Susan Stryker


Susan Stryker

In demand worldwide as a public intellectual, Susan Stryker’s historical research, theoretical writings, media-making, activism, and academic field-building activities have helped shape the conversation on trans issues since the early 1990s.

She lives in San Francisco. Susan retired from the University of Arizona as Professor of Gender and Women's Studies in 2020. She  currently holds a Distinguished Visiting Adjunct Professor appointment at Stanford University's Michelle Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She is also Director of the TEN:TACLES Initiative (Transgender Educational Network: Theory in Action for Creativity, Liberation, Empowerment and Service, funded through a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation's Higher Learning Program, that brings trans-oriented humanities and cultural studies scholarship to bear on practices of social transformation. 

Beth Stephens & Annie Sprinkle: Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.

Susan Stryker: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Good to be here.

Jeff Jones: Hi Susan. Let's start with your life before you moved to San Francisco.

SS: I did not grow up in a family that prioritized engaging with art. Most of my access was books, film, television and music, things that I found through mass culture growing up mostly in southwest Oklahoma. The things that spoke to me then about gender were Bugs Bunny cartoons, seeing the Warhol superstars on late night TV talk shows, Lou Reed in his Walk on the Wild Side phase. Then it was Bowie on the Midnight Special doing the Ziggy Stardust character. And then Prince. Those were the things available to me that allowed me to see some representation of trans-ish-ness being connected to some positive sense of culture, something cool.

JJ: Where did you grow up in Oklahoma?

SS: Lawton. My dad was in the Army, field artillery. We were stationed half the time at nearby Fort Sill, the field artillery training center, and half the time on other Army bases in Texas, Hawaii, Germany. I was in Oklahoma during high school, and got a great scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, so I went there for my undergrad.

B&A: Where in Germany were you?

SS: We lived in Dachau, on the grounds of the former concentration camp. When the Allies liberated the camp, they turned much of it into a US Army base, from 1945 to 1971. Then it became housing for Olympic athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics, and then the training academy of the Bavarian State Police. When I go back to Germany nowadays, it’s mostly to Berlin.

B&A: So do you speak German?

SS: I used to, but now it's really rusty. Besides living there, I've had ten years of formal classroom-based instruction in German from grade school through college. But since I don't use it, I kind of forget it.

JJ: When did you move to San Francisco?

SS: I was accepted into UC-Berkeley’s Ph.D. program in United States History in 1983. I was spending a lot of time in San Francisco by the mid-1980s, and working here by the early 1990s. I finally moved into the City proper in 2002.

Protest photoJJ: What year did you become the director of the GLBT Historical Society?

B&A: AKA the “Queer Smithsonian.”  Formerly the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California. Which now also has a museum, which is very cool.

SS: In January 1999. I served until November 2003, one month shy of five years. But I started volunteering at the organization in 1991; I joined the Board in ‘92. Then I became the first paid Executive Director in ‘99.

JJ: Allan Bérubé was one of the founders of the GLBT Historical Society.  He subsequently won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for publishing Coming Out Under Fire, a history exploring why San Francisco became the center of LGBTQ rights during the 1970s. Bérubé said it was because of the number of dishonorably discharged military personnel who were released here following the conclusion of World War II. Many of them chose to stay in San Francisco rather than returning to their home towns. Was Allan on the Board when you joined the Historical Society, or after?

SS: I knew Allan from late 1980s forward, through my grad school friend Sharon Ullman, also one of the founders of the GLBT Historical Society. He wasn’t on the Board when I was on the Board, but he rented a room in the archive to store his WWII project papers, and he was around all the time. Allan was a really important role model for me. We’d go out for burritos. He really took the time to teach me how to be an independent, community-based queer scholar. He moved to New York in the mid-1990s and had a place in Liberty, upstate New York, in the Catskills. He died in 2007, well after my time as director.

JJ: I haven't really been able to put together in one place all the information I have accumulated over the years about the transgender arts community. So I'd like to know how you remember some of the things that I remember.  The first time I remember encountering a trans artist, they were somebody who was starting Tranny Fest.

SS: Shawna Virago and Christopher Lee started that.

JJ:  I know Shawna’s still around. Whatever happened to Christopher?

SS: He chose his own exit time in 2012.

Annie: My film, Linda/Les & Annie–the first F2M Love Story, screened in that first Trans Film Fest. Or maybe it was the second one. Alex Austin co-founded it in 1997 with Christopher Lee. In 2003 Shawna Virago became Artistic Director.

SS: I remember that a little differently. I guess we could go to the archive and figure it out. Definitely 1997. Definitely Christopher Lee. Alex definitely had their finger in lots of pies. I remember Alex helping Tranny Fest in many ways, like, drafting their articles of incorporation. But I think Shawna was involved from the get-go. Maybe not with a title, but certainly involved.

B&A: The Trans Film Fest was every other year at the start, then due to popular demand, it became annual.

SS: There was also a London International Transgender Film Festival, which I know was in 1997, because I was there—it was the first time I’d left the country since my gender-transition, and I had to get a new passport. There was also a trans film festival in Montreal that year, Counting Past Two.

Susan Stryker 90sB&A: According to Wikipedia, Tranny Fest became the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, and it was the world’s first trans Film Festival. And we were there! Memories are full.

SS: I really think there were three “first” trans film festivals—SF, London, Montreal—but I’d be happy to stand corrected! Eventually the London Festival moved to Amsterdam, and morphed into the Trans Screen Festival.

JJ: Around the time, I first ran into Shawna Virago, who was the Grand Marshal of the 2001 S.F. Pride Parade. Why do you think that happened?

SS: First, it was about damn time for some trans representation there. But also, because Shawna and Chris were very proactive and campaigned hard to become the Parade’s co-Grand Marshals. At all the events they attended, they promoted themselves and recruited supporters to vote for them.  They were just activating their networks, passing out fliers, and talking themselves up to queer community organizations. It was a full-court press.

My own involvement in the queer community started in the leather community. I was publicly transitioning and coming out around 1990, ‘91, ‘92, in the period right around Queer Nation. I’d been part of the leather scene, on the down low, since ’88 or ’89. When I was coming out, the T had not yet been added as a separate initial to LGB, but that was starting to change.

My own take on that moment was that LGBT was the neo-liberal accommodation of queerness: just adding more letters to the alphabet soup, not destabilizing the categories through which heteronormativity reproduced itself. In the early 1990s, none of the larger LGB organizations really acknowledged trans people. By 1995, several of the larger organizations were starting to change their names to LGBT. That was the year the Pride Parade became the LGBT Pride Parade

But the trans community still felt very marginalized within the LGBT non-profit cultural sector. There were not a lot of T-inclusive institutions until the later 1990s. Then the change was pretty rapid. Not only was I Executive Director of the Historical Society, but Prado Gomez became the Executive Director at Proyecto Contra SIDA por Vida, the HIV prevention agency in the Mission. He had come up through Brava for Women in the Arts, where my partner Mimi worked, and was a protégé of Cherrie Moraga and Ellen Gavin.

There was money from the Horizons Foundation around that time to pay for Executive Director support and professional development and life coaching, for leaders in the LGBT non-profit sector. I remember meeting other trans people who were involved in nonprofit work through my involvement there. I feel like that's when I was first starting to get plugged into some of the work that you were doing, Jeff, with grant writing for the arts. That’s when you came onto my radar screen.

The other people who I thought were super central to trans arts and cultural production stuff in the ‘90s were Jordy Jones, who soon joined the QCC Board, and Stafford. I know the three of you know both of them. The club that they used to host, Club Confidential, was a major event that brought in all kinds of performers. It was the place to see and be seen in Trans SanFrisco back in the 1990s. Monika Treut profiled the club in her film Gendernauts, about the trans community in San Francisco. Then she did the follow-up film Genderation, that Annie and Beth were involved in. Gendernauts came out in 1999, Genderation in 2021. Sandy Stone was featured in both, as was I.

Annie: For Gendernauts Monica filmed me on my Sausalito houseboat. I wasn’t a trans person but had trans lovers. It was a wonderful film that really captures the late 90s in San Francisco.

Beth: Genderation is a really great film too. It revisits the main subjects of Gendernauts and where they are now. It addresses aging in the trans community.

SS: So yes, the late 90s was the moment when I think trans moved a little bit to the foreground in the nonprofit arts community.

JJ: As an aside, let me mention how the “B” entered LGBT. In 1984, I was the co-chair of the Mobilization Against AIDS with Bisexual activist Maggie Rubinstein. It was during the early years of AIDS when there were no tests for HIV. Maggie kept insisting that bisexuals had to be thought of as part of the Queer community because bisexuals were the channel through which AIDS was being transferred into the straight community.

Annie: I remember there was a lot of resistance to adding the B back then.

JJ: So finally, everyone just said, okay, now we'll be the LGB community.  That was 1985 because that’s when my partner died of AIDS. Soon afterwards I decided that after four years of AIDS work, I had paid my dues and I could return to the arts world. It was pure denial, but it worked. But I could not recall when LGB changed to LGBT.

SS: The Pride Parade added the T in 1995.

JJ: I originally thought you had said something about Q being the umbrella that everybody could fit under. But a lot of people did not agree with that.

SS: Right. Which is why I think it became LGBT.

JJ: The first time I had to get up in front of a public audience and say “I’m here representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community” I knew I would never do that again. It felt linguistically terrible; it only sowed confusion and led to the proliferation of LGBTIAQQ+ and it didn't say anything.

SS: The word salad has no nutritional value.

JJ: That's it. It just did not register. I didn’t know how we would pass that on, but we did: to queer.

SS: Honestly, I think it went the other way. The lesbian and gay establishment was, as we would say today, very cis-normative and gender binary. First it was a purportedly all-inclusive “gay,” then lesbians got almost-equal billing, then occasionally there was an awkward, in parentheses, “B”. Trans was just not on anybody's radar screen at the time when those moves were being made.

There has always been a trans intersection with gay life broadly defined—thinking of homosexuality as a gender “inversion,” butch and femme, drag performance. But trans life began intersecting with gay and lesbian community politics in San Francisco in new ways around the time of Queer Nation and ACT UP. To combat AIDS you needed to get past the sexual identity politics that tried to cast it as “gay cancer.” You needed to talk about risk factors and transmission vectors and vulnerable communities such as those once labeled the “4-H”’s: hemophiliacs, Haitians, hookers and hard drug users.    

That was the context in which the old epithet “queer” took on new meaning, naming the unlikely coalition of affected constituencies in the AIDS crisis, and pushing back on sexual identity labels as being the most salient thing. “Queer” kind of meant “everybody affected by AIDS who's pissed off at the government.”

Susan Stryker with microphoneThe wave of trans activism that started in the ‘90s in San Francisco, and later fueled a wave of cultural production, came out of that sensibility. It was a way of meeting the moment with regard to the impact of AIDS—trans women of color engaged in survival sex work had the highest infection rates of any demographic—as well as contesting the historic relationship between trans life and an often transphobic cis-gay and cis-lesbian community.

When I was involved with Transgender Nation, which began as a Queer Nation affinity group, I remember making the rounds of public forums and membership meetings at the existing gay and lesbian and AIDS groups, and calling the question: are you queer, meaning broadly anti-homonormative, or are you a special interest group for people who share your identity? Are you in favor of the coalition of all the perverts who are marginalized by the current organization of power, or are you in it to win it only for people like yourself? That’s what was at stake in the question of trans inclusion in the early ‘90s.

Ultimately, a trans demand for a queer coalitional politics was watered down into a tepid tacking-on of a T to LGB, and a half-assed version of inclusion. It was like you could drop the T any time if you had trouble pronouncing it.

B&A: Wasn’t Kate Bornstein performing around San Francisco earlier?

SS: Yeah. She was slightly ahead of the curve. She’d been in Philly, I think, and came out to SF right on the cusp of things starting to get interesting here for trans. Did you ever meet Kate?

JJ: I didn’t, no. Adele Prandini, who was the Director of Theater Rhino often mentioned Kate to me, but I only met her after she had moved to New York when she performed in the National Queer Arts Festival around the Millennium.

SS: Kate was really important to me. Still is. I first came across her in Lily Burana's ‘zine, Taste of Latex, which had a feature on Kate when she was performing at Theatre Rhino. She was doing Hidden: A Gender, her first big play. It was just before I publicly transitioned, and I was like, huh, I guess it really is possible to be a trans lesbian—cool! So I immediately went to the show—which was also the first place I ever saw Vivian Justin Bond perform—and hit Kate up afterwards for a coffee date. It was when she was working on her book, Gender Outlaw.

She was a really important figure around town at the time. I also saw her perform at Josie's Juice Joint. I think Adele Prandini was Kate’s dramaturg.

JJ: The first really aggressive trans artist I met was Sean Dorsey. In 1996, Krissy Keefer and Ann Bluethenthal organized the Lesbian/Gay Dance Festival. When they stopped doing it after 5 years, Sean Dorsey told me he was going to start something in the dance world called Fresh Meat. At that point, QCC gave away about five $1000 commissions to artists per year, and we gave one to Sean. His first event was amazing: it was sold out and you couldn't get in. More than half the people on that program were not trans, but they were people of color.

Another one of the people from that time that I always remember was Lynn Breedlove.

SS: Yeah, I know Lynnee. We used their all-dyke-and-trans bike messenger service Lickity Split when I was ED at the Historical Society, and I later served on the board of Lynnee’s community ride-share non-profit, Homobiles. Their band Tribe 8 was awesome.

JJ: I never actually went to a Tribe 8 performance, but I heard about these events all the time.

SS: So, I remember I met Sean Dorsey in the very early days, maybe even before Fresh Meat. I think I first saw Sean as a guest performer at an academic conference. We wound up hanging out when I found out he was in San Francisco and was in an on-again off-again relationship at that time with Shawna Virago. I mentioned that just because I had already known Shawna for years, even before Sean came down from Vancouver. It was like, “Oh! You two are together. Cool! Oh, you're not together. Too bad. Oh, you're back together!” That at least was my memory of them back in the day. They were both very influential figures in the trans culture scene.

When Fresh Meat started, it was this really innovative, trans-centered, but not trans-exclusive performance series. I remember Storm Flores being connected with that early on. I thought the work I saw there was indeed really fresh. I also loved Lou, the work Sean developed based on the diaries of the pioneering gay transguy activist Lou Sullivan, performed by the Sean Dorsey Dance company. It was just brilliant.

I remember seeing Shawna Virago at LunaSea and elsewhere. Shawna was part of the fabric of trans life in San Francisco in the early, early nineties, well before Sean Dorsey arrived. At one point she was working at Community United Against Violence, and I was working at the GLBT Historical Society, which was in the same building at 973 Market Street, and we’d run into each other in the elevator all the time.

Now, Lynnee Breedlove, I remember hanging out back in the day at Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Truckstop Café on 14th Street in the Mission. Several Tribe 8 members had their day jobs at Red Dora's. I don't know if Lynnee actually worked there. But I know that Harry Dodge did. And I think Flipper. Red Dora’s was a dyke-centric genderqueer community and performance space that was a super important cross-over point between different scenes. The lesbian cartoonist Kris Kovick curated a performance series there. I co-curated my first art exhibition there, and did spoken word there a time or two. It was where Tribe 8 kind of held court. I would see Lynnee there all the time.

Annie: Oh! I always knew that place as just the Bearded Lady Café; it had a great little art show of drawings by Harry Dodge, who had drawn a series of anuses. I bought an anus. It was only $25 per anus.

SS: Tribe 8 was a lesbian punk band, but they had their alter ego side-project: Harry Dodge and the Dodge Brothers. It was all the same people, doing their drag king personae and performing country and western music instead of punk. They played regularly at Jordy Jones and Stafford’s Club Confidential, which those guys hosted once a month in a hotel on the fringes of the Tenderloin that had a totally sleazy dive bar on the ground floor. Trans folk would take it over and make it fabulous. It had a little stage where the Dodge Brothers would perform. I saw Veronica Klaus perform there, too.

Veronica was another big part of trans arts and performance culture in the ‘90s. When Jim Van Buskirk and I wrote Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, we hired Veronica to be the performer at the book launch party at the new Main Library in San Francisco. Jim was the Director of the Library’s James Hormel Center. The book launch party for Gay by the Bay was one of the first things that happened in that building once it opened; Veronica was there with a full band and just raised the roof.

JJ: So I remember that when Sean Dorsey arrived on the scene, right after that Michelle Tea started to appear in my life nonstop. Every place I went, Michelle Tea seemed to be there.

SS: Yeah, my first connection with Michelle goes back to Gay by the Bay, too. Jim and I had just published the book, and publicity was starting to roll out. It got a feature story on the cover of The Bay Times—Stafford and Jordy’s Service Station graphic design business did all their covers—and the story itself was written by this young dyke named Michelle Tea, newly arrived in San Francisco who was trying to figure out how to make a living as a writer and culture-worker. She became so central to so many things, and was super important to Sister Spit and Radar Productions, which put on the Queer Writers’ Series at the Main Library.

JJ:  Don’t forget to add Transforming Community and Drag Queen Story Hour. So for 11 years Michelle Tea and her non-profit Radar Productions presented Queer Writers the library. There was a piece that QCC commissioned for the National Queer Arts Festival in 2005 called Transforming Community: Michelle Tea organized six trans writers to author and present a ten-minute piece. She had poets, she had Shawna Virago giving us a lecture, Rocco, Max Wolf Valerio, Julia Serano, Lynnee Breedlove and Marcus Renee Van, a Black F-to-M who went to Taiwan and was teaching English there.  I remember going on the show’s opening night and it was just mind blowing. There were people in the audience who just screamed during the whole show. This free performance ran for 4 nights in June and was packed every evening.

This production presented 7 different views of what trans was about. That was the genius of Michelle Tea. She figured out how to present six different perspectives by Trans artists about various Trans topics and then it was her turn: she wrote about how Rocco’s transition impacted her. They were partners at the time. Going out in public with Rocco, who was now a man, Michelle noticed that her friends started treating her like someone in a straight relationship who was no longer a lesbian.

But going back just a little before that, do you remember the year when the Dyke March decided that they were not going to allow anyone except ‘real’ women to march in the parade?

SS: The way I remember it was you had to be a lesbian to march in the parade, and they were not exclusive of trans women who were lesbians. But they were saying, if you're one of our trans brothers, even if you've had connections to this community, we ask that you stand on the sidewalks and cheer us on. It wasn't that they were transphobic to trans women. They were saying it's a dyke march, so if you're not a dyke, then don't march. I marched in the very first one.

There was a complicated relationship between the Dyke March and the emergence of the Trans March, some controversy about porous and overlapping community boundaries, how you define who’s a what and who gets to decide. I don’t know all the details because I wasn’t centrally involved. But I did march in that first Trans March, too, and often spoke at the rallies in Dolores Park before the marches.

JJ: I was the grant writer for the Dyke March when those controversies were taking place. I remember the first Trans March and how nobody offered them any help.  Word of mouth produced about 2000 people. That was really the first time that Trans visibility was heightened on Pride weekend: it was not a million people but it was not small either.

Here’s how I remember it: The Trans March emerged right after the controversy with the Dyke March. And after endless community discussions, and after the second Trans March, the Dyke March changed its position. Both events were held in Dolores Park on back-to-back Friday and Saturday: both needed a stage, security, sound systems, emergency medical services and insurance. Somehow, after the initial conflict they started working together. Before the third Trans March the two Marches figured out how to share their production costs. Since I worked for both Parades, I really didn't have an opinion; all I could do was point out how the money could be raised and spent, and how the two parades might consider sharing costs.

I remember the first time Fresh Meat got funded. It was at a community meeting and I noticed Kary Shulman was there. So I got up and gave a speech about how Grants for the Arts absolutely discriminated against lesbians.  Someone in the audience said “What about trans artists?” I replied “none are funded.” I believe Sean Dorsey stood up and said “how can trans people get GFTA funds?” Kary said, send me a proposal; by next morning, one was delivered to her office. 

At that time, I often wondered if anyone actually read the proposals I annually wrote to Grants for the Arts. The only person whose opinion mattered was the agency’s Director Kary Schulman. She alone would decide how much money you were getting, or if you were getting anything at all.  She always gave the Dyke March the smallest grant her agency made and she never increased it.  So when Schulman was publicly maneuvered into a position where she really couldn’t answer why her agency awarded no grants to the Trans community, I felt that getting her to fund trans artists was a major achievement. That was in 2005 or 2006.

All of these things were connected. I remember that at the time of the 2002 Dyke March, Michelle Tea wrote a really snarky article in the Bay Guardian titled “What is a Woman?” She asked who was going to inspect the genitalia of the marchers and what evidence would be acceptable since neither birth certificates nor driver's licenses could irrefutably answer the question.

Then Fresh Meat began and Sean became so central to moving the agenda forward. That process continues today. Sean just got some $100,000 grant from the New England Federation of the Arts to tour New England and the United States.

SS: This conversation has started things percolating in my memory. I’m remembering other trans art stuff back in the 1990s. One of the other major venues besides Red Dora’s was 848 Community Space. Loren Cameron, a really important trans photographer, had an exhibit there called “Our Vision, Our Voices.” So many people showed up for the opening that the venue said, “Could some of y'all please come back for a second showing, because we're at capacity, and the fire marshals are going to shut us down.” That was, to me, one of the major breakthrough moments in the public recognition of trans artists in San Francisco. I was on the discussion panel. It was me, Loren, Kate Bornstein, trans writer Jamison Green, and maybe Stephan Thorne who was a trans guy in the SFPD, maybe the poet Max Valerio, I can't quite remember.

Another place that was really important was The Lab. They held these conferences for a few years called The Illustrated Woman: Feminist Activism and the Arts. I'm not sure how many there were, at least three, but maybe more. When I started getting involved in the art scene here in SF it was really through the Illustrated Woman. I think it was the second conference in 1994, which was held at Yerba Buena.

I am not trained as an artist. I'm a historian by training. But because I was transitioning, there was no way in hell at that time I was going to get a job as a professor teaching U.S. history even though I had a Ph.D. from Berkeley. That was just a non-starter. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, and how to make a living by any means necessary. I didn't have to worry about what I was going to do to make tenure. I could do whatever I wanted, because, like Janis sang, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I could write tranny porn, I could do performance art, I could be a rabble-rouser, and it wasn’t going to cost me anything extra.

I had a sense early in my life that I wanted to go into a creative field. Fiction. Film. But I played it safe. I’m from a working-class background and financial stability and upward mobility appealed to me. I do honestly love history, and thought becoming a history professor would offer me a nice secure middle-class life. When I was in college, I believed that if I could get into one of the top five history PhD programs, I'd have a good chance of getting a professor job in history. If I didn’t, I was just going to be a bartender and work on my novel or my screenplay. But I got into the top-ranked program at UC-Berkeley.

I was transitioning right as I was finishing up my doctorate, and since that meant I didn’t have a snowball's chance in hell of getting an academic job, I just threw caution to the winds.

I still did scholarship on the side—who knew it would eventually turn into my paycheck job!—but I also started doing spoken word stuff in club settings. I started curating a little bit. I started writing and publishing fiction, doing journalism.

I was running the speakers’ series for the GLBT Historical Society; I put together a program at Modern Times Bookstore when The Crying Game came out, that had an actor who played cross-gender roles, the president of Frameline’s Board, a Berkeley professor who specialized in Irish postcolonial studies, and me, presenting all these different angles on the film. An artist named Paula Levine was in the audience, and she recommended me to her friend Barbara DeGenevieve, a really influential photographer and mixed media artist then at San Jose State. Barbara was curating a panel called “Bad Girls” at The Lab’s Illustrated Woman conference. She invited me to present a Trans version of what it meant to be a bad girl.  I became super close with Barbara, who was an amazing mentor and friend, and who supported a lot of trans artists. She eventually relocated to the School of the Art Institute at Chicago, where she worked until ovarian cancer took her out of this life.

I wrote a well-received piece called “The Surgeon Haunts My Dreams” to present at the Illustrated Woman conference. That put me on the map locally as somebody who could make art as well as do activism. The San Francisco art press was comparing me to the French feminist performance artist Orlan, which I admit I found quite flattering. I was starting to feel like I maybe could actually have a life as a trans creative instead of being a tweed jacket wearing, elbow patched, pipe smoking historian dude after all!

At that same conference I hooked up with the artist Kathy High, who hooked me up with the artist Shu Lea Cheang, who had just been commissioned by the Guggenheim to create its first-ever born-digital commission, called Brandon, about the Brandon Teena murder. Working on that with Shu Lea put me on the arts map in a totally different way. In hindsight, I’d have to say that the 1994 Illustrated Woman conference at The Lab was what launched whatever “arts career” I’ve managed to have.

B&A: We just hung out with Shu Lea in Austria. Such a great artist. Didn’t know she did stuff in San Francisco.

SS: Shu Lea is a global nomad who works everywhere and is very collaborative. She passed through San Francisco regularly. Jordy Jones did a lot of the graphic design on the parts of Brandon that I scripted. I worked with Shu Lea on Brandon-related projects in London and Amsterdam as well as San Francisco.

JJ: Who was running The Lab back then? Do you remember?

SS: The person that I worked with the most was Zoë Kroll. She was not the Director but she was the one I had the most interactions with at the Illustrated Woman conferences.

AB: Laura Brun was the director for quite a long time, I think. Then Elizabeth Beard became the director.

SS: Yes! Laura Brun.

JJ:. So what do you think about what's happened in the trans arts community here in San Francisco since like maybe 2008 or so?

SS: I don't know if I'm the right person to ask about that because around 2007, 2008 I started working out of town more. My academic career picked up—trans studies was becoming a thing, and I had achieved some profile based on some of my side-hustle scholarship, as well as the film Screaming Queens I made with my friend Victor Silverman about the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot which won an Emmy—and I started getting recruited for various professorships.

I was actually eager to move into a career that I thought had been denied to me at an earlier phase of life. I kept one foot on the ground here, and have always lived in the same house. My day jobs at universities were air commute jobs. I was in Vancouver, I was in Boston, I was in Bloomington, Indiana, and later I was in Tucson. So between 2007 and 2019 I was really not that plugged in to what was happening around here. But in general, it seemed to me that a lot more interesting trans arts was happening in New York and Los Angeles.

Trans cultural production was totally hitting the mainstream. Like Zackary Drucker directing things for the Duplass brothers that streamed on HBO. Or Sam Feder’s Disclosure on Netflix, or Joey Soloway’s Transparent on Amazon. Trans artists were being shown at the Whitney and the Tate, and winning MacArthur genius awards and the Turner Prize. To me it seemed that trans arts in San Francisco became more local and provincial: it might be good and have an interesting San Francisco flavor to it, but San Francisco wasn't where the bleeding edge of trans art was, either commercial arts or fine arts.

JJ: It seemed to me that there was a lot of Trans art right after the millennium but by 2010 that had sort of dispersed.

SS: That aligns with my sense of things. To me, it seemed a local trans art scene started to pick up in San Francisco in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade, it became something that was on other people's radars. After 2001, lots of trans artists were getting recognition, getting funded, getting reviewed. That was an interesting time. But then, to me at least, it felt like the scene plateaued. There were other places where trans artists started taking the game to the next level. I don’t see people in San Francisco doing that right now.

JJ: Yeah, I wonder if it had something to do with the total Manhattanization of the city when it became too expensive?

SS: I think that is a huge part of it. It became too expensive a place to be an arts incubator for emerging talent. Gentrification pushed a lot of people out. I remember when I was Executive Director at the Historical Society in 1999, we needed to move from 973 Market Street because our rent was going up 300% and we couldn't afford it. But before we could find another place, the bottom dropped out of the market, in 2001-02, when the Boom became the Bust. We were being shown places that were the worst gawd-awful examples of bad postmodern corporate architecture that reflected the “irrational exuberance” of capitalism at that time. We were able to move into a space that was both bigger and cheaper.

After 2012 or so, by the time Ed Lee became Mayor, my personal opinion is that the City just handed over the mid-Market area to the tech industry, and it drove everything out. From 2012 onward through COVID, I think from then it was just really, really hard for people to keep their feet on the ground here.

The San Francisco economy has not yet recovered from COVID. But I think that maybe this is the moment for young artists to move to San Francisco again, maybe get in on the ground floor of San Francisco’s next iteration.  I think after a decade of being underwater in a swamp, we’re starting to see little green shoots of new possibilities poking their heads up here and there.

JJ:  The city has to change. It can't exist with 10,000 people living on the streets. What’s really happening now is that San Francisco is becoming the international headquarters of the Artificial Intelligence industry. But the same types of people who were making more money than they knew what to do with in the late 1990s and early 2000s—the techies—are back in force.

If we think about all the people you've talked about here and all the people I've talked about, most of them are no longer here. They are somewhere else like Los Angeles or New York, right?

SS: Maybe. L.A. is where Michelle is.

JJ: And Ali Liebegott and Beth Pickens.

SS: I talked with Rocco Kayiatos and Amos Mac when they decided to discontinue publishing Original Plumbing because the Institute for LGBT Studies I was running at the University of Arizona was thinking of maybe acquiring that magazine and running it like an archive and a service learning project for the trans community. But that wound up not happening.

That was probably ten years ago, about 2014 or so. I've totally lost track of Rocco. I intersected with Amos around a film he was involved with, No Ordinary Man: The Billy Tipton Story, that was ultimately directed by Chase Joynt. I was a talking head in it. Amos had written the first treatment for that, and Chase came in and got it across the finish line. Yeah. Couldn't say where Rocco is.

JJ: I heard from him recently about a Trans retreat he’s organizing in Northern California. But by 2016 it didn’t feel like there were outstanding new artists showing up here. There were people from New York who were brought in and were doing some interesting things. But for the most part, they weren't from here. I think that's what made Fresh Meat seem so original originally.

SS: Fresh Meat started feeling less fresh to me than it did at first. After a while it started to feel to me like it was the same people there every year. That’s kind of to my point of feeling that by the 2010s, San Francisco was not where most of the most innovative trans work was coming from.

JJ: That may be true.

B&A: Did you have any sense that the Cultural Equity Grants Program has provided more support to queer and BIPOC artists here than in other cities? Jeff’s hypothesis is that the local cultural equity grants Program has influenced arts grantmakers throughout the country to push arts funding in the direction of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Beth: I'm thinking about what was happening in queer arts before our time, like during the 50s, 60s, 70s. You've talked about the Compton’s Cafeteria being the real launch of the gay rights movement, ahead of Stonewall. Were you aware of trans theater? There were probably a lot of trans people in the early drag shows. Right?

SS: Of course. A lot of the people we've been talking about are artists who self-consciously identify as transgender or transsexual, who make work as part of expressing a trans identity. “Transgender” as a socially salient identity category really started taking off in the early 1990s, and that moment of trans emergence was the moment of a self-styled “trans arts” scene.

But gender variance and gender-variant artists who might not think of themselves as trans in a contemporary sense, or even trans artists who made art that didn’t specifically revolve around expressing a trans identity, has a much longer, deeper, richer history. I’m thinking here of people like the Warhol superstars, like Candy Darling or Holly Woodlawn or Jackie Curtis. Or Greer Lankton's work. There has been an amazing amount of really brilliant cultural production around gender variance and non-normative expressions of gender that has retroactively been folded into something called “trans art” that first cohered under that name in the early ‘90s. The nonbinary surrealist Claude Cahun, for example.

Transgender History book coverI’m thinking, too, of someone like Jayne County, once a drag queen from the South who hustled her way up to New York City doing sex work, became part of Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous, and became a major punk icon with her band Wayne County and the Electric Chairs before she transitioned. They had this amazing song called If You Don't Want to Fuck Me, Baby, Then Baby, Fuck Off. She brought this total, in-your-face punk sensibility to the work that she was doing. She titled her autobiography Man Enough to Be a Woman. She became a fixture at Max's Kansas City, and her style influenced everybody from the Dolls to Bowie to Lou Reed to Blondie. She was an incredibly seminal cultural figure. Is that “trans art” now? I think so. By the time the 1990s rolled around, a late-career Jayne County put out an album called Transgender Rock and Roll. And she paints. She has a really interesting outsider-artist style.

B&A: The history we are trying to collect is about the funding of artists; we’d like to know, what organizations, foundations, corporations, government grants, etc. were supportive of funding trans artists and culture back in the day? And which weren’t? Let’s give credit where credit is due.

JJ: Sean Dorsey’s Fresh Meat Productions was the pioneer test case that determined whether public funding would be available to trans artists. Sean broke new ground at the San Francisco Cultural Equity grants Program, and then moved on to the California Arts Council. Next was Grants for the Arts and finally, the National Endowment for the Arts. Sean succeeded because his work clearly achieved a level of artistic excellence that was undeniable. The only other successful trans art organizations I’m aware of are the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival and Peacock Rebellion in Oakland.

B&A: From your historical perspective, was San Francisco ever really a leader in trans culture?

SS: The Cockettes were totally brilliant. I would consider that trans. Or somebody like Steve Arnold, who directed Luminous Procuress and helped establish the whole midnight movie phenomenon. He started programming late-night avant-garde stuff at the Pagoda Palace in Chinatown before the Cockettes thought it would be a cool place to present their shows.

San Francisco in the sixties played a tremendous role in blowing open space for something that we might now call genderqueer or genderfuck, that kind of trashy, baroque, hippie, counterculture stuff. The Cockettes, the Angels of Light. San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s had a lot of cross-fertilization between different gender subcultures—street drag, drag club performance, hippies, punks, and high art—that laid a foundation for the queer scene in the 1980s and 1990s. People like Jerome Caja. San Francisco had cultural venues where radical experimentation with gender presentation and gender performance could take place, places like the 181 Club in the Tenderloin, a punk venue that used to be a drag bar.

B&A: Wonderful. Thanks Susan. One last question. What artists have inspired you?

SS: Well, that changes moment by moment. I’m always fangirling somebody new. I just saw the Kehinde Wiley show at the De Young and that rocked my socks off.

B&A: It was totally amazing.

SS: I've also been paying attention to Wangechi Mutu recently, I think she's brilliant. I had a chance to collaborate in a very minor way with Charlotte Prodger at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and obsessed about them for a while. I just find people I like and binge them for a bit and then move on when some new pretty thing catches my eye.

B&A: Thank you so much for your wisdom, information and sharing this piece of herstory.

SS: And thank you for the work that you do! And good luck on this project.


Posted in Interviews.