before trans, the transsexual moment, and the transgender turn – a neglected, vital strand in both American and trans history. It locates the importance of trans people of colour, despite the dominance of whiteness in much trans imagery. It finds that the sexual and gender flexibility viewed as so central to the transgender turn had earlier precursors. It establishes the importance of sexuality in the history of trans; despite the eagerness of some trans observers to separate gender from sexuality, bodily variety was accompanied by diversity of desire. And the book charts constantly shifting concepts of trans from a time before it was named to its current visibility – identities blurred and challenged to the point where trans itself seems on the point of inaugurating a new ‘nonbinary turn’. Trans America writes a new history of transsexuality and transgender in modern America.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

BRNina Attwood and I have been working together on a book on the writing and publication of English language pornography in the period before the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. It is provisionally entitled ‘Dirty Books: English Language Pornography and the Sexual Revolution’.

Barry Reay works on the history of sex and gender. He was formerly the Keith Sinclair Chair at the University of Auckland, where he is now Professor Emeritus. His more recent books include New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America (2010); Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History (2011); Sex Addiction: A Critical History (2015); and Sex in the Archives: Writing American Sexual Histories (2019).

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