Oral history interviews make for a rich and diverse story

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Last September I attended the launch of Noah Riseman’s book, Transgender Australia: A history since 1910. I was excited that such a pioneering history had been written, but was frankly puzzled by the title of book. How on earth could a history of trans and gender diverse lives and organising in this part of the world leave out the crucial period prior to the European invasion, which brought with it patriarchy and private property? I hadn’t read the book and asked Riseman about the title during the Q&A. He answered that he chose 1910, because this is when Magnus Hirschfeld, the well known German sexologist, published his work, Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross Dress. Hirschfeld coined the term “transvestite” and so began a discussion around people whose gender was not the same as that assigned at birth.

In the introduction, Riseman explains that 1910 is not “intended to deny the existence of gender diversity before that. Indeed, gender diverse people have been on the continent since time immemorial.” Throughout the work, he makes clear the devastating impacts of colonisation, noting that: “Under protection and assimilation policies, missionaries and government officials attempted to eliminate any beliefs and practices inconsistent with Christianity — including genders beyond the binary and sexualities that were not heterosexual.”

Noah Riseman is a cisgender, white, gay man and professor of history who takes as his mantra, “nothing about us, without us.” When he started work on the book in 2017, he established a transgender project advisory group. He wanted the group to be “a sounding board for ideas” and also to hold him accountable.

The history drew on published materials — both mainstream and from the collection held by the Australian Queer Archives. Riseman also drew on earlier works, such as Roberta Perkins’ 1983 study of the lives of 146 transgender folk in Kings Cross — The Drag Queen Scene. But what makes this book so important is the oral histories. Riseman interviewed 104 trans and gender diverse people, 19 health professionals and six cis allies.

Riseman discusses the challenges of transgender history, particularly when it comes to terminology. Some he interviewed identify strongly with terms that are no longer used in movement — terms now seen as offensive. The strength of Riseman’s work is that he explains the debates which drove terminology change. Terms the movement now rejects are those which imply a psychiatric or medical model. As trans and gender diverse people fought the medical gatekeepers and questioned a rigid gender binary, language caught up.

This shift in perspective has taken serious organising. Riseman meticulously documents the rise and fall of transgender organisations around the country as well as the many movers and shakers who organised social events, provided services and campaigned for change. The first known transgender organisation, which is still going strong today, is the Seahorse Club founded in 1971. The first known trans men’s group did not emerge until 1991, when Jasper Laybutt formed Boys Will Be Boys.

The book dedicates a chapter to the many organisations that advocate for law reform. With “state governments consistently putting birth certificate reform in the too hard basket,” the most significant wins related to anti-discrimination laws. A real strength of Riseman’s work is that he comprehensively covers each of the state-based fights, making the book an important resource. While this approach risks getting repetitive, the selection of fascinating quotes from the oral histories makes the chapter lively and readable.

When Victoria amended its Equal Opportunity Act in 1995 to cover lesbians and gay men, it did not include protection for transgender people. Julie Peters, a trans woman on the steering committee, which later founded the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, believes the pollies didn’t take the trans community seriously, because they didn’t have an organisation. She proposed adding “Transgender” to the name of the new Lobby. Disappointed when she didn’t win the argument, she declared that a transgender organisation was needed. Transgender Victoria (TGV) was formed in 1999, making amendment of the Equal Opportunity Act one of its priorities. The indefatigable Kayleen White and Sally Goldner, co-chairs of TGV, led a campaign focused on the discrimination that transgender people face when they transition, including job loss and harassment at work. They won when transgender discrimination was made unlawful in September 2000.

Workplace discrimination is a recurring theme. For trans women of colour, racist hiring practices adds to the trans misogyny they face. With employment opportunities so limited, many of those Riseman interviewed made a living through sex work, in strip clubs or as performers with Les Girls.

Riseman gives voice to trans sex workers, who discuss not only the hardship from police harassment and client violence, but also the powerful sense of community and deep camaraderie and solidarity. Carmen Rupe, a Maori trans woman, did street work in Sydney in the early 1960s. But by the 1980s, this “queen of the queens” rarely worked with clients, instead spending her time supporting other workers. One interviewee describes how Carmen supported her to kick a drug habit. Others recounted how on Tranny Lane in Sydney the Aboriginal, Pasifika and Maori sex workers looked out for each other.

A strength of this history is its intersectional approach. In discussing trans sex workers, Riseman says, “The disproportionate number of trans sex workers of colour is a marker of the intersecting racist, sexist and transphobic oppression such women faced. Institutional racism and the legacies of colonialism left people of colour with less access to education and employment opportunities. These preconditions affected trans women of colour across their life spans and transition journeys.”

He also challenges readers to think broadly, noting that trying to fit different cultural perspectives on gender diversity “into Western concepts can be problematic.” He explains that “Indigenous and other cultural understandings of gender do not even necessarily align with Western definitions of what ‘trans’ is.” The many gender diverse Pasifika people are a powerful example.

Amao Leotu Lu speaking at the 2023 Transgender Day of Visibility in Melbourne. Photo by Alison Thorne.

Amao Leotu Lu is a Samoan fa’afafine and performance artist, who gave a powerful speech at the Transgender Day of Visibility in Melbourne last year. Katherine Wolfgramme was the first transgender woman to be legally recognised by her female name by the Fijian government — her fight paving the way for all trans people applying for a Fijian passport. Crystal Love Johnson, a sistergirl from the Tiwi Islands, is a formidable advocate for her community. Transgender Australia is full of such inspiring trailblazers.

Riseman ends with a discussion of contemporary trans affairs. This century has been a time of growing acceptance. Trans people are resisting medical gatekeeping and insisting on a model based on informed consent. It has also been a period where nonbinary people are challenging cis and trans people to rethink gender.

The last two decades have also been a period of anti-trans backlash and media-driven moral panic as the far right organises, zeroing in on gender-affirming healthcare for trans kids and the inclusion of trans women in sport. Riseman argues that the wave of transphobia unleashed by the marriage equality plebiscite has never really gone away. He notes that with each step forward comes “debate and backlash from the anti-trans movement.”

Transgender Australia: A history since 1910 is an invaluable book that tells the story of those who have fought and made progress for trans and gender diverse people. It is also a timely warning that, with the far right fomenting anti-trans bigotry, no gains are secure. This history is a must-read for all who seek to challenge the gender binary.

Transgender Australia: A history since 1910, by Noah Riseman was published in 2023 by Melbourne University Press. It is available in the bookstore at Solidarity Salon.

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