Gerda Lerner Lecture Series: “Refuse to Run Away”: Challenging Transsexuality’s “Unwritten Rule”, 1971-1980

Off Campus Online

Open to the public

/ Thursday


Shay OlmsteadShay Olmsted, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

In 2014, Time announced that the United States had reached a “Transgender Tipping Point” whereby a newfound media visibility of trans women of color such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock would pave the way for an unceasingly bright future for trans and gender diverse people. In the five years since that article was released, however, the Trump Administration and several conservative state governments have rolled back legislative protections for trans people in schools, the military, housing, public accommodations, prisons, bureaucratic identification, and employment. How can history help to contextualize and explain this turn of events? What lessons can we learn about women’s activism by looking to historical struggles? This presentation will discuss several employment discrimination lawsuits brought by transsexual plaintiffs between 1970 and 1989. It argues that transsexual women used the court system and the national media both to fight for their right to work and to advocate for the rights of trans people nationwide. Their cases shed important light on modern women’s activist efforts by describing: how members of an “invisible minority” can identify and band together with like-minded individuals; how liberal activism can demand radical change while simultaneously dividing beneficiaries along now-familiar lines of race, class, and gender presentation; and how years of agitation and struggle can seem to fizzle out, providing the agitator with little material success while still paving the way forward for future generations. In analyzing these cases, this paper emphasizes the contingent, contradictory, and often complicated reality of early transsexual activism and notes that these contingencies continue to the present day.

Shay Olmstead is a Ph.D. student studying the history of queer and (trans)gender policies in the mid-twentieth Century United States. Their current research examines transsexuals who brought employment-discrimination lawsuits against their employers in the 1970s.

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