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Historicizing liberal American transnormativities: Medicine, media, activism, 1960-1990

Historicizing liberal American transnormativities: Medicine, media, activism, 1960-1990
Nicholas Matte


Department of History, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 1V6, CANADA.


How did trans people emerge as a minority group in the United States between 1960 and 1990? Trans people and advocates have been articulating ways to improve the social lives of trans people throughout the second half of the twentieth century by drawing on discourses of American liberalism. “Historicizing Liberal American Transnormativities” provides insight into the norms, definitions, expectations and tactics developed by trans advocates in social and cultural conditions not of their choosing. It draws on trans-centric primary sources including conference proceedings, newsletters and magazines produced by, for, or about trans people, as well as mainstream media coverage of trans people and issues. These sources enrich existing accounts of pathologization, gay liberation, employment discrimination, sex activism, and other topics of broad concern.

The first two chapters show that the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF) worked with trans advocates and “helping professionals” in fields such as medicine, law, religion, and social work to promote social acceptance on the basis of medicalized notions of transsexuality, gender dysphoria, and various diagnostic and treatment options. The third chapter looks at the worlds of female impersonators, transvestites, and the Queens Liberation Front to argue that trans people like Lee Brewster and Sandy Mesics developed their politics in the contexts of commercial and entertainment cultures, gay liberation, feminism, and pornography. The final chapter looks at a series of cases in which a number of white transsexuals, including Paula Grossman, Steve Dain, Joanna Clark, Karen Ulane, and Bobbie Lea Bennett, each fought against the discrimination they faced in employment and health care. They asked the courts to apply the Civil Rights Act and the Rehabilitation Act to their situations and they became galvanizing public figures in social debates about the nature of gendered participation in American economy and society. Overall, “Historicizing Liberal American Transnormativities” shows that American liberalism has been central to trans advocacy and the formation of trans people as a minority group in the United States between 1960 and 1990.