Toward a Trans History of Abortion
Letting go of the analogy between transition and abortion also tells a better story of trans men and women's shared struggles--and differences.
When the US Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson (2022), a central plank of its reasoning was “that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.” To take back the underlying right to privacy on which Roe v. Wade had been decided in 1973, the court declared that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had never been intended to encompass abortion because “until the latter part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion” and the criminalization of abortion was, at the time of the adoption of the Amendment in 1868, a “consensus” among the states. “Roe,” the court contended, “either ignored or misstated this history, and Casey”--the other judgement it overturned--“declined to reconsider Roe’s faulty historical analysis.”
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The court’s sweeping determinations of history drew a lot of criticism, including from the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, who issued a joint statement condemning the court’s “flawed interpretation” and “misrepresentations” of both legal history and the history of abortion. The AHA and OAH had together submitted an amicus curiae brief to the court in September 2021 that reviewed the legal history of regulating abortion. Contrary to what Dobbs would go on to claim, the consensus of professional historians was that until the mid-nineteenth century, common law conventions deferred to women’s autonomy for a substantial length of pregnancy because a fetus was not recognized as distinct from their bodies until the ambiguous moment of “quickening.” Laws regulating and criminalizing abortion slowly began to appear in the 1820s and 1830s, largely as a professionalizing class of doctors took advantage of sensational press stories about unlicensed healers and snake oil treatments to consolidate their authority over pregnancy and birth. As the OAH and AHA understood it, the court codified historical misrepresentation as law, endangering lives by twisting the past against itself to fit an ideological mandate.
Not long after Dobbs was handed down, the state of Alabama updated its legal defense in a federal court case seeking to overturn a law banning gender affirming care for trans people under the age of nineteen. Arkansas had been the first state to pass a ban in 2021, but that law was enjoined from taking effect pending a legal challenge from the ACLU. Alabama, on the other hand, partially succeeded enforcing aspects of its law at first, making it the first state to move to detransition young people. Once Roe v. Wade had been overturned, Alabama now drew a direct analogy from abortion to transition. “No one,” wrote state Attorney General Steve Marshall, obviously parroting Justice Alito, “has a right to transitioning treatments that is deeply rooted in our Nation’s history and tradition.”
Despite the ongoing rhetorical battles over how trans people should be included in discussions of abortion, the link is unambiguous for those seeking the end of both: as goes abortion, so too transition, and vice versa. The states that are moving to ban transition for people under a certain age are, like Texas and Alabama, also those with some of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. But unlike abortion, which many people can rightly imagine as having roots as old as the United States, trans people continue to be framed in the media as incredibly recent arrivals, as if our transitions are somehow experimental products of the present, so new that we deserve exceptional scrutiny. And while the dismissal of trans roots, and the deep roots of transition, dehumanizes trans people, setting them up for the political, legal, economic, and social attack reflected not just in legislation and state regulation, but also a rising tide of violent attacks, it also obscures histories of organizing, resistance, and coalition that join trans and reproductive justice.
Decades ago, an anti-abortion group named Operation Rescue announced that Buffalo, New York would be the target of its 1992 “Spring into Life” campaign. Operation Rescue had been founded in the late 1980s by Randell Tarry, who favored intentionally breaking the law to attack abortion providers—a new turn for militant anti-abortion partisans. The organization became famous for picketing clinics and deliberately inviting arrest to stop people from getting to appointments by whatever means necessary. They garnered national attention for their presence at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, and then in the summer of 1991 descended upon Wichita, Kansas, where some 2,600 rank-and-file militants were arrested in a months-long campaign that temporarily stopped clinics from operating. After Wichita, they had high hopes for a 1992 campaign in Buffalo--especially when the city’s anti-abortion mayor, James Griffin, publicly welcomed them--but the feminist and reproductive justice movement was ready, too.
Buffalo United for Choice (BUC) formed in 1992 in response. A group of activists broke ranks with the moderate pro-abortion movement, which had been relying on court orders and local police to deal with Operation Rescue so far. BUC’s founders felt they had been playing right into the hands of their opponents, who wanted to be arrested, by relying on the police and the courts. The activists felt it was time to take a more direct approach if they didn’t want a repeat of Wichita. In the weeks leading up to Easter, when Operation Rescue planned to descend on Buffalo’s six abortion clinics, BUC’s membership trained one another to physically protect buildings using their bodies, confront Operation Rescue’s pickets, and to escort people with appointments inside. (This was one origin of the escort system still in use today by volunteers at many clinics, including Planned Parenthood.)
When buses of anti-abortion militants arrived in town in late April, BUC was ready for them. The local police, operating under a federal court order, tried to physically separate the two groups on the first day of the action, aiming to keep Operation Rescue at least 15 feet away from clinics. As the streets began to fill up with picketers and counter-protestors facing off under the spring rain, it became obvious that the contest was going to come down to turnout. BUC had a lot more people on the ground than Operation Rescue, and they were well-trained. They were able to keep clinics from being physically overwhelmed, and the escort system worked brilliantly. After the first day, and then the first week, not a single appointment was disrupted. Despite repeated calls from Operation Rescue for reinforcements, and plenty of tense confrontation, the “Spring into Action” campaign fizzled out at around the two-week mark. Operation Rescue was sent packing from Buffalo, defeated.
BUC’s operation was pulled off by plenty of seasoned organizers, many with experience in the Upstate New York labor movement. Among them was Leslie Feinberg, whose writing and activism in the 1990s was instrumental in developing a transgender political consciousness rooted in shared struggles of poverty, workplace conditions, and police brutality, not the identity model of trans that was also beginning to take root in that decade. A year after Buffalo, Feinberg published the landmark 1993 novel Stone Butch Blues, which tells the loosely autobiographical story of Jess, a working class trans man who comes of age in the lesbian bar scene in Buffalo and Rochester. Shortly after the novel was published, Feinberg gave an interview to Apex, a gay and lesbian newsletter run out of Portland, Maine, stressing the convergence of trans and feminist politics during the spring of ’92 and elsewhere. “I fought to defend abortion clinics in Buffalo, Cleveland, and New York City against the Operation Rescue thugs,” Feinberg explained. “To me the essence of both struggles—for reproductive freedom and for the right of people to define their own sex—is the same: the fundamental right of people to control their own bodies.”
It’s important to know that trans people have been fighting for abortion rights and reproductive justice since at least the late 1980s, when the Reaganite Evangelical mobilization and moral panic-driven politics we are still dealing with took off. As one activist from Buffalo United for Choice remembered, a prominent chant on the front lines in ’92 was both intersectional and coalitional: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, born-again bigots, go away!” For all the fear, resentment, and frustration that trans life and reproductive justice are intensely intertwined after Dobbs, Buffalo reminds that this shared destiny isn’t new. In some ways, we are living out the unfinished business of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Of course, some trans men and nonbinary people need access to abortion themselves, though that wasn’t exactly the stated reason that Feinberg, or other trans activists, joined organizations like BUC. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, trans people of all genders began to invoke it as an important precedent in a shared struggle for exercising freedom. In 1976, for instance, a trans woman and lesbian named Margo wrote for the Gay Community News about the idea of a right to transition and the practical problem of access, regardless of legality. “Given the fact that such surgery is a social and personal necessity for the transsexual,” she explained, “it ought (like abortion and other women’s health needs) to be available at an affordable rate with good quality.” Without such guarantees, she worried, “there are hospitals with rigid programs and qualifications which would be familiar to any woman who a decade ago sought ‘therapeutic abortion, and on the other hand places which one friend of mine calls ‘butcher shops’ (like the other extreme in abortion.)”
Decades before the Supreme Court, or the state of Alabama, analogized transition to abortion, trans people had already made the connection based on Roe. It’s a compelling claim, but the reversal of odds over that fifty-year span is also a reminder that working through analogy, through the legal concept of the right to privacy or bodily autonomy, has been on its face unsuccessful. Abortion is no longer legal in much of the country. And transition is being banned and criminalized in lockstep with new laws restricting reproductive healthcare. Fifty years of technical legality ended, but those decades had also not resolved the problem of access to abortion and transition that continue to be the basic issue for many people who need one or both. Is there something stronger than analogy to turn to in the shared trans and feminist history Feinberg alluded to? Do we also inherit a stronger claim to make than analogy and a legal right to the body as private property? These are questions that have occupied my mind more intensely than ever since the summer.
Sifting through the archival materials I work with in my research, there’s a conspicuous absence. If you look for the word “abortion” in trans print culture in the 1970s, for instance, you’ll find it, but always as analogy. In over thirty years of newsletters, manifestos, newspapers, zines, and other artifacts that I’ve been working with for years on a range of projects, there’s nearly zero explicit mentions of trans people needing abortions. The first prominent trans men’s organizations in the 1980s and their newsletters, for instance, don’t refer to abortion, except through analogy. Its absence is conspicuous in its consistency. No doubt stigma, silence, and fear has much to do with that. The extreme pressure to heterosexualize transition and trans masculinity, including in organizations founded by and for trans men, offered very little incentive to openly discuss abortion as a trans need, for transition was styled by its gatekeepers as a departure from the possibility of pregnancy altogether. Even Lou Sullivan, who invented much of the contemporary grammar for gay trans men in his writing in the 1980s, doesn’t seem to have written publicly about abortion—at least that I’ve come across so far. The selections from his diaries published a few years ago, although they go into detail on his thoughts and experiences concerning transition and sex, don’t mention the subject either. His landmark 1985 pamphlet, Information for the Female-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual, like many other materials from the era, suggests that once someone reaches an adequate level of testosterone, they cannot become pregnant, which is not exactly true, but was the party line at the time, particularly from doctors. No doubt there were trans men in that era, for a variety of reasons, who needed abortions, but reconstructing their experiences is immensely difficult in written records. They were not supposed to exist according to the medical establishment that claimed authority over their transitions.
Earlier this fall I published an essay in The Baffler on the history of do-it-yourself (DIY) transition, which I suggested is a powerful resource for tapping into mutual aid and medicine outside the legal frameworks of the law, institutional medicine, or the blessing of the state. The examples I marshalled in that essay were about trans women, and for a particular reason. There are substantial historical asymmetries between trans men and trans women that involve how gender is a site of differentiated class struggle, something the analogy between transition and abortion obscures. If we think of transition (social, medical, and otherwise) not as the expression of an inner identity or a medical journey, but as a practical problem of downward mobility, we can sketch some of these fault lines.
While both trans women and trans men experience transition as downward mobility--being locked out of the formal labor market due to the difficulty of passing and the gender segregation of many labor sectors; widespread discrimination in housing and public accommodations; and barriers to accessing any welfare because of the challenges in coordinating names and ID documents--there is a gendered asymmetry to this movement that the umbrella term trans doesn’t have the sophistication to encompass. For many trans men in the nineteenth and twentieth century, as historians like Emily Skidmore and Jen Manion have detailed, there was a slim possibility of transition bringing upward mobility compared to being forced to live as a woman. For white or white-passing trans men in particular, moving away from large cities to small towns, dressing as conventional men, working a man’s job, and marrying a woman could often satisfy local community norms enough to live relatively secure lives, at least until they were outed, had a run in with the law, or were subject to scandal when they died.
For trans women, by contrast, transition has almost always required a significant loss of status and wealth (unless the person transitioning was a rich elite, and even then, it might be expected to lead to financial ruin), because it massively shrunk work opportunities under the prevailing gendered division of wage labor. The higher bar placed on passing in a culture with no symbolic category for feminine masculinity has made working as a woman practically impossible in most fields until astonishingly recently—we are only just now seeing trans women in any appreciable numbers in many lines of work. But the work they were barred from was also massively underpaid compared with the work offered to men in the public sphere. Beginning in the nineteenth century, when we start to see larger concentrations of trans women in major cities like New York, Chicago, New Orleans, or San Francisco, they were locked out of the two prevailing contracts available to women: marriage to a man, or low wage piece work. As a result, trans women founded a city-based way of life built into the modern service economy as dancers, strippers, and sex workers. That city-bound direction, based in the gendered urgency of feminized poverty, is also how gay neighborhoods formed and generations of trans women became their community’s doctors, founding the DIY tradition I described in the Baffler essay. It’s also one reason why trans women tend to appear overrepresented in the archive and the historiography in trans studies in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. While many trans men were seeking a smart, strategic degree of invisibility in small towns, most trans women took the risk of higher visibility in the poorest sections of cities because their strength by necessity came in numbers and in the sex economy.
(If you’d like to read more, this is a story I elaborate on in great detail in my next book, A Short History of Trans Misogyny, so stay tuned.)
Before visible communities of trans men emerged as an organized and culturally significant force in the 1980s and 1990s in places like San Francisco, trans men’s historical visibility is to a very different degree class-sorted than trans women’s. The middle class trans man who moved to a small town and blended in is not especially visible by design. But working class trans masculinity had a lively home in the same urban communities where trans women lived and worked. I’m talking about the working-class bar scene, including the butch-femme scene, which sat at the center of what was then called “the gay world” or “the gay life” from around the 1930s to the early 1970s. And it would be there that we could begin to think without analogy about a trans tradition of abortion, one that doesn’t separate out trans men and trans women because it involves their coming together across gender difference through class and care labor.
In conjuring the “gay world,” I’m calling on something like what Feinberg describes in Buffalo and Rochester in Stone Butch Blues. The social world of the novel is one in which gay men, butch and femme lesbians, trans women, and every kind of sex worker share the same bars and, by extension, many of the same struggles around the links between poverty and policing. In the 1994 interview, Feinberg explained the historical situation the novel describes in class terms: “We live in a society in which working people have to have a job in order to survive. If you are marginalized by that society, or unemployed during a recession, you have to find a way to eat and live. Many people forced to the edges of the labor force or unable to find work--in particular women, youths, gay men, and transgendered people--have been forced to turn tricks to survive. Like with drugs, illegality becomes a form of social control. So that police can arrest people at will, and that threat will keep them down--keep them atomized, afraid of arrest, keep them from rising up.”
The working-class gay world offers a signal clue about the gendered quality of trans care that can help fill in the gaps in the written historical record. Toward the end of the novel, which takes place at the turn of the 1990s, Jess has moved New York, eventually falling in love with a trans woman. During that time, Jess starts hanging out at book shops, reading poetry and literature. They’re self-conscious about picking up any nonfiction titles, not wanting “to discover I wasn’t smart enough.” But the Women’s Studies section ends up proving too hard to resist; after all, it’s filled with smart, radical women. The titles there prompt a realization.
“At first,” Jess narrates, “I skimmed past all the words and pages about reproductive rights. I had no relationship to my own uterus. But I remembered how upset Theresa has been after I go busted in Rochester”—a reference to an incident years earlier, when a group from a bar were hauled into the police station and many of them were sexually assaulted by the cops. Theresa had been upset at the time “because she couldn’t remember when she had her last period. I never kept track of my menstrual cycle. But Theresa always knew when my period was in relation to hers. It suddenly made sense to me: she was afraid I might have gotten pregnant. The idea had never occurred to me. What would I have done if I’d gotten pregnant after a rape? I stopped skipping over the section in books about women controlling their own bodies. Maybe all these things that were so important to other women would prove to have meaning for me, too” (260).
Stone Butch Blues’ commitment to materialist realism offers an important clue where the historical archive is quiet or relies on simple analogies between transition and abortion: the femmes who took care of butches and trans men also looked out for them when it came to things they might not have wanted to think about, or talk about openly. In oral history interviews with trans men who came of age before there was a visible place like San Francisco to find others like them, a theme I’ve heard repeated is the importance of femme labors of care: not just femme lesbians, but drag queens, transvestites, and trans women who offered social support in working-class, bar-centric gay communities, and who welcomed butches and trans men into their care networks. Trans femmes and crossdressers showed up to some of the first support groups for trans men in cities like Boston and New York in the 1990s, providing moral support and encouraging the trans men they knew to organize and find one another, as they had been doing for decades. They would offer to go with people to medical appointments. And they would help provide care after surgery. No doubt some of them, especially if they were sex workers, a group that has long facilitated access to affordable abortion, might have helped trans men needed to figure out how to obtain one, both before and after Roe v. Wade.
While I’m still working to corroborate this initial picture at the scale that writing history requires, it’s helpful to offer it through Feinberg’s novel because of the insistence on trans not as a series of internal identities held together under some umbrella, potentially rivalrous or in competition, but trans more like gay used to mean in its working-class iterations, as a struggle across class and gendered hierarchies to provide one another with the resources needed to live well. Trans has meant at times a cooperative labor that digs into the allures and vertigo of difference, not only its careful separation and distinction.
Without the sanction of the state, the law, the police, or institutional medicine, working class trans women and men built remarkably successful and durable networks of care, providing one another with access to hormones, surgeries, housing, and reproductive resources, including abortion. As we enter an era where both abortion and transition are intensely criminalized, there is much to call on in these histories, which don’t rely either on a false sameness tendered through prefixal trans, or work backwards from the law to analogize transition to abortion.