Queer studies pioneer Susan Stryker said she once felt that she might not be able to get a job as a professor.
But a decade later, Stryker said that she believes that academics have increasingly embraced the queer community.
Stryker spoke to about 25 students Wednesday at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea co-sponsored by the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. Stryker, a writer, actor, artist and filmmaker, serves as executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society, or GLHS, of San Francisco, one of the world’s largest archives of gay and lesbian material.
During Stryker’s last year as a Ph.D. history student at the University of California at Berkeley, she came out as transsexual and transitioned from male to female — a decision that severely limited her job prospects.
“Let’s just say it wasn’t a good career move,” Stryker said. “It was completely beyond the pale of acceptability — I might as well have said I was from Mars.”
Stryker said she had previously been interested in studying indigenous American radical political movements, but she decided to use her unique expertise to help start the burgeoning field of transgender studies.
“Queer studies was just getting started, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m queer. I could bring a different perspective,’” Stryker said. “It was this new thing, transgender studies, and you could see it on the horizon.”
Since then, Stryker has pursued a career encompassing a variety of fields, including performance, photography and digital media. Her commercial projects include a history of queer paperback literature titled “Queer Pulp” and a set of address books illustrated with cover art from such novels.
“I used the money from these commercial projects to subsidize some research time,” Stryker said. “I don’t want to demean my own work, but it wasn’t rocket science to write these books.”
Stryker has also established herself in academia, having received a two-year research fellowship at Stanford University.
With regard to her work at the GLHS, Stryker said the group is seeking funding from the city of San Francisco to establish itself as a museum that caters to the city’s gay tourism industry.
“Archives aren’t exactly a sexy sell,” Stryker said. “Now museums — museums are sexier than archives. So we said, ‘Let’s be a museum that houses a world-class research center.’”
Overall, Stryker said she is impressed with the progress the queer studies field has made in the past decade, though she thinks more remains to be done.
“There has never been a transgendered person hired to teach queer studies specifically in academia,” Stryker said. “That’s like having a women’s studies department with no women faculty. The academy needs to step up to the problem and hire some transgendered professors.”
Students in the audience expressed interest in Stryker’s unique perspective on academia.
“She was the first openly transgendered person I’ve ever met, and she offered very interesting viewpoints on what it was like to be transgendered in the academic world,” Andrew Beaty ’07 said.
After the tea, Stryker spoke about her current project, a historical documentary called “Screaming Queens: San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966,” and showed clips from the film.
Errol Saunders ’06 attended the screening. He said he was intrigued by Stryker’s attention to transgendered and transsexual people in her work.
“It’s very interesting that she’s working on things that aren’t being discussed in the general discourse,” he said.