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Say it’s 1989 and you’re feeling some inklings that the prescribed path set for your gender is not sparking joy. For this thought experiment, let’s say you were born female and that’s not quite calling to you. You’ve tried exploring that feeling of otherness through gender atypical dress and though that worked out quite well for some of your dear friends, you still feel incomplete.

Maybe you’re a couple years into that journey and after a lot of contemplation, you decide that living your life as a man is what will fix that disconnect. You want your body to reflect that, and so you look for ways to change it. Today, if you were looking for those medical resources, you might look the topic up on the internet. You’d probably find, eventually, personal accounts and advice from other people on the same journey as you. Though a quick internet search was not the way you could discover that advice in 1989, you’d probably eventually find members of your community who could point you in the right direction. Maybe you’d subscribe to a mailing list or a newsletter full of advice, accounts, and advertisements by people in your new(ish) community. From there, perhaps you’d embark on the long process of pursuing hormones, surgery, and other medical procedures, and finally find comfort and happiness in your body.

The experience of gender transition in the late 20th century was influenced by the tight-knit nature of queer communities in the face of societal oppression and the grassroots political and social organizing that grew in response to that. Threats of legal and social consequences also influenced a gender transition, as did fractured elements of community as a result of the ongoing AIDS crisis.

Throughout this project, I use terms like gender non-conformity, gender atypical dress, and crossdressing to represent the experience of presenting oneself differently than what is expected of the gender assigned at birth. Generally, gender non-conformity is used today, and crossdressing was used in the time period presented here. I also use terms like transmasculine (popular today) and female-to-male or FTM (popular in the period) to represent those moving from feminine gender presentation to masculine presentation in a more permanent manner. Similarly, I use transfeminine and MTF to represent the other direction. I also use the word “trans” to represent the variations in terminology as time has passed. That includes transsexual, a 20th century term for those pursuing a medical transition, and transgender, a term that in the late 20th century arose to mean those pursuing social transition.

[TITLE] “Life Here is the Body” is quoted from Lou Sullivan, We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1961-1991, ed. Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, (New York: Nightboat Books, 2019), 353.