Susan Stryker was born into a White working-class family in Fort Sill, Oklahoma on July 7, 1961. Her father was an army Sergeant, and his service brought Susan’s family to Arkansas, Texas, Hawaii, and Germany before settling back in Oklahoma when Susan was 10. Three years later, her father passed away unexpectedly. Newly widowed and on her own, Susan’s mother got a social work degree so she could support her two children. Her mother’s initiative gave Susan the inspiration to know that she could transform and restart her life in adulthood.
Throughout her youth and adulthood, the outside world perceived Susan as male. But when Susan spent the summer she turned 19 alone in Europe, she found clarity about her gender and sexuality. Although she didn’t think of herself as the “guy” that the world saw her as, she wasn’t sure she would transition. But she did conclude, “I need to date bisexual women. I need to date women who are not going to be put off by my body, but who know how to have an erotic or romantic relationship with women.” Shortly afterward, she entered an 11-year relationship with a woman with whom she had a son. Their relationship outwardly “passed as straight,” while privately sharing a world where Susan felt seen for who she was.
During this time, Susan earned her PhD in United States history from University of California in Berkeley. While juggling parental and academic responsibilities, she was also exploring her identity in the queer dungeons and drag bars of San Francisco. By the end of her PhD in 1992, she decided to transition to female, which ended her relationship with her partner.
Now living as an openly transgender woman, Susan applied for dozens of professorship jobs to no avail. While living in extreme poverty, Susan seized on her newfound freedom to explore academics, politics, and art on her own terms – what she refers to now as her “unpaid residency in transgender studies.” She became a founding member of the group Transgender Nation; and in 1999, Susan was hired as the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, where she laid the organization’s financial foundation by raising $2 million.
After five years with the GLBT Historical Society, Susan returned to academia with a post-doctoral fellowship in sexuality studies through Stanford University. Through that fellowship, she completed her Emmy Award-winning documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005). She went on to become Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at University of Arizona, where she served for five years as Director of the Institute for LGBT Studies and founded the university’s Transgender Studies Initiative.
After her tenure at UofA, Susan served as Presidential Fellow and Visiting Professor at Yale University and the Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership at Mills College. She is the author of Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution, and co-editor of the two-volume Transgender Studies Reader and The Transgender Studies Reader Remix. She is currently working on a new book, entitled Changing Gender: A Trans History of North America from Colonization to the Present.
In her interview with OUTWORDS, Susan reflects on channeling her anger at the mistreatment of trans people into her life’s work of public storytelling. Through reshaping the public consciousness about gender in her research, teaching, and art, she seeks to create a safe and welcoming environment for future trans generations.