Transgender Portrait Series Part III: Discussing Historical Moments

As I have reviewed and re-reviewed several of the transgender interviews conducted as a part of Jimmy Fishbein’s Transgender Portrait Series—some which we have not yet discussed on this blog—it has become clear to me that the older, as well as younger, individuals in this project all discussed a common theme of shared “historical moments,” as an active part of being apart of the LGBTQ community at large. Issues for this entire community are discussed in relation to individual experiences and social understandings of their own positionality. For those growing up in Chicago and realizing their gender identity at various moments in time, context was almost as important as their own interpersonal relationships. This is particularly true for those who experienced the struggles and movements of the 60’s and 70’s. For today’s LGBTQ youth, the legalization of same-sex marriage at the federal level in the Obergefell V. Hodges case marked an important moment for LGBTQ community rights, and it is seen and discussed in terms of “progress” for couples and those who desire to marry—but also for the recognition of the community at-large. 

Below I have constructed an infographic based on Chicago History of the LGBTQ community. It is worthwhile to note that alongside of progress, there are also movements and struggles taking place every day, especially for the trans community. 


As you can see from this infographic, a lot of historical emphasis has focused on community resources, centers, and events for the LGBTQ community, as well as the passing of laws and the “coming out” of prominent figures. More and more neighborhoods are considered to be welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer families of all forms in the city of Chicago. An article by DNA Info noted the best places for same sex couples and LGBTQ members to live in the city. These historical moments are important to consider in individual lived experience, and we can begin to conceptualize how different “coming out” and being openly transgender might have been for those growing up in previous generations—when compared with the opportunities and resources available to today’s youth. 

That being said, the fight is not over, and individuals who identify as LGBTQ of all ages still emphasize the struggle of coming to terms with their identity and being respected and treated properly in communities all over the country. I found it was interesting to compare historical commentary on behalf of older individuals we interviewed: notions of secrecy, stigma, and general lack of understanding on issues surrounding gender, with youth commentary on social media and new issues of activism (such as gender neutral bathrooms). Ultimately what this clarifies is that while progress and major activist impact has been made for this community, there are now new issues and considerations in the current historical context, which are just as important to discuss. 

I am going to recap some of the interviews we have discussed on the JFP blog, with older participants: Audry, Katie, Rachel, and Susan, as well as younger interviewee, Tyler. Before moving on to additional interviews and topics, I want to use the strong content found in these interviews to explore the question of history: ultimately, how do the connections which bind people together (or rather, separate individuals and groups) change over time? 


One of the most common themes was “coming out” as transgender within the context of time and historical moment. Rachel noted, “If you were a young person 40 years ago having these thoughts and feelings, you were beating yourself up” and Audry too acknowledged the aspect of her own difficult transition, “Of course there was a lot of shame and confusion, because I was like the only person in the world who had this problem. Right now, people have the internet, back then I just had me—and I’m certainly not going to go to my parents and tell them I have this!” Certainly times have changed in terms of resources, online interactions, and community access, but for Tyler, while social media was an active part of his coming out, it is not as though it has made his transition smoother: “I came out on Facebook, I was hoping that everyone would know, so that it wouldn’t be awkward and I didn’t have to explain it to people…I thought with the people I had on my Facebook it would get around, because that is just how high school is—for some reason it didn’t, and I didn’t want to have to explain it to people. So, on the first day of school, I told my teachers, ‘this is the name I want to go by—don’t say my other name because it’s done.” Yet, like Rachel and Audry, Tyler struggled and continues to struggle with how his own identity fits, even in the context of coming out in the present sociocultural climate, he claims: “I’m so sick of fighting to be normal. I’ve never been normal in my life….Now finally knowing who I am, and being on testosterone and getting top surgery soon—I’m trying to now be me, and still, like, not being accepted and not fitting in—it sucks, I’m so sick of fighting to be normal. I am normal—what is normal anyway? There is no such thing.” While different elements of coming out have changed over time, coming to terms with one’s identity and being able to effectively communicate that remains an incredibly difficult thing for many. 

There are many older trans individuals that feel a sense of “jealousy” or longing for the experience of LGBTQ youth today. Tyler’s experience captures that while certain things may be improved or much better than they were 40 years ago, it isn’t exactly a smooth transition coming to terms with identity. It could very well be that the two generations have difficulty understanding one another in certain ways because of historical context. Susan discussed this issue and her thoughts at length: 

“If you would have told me that I would be walking around now, in a hotel, using the women’s wash room and things like that—trust me when I say that I’m not a threat, or any of that stuff—some people you probably have to be concerned that they may be doing it for other reasons, but this is a part of who I am and who a lot of us are. I’m so jealous of these young people, not in a bad way, but—they don’t realize how easy they got it. They don’t realize how difficult things were. There was no information and if you tried to get information, you were deemed weird—a pervert—you were sick—work I mean, they would have crucified you. They would have just fired you. They would have found a reason to fire and get rid of you! You really had to do a lot of burying. There might have been an opportunity where you could steal some of your wife’s stuff because she was gone…but I wouldn't have been able to shave my legs. You can’t understand what a difference it is—I never could do that. Some of these people get upset at older people, they shouldn't get upset! It was a different era they came up in. Just as I came up in a different era and you've gotta cut me some slack—because, now you young people. It’s a totally different ballgame for you. Every once in a while we get a couple of young girls that come for a meeting and —its like, oh you're too old, too boring, you're too conservative, you don’t go out, you don’t do this. They've got so many places, they are so accepted. They’ve probably got girls that accept them. Do you know how many of us would kill to have the right woman to accept us? (laughter). The young people, you've got a choice now. You got a choice before you make commitments to somebody else. You've got a choice in finding yourself in the world. You've got a choice where you can actually go to work, and you can be either/or and nobody is going to say anything”

Another theme that was present in all of these interviews is the notion of activism and taking on a role in the LGBTQ community to make a difference and possibly change and improve the connections which bind people together. Audry mentioned in her interview: “I’m getting older and I’m going to die at some point—and I’m going to have an obituary, and somewhere in that obituary I want it to say “trans-activist” because that is who I want to be.” For many, being involved in the community and bringing their own personal experiences and history in to the present social and political discourse is incredibly important. Katie noted, “40 girls are murdered every year, primarily because they're trans—people put animals to death more humanely than what happens to our people. Kaitlyn Jenner, like her or don’t like her, she did such a service by bringing it out there, as did Jenna Mock from Chicago. [she has] also been out and open and outspoken.” This is something that is present in discussions with older and younger community members. Tyler commented at length on the current political discussion on gender-neutral and transgender use of “gendered” bathrooms: 

“If you're like actually trans, because sometimes I feel like an issue would be like faking it, so they can change in the opposite sex restroom and get a peep at like, whatever, but if you are like ACTUALLY trans, and this is how you identify, this is who you are, you should be allowed to change wherever you feel comfortable and it shouldn’t be an issue. Allowing things like the privacy stalls—that’s just allowing segregation to continue, because it scares everybody—like oh they are changing behind a stall there must be something wrong with them. If people are allowed to just change with everyone else, people would see that it’s not something to be afraid of. I think it would just—not end the segregation, but, it wouldn’t be as scary for people, and it would end ignorance, in a way.”

Chicago has come a long way since the establishment of the first “gay village” in Old Town in 1920. There have been several steps froward in openly advocating for and accepting LGBTQ members of our city, yet through these interviews, we can see that there is still a lot of progress to be made in order to impact lives which are marginalized because of gender identity. Historical context and the connections which bind individuals, of different generations, different sexualities, different gender identities, different race/ethnicities, different socioeconomic statues together can also equally separate them or make them feel distant. 


By: Megan Melissa Machamer

MA Social Science, University of Chicago
BA Sociocultural Anthropology, UC San Diego

Megan Machamer is a sociocultural anthropologist who develops creative commentary for the Jimmy Fishbein photography blog. Her perspective as a social scientist contributes additional dialogue to stand-along photography and serves as one perspective to evoke thought and conversation upon viewing these photos.