Thursday, 1 October 2015

Interview with Sandy Stone

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor 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 a 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

Monika: In 1979, the lesbian feminist scholar Janice Raymond attacked you for using your “male energy” to destroy the Olivia Records collective and womanhood in “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male”. Your answer in “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” (1983) was historical in that sense that it gave rise to the academic discipline of transgender studies. In retrospect, how do you perceive that conflict?
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 the 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: In the mid-1990s you fell prey to many attacks as the result of your several highly publicized interviews during which you suggested that the era of academic scholarship was over…
Sandy: It was controversial then, it’s mainstream today. Now we need to craft a workable successor institution going forward, and that is not at all a simple thing.

Monika: What is the contemporary stance of feminism in relation to the transgender phenomenon?
Sandy: I would say there is no such thing as “feminism”. There are many feminisms, and each one has its own stance vis-à-vis transgender. So that question has no simple answer. 
Monika: What should be the main focus of transgender studies these days?
Sandy: Transgender Studies is whatever transgender scholars do. I have no preconceived notion of a direction the field should go. From time to time I see trends emerge, and they are invariably exciting to me, and they shift and change. That just means the discipline is alive and vital. Different scholars will find the focus that empowers them, articulate it, and move on.
Monika: How has the Internet contributed to the success of the transgender cause? 
Sandy: If there is a transgender cause, it’s simply to be able to live our lives in peace. Anything that enhances social communication can be an organizing tool toward that end. That’s true not only for the trans communities but for any community. Online we have discussion groups, resources, things as simple as letting someone who is isolated in a hostile social pocket know there are others out there to talk with. Sometimes just knowing you are not alone can be enough.
Monika: Recently the media have set their spotlight on Caitlyn Jenner. Since her coming out she has been the focus of many articles and attacks. What do you think about her and other transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Sandy: I’ll take any positive representation I can get. They’re all problematic and they’re all good, just like real life.
Monika: What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Sandy: Trans women are more readily accepted than ever before, but, as the virulence of TERF hate groups and the suicide and murder rates for trans people, especially trans women of color, show, we have a long, long way to go. 
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Sandy: I transitioned in my 30s, and I had the luxury of being able to choose the way I transitioned and the community in which I did so; nevertheless, getting to the point at which that supportive environment was in place required long and excruciating work. By its nature, I don’t think transition can be easy for anyone. When you decide to proceed with transition, metaphorically speaking, they issue you a ticket with everything you need to know and do written out on it. (Expand the variable “they” in any way you choose.)
The joke is that you can never know everything that’s on the ticket. There are always critical things that you didn’t know were there, and suddenly they jump up and bite you. You learn that people you counted on to stay with you through transition, and who promised they would, suddenly abandon you, or worse, betray you in ways that catch you off balance and unprepared; while others whom you were sure would leave without a second glance wind up becoming defenders and companions and friends. The chemical and emotional changes are unpredictable, unpleasant, and occasionally cataclysmic.
On the other hand, the rewards are spectacular. Still, as with puberty, I was profoundly glad when it was over so I could get on with life.
Monika: At that time, did you have any transgender role models that you followed? 
Sandy: No. I knew of Christine Jorgensen, but she was not a role model. She was tall and willowy and blonde, I was short and kinda clumsy and brunette.

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 gay activism? Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Sandy: There are many. Kate Bornstein. Susan Stryker. Too many others to name. You’ll get a different answer from each trans person you ask.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Sandy: There is no unitary transgender community, just as there is no one unitary LGBT group. There are organizations that claim to speak for the majority of those communities, and they do good work. Individual trans groups promote their causes in local LGBT communities, and those may be different in different locales.
In general, though, trans issues are still the tail of the distribution and will be dropped first before other interests when it is convenient to do so. Needless to say, this needs work.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Sandy: Politics is not how I choose to apply myself to furthering trans issues. On the other hand, though, in my ontology, all acts are political acts. When I teach, I’m doing politics. When I make art, the same thing applies.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Sandy: I happen to love and be loved, and I consider that the greatest gift and blessing I could have. But it was not always so. I am profoundly grateful and try my best to give as good as I receive. Corinthians 13:13.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Sandy: Sometimes after ten beers or so, but I punch myself in the face a few times and the feeling goes away.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria? 
Sandy: Nothing I know would be applicable to all transgender girls or women. The closest I could come might be the last lines of my novel “Ktahmet”:
“And to you who still wait, looking for the opportunity or the courage or the awakening, we say: Whenever you are truly ready, then will we be there; whenever you begin your own Remembering, then will we be at your side.
—And in the time of waiting, we say to you: “Alana, Ktahmet, moy senyo nui hgytah —” Beloved sister, the warriors return, return to thee in love and power!” 
Monika: Sandy, thank you for the interview!
Sandy: You’re welcome!

Main photo: courtesy of Sandy Stone.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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