Super-Change Agent

Susan Stryker is changing the conversation on transgender issues and more at UA Institute of LGBT Studies

If you missed viewing excerpts from Susan Stryker's film Christine in the Cutting Room at downtown's Playground Bar & Lounge, I feel your pain.

After sitting in Stryker's office and listening to her talk about her project, which focuses on the world's most famous transsexual, Christine Jorgensen, I'm kicking myself for not being there.

Stryker, associate professor of gender and women's studies and director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the UA, says she wants to change how we think about queer media with this project. Jorgensen wasn't the first person to change genders. But in 1952 she became a celebrity because of that decision and the times in which her transition took place.

The clip Stryker plays on her office computer practically jumps off the screen: a narrator speaks from Jorgensen's point of view, with film and photos of Jorgensen mixed in with clips that highlight the tensions of the era, such as fear of communism, fear of the unknown and fear of the nuclear bomb. It's what Stryker describes in the clip as "the Age of Anxiety."

Stryker says the project, when complete, won't be a typical documentary. It's not, for instance, like her previous film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria, which won a 2006 Emmy for telling the story of what's considered the first militant queer resistance to police harassment in San Francisco, three years before Stonewall in New York.

"This is a multimedia experience. It's going to be more about using Christine Jorgensen's story to explore the relationship between embodiment and image, and between cinema and surgery, than just a typical bio-pic. Jorgensen is a really interesting case," Stryker says.

"She was trained as a photographer and film editor before she became a celebrity for being transsexual. What I see when I look at her is somebody who knew how to make images whichever side of the camera she was on. Some of her appearance-making practices involved cutting film, and some involved cutting her body. I want to look at the relationship between those practices in my media project, and make people conscious of the different 'cutting' practices going on in her work through how I present her story. I want people to interact with the media in lots of different ways, not just seeing an image on a screen."

During two sit-downs with Stryker, the word change comes up often in our conversations. There's no doubt that this historian, academician, filmmaker and activist is a change agent through her work, and she's also amazingly persistent.

"If we talked 20 years ago about what I was going to do, if I said, 'Help create a field in transgender studies, teach graduate students, create a graduate program, help create a whole new field,' you'd have ..." Stryker pauses and feigns a yawn. "OK, maybe you would have rolled your eyes."

Back then, the ideas of marriage equality and of gays and lesbians serving openly in the military were barely a dream in the LGBT community. So, yeah, Stryker is probably right. People would have rolled their eyes, or at least been patronizingly nice.

But Stryker, a transsexual lesbian woman, decided 20 years ago it was time to change the conversation on transgender people, and that's exactly what she's done.

"I decided 20 some years ago that—partly out a sense of outrage—I was going to change things. Not in a kind of a heroic sort of way and certainly not feeling like I'm the only person who ever felt like this. There's a real social movement of people working in many different fronts on this," Stryker says.

"I just decided, look, what do I have to bring to the table in this social justice struggle? I am a historian. I'm an academic. What do I do? I change how people think ..."

Stryker has attained many of her goals. In fact, she's accomplishing more of them right now, such as with the release of The Transgender Studies Reader 2, which she co-edited and contributed to; the creation of a scholarly transgender studies journal; and teaching transgender studies to graduate students.

Stryker was the keynote speaker at Wingspan's annual dinner last year. She outlined a career that started in the world of academia when she received her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation was titled Marking Mormonism: A Critical and Historical Analysis of Cultural Formation. Stryker also began to transition from man to woman soon after she got her Ph.D.

Stryker did postdoctoral research on human sexuality at Stanford University, and then forged a life as a visiting professor, including at Harvard University; the University of California, Santa Cruz; and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. She also spent time away from academia, working from 1999 to 2003 as executive director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

Her first book, published in 1996, was Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was followed by Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback in 2001, and Transgender History, published in 2008. There have been dozens of scholarly papers and other works in between.

Stryker left her job as associate professor of gender studies at Indiana University to come to Arizona in 2011, replacing Eithne Luibheid, founding director of the Institute for LGBT Studies. Stryker says the institute's origins stretch back to the 1990s, when faculty and staff from several UA departments—women's studies, anthropology and others—came together to do more LGBT-centered programming and, eventually, classes.

When the institute was formally created, the UA asked Luibheid to make a five-year commitment, which she fulfilled, returning to full-time faculty life in gender and women's studies when Stryker was hired. During Luibheid's tenure, the institute received its first major gift, from Jim Leos and Clint McCall. Other fund-raising efforts through private donations and the UA president's office helped in the creation of the Miranda Joseph Endowed Lecture Series, which continues to bring LGBT scholars to the UA.

Under Luibheid's direction, the institute funded research projects and helped create five courses in LGBT studies at the UA. Other projects included a public forum with Derechos Humanos on the needs of LGBT immigrants and refugees.

During her keynote talk at the Wingspan dinner, Stryker remarked that she feels lucky that she's found meaningful work in academia, but noted that, "I had to help create the field I work in, in order to get hired to be an expert in this field."

Stryker says she's striving to honor the institute's original vision: focusing on research, class development and bringing in scholars. There's also the work of raising funds. Stryker recently announced another gift from Leos, a Tucsonan and UA alum, who pledged $40,000 a year for the next five years to benefit the institute and the lecture series. When she's not raising funds or promoting the institute, Stryker is focused on teaching. She's currently working with graduate students, and next fall she'll work with undergraduate students. She will be working with gender studies majors, and next spring she will teach a class she created, Sex, Gender and Technology. "It's the kind of class that will get butts in seats," Stryker says, smiling.

There's also the Jorgensen film project and another book she's working on.

"The problem is that there's not enough time in the day to do everything that I want to do," Stryker says. "I like my teaching, and I like having the chance to build a research unit on campus. It was already here when I came, but I like the work of making it bigger, faster, and stronger."

One goal that will soon be accomplished is the publication, starting next year, Transgender Studies Quarterly, a scholarly journal to be published by Duke University Press. Stryker is co-editor.

Stryker turns to a web page dedicated to the journal on the institute's website and notes the tag line: "Changing the way the world thinks about transgender issues."

Then I ask her facetiously, "Is it time to say the world you wanted to change 20 years ago has indeed changed?"

No, Stryker says, there's still a lot that needs to happen. One of her goals is to establish a master's degree program in transgender studies for pre-med students and others who want to work with trans clients.

There's also a project under development at the institute to extend its work to the greater community. "How do we be an engine to make a difference?" Stryker asks. "How do you drive change and how do you do it using a queer perspective?"

What Stryker wants to do, and in many ways already has, is spark conversations—and action—beyond the UA campus. The institute recently hosted Karma R. Chávez of the University of Wisconsin who spoke about queer leadership in the DREAMer immigrant rights movement and its strategy to force the federal government to provide protected legal status to prevent an estimated one million undocumented youth from being deported.

"We are a way for LGBT communities to interact with the university and vice versa, and there is always a divide that has to be overcome, such as those divisions that exist between those who have found a way to access higher education and those who haven't," Stryker says.

It's part of Stryker's work to change how people think, whether its on gay and lesbian issues or trans issues. The LGBT population, she says, remains historically underserved. "We need to do things and bring resources to the table for projects and issues through programming or making donations to the community. Given that we've received significant financial support from members of the Tucson LGBT community, we think it's right to put that money into programs that really serve the community—we've plowed that money back into community events like the Lesbian Looks and the Out in the Desert film programs, doing programs with Fluxx, and Wingspan, and the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation."

Changing the perspective on LGBT issues has been a long-term process, she says. "I've come a fair ways down that road in 20 years. I don't talk about (my own transition) so much. I just do what I do. I really try to get away from that since it's not the only thing I have to say about myself. We know a lot of gay people who aren't trans, and is the only thing we can say (to them), 'Can you tell me what it was like to come out?' What about, 'Did you like that movie? What are your politics about food? Who do you love?' The coming-out story is not the thing that defines someone."

Stryker says she's not into before-and-after pictures, and she never tells people what her name was before she transitioned. "If someone wants to dig around they could find it."

None of that really matters to her, because Stryker has work to do. She knows she's cast a big net of big dreams. Her life, she says, is about swinging for the fences and dreaming big, although she doesn't expect to hit a home run every time.

"Rather than saying I am going to plot my next move very carefully in a very cautious manner, I might actually start 10 things and eight of them will actually happen," Stryker says.

"It's always been about changing the conversation and changing the way people think. Transgender issues are no longer a small, obscure topic. How we see gender is changing at a global level. I see that in our work here at the UA. Investigating transgender becomes a way to view and study how that system is changing."