Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Sandy Stone, an American academic theorist, writer, and founder of the academic discipline of transgender studies. She is currently Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory (ACTLab) and the New Media Initiative in the Department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Hello Sandy!
Sandy: Hi Monika!
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Sandy: Teaching. Writing. Making a recording studio. Making robots. Making art. Doing things with my grandkid. Hanging out with my family. Performing, lecturing. Discoursing with Cynbe. Living life. Having a hell of a good time.
Monika: Your contract with Olivia Records in 1974-78, a collective founded in 1973 to record and market women's music, seems to have changed your life totally. Suddenly you got involved in the lesbian feminist culture…
Sandy: The Olivia Collective identified publicly as lesbian feminist and internally as lesbian separatist. I had no idea what lesbian separatism was until they told me. They already knew I was trans when they approached me, but I didn’t know they knew, so I told them. They said they had no problem with that, and we got down to business. I didn’t have a contract with them; I joined the collective, became part of it, which involved a long vetting period during which we looked each other over very carefully to be sure we were a good match (I did an album with them as part of that vetting period), and, after mutually agreeing that it was a good idea, I left my home and friends in Santa Cruz and moved in with the collective, which at that point was about seven women and which grew to, I think, thirteen.
Being involved with Olivia was absolutely right for me at the time. We were making music and politics at the same time -- in fact our music was our politics -- and it was important to me that I should be working for political change in a way that engaged my strengths and skills in the best possible manner. So Olivia felt like a good fit to me, and I to them.
|The cover via thranesen.dk|
Sandy: I don’t think my opinion has changed much over the years from what the collective said internally at the time. Publicly we made some reasoned responses. Internally the general reaction was that an ignorant bigot had sent us a hate letter, we should answer politely (because we answered every letter we received), and that would be the end of it.
We didn’t see Raymond’s letter as dangerous, just as somewhat deranged, from a kind of parallel universe that had no resonance with anything in our day-to-day reality. Remember the acronym TERF didn’t exist yet.
What was so strange about Raymond’s ideas was her implicit sense of disempowerment. In Raymond’s universe, women were always victims. In her universe men disrupted women’s groups and appropriated their work while women looked on helplessly. Raymond wrote as if strong women simply didn’t exist. It made no sense to us. Certainly women could be outshouted or outgunned, but the women I knew were feisty and intelligent and assertive. They were strong! They stood up for what they thought was right. When necessary, they stood up to men. They drew strength from each other. They loved fiercely. I wanted to be like them.
Since I was five years old, I had thought of myself as a girl and later as a woman. But even at a young age, the peer group I imagined for myself was not what one might call feminine. I dreamed of climbing cliffs and shooting rapids and stalking wild animals, and in my dreams my companions in adventure were other women. At the same time, what the real world offered were the stereotypical feminine role models of the 1950s.
When eventually I met the women I’d dreamed were out there, I realized I’d come home. So when Janice Raymond unveiled her paranoid and extremely disempowering vision of men disrupting women’s affairs, it was little more than risible to women I knew. Of course, we now understand that hatemongers frequently look like buffoons in their early years, before they build their political base.
Monika: At that time did it ever occur to you that you were becoming a transgender icon?
Sandy: I know I’ve been called things that are more or less suggestive of “icon” -- like, for example, “lightning rod” -- but I don’t think of myself in that way.
Monika: The 80s and 90s witnessed your return to academia, you received your doctorate and established the New Media program called UT Austin ACTLab, which contributed to the establishment of New Media Art…
Sandy: And we went on for twenty years pushing the boundaries of a good many disciplines and having the time of our lives. My personal view was that I was put on this earth to use whatever abilities I have as a force for change, and that if I have anything at all to teach, it is that it’s the same for everyone. We can be strong, and we can make a difference -- if not in the large, then certainly in our immediate vicinity. That’s what the ACTLab was about.
Monika: What is the contemporary stance of feminism in relation to transgender phenomenon?
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism? Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Main photo: courtesy of Sandy Stone.