A Microdose of Liberation

Take a little trans liberationist Pride history in with me, it's good for you.


Sometimes you have to microdose to adjust to the sheer potency of a would-be remedy because tripping on the first try makes your body reject the truth as poison.


In classical Greek mythology, Salamacis was a water nymph who fell madly in love with the god Hermaphroditus. Unfortunately for her, the feelings weren’t mutual. As the story goes, one day Salamacis was watching Hermaphroditus bathe in a river. Her fire got the best of her and she plunged into the water, wrapping herself around her unrequited love object. The gods, surely being a little cheeky, decided then to grant her wish to be with Hermaphroditus forever in a rudely literal way by fusing their bodies together, resulting in a divine being with two sexes.

A little trans origin story if there ever was one.

Queer and trans people have turned to Greek myth for centuries at this point, which must feel good in that it promises, in addition to making deviance dramatically noble, to safely pull us back into the charmed circle of Western culture. I wonder if this particular myth, however, doesn’t also allegorize a different story, an open secret: the problem of attaching to those who are reluctant to see queerness and transness as kin. This is the problem of political affiliation and social stigma: the fear that claiming likeness would mean merger and loss for one of the two parties. We wouldn’t fight so much over the boundaries of categories like man and woman, sex and gender, or binary and nonbinary, if not for our fear of repeating Salamacis’s lusty mistake and finding ourselves fused, like Hermaphroditus, into something we never quite asked to be (Greek myth doesn’t abound with consent).

This might be a parable, in other words, for the most dramatic of crescendos to June, the dreaded D-I-S-C-O-U-R-S-E that is Pride. (Who is it for? Who leads it? Will there be kink? What of the children?! Or the bisexuals?!)

Long before Pride was a chance for Citi Bank to show you how cool they are about gay money, and long before the diluted sense of “equality” and its equally diluted referent “LGBT” became de rigeur, there was the 1970s politics of liberation. It’s hardly an innocent word, especially because it relies on the idea that there’s something straightforwardly repressed that can actually be, perhaps just as straightforwardly, liberated by the will and good planning. But setting aside the little Foucault that lives inside my head, I invite you to microdose on liberation with me, to see what we might feel together.

Liberation doesn’t ask us for basic identity politics, the kind that have been so easily coopted by a neoliberal model of the optimized, productive self that it hardly feels convincing to use words like queer anymore.

What if the story of Salamacis is about how trans is a mode of relation to others not like you, rather than the affirmation of an interior identity that looks for its reflection in others?

The Salmacis Society (they didn’t spell it with the extra a-) was a trans feminist sorority based in San Francisco that was particularly active in the mid 1970s. Part of what distinguished it from other trans and feminist organizations of the era was that it saw “trans feminism” as a meaningful category. Salmacis was intentionally for femmes “of both sexes,” as they put it (or cis and trans, as we might put it today). In their Bi-Monthly Newsletter’s third volume in the fall of 1976, President Sandy Dionne made as good a trans feminist argument as I’ve come across in a long time:

“Females are the greatest and most successful transvestites. 40 years ago they weren’t allowed to smoke. 15 years ago, they couldn’t wear pants to school and it was frowned upon in public. Today they have their own cigarette (Virginia Slims). They were pants to school from the kindergarten on up and it is a rare sight to see a female with a dress on!

Males are the most thoroughly preconditioned social puppets of them all. 100 years ago, they were wearing suits and ties and today they are still wearing suits and ties.”[1]

Sounds like 1970s feminism with its naughty implications of female superiority, but it’s more importantly an explicitly trans feminism. Dionne uses the concept of transvestism to explain non-trans women’s remarkable social movement over the previous several decades, tying them to one another in a provocative way that doesn’t so much transcend their differences as collide them with great wit. Feminist transformations of social norms, rather than being a site of conflict between trans and non-trans women, were their place of affiliation and solidarity.

This makes for some real bad news for TERFs in that not all non-trans women saw trans women as their competitors fifty years ago. Not all feminist races have to be competitive, or races to the bottom of the barrel of misogyny and woman-hating—even in the notoriously turbulent feminist 1970s.

Wearing pants and smoking Virginia Slims isn’t exactly liberation, mind you—it’s pleasure, but what feels good isn’t necessarily what’s politically instructive, at least in a one-to-one sense. In 1970, a trans liberation broadside authored by members of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), Transsexual/Transvestite Action Organization (the TAO), and Fems Against Sexism (FAS) explains the liberationist understanding of power and subjection in short order: “The oppression against transvestites and transsexuals of either sex arises from sexist values.”[2] Rather than beginning with trans identities and moving outward to see who they can affiliate with, trans liberationists saw “sexist society” as the root cause of oppression for a myriad of groups, though importantly not all in the same way. Non-trans women, gay men, and trans women were all subjected by sexist society, but not in a romantic way that made them all the same, or obvious partners. As the authors go on to observe, sexist oppression “is manifested by homosexuals and heterosexuals of both sexes in the form of exploitation, ridicule, harassment, beatings, rapes, murders, use of us [trans people] as shock troops, sacrificial victims, and others.” There is much in this single sentence that predicts the following fifty years of queer, trans, and feminist friction, leading to today’s unresolved hierarchies and exclusionary tactics, where trans people are both derided and idealized for their suffering. (Again: I’m not much into mythologization, apologies to Salamacis and the Greeks.)

The broadside prefaces its political demands with a statement worth saying out loud to yourself today, as a little incantation: “We reject all labels of ‘stereotype’ ‘sick’ or ‘maladjusted’ from non-transvestite and non-transsexual sources and defy any attempt to repress our manifestation as transvestites and transsexuals”:

DEMANDS

1.     Abolishment of all cross dressing laws and restriction of adornment.

2.     An end to exploitation and discrimination within the gay world.

3.     An end to exploitative practices of doctors and psychiatrists who work in the fields of transvestism and transsexualism. Hormone treatment and transsexual surgery should be provided free upon demand by the state.

4.     Transsexual assistance centers should be created in all cities of over one million inhabitants, under the direction of postoperative transsexuals.

5.     Transvestites and transsexuals should be granted full and equal rights on all levels of society and a full voice in the struggle for the liberation of all oppressed people.

6.     Transvestites who exist as members of the opposite anatomical gender should be able to obtain full identification as a member of the opposite gender.

Transsexuals should be able to obtain such identification commensurate to their new gender with no difficulty, and not be required to carry special identification as transsexuals.

There should be no special licensing requirements of transvestites or transsexuals who work in the entertainment field.

7.     Immediately release of all persons in mental hospitals or prison for transvestism or transsexualism.

Trans lib includes transvestites, transsexuals, and hermaphrodites of any sexual manifestation and of all sexes.

Microdose each of these demands with me, one per day, for the next week. Think about what it would mean to see LGBT, or “queer and trans,” not as flattening umbrellas that make everyone appear the same, but a living field of experiences of a sexist world that can prompt coalition and care. Imagine a Pride month based not on empty recognitions of identity, validity and love being…love, but an end to medical limitations, institutionalizations, policing and imprisonment. A coalition between trans femmes and non-trans femmes; between women and men and nonbinbary people; between nonbinary people and transsexuals and transvestites and crossdressers and drag queens and people who are too tired for words; and the de-administration of gender by the never-ending police state, where we have replaced cross dressing laws with laws banning trans girls from playing soccer or going to the doctor.

Take a little dose every day and see how it makes you feel. Ask yourself if some liberationism might stretch your mind in a healthy way, or tingle your senses. Ask yourself if the pleasures you seek and the insecurities you fear might be best balmed in a strong coalition with everyone who can relate to your pain and joy, even if you aren’t exactly alike or in mutual understanding. As yourself what is stopping you from making real demands on a sick society that arrogantly pretends you are what’s sick.

If you could freely want, without fearing the failure of not getting what you want, what would you dare to desire?


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[1] Salmacis Society, Bi-Monthly Newsletter, September-October 1976, Vol 3, no 5. Francine Logandice Collection, Carton 2, Folder 1, GLBT Historical Society Archives, San Francisco.

[2] Authors unnamed, “Transvestite and Transsexual Liberation,” broadside, 1970. ONE National Archives, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.