Riki Wilchins: A queer titan looks back

Activist and author Riki Wilchins thinks “we may be reaching a point of diminishing returns on identity politics — that is, organizing everything politically by who and what you are.”
Activist and author Riki Wilchins thinks “we may be reaching a point of diminishing returns on identity politics — that is, organizing everything politically by who and what you are.”
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Riki Wilchins may be the most important queer activist and author you’ve never heard of.

A genderqueer pioneer, her résumé boasts three books, the co-founding of four landmark organizations, and a lifetime of incisive, often contrarian ideas that have challenged the LGBTQ community’s status quo.

Wilchins first made her mark in the early 1990s with The Transsexual Menace, a direct action activist group that mobilized concerned trans people from around the country to hold impromptu vigils in cities and towns where transgender women or men had been murdered in hate crimes.

One of their vigils brought attention to the death of Brandon Teena, leading to the documentary “The Brandon Teena Story” and eventually the film “Boys Don’t Cry.”

“Transsexual Menace was not planned,” Wilchins says. “It was a reaction to the closeted-ness and invisibility of trans people at that time and the way we were continually getting screwed over by LGB groups, Pride parades, by the Gay Games, and of course every time one of us was fatally attacked. It was a way to show pride, visibility and solidarity — things that were very much missing in the community at that point.”

Around this same time, she co-founded Hermaphrodites With Attitude, the Intersex Society of North America’s first action group, in partnership with ISNA’s Executive Director Cheryl Chase.

Perhaps Wilchins’ most permanent contribution to the queer protest movement came in her co-founding of Camp Trans, the yearly demonstration held near the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to protest MWNF’s exclusion of trans women from its grounds.

Like Transsexual Menace, Wilchins says the organization was an impromptu affair. “Camp Trans came out of Janis Walworth’s inviting me to present some workshops with her and a couple of friends outside Michigan after Nancy Burkholder was kicked out for being transgender,” she says. “Hundreds of women were walking out to meet with us, and I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this could scale.’ And I realized we had a hold of something that could be much, much bigger and really turn up the heat on the issue.”

While this history is fascinating and important, much of it remains unwritten. A scan of the web turns up little about these groups, or Wilchins’ contribution to them. She admits to wondering whether her legacy will be remembered.

“It does occur to me,” Wilchins says. “Part of the problem is that so much of that happened before the web blew up. When we started InYourFace, the first transgender political newsletter, I had to call activists around the country to find out what was going on in their cities, and it was printed only in hard copy. Ten years later trans-news zines were everywhere online, and it was all being done by email. And also, the LGBT movement has always had a terrible memory for its own history. And many in the trans leadership never quite forgave me for being inclusive and not totally devoted to trans folks alone.”

She recounts an example of this inclusiveness in her incredible (and criminally undervalued) book, “Queer Theory Gender Theory,” in which she applies post-modern philosophical techniques to a critique of the gender binary. In her anecdote, she recalls her time as head of GenderPAC, a lobbying group she helped found that worked in Washington, D.C., to help further legislation that protected the rights of trans and gender-variant people.

At the time, she began seeing gender as an issue that affected all people, not just transsexuals — the group many within the organization wanted to focus solely on. The disagreement led to her eventual exit from the lobby.

Intellectually restless, Wilchins has always challenged prevailing ideas. In her speech, “A New Kind of Politics,” for example, she argued for “post-identity” politics, in which individuals advocate for rights for all, without limiting their own identities to certain markers, like lesbian or transgender.

When I suggested there was a paradox in withholding one’s own identity markers while lobbying for minority rights, she pushed back with trademark wit and passion. “It is entirely possible to fight for issues and not identities,” she says. “For instance, many straight people advocate for marriage equality without being LGBTQ. It’s not about who you present yourself as. It’s about what you believe in. I trust you would agree that I can fight to save the whales, without being a whale myself.

“A lot of people misread post-identity politics to mean everyone should give up identities tomorrow,” she continues. “On the contrary, I was trying to focus on issues that might bring us together. I think we may be reaching a point of diminishing returns on identity politics — that is, organizing everything politically by who and what you are. It’s not only beginning to feel worn out and tired, but it’s never worked well for folks who have intersecting identities — and there are a lot of them.”

Wilchins continues to share her ideas via her column in The Advocate where, as always, she assails the transphobia that that plagues our culture, the medical crimes committed against intersex infants, and the arbitrariness and artificiality of the gender binary.

She often finds inspiration in the young queer community, however. “I think the urge to be fluid and outside of identity boundaries is becoming more widespread among young people,” she says.

It’s true, and it’s a way of being she’s helped pioneer.