Sandy Stone on Living Among Lesbian Separatists as a Trans Woman in the 70s
Before pioneering transgender studies in academia, Sandy Stone was a member of the legendary lesbian music collective Olivia Records—and the target of vitriol from early trans exclusive radical feminists.
Photo by Jordan Reznick.
Read more from our Trans Legends oral history project, a growing archive of interviews with transgender icons and pioneers.
Deeply esoteric and decades ahead of her time, Allucquére Rosanne “Sandy” Stone, referred to more widely as Sandy Stone, has a unique tale of survival situated at the heart of 1970s radical lesbian feminism.
Throughout the 70s, Stone was part of the famous radical feminist music collective, Olivia Records. But her presence did not go unchallenged. She describes attending a community meeting only to be met with an angry swarm of trans exclusive radical feminists (TERFs) assembled for the sole purpose of expelling her from her own collective simply because she was assigned male at birth. TERFs posit that biological sex characteristics are immutable, that gender is determined by genitals at birth, and that trans women are gynephiliac fetishists invading women’s spaces with male privilege. Some women had travelled from across the country to participate in Stone’s public shaming and intended expulsion.
Not long before, in 1979, lesbian writer Janice Raymond had published The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which included an ad hominem attack on Stone, and which led to the town hall meeting on that red-letter day. As a response, in 1987, Stone effectively birthed the academic discipline of transgender studies by publishing her enduringly influential essay, The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.
Sandy Stone is the original trans girl computer hacker. After building a computer in the early 1980s and teaching herself to code, she parlayed her years of experience as a music engineer into technology development and academia. Stone’s work as a writer, thinker, artist, and performer helped establish the genre of New Media art. And, over decades, she has inspired generations of irreverent trans women to fight transmisogyny unapologetically and bring new, unafraid forms of thinking and making into the world.
At 82 years old, Stone is the senior-most trans woman in this series. I was introduced to her by my (chosen) aunt, Kate Bornstein. Bornstein and Stone are kindred spirits, both trans pioneers unafraid of claiming outsider identities as freaks and heretics; both people who center dissension and nonconformity as sacred values.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZACKARY DRUCKER: Maybe you can first tell me about your path to trans identity. Where were you in your life? When was it? What was the breadcrumb trail that you followed?
SANDY STONE: I was one of those very classic literature trans people. I realized there was something wrong when I was five years old, but at that time, which was the 1940s, there were little boys and there were little girls. There was no trans information out there whatsoever. The funny thing was, I thought of myself as a little girl. But I didn’t think of myself the way, apparently, other little girls that I knew thought of themselves as little girls. I’m binarizing this, because it was binarized at the time. The girls that I was hanging out with as a girl, in my fantasies, were climbing mountains and swimming rivers and hunting critters in the woods and meeting big animals and learning to get along with them. Strange adventure fantasies, which boys think of happening with boys, I thought of them as happening with girls.
Later, after I did transition, I discovered that in fact, there were women like that and I wound up hanging out with them. I hung mainly with a group that called itself the Amazon 9, all of whom were lesbians and liked hiking, hanging out in the woods, swimming; at one point we were dropped by airplane above the Arctic Circle and kayaked down the Kobuk River for 13 days to get back to civilization. Entirely a group of women, before this was kind of a thing. So, what I mean by all this, is my introduction was weird. I thought of myself as a woman, but at the time when thinking of oneself as a stereotypical woman probably involved homemaking. It didn’t involve anything like that, and it never has.
Eventually, when I got something that could kind of vaguely be called a role model, it was Christine Jorgensen, because she was the only thing around, and Christine Jorgensen was tall, willowy, blonde, and liked to wear high heels and makeup. That was absolutely as far away from me as you can get. Once I did transition, I didn’t wear makeup, I wore T-shirts—pretty much what anyone else of any gender was wearing at the time. The only role model around being Christine Jorgensen, I couldn’t use it. Everything else that was going on at the time was hostile.
Eventually, when I did find an organization that might help, it was the Transsexual Counseling Unit, which was a part of the police department in San Francisco. A woman there tried very, very hard to discourage me from transitioning by walking me around the Tenderloin [neighborhood of San Francisco] and showing me every possible horrible thing about [being] transgender that she possibly could. I took it differently. It didn’t discourage me, it just made me angry that the transgender people I saw were being neglected and abused in the ways that they were. The woman made a point to show me a lot of people who got stuck in the middle of transitioning; who had gone halfway through electrolysis, say, if they were male-to-female—I’m using terms [of] the time—then ran out of money, so their faces looked like the surface of the moon. It was really a bunch of the sorriest-ass characters that she could find. She had either collected them or they were living—I think they were actually living in basements in the Tenderloin. Some of them had red light bulbs in the ceiling, so those visits were like Dante-esque descents into hell.
.The woman looked at me and said, “So, you still want to do it?” She was trying to frighten me off and it was just making me angrier and angrier.
How did you find your way to her?
That was the first time that I managed to get far enough away from my parents that I felt I had enough space to pursue anything. I made it to San Francisco, I got into mainstream recording, and I did that for as long as I wanted to, and then in the middle of it, I suddenly realized I couldn’t go on with that particular form of deception, and I had to do something about it.
Who were you working with as a recording engineer at the time?
Well this was the West Coast. When I was on the East Coast, I had been working with Jimi Hendrix primarily, but a bunch of other people whose names might not mean anything. Karen Dalton, that sort of thing. When I got to the West Coast, I worked with Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Grateful Dead, Marty Bound, with the Airplane, a bunch of other—did I say Van Morrison? Anyway, that era of people, all of whom at one time or another I got to work with. I was having a good time, and it was very stressful, and if you threw your heart into it, which I did, it could be really exhausting. At some point, I said, I’ve got to do something about becoming who I am.
I started calling around in San Francisco. Of course, there was nothing. There were no transgender support people, no health focus groups; none of that. There was the Mattachine Society.
What year is this approximately?
This would’ve been the mid or late 60s, I think—something like that. Then there was the Daughters of Bilitis, which it turned out, also were reachable by phone. No internet, no cell phones, none of that. I had a dial-up phone and a phone book. At that time, the phone book was Google, and I was trying to find help for a word that didn’t exist. Somebody told me it could be the Mattachine Society.
So I called them. It was a bunch of middle-aged gay guys and they were not at all interested in trans, and they more or less turned up their polite noses at me, and went, “hmm, well we don’t do anything like that, why don’t you call Daughters of Bilitis?” Daughters of Bilitis was basically the same thing, with the gender swapped. So I don’t remember how I got in touch with them, but somebody over there mentioned that the best way for me to get help, you poor thing, was to call the police. And I thought, What!?
Well, actually, the police were the closest thing to a support organization that you could get. They had a project called the Transsexual Counseling Unit, and they did outreach to the trans people in the Tenderloin who were sex workers.
What was the word they were using at the time? You’re saying trans people, but at the time were they saying “female impersonators,” were they saying “cross-dressers,” were they saying “transvestites”?
Well, in my conversations, I was saying “transsexual,” because it was the only word I knew, and they were saying “transsexual.” Maybe they said it first and then I picked it up. But the word “transsexual” was definitely the word of choice. Mattachine mostly said “people like you,” or something like that. But once I got in touch with the TCU, the transsexual counseling unit, we began using the word “transsexual.” It seems to be that the bounds were very porous between whatever we were calling “transsexual,” what we were calling “crossdressing”… the distinctions were not quite as clear as they are now.
Generally, it seems to me that everyone they were working with had surgery as a goal. It might be a distant goal, it might be totally impractical, it might be a thousand light-years away, but there was some sort of goal out there, and it was surgery as a magic solution to problems that were clearly insuperable by any human means. There were people who, by the standards at the time, were not passable in any sense of the word—and remember, I’m talking about a particular time. I’m not sure I would use “passing” in the same way now. They couldn’t pass so they were stuck in a half-world. By the TCU standards, they were still transsexuals. The term was “transies,” which we used all the time. So anyone I saw there was a transy. And everyone I saw at the TCU was a failed sex worker, or occasionally a cocktail waitress in the Tenderloin. So that was my kind of growing-up. I didn’t really grow up there, I looked at it and said, “This is not me, this is crazy, it’s nice to see that the police department is trying to do some kind of outreach. That’s great. But I don’t belong here, what do I do now?”
Eventually, I found a doctor in Boulder Creek who was very positively disposed towards the trans issue. He would get me estrogen by the quart bottle of .75mg purple pills. Eventually, I switched to yellow pills and stayed on them until three years ago. Those are 2.5 mg estrogen, which is several hundred times the dose you’re supposed to be on, and I didn’t know it because it never came up with anybody. Occasionally, I would have a doctor find out I was doing that, he’d say “What are you doing?! You fool! You’re going to get breast cancer, or strokes!” I’d say, “When I get my first stroke, I’ll quit.”
I got my first stroke three years ago. It was very minor, and my wonderful doctor sat on the foot of my bed and folded her arms and looked at me and said, “What the hell are you doing?” I explained: “I take Premarin 2.5.” No one else would dream of doing that. And she said, “Well, you took your last one. Here’s this patch.” Same system.
There I was for thirty-whatever years on these pills I originally got from a very interesting sympathetic doctor in Boulder Creek, California, and I spent a year or two trying to figure out how to transition. I found an electrologist who was quite wonderful. We worked out a deal: I was going to be there a lot so I got a bit of a discount. I went every day of the week I could go, plus weekends, and I spent like half my life at that point on her table.
She and I talked about almost everything in the world, and I picked up an education about an entirely different universe I knew nothing about. I ran out of money about, I think, three months out from being done. All this time, I’ve been passing as male, and we’ve been working at it from the bottom up, which I guess is what everybody does these days. She said, “We can get rid of a tremendous amount of hair without anybody noticing. It just looks like you’re shaving differently.” I ran out of money and she said, “Look, we’ve come this far, I’ll continue without charge. I’m intending to retire when we’re done anyway.” We hugged each other, and she did. She did that. And she retired and gave me a china set as she was closing out her home. I went back to Stanford and started on that road with them.
This is in the early 1970s at this point?
Yeah, I actually transitioned publicly in 1974.
And the Amazon 9, were they trans women, were they cis lesbians?
As far as I know, they were all cis, they were all lesbians, and they were all adventurers. I just became one of the tribe! I wouldn’t say that I was adopted as much as I was absorbed. We did a lot of interesting stuff together. That happened in a number of different ways. As I began to explore further in a community of women, I ran into women circles and all-women groups who did other things. That was just as interesting. I discovered—of course as everybody knows now, but it was such a revelation then—that you could be a woman without stereotyping anything, without encountering traditional cis female culture at all. Particularly, when I got to Olivia [Records] and discovered that there were lesbian safe houses across the United States, and that you could travel from coast to coast and never encounter someone presenting as male, like a wonderful parallel subculture—or superculture. Everywhere. A rhizome all over the country. For a while, I inhabited that rhizome.
Encountering the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, it sounds like you were conscious of how entrenched the binary was. How were you perceived by the lesbian separatists? It was before Janice Raymond’s attack in the late 70’s. It was a less formed time.
I spent most of my time, at that point, in Santa Cruz. Because of what Santa Cruz is, there weren’t many separatists around. It wasn’t until after [The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male] came out, really, that I encountered any. I encountered one or two in Santa Cruz. When that came about, I immediately thought of what Janice Raymond said about the way transsexuals divide the women’s community. My way of dividing the Santa Cruz women’s community was that the very few separatists—trans-exclusionary separatists, because not all separatists were trans-exclusionary—but the few who were, called a meeting of the women’s community in Santa Cruz. Which, at the time, was possible, because we all knew each other; it was like the days of ancient Greece when the polis consisted of everybody you could see from atop the Agora. You could get all the women in the women’s community in Santa Cruz in one room. You could see who they were. So we did that, and this was not a meeting caused specifically for this purpose, we were there for several agenda items; one of them was, “Will Sandy Stone be accepted as a woman in Santa Cruz?” This was put forward by the transphobic separatists. It being Santa Cruz, there was reasonable discussion from the accepting side. The transphobes said what they always say: Men divide community and so-forth. Then we took a vote on it and it was all of the rest of the community in favor, and the two radical separatists against. So, the two transphobes against. I want to be really clear about that: it wasn’t separatists, it was radical (i.e, transphobic) separatists. So, as Janice Raymond predicted, I did, in fact, divide the Santa Cruz women’s community. I divided it into the transphobes and the non-transphobes. It being Santa Cruz, everybody left the meeting and life went on. The transphobes went off and grumbled about it and that was pretty much the end of that. Since that time, I have not encountered any transphobes in Santa Cruz. As you know, we have a huge gay pride event every year. You’d think they’d show up there.
How did you make your way to Olivia Records?
Olivia headhunted me. A little bit of backstory: My choice of leaving the recording world was just to get out, close that door, and not look back. Later, after I transitioned, obviously I did look back, because I went with Olivia.
At first, I didn’t, and I had to find work in Santa Cruz. So I took the easiest thing I could do, which was get a job repairing stereos for some kind of chain of audio stores in the Best Buy mold. They had a store in the mall in Santa Cruz. Worked at that, then I transitioned, carefully explained to them what I was doing, and they fired me.
I essentially ran across the street and I rented a storefront and I opened up a stereo repair shop, which was, again, the default, lowest denominator thing I could do. I called it the Wizard of Aud, and it became a little collective of women. The deal was: I taught them to repair stereos and we hung out there and we fixed stuff and sold used equipment. We became something of a meeting point for parts of the community. The whole thing was run in a ridiculous manner. We set our prices arbitrarily, so we could make our rent by fixing five stereo units in a month. You could do that at that time. Pretty soon, we were just inundated with business. We became extremely popular and we became more, perhaps, of a center for women than I had ever expected. I mean, we were a store with a couch in it; people would sit and schmooze and drop off things to be repaired, and, eventually, I put [the stereo store across the street] out of business. They had multiple factors going against them, but one of them was that no one went to them to have anything repaired anymore.
I was doing that one day, and I looked up from whatever the hell I was doing, and there were two women in the front of the store looking at me, and I said, “Can I help you?” and they said, “We’re from Olivia Records, and we hear that you’re a recording engineer. We’re looking for a woman to engineer some music for us. Would you like to try doing that?” I said, “Yeah, but I think I should tell you before we go any further that I’m a transsexual.” And they said, “Yeah, we know.” I said, “Oh, how’s that”? They said, “We talked to Leslie Ann Jones in San Francisco and she mentioned you were down here.” Apparently, they asked Leslie if she’d like to do it and she didn’t. So I said, “Okay, let’s talk a little more about what you do.”
They told me about Women’s Music, and I didn’t quite get it. I drove down to LA, and I did a project with them—actually I didn’t do it in LA, we did it at Different Fur in the East Bay. The band was called BeBe K'Roche. Afterward the Olivia women asked me if I would come do work with them. They looked like a younger version of the Amazon 9, but making music. At that point, they were renting two houses next to each other and one across the street [in Los Angeles]. The main one had some rooms where some of the women stayed, kitchen and dining facilities, and the meeting room, and a mailroom. The other house was a dorm for other women, where we eventually tried to build our first recording studio; and the one across the street was the graphics department, with literature, and flyers, and album covers and inserts. I hung out with them, and they looked like a very interesting and friendly group.
They had tremendous group spirit, as you could imagine, and a huge amount of positive energy. It looked to me like they were doing really good stuff—valuable political work for women—and they were doing it in ways that they probably shouldn’t have been, but extending more credit than what was advisable to their network of women distributors. I became enthralled by this idea, and I hung out with them, and they invited me to hang and stay for a few days, which I did. One thing led to another, and I wound up being invited to join the collective, which was what you did instead of getting hired. So I did that. The fact that they were all separatists didn’t bother me at all. Apparently, it frightened away a lot of other people, but I had been hanging out with the Amazon 9, so it was just another group of women. We worked very well that way for quite a while, until Janice Raymond came along.
So Janice Raymond came out of thin air, as it were. What was is like when you realized she had mentioned you and the collective in her book?
I don’t remember how we first found out that it was out there, but eventually somebody showed it to me and said “What do you think of this?” and I looked at it and read it and said, “Well that’s disgusting! But what the hell. My life is not covered with rose petals. It’s another thing.”
And then an interesting thing happened. In addition to our usual volume of mail, we began to get 20 pieces a day, could be as high as 50, and they all had about the same thing in them. There was a paragraph that said “Hello Olivia, I’m a loyal fan of yours,” then there was a paragraph about how bad our last album was. Leading into how terrible the mix was! And how the instruments just sounded awful, and then they would compare to an album that had been done a few years ago, and then the last paragraph would be something like, “I hear that there’s a transsexual person working with you in engineering, and maybe you should think about getting a real woman to do your engineering, your records might sound better!” It was as if people were out there passing around a form letter.
That went on for a while, and then the letters began getting wilder. They began getting nastier and more threatening and then after a while, I found out there were letters coming in that they were not showing me. I asked why and [my collective member] Sandy Ramsey said, “because they contained personal attacks on you, we didn’t want to alarm you with.” It went up and up like that; that was the beginning. We ended up getting attacked in the press, then we had a tour.
Was it press within the ecosystem of lesbian feminism, or was it local press? What was the impact it was having inside your own life or the community?
Well, I don’t know personally, because I wasn’t spending that much time in the local community, which was the LA Wilshire district community. But some of the women, it turned out, were quite transphobic. On Black Thursday or Black Friday, we had a meeting, which you probably know about, that was called by the community in Oakland, where we were planning on moving, and we heard rumors that the meeting was being packed by people from out of town who were there to disrupt it. We didn’t pay much attention to that. Shame on us. We really didn’t understand the level of what was going on. The thing was: It wasn’t simply directed at me. Partly, I was the point of it. But partly, also, I was an excuse for people who didn’t like Olivia Records. It took us a while to get that sorted out, and it was a very sad thing that there were women who hated Olivia Records.
It’s irrational hatred within the community. In small, marginalized groups, there’s just this vitriol and you know, I do believe that all anger is self-anger.
Well, it makes a lot of sense to me. Do you have an acronym for that yet?
No, I’m just thinking out loud.
Well, that event blew the lid off everything for us. We went home shellshocked. That was the turning point, because we had just assumed we were going to go in there and have rational dialogue. When we got there, we were told that there was a group that had come down from Chicago who were notorious head-breakers. We didn’t know what that meant. I assumed that it was metaphorical.
We decided to defer to the other group to make an opening statement, and we would make our opening statement second. The first woman was one of the people from Chicago. She stood up, I didn’t know her because I didn’t know anyone from Chicago, and she made a very calm, quiet matter-of-fact statement of which the general tenor was, “Of course we all know that transgender people are really men, transsexuals are all men, they’re really destructive and carry male energy with them. One must be really misguided to be around them. So we’ve come to ask Olivia why they...”
How were they so sure? Did they have a ton of contact with trans people? It seems like it was coming out of a vacuum.
None of us had any idea and we never found out. I made a terrible mistake, because I didn’t understand how bad the situation was or what the stakes were. When she finished, it was our turn to make an opening statement, and I had assumed Jenny Ginny (Berson) would do it. Jenny Ginny says my memory is probably wrong because she’s not sure she was there. But whoever it was, I assume that one of the older members of the collective, some of the original people, would get up and make our opening statement, but I discovered everybody in the collective that was there, we had seven women, they were all looking at me, and I hadn’t prepared anything. This woman whom I didn’t know had just unloaded a huge truckload of bullshit on the group, and I looked at my collective mates and they were all looking at me, saying “Sandy, say something!” I said the first thing that came into my head, which was, “First of all, that’s all bullshit!” and the room exploded. Apparently, I had just said a totally male thing, and they were off!
It didn’t matter what you said.
I had given them the perfect excuse to be verbally violent. It literally turned into screaming. That was the end of the meeting. We couldn’t quiet it down. Eventually, we retreated to the far corner of the room. The other group said, “We won’t continue the discussion unless that guy leaves,” pointing at me. We had no plan for this at all! We were so naive. So, we went off to the corner of the room, and we caucused. All the other women said, “We’re not gonna let you leave.” So, we chose someone to go to the other side of the room and palaver with the other group. They went on and on, and we watched it from a distance. There was a lot of gesticulating and hand waving and moving of mouths and eventually she came back and said, “they won’t move or talk with us unless you leave, Sandy.” That’s realpolitik in the real world. What are you gonna do? We were a bunch of naive, young women, and we looked at each other, tongues tied, trying to get somewhere. I said, “I’ll tell you what, do you think we’re gonna get dialogue if I do go?” And she said, “Well at least it opens up the possibility that there might be some dialogue, because they say they won't even talk to us if you’re here. So we have either the choice of us leaving or you leaving.” I said, “Let’s see if you can get dialogue going, I’ll go home.” So I did.
I left and went back to—I don’t remember if I went back to the hotel room or how the hell I got back there because I was in shock. But I did get back to the collective home to Olivia House in Wilshire District of LA and went into my room and curled up in a ball. There was no further dialogue. They wouldn’t engage in reasonable discourse even after I left; my leaving was for nothing. The rest came back shell-shocked in their own way.
We did our best to process that, and then we went on the big tour. That was the West Coast Olivia tour. It was the first one they ever did. I had built all the audio equipment—not all of it, but most of it—by hand. We had made our own mic stands. We handmade a couple of our own microphones, though not all of them. I built the mixing board from scratch; I etched the circuit boards in the Olivia kitchen using an aquarium tank and a heater I had filled with etching solution. It was a totally homegrown operation. We made it work, and we were using things like brake drums for mic stand bases, and I built all the speakers; the stage wedges from scratch by hand in my bedroom. We built the whole thing up from nothing, and we went out on the tour, and before we got to Seattle, we heard about this group that had said when we got to Seattle they were gonna kill me. At this point, we were prepared to take such a threat dead-serious.
We had our first women’s concert—I’m laughing because it’s so completely absurd and was utterly scary at the time—we did the first women’s music concert with security. We had honest-to-god heavy-duty people. The group tht issued the threat was this radical, transphobic separatist group up there. They shaved their heads, wore camo gear, and had live weapons. We had people at the door checking for weapons. A couple of them did come. I don’t know if they brought any weapons—if they did, they were taken away. But I did the concert with—I could feel the hair standing up on my back the whole time, because I was working the board, which was set up right in the middle of the auditorium. I was the sole tech person.
Sitting duck, right in the center of the crowd!
Halfway through the concert, between numbers, somebody in the auditorium screamed the name of the group and I went under the console table so fast, I think I exceeded the speed of light. I was totally cowardly. I regret that. I feel it was a moment of shame. I should’ve stood up and turned around and looked at the audience, but my reflex was to duck.
To survive, yeah! It’s totally instinctual.
We got through the concert. Nothing happened. After the concert, I passed out. Not from fear, just from, I had—all right, I have to back up a bit if you don’t mind.
At some point, near the peak of the transphobic hysteria regarding Olivia Records, I suddenly realized, while they knew I was trans, I hadn’t bothered to tell them I was preoperative. At the time that was a no-no. At the time that was a huge thing.
In 1979, 1980, it was everybody’s business.
You remember that, right? Remember how that was? I didn't keep it from them out of malice; I hadn’t told them because I thought, well this is just personal information. Now, I was putting them in a really dangerous position. After a series of really horrible, agonizing meetings with only the core collective, we arranged for me to have surgery in secret, just before the tour. And we chose to do it right before the tour because we were also in the process of moving to Oakland. Part of the collective was in the Wilshire district at the Olivia house, part of it was in Oakland, and people were flying back and forth, and nobody was really keeping track of where anyone was. It would be possible for me to disappear for a week or two without anybody noticing. So that’s what we did.
How big was your influence to get surgery based on the hysteria around you?
Well I think it was all mine, but the timing was because of the hysteria. If you wanted to, maybe we could throw in forced feminization of an extreme kind!
Oh totally, are you kidding me?
I had been approved by Stanford before that. I was in Olivia living out my time before I could put together enough money to have surgery I had been doing that, saving up. And Olivia said, “We’ll contribute the balance, just go do it right now, and you can’t tell anybody else. Not our collective, not the women’s community, you can’t tell your family, you can’t tell anybody!” Those were the terms under which I did it. I want to tell you, it was scary. It was fucking terrifying.
It’s terrifying to begin with, but under these extenuating circumstances, having a mob behind you basically.
It was not fun. [It] could’ve been celebratory the way many peoples’ are, but it was not celebratory. Nobody from the collective could go anywhere near the hospital. Of course, Stanford, at that point, was being sued by somebody, and they were not doing gender confirmation surgery at the Stanford hospital. They were generally doing it at San Mateo General (a.k.a. Chope Hospital). That was where San Mateo had the prison ward. They put me in the prison ward because they didn’t know where else to put a transy. I had two guys on gurneys on either side of me. The one on the left side was just ranting incoherently and thrashing around. The one on the right was looking at me silently with this “I’ll kill you if I get loose” stare. It was not an enjoyable moment. They had guards for the other guys. Fortunately, they were handcuffed and couldn’t roll over and make a grab for me. I don’t think we were that close together.
I came back from surgery and went right back to the collective and pretended nothing had happened. I think I’m a week out of the hospital at this point. We go on tour, and after the strain of the Seattle one, I passed out. And the reason I passed out was I was still so weak from surgery. A few people on the tour knew, but most did not. I was busy pretending being a very macho woman and pretending everything was fine and doing the setup, and eventually the tank just ran empty.
Just hearing about that meeting in Los Angeles, it’s so volatile and irrational, and so dangerous. To be the only trans person in that space, with a room full of people out to get you… I’m wondering what is the take away? What is the survival strategy from that experience that can be applied today to trans people who are encountering the same kind of irrational fears about who we are? You know, what you’re describing is a microcosm of what’s happening on a larger cultural level right now.
I’m afraid having told you what I have, I don’t have much of a strategy for you; I only have what worked for me, which is how I got through that one and the next one and got into graduate school and got my job and got through the transphobia at University of Texas: you just put your head down and you keep fucking moving forward. That’s the only thing I know. And it’s terrifying and exhausting, and if you’re very, very lucky, you break through into something eventually, which I did. I also had the extreme privilege that I know a good many of my brothers and sisters don’t have. I have the extreme privilege of choosing to go to Santa Cruz. I thought, "I know this place is safe. It feels good to me." I’m going to stay here as long as I can, and I’m gonna make this work for me. I did that and I’m still here.
Famously, you were vindicated and wrote what many would perceive as the penultimate beginning of trans feminism with The Empire Strikes Back . That’s the antidote! That’s the real survival strategy, right? To produce and create something, to take that trauma and manifest it into something. Words, especially books, last forever. How is that a healing mechanism for you, and how did you channel all of that frustration?
I wrote it for Donna [Haraway]. It was my first year project in [the] History of Consciousness [department at the University of California, Santa Cruz]. I got into History of Consciousness the same way.
When Donna suggested I go down to San Diego to spend a year with their science studies program, I went over to the hard science side, to look at the people who were in the [Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Program]. I forget who was running the program. When I came into the lab, two of his grad students took me in to see him, and the first thing out of his mouth was “Why the fuck should I take any time to talk to you?” That makes you think really fast, and I did.
I got a two-second breather by taking the time to stretch or put my hands behind my head, which was kind of a fake maneuver to get a little moment, and I looked him in the fucking eyes and I said, “I’m the brightest person you’re likely to ever meet. I’m not in your field. I’m down here for sociology, but one of these days, I might just do something that you’ll need very much. And it pays you to talk to me right now, if for no other reason than that.”
He sat back and looked at me in an entirely different way and said, “Okay, what do you want to know?” And he gave me a tour of the glass cockpit project [they were working on] and we talked about how this and that was done from a technical viewpoint and I left. That kind of thing happened all the time! I never got used to it, but after a while, I got to realize it was going to happen, so at least I you know, I developed a gesture like that of putting my hands behind my head which gave me a second or two to think, “What the hell do I do now?” I don’t know if I’m the brightest person he’s ever likely to meet, that was completely false, but it was enough to get his attention.
I also developed another strategy that won’t be useful to anybody! While I was down there, I was having a horrible time. I was away from everyone I knew, I was away from my home, I was in a hostile environment. I was working in a sociology department, and I didn’t have that much affinity with it. I was there to visit a program—maybe the science studies program—which was totally traditional. They didn’t believe in cultural theory or critical theory, they were hostile to me and they later in fact threw me out. And I developed a strategy. There was an elevator in the humanities and social sciences building, which had eight floors. The sociology department was on one of the top ones. The elevator was very slow. I’d get in, the doors would close, I’d pick a time of day when there were few people in the building or traveling in it, and if I was lucky enough to be alone in the elevator, the doors would close, I’d lean against the wall of the elevator and I’d cry. I’d cry and cry ‘til I got to my floor and the doors would open, and I’d be on! I’d go in and do whatever the hell needed to be done. I wound up doing that for almost five years. But that was purely accidental, because I said something cultural or theoretical and they kicked me out. But I got rehired.
To paint with broad strokes, it seems like a big piece of your survival strategy was letting yourself be a full person, letting emotions pass through you, knowing that you would survive. I think that’s the trick of life: not being so overwhelmed and ruled and directed by your emotional space. You can get lost in it forever.
And I didn’t know I was going to survive. I just knew I needed to survive the next couple minutes. At least for me, my time sense closed in until it was just in the present moment. Okay, you’re in the present, something’s happening that hurts like hell, just be with it, now it goes away. It was kind of like that.
Sandy, how did you get your full name?
Sandy was a name you were using back then? I’m so interested in the journey.
Sandy was originally “Sanne,” which was a contraction of “Roseanne;” and I didn’t shorten it, friends did. It was a nickname that friends chose rather than I did. Allucquére was a name that a friend of mine named Robert Heinlein used in a novel, do you know that work?
I don’t but I’m a huge science fiction fan. But if your name is in it, I’m gonna read it! If it’s your namesake!
It is and she isn’t, but she’s the person I wouldn’t mind being! In the book, the protagonist, who goes by the name of Sam, meets someone who goes by the name of Mary. Because they both work for a secret organization, her name may or may not be Mary, but she likes being called Mary, so he calls her Mary throughout the book until you get to the point where it turns out that she had another identity when she was a kid. She was born into a very strange off-world sect that had customs that didn’t fit with the customs of any civilization they came into contact with, so they emigrated to another planet, and she was born there. There, she was named Allucquére. I thought, Damn! This is another hot damn moment. This is a woman who is known by one name who in fact, down a couple of layers of reality, has another name and another layer of reality. Let’s go down there. I don’t think Bob ever intended the name to be used by any living person, but I didn’t care! So I borrowed it and that was okay with him. I like names that have layers of identity to them.