Susan Stryker: on hormones, transsexual body art, and testicle hackey sacks, my interview with Susan Stryker, was originally published in Fnews in May 1996.
Susan Stryker is a historian, educator, activist, and artist from Oakland, CA. She presented her paper, “Transexuality: The Postmodern Body and/as Technology” at The School auditorium tying in the advent of the transexual surgery of Christine Jorgenson with the hydrogen bomb tests of Eniwetok.
Marsian: How do you respond to people who think working with sexuality and gender issues is trendy and tired?
Susan Stryker: Issues about gender and sexuality are like issues about race or class. [They] are just always going to be with us. I don’t think there’s anything trendy or topical about [it]. It is one of those enduring things to look at and explore in art, [because] you can never get outside of gender or sexuality when you’re producing your art. So why not have it be part of how you’re self-consciously making your art?
I think there’s a reactionary vibe, like, “Oh, shut up about gender and sexuality, we’re tired of it.” You can talk about the way sexual oppression works based on gender and sexuality without being preachy. Actually, it’s through art that you can really connect with people.
M: Would you describe your Anarchcorporeality Project?
S: The Anarchorporeality Project is about doing transsexual surgery as a body/performance art piece. The project’s on hold right now because I’ve had a really hellacious writing schedule. I’m working with the — of meat right now, because that’s where my pay check is coming from. Our book just came out – a history of queer culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. The [unable to transcribe] transgender theory – [unable to transcribe] Press in September. I hope [unable to transcribe] working on the Anarchorporeality Project [unable to transcribe] or next Spring at the – . What I [unable to transcribe] with that is show how when you start messing with the gender codes that regulate the body, suddenly you’re dealing with things other than gender – race, maybe, or species.
S: Exactly. you very quickly move past what you normally think of as gender, in terms of “Is it a girl?” or “Is it a boy?” I like to think about the body as a potentially anarchic site. What happens when you start breaking the rules that govern the intelligibility of embodiment?
M: Do you align your work with that of other contemporary body artists like Orlan, Bob Flanagan or Linda Montano?
S: It fits in. I’m inspired and informed by those folks. I want to use the body/performance art very self-consciously to shift how transsexuality is seen and understood. It’s always been treated as a pathological condition. It’s about using the material of your own body to express a sense of identity and communicate it to others. I want to use body art as an explicitly political practice. but what I’m interested in differs from what Orlan is doing. She claims to be completely reinventing herself [as a “female to female transsexual] but she’s not changing her sex – and to try to change that subjects you to an entirely different set of constraints on how you can act on your own body. I differ from Bob Flanagan too, in that I don’t want to highlight the fetishistic aspects. Transsexual embodiment isn’t primarily about erotics.
M: Will the Anarchcorporeality Project be the first taping of transsexual surgery?
S: Oh, no. They’ve done it live on network television… There’s a lot of video tapes of transsexual surgery out there for educational marketing purposes. You should go to some of the gender conventions that are popular with some male cross-dressers. The surgeons set up booths with pictures and videos of their handiwork. You know, “This is what a vagina by Dr. X looks like; here’s Dr. Y’s phaloplasty results” There’s a significant amount of visual representation in urology journals.
Part of the book I’m writing now takes some of these medical images and alters them in Photoshop, combining them with architectural drawings to show how we already have a lot of conceptual tools for thinking about the body as a built space, rather than a natural place.
M: Do you ever feel exploited by lesbian and gay theorists?
S: I do get pigeon-holed. People will fly me across the country to give a lecture on transsexuality and Postmodern embodiment, but – because I’m transsexual – they [wouldn’t] give me the time of day if I were working on other material. The transsexuality needs to be foregrounded or they can’t deal with it. It’s like, because I’m transsexual I’m only competent about one thing. That’s where I feel exploited or marginalized.
M: What is your opinion of Judith Butler and her work?
S: People couldn’t be doing the work they’re doing now without relying on her to some extent. I don’t think she gets it right all the time. She actually makes some fairly outrageous generalizations. Her whole reading of Paris is Burning is really, really off the mark. Basically, she’s saying “make different types of libidinal investments in different parts of the body. Don’t change your body. Imagine it differently”
M: Do you think a transgendered community exists?
S: A transgendered community is certainly forming. It’s a long, ongoing historical process. The emergence of a queer – rather than lesbian and gay – social movement in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, fueled by AIDS activism, multiculturalism, the feminist porn wars, really kicked the doors open for transgender community formation and political mobilization. Transgendered people were really marginalized in the gay and lesbian liberation movement between the late 1960’s and early 1990’s. I think that’s changed substantially. I can’t keep track of all the LGB organizations that are dealing with the T-word and the issues it raises about the basis of community formation. I think the solution you’ve come up with at SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago] is pretty creative – Strap On Gurls and Pussy Boys. Even though in some situations transgender is a hot-button issue or there’s a lot of ignorance and transphobia, five years ago, these issues weren’t even a blip on the RADAR screen.
M: When we changed the name of the group from sterile “LGBU” to “Strap On Gurls and Pussy Boys”, we found that..
S: ..Was it really “sterile LGBU”?
M: No – sterile as supposed to colorful.
S: [in a radio announcer voice] The sterile LGBU – no color or breeders allowed!
M: Surprisingly – or, not surprisingly we’ve pissed off more – I’m not going to say queers, but gays, lesbians and bisexuals than straights. Do you have any messages for young queers struggling through art school at this moment in history? In the Midwest?
S: Everything I know about being a young queer art student in the Midwest is really speaking about my own experience about my own life. So, Ummm… I just think it’s going to get more interesting. Hang in there and keep stirring shit up and try to survive.
M: In one of your prose pieces you spoke of your testicles as biohazards. Do you really feel like your balls are a biohazard?
S: Actually, in that piece I talked about somebody else treating my balls like biohazards. I don’t hate my body. One of the big motivations for doing the Anarchcorporeality Project is the chance to work in living human flesh as a medium of artistic expression. About a year ago, I did a little video with Jordy Jones for a group show at Southern Exposure Gallery in San Francisco called Testicle Hacky Sack. Jordy did this video installation called The Queer Identity Project [a spoof of the home shopping network]. Various queer folks made TV commercials for pretty savage yet playful commentary on the commercialization of queer culture.
I did this piece where I offered to sell my balls to interested art collectors for $100,000. I would provide them with video documentation of the castration, and then make the testicles into a hacky sack that looked like a human scrotum sewn together with great big Frankenstein stitches. The idea of doing a hacky sack came from trying to think about how to treat flesh respectfully as a medium. I didn’t want to make it an icon with some sort of transcendent religious significance, and also I didn’t want to treat it like shit. Flesh is both sacred and profane. Mentally juggling those two alternatives, I thought, well, that’s actually the situation of the flesh, this material that gets tossed back and forth, hopefully in a playful and relaxing way, between the two extremes of being holy or being shit – so, a testicle hacky sack. I also like the implied pun of “playing with yourself”, and the sly suggestion that making art is like masturbation.
M: What kind of response are you looking for from your audience?
S: I like to be able to take people across a wide range of powerful emotions – everything from horror and repulsion to the ludicrous and sublime. I try to hook people with playful witticism, or sharp intellect, then pull them into more emotionally difficult terrain. I like to seduce people into a confrontation with states of abjection, but have them come away from that with a feeling of triumph and personal transformation. That’s what the experience of being transsexual is for me, and that’s what I want to communicate to others by making words and images about my experience. I think sometimes I’m sort of a pervert missionary.
Susan Stryker gave a talk in the School’s auditorium on March 28th, which was co-sponsored by the Photography Department and Strap On Gurls and Pussy Boys
Before the interview formally began, Marsian asked Susan Stryker to discuss a few of the labels and terms used in discussions of gender and queer theory as they relate to herself and her work. Here are her responses.
WOMAN: A social category. It’s the role that I live in.
FEMALE: There are these biological things about my body that are like female bodies… it didn’t happen naturally. There are ways that I identify as FEMALE and WOMAN.
BITCH: Yeah, I can do that sometimes.
GIRL: I think of GIRL as being either someone who is a young female bodied person. I’ve been called GIRL by some of my lesbian compañeras, but it’s not a word I tend to use about myself.
PRE-OP [Pre-operative Transsexual]: I identify myself as PRE-OP, because it really is something I want to do, I just haven’t done it yet.
FEMININE: In the sense that I say, “SHE” about myself… You’ve got the masculine and the feminine. Either “SHE” or “IT” – He is right out.
BUTCH/FEMME: One of these things about being Transsexual is that it mixes up and redistributes terms that are usually set apart as binary opposites. There’s definitely things that come across as more BUTCH in me. There’s things that come across as more FEMME.
TRANSGENDER: Transgender is the big umbrella term that takes everything in the imagined [or not] community: the BUTCHES and the FEMMES and the DRAG QUEENS and the NELLIE QUEENS and the TRANSSEXUAL and the CROSS-DRESSERS and the MACULINE WOMEN and the SISSIES and the MTF’s [Male-to-Female] and the ANDROGYNES and the GENDER FUCKERS and the FEMALE IMPERSONATORS and the DRAG KINGS and BOYS WHO LIKE PINK and BOYS WHO LIKE PINK and PUSSY BOYS and STRAP ON GIRLS.
TRANSSEXUAL: I use that term to mean people who have a consistent, abiding, long-term, unvarying sense of belonging to or feeling more comfortable in a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth [who] do whatever is in their means to manifest that [identity] to other people. Usually, that means hormones and surgery and living as minimally as possible in the role. The body gets read as the most important sign of the reality of your identification.
MONSTER: I think of myself as [one]. It’s to my benefit that I pass as something else. It’s hard to be a monster, socially. When I’m flying on an airplane, or happen to ride the El, I just don’t want shit from people. And so, I look much more like a straight girl… It’s a mutation.
S/M: I see value in the S/M community, because it really shows how you can both shift positions and that roles and gender don’t necessarily go together. Dominance and submission don’t necessarily go with masculine or feminine.
PERVERT: I’m a PERVERT. To pervert means to turn aside. And I’ve really turned aside… I don’t feel particularly attached to any of these labels except for TRANSSEXUAL and WOMAN.