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date: 16 August 2022

The Rise of Transgender Social Movements: Narrative Symbolism and Historylocked

The Rise of Transgender Social Movements: Narrative Symbolism and Historylocked

  • B. Lee AultmanB. Lee AultmanDepartment of Political Science, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Summary

Trans is both an umbrella term for heterogeneous identities and a discrete collective identity type unto itself. It now encompasses a wide range of binary and nonbinary identifications like transsexual and transgender. Social movements arising that take up trans issues do so with certain caveats. Many make the important distinction that “trans” describes human practices and social identities preceding the construction of its modern name and meaning. Furthermore, social movements and activism advance the argument that trans embodiments are not confined to Western or medical imaginaries. Indeed, what is expressed within trans identity narratives have gone by other cultural names, with diverse histories all their own. The rise and ongoing role of American trans activism within social and political domains are careful to consider the narrative histories being summoned. Trans social movements are generally aware of the risks that analytic terms like movement or protest might imply.

For better or worse, scholars often associate the rise of social and political protest movements of the 20th century in broadly fantastic terms. The emergence of trans communities, however, unfolded over the course of a century. The episodic ruptures that mark historical events (Compton’s Cafeteria or the Stonewall riots) tend to spur organizational consolidation. Indeed, many of the most recent trends in trans activism then consolidated into organized interests. On that many scholars can agree. But the historical process that led to this point of trans politics is not clear-cut. Often eclipsed by the twin narrative of queer liberation, trans social movements linger among a number of narrative histories. Three periodizations help identify how trans narratives of identity and social justice are deployed, by whom, and for what purpose.

The nominal period marks the rise of transsexual identities as they emerged within the space of medical currents in the early 20th century. Trans people in mid-century America may have participated in the power of medical discourse in their own lives. For example, autobiographical texts describe psychic pain, depression, and suicidal ideation that were alleviated only through transition. Naming provides intelligibility to an otherwise opaque set of phenomena. The symbolic period moves away from privileging the medical archive to highlight the connections made between radical identity groups and the growth of organized resources by and for trans activists. Narratives here are socially symbolic and detail how terms like transsexual and transgender(ist) entered a complex cultural milieu. Many activists would permanently shape the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and agender (LGBTIA) communities for decades. The symbolic emphasizes a politics of narrative origins. Identifying the events and voices that shaped the mainstream conception of trans issues is critical to contemporary movements for social justice. The pluralist period reflects upon the various institutional interventions that shaped popular discourse around sex and gender in everyday life for trans people. It typically recasts the last three decades of the 20th century as a crucial epoch in trans activism (for both social and political forces). Between 1980 and 1990, new energy emerged that ran on the heels of a new posttranssexual politics. What emerged in the early 2000s was a rapid growth of organized advocacy and interest-group formation. Many of the organizations are still active and continue to shape national, state, and local policies. They represent one form of a blend of movement-related strategies for participating in the construction and durability of trans politics.

Subjects

  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Groups and Identities
  • History and Politics
  • Political Sociology
  • Post Modern/Critical Politics

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