Organizing for Transgender Rights: Collective Action, Group Development and the Rise of a New Social Movement, by Anthony J. Nownes. SUNY Press, 2019. ISBN 9781438473000
Auguust 2020 – This book is a political science and sociological analysis of transgender rights groups, rather than a historical one. It’s focus is mostly on national United States organizations, although some state groups are also referenced. The author studies the formation, proliferation and in some cases demise of these groups through interviews with their founders.
Some of the findings appear obvious initially. All of the founders cited the oppression of trans people as their primary motivation to start their organization. However, as trans folks have been oppressed for a long time, this in itself was not enough to start a group. For an organization to be successful, it required the interaction of founders and other trans people and, to a lesser extent, allies. This was extremely difficult in the 1960s and 70s when so many trans folks were deeply closeted and tools of communication were limited.
What spurred the growth of organizations in the 1980s and early 90s were the numerous conferences that trans people in the US organized and which enabled people to meet and form relationships. Nearly all the founders cited conferences as an important impetus in group formation. Conferences required money of course and as much of the community does not have a lot of it, many of the founders acknowledged that they came from privileged backgrounds that insulated them from the worst of transphobic society and allowed them to organize.
The arrival of the internet was the great leveller. It allowed trans people people to communicate with each other directly and cheaply, and led to a proliferation of trans groups in the late 90s and into the 2000s. It also contributed to the formation of a collective transgender identity, which was essential to the formation of trans rights organizations.
A collective transgender identity is fraught with problems, however, and as the number of groups proliferated many trans people did not feel their interests were fully represented by broad, national groups. This gave rise to more narrowly focused groups who spoke for particular segments within the trans community; for example, Black, Latino, Youth and even trans folks working in police and fire services.
It’s interesting to speculate on why in Canada we have had very few national, exclusively trans organizations. We undoubtedly had many local groups organizing local events, but I don’t recall any national trans conferences in Canada in the 1980s and 90s. Even now, well into the age of the internet, I find it difficult to name one national trans organization. For the most part, Egale and strong regional activists have represented our interests well.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. We are a country of regions. I suspect maintaining unity in a national trans organization would parallel the problems we have in keeping the country together politically.
Organizing for Transgender Rights is a little repetitive in its findings, but anyone interested in the formation and survival of trans rights interest groups would find it an informative read.