Trans historical dialogue at the Swedish Forum for Human Rights

2017-12-06 09:39

Trans history is a relatively new research field in academia. A great deal of the recording of history takes place outside of academia. What trans historiography looks like and how cisnormative understandings of historiography can be challenged were some of the issues discussed at a panel discussion during the Swedish Forum for Human Rights 2017, held 11 November in Jönköping.

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‘The availability of a history to look back at, a history in which people with whom you share your identity are represented, is very important, in particular for minorities. It’s about having a context that helps you understand yourself and your present time based on a historical review. It is also important to see that the idea that “there are only two genders” is fairly new and that the presence of trans people in society goes way back, actually as far back as we know,’ said Sam Holmqvist, literary researcher and author of the PhD thesis Transformations: Nineteenth-Century Swedish Trans Literature.

Together with Erika Alm, PhD in history of ideas and senior lecturer in gender studies at the University of Gothenburg, and Conny Karlsson Lundgren, artist with a focus on queer and feminist issues, Holmqvist participated in a panel discussion on the recording of trans history that the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research arranged at the Forum. The discussion was moderated by El Häkkinen, trans and queer activist who among other things is documenting Swedish trans activist history together with Mio da Costa Alves within a project titled transaktivism.nu.

A lot of trans history outside of academia

In her PhD thesis, Erika Alm explored part of contemporary history, namely how Swedish government representatives took a stand on issues concerning the right of individuals to decide over their own bodies, in particular as regards sterilisation and gender-confirmation surgery in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She stressed that the existing academic trans historiography is relatively new.

There is probably a lot of information out there, in people’s homes, that has never reached the universities.’

‘It has focused a lot on the medical or legal history. There hasn’t been much focus on experiences, and to the extent there has, the content has come from activists. There is probably a lot of information out there, in people’s homes, that has never reached the universities.’

Sam Holmqvist agreed that a lot of the available trans historiography originates from trans activism.

‘Trans history at the universities has only been possible for a few years. It used to be the activists who documented their history, the job that the academic community was neither able nor wanted to do. At the same time, it is of course essential that academia also captures the trans historiography that already exists,’ he said.

Cisnormative understandings of history can be challenged

Erika Alm talked about the cis concept and its history. Among other things, she told the audience that the concept was first formulated by trans activists in their San Francisco-based fanzines in 1980s. Back then, the terms cisgender and cis-sexual were used to describe the prevailing norm in relation to gender identity and gender expression.

‘The term cis person was used in Swedish trans activism. And the term cisnormativity has been used to point at the system and structure that identify the cis position as normal and the trans position as deviating. Needless to say, this implies privileges for cis persons. Transgender people use the term cisnormativity a great deal, while the concept is having a slower impact in academia.’

The issue of how cisnormative understandings of history can be challenged was also discussed.

‘Most people don’t think transgender people existed before the 1940s, but that’s completely wrong!

‘Most people don’t think transgender people existed before the 1940s, but that’s completely wrong! Documenting trans history and making clear that transgender people have always been around is one way to challenge the cisnormativity,’ said Sam Holmqvist.

Conny Karlsson Lundgren said that the cis concept has been tremendously liberating and a very important instrument in his work.

‘I could suddenly see my own privileges in my own work.’

He also talked about the debate that has emerged in the United States in the wake of the recently released documentary titled The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha P. Johnson was a black, American trans activist who was one of the first persons to resist a trans- and homophobic police officer in New York in 1969, and thus was part of starting the Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations against police raids targeting the Stonewall Inn bar.

‘The Stonewall riots constitute a trans historical event that has come to be assigned a variety of different meanings. People from different generations have projected their own understandings of Stonewall. The debate about the documentary concerns the fact that it was directed, produced and written by a cis male and that the making of the film essentially bypassed the trans community, which has protested and said that “this story is ours and we want to tell it with our own voices”,’ he said.

Cisnormativitety is in this way also an economic structure that discriminates against those who do not fit into the cis norm,’

Erika Alm added that one key element in the US discussion is that the director of the film is white.

‘Racist structures also influence the conditions of transgender people in the US. But what groups have the material resources to write their history? Cisnormativitety is in this way also an economic structure that discriminates against those who do not fit into the cis norm,’ she said.

Intersectional perspectives are needed in trans historiography

The question of which standards are produced by the current trans historiography was also discussed.

‘This question is of course difficult to answer, since we are standing right in the middle of it. One thing I believe will be criticised more is the mere fact that we talk about cis and trans as two stable positions, as something that can be problematised. I also think we have a tendency to focus on the conditions only on the basis of the trans identity, while other important factors, such as class background or race, end up in the background,’ said Erika Alm.

Conny Karlsson Lundgren agreed:

‘The trans identity is one of multiple identities in one’s own body. That’s important to remember.’

Sam Holmqvist, too, mentioned that the intersectional perspective is missing in the research.

‘It’s a good idea to always problematise what we are doing. But we also have to start somewhere. There is very little documented trans history in Sweden, so it’s important that we talk a lot about trans specifically,’ he said.

El Häkkinen finished by asking what trans historical stories the panellists would like to see.

‘I would like to see more history from the period before the institutionalisation and medicalisation of trans experiences, the history that describes “the small person’s” life stories. I also want to see trans history that combines trans and intersex experiences,’ said Erika Alm.

Conny Karlsson Lundgren wanted to see more perspectives that are not so Western-oriented.

‘It’s also easy to keep returning to the activism and the times when transgender people have stood on the barricades! I would also like to see other perspectives that are more linked to daily life.’

Sam Lundqvist said he wanted to see more trans history in the older historiography.

‘And I hope there will be enough trans history to make us fight with each other!’

Author Anneli Tillberg
Photo Susanna Young Håkansson
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