The Empire Strikes Back

Trans icon Sandy Stone receives this year's OUTsider Legacy Award

Sandy Stone
Sandy Stone (Photo courtesy of OUTsider Fest)

National transgender activist Sandy Stone, one of Austin's most underrated and influential artists, will be accepting the OUTsider Legacy Award of 2017 in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of her academic paper The Empire Strikes Back: The Posttransexual Manifesto.

After a short hiatus – Stone canceled all touring and performance plans after the death of her husband in Nov. 2016 – she will return to Austin for this weekend’s queer arts festival.

"We still have a long way to go, but we've already come so far,” Stone told the Chronicle, referring to the transgender community. She’s “extremely grateful” that OUTsider chose her to receive this year’s Legacy Award on behalf of her paper. She also confirmed that a lot has changed in regard to the way society views trans people since the Eighties, when The Empire Strikes Back was published. “I can't say if that has anything to do with my paper, but it doesn't matter because it's happening."

In 1979, second-wave lesbian feminist Janice Raymond wrote an anti-trans paper, The Transsexual Empire, which singled out Stone by name and accused her of creating unnecessary friction in women’s spaces. The Empire Strikes Back was Stone’s direct response to Raymond's trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF). At the time, Stone was in her first year of graduate school at University of California, Santa Cruz. She and her paper have has since become the origin point for academic transgender studies.

The only time Stone ever met Raymond, she says, they smiled at each other with "thin lips" and didn’t speak. "[My paper] means nothing to her. As it turns out, you don't change TERFs' minds by anything you say or do."

Today, Stone’s work continues to be revered by many academics and activists for its integrity as well as its inherent poetic nature. Stone said her paper is meant to be read like a verbal performance, but she has performed it only once – the year it was written – at the Other Voices conference at UCSC. "I started it in a very calm, ironic fashion, as it was written, and as I went along, I got angrier, and angrier, and angrier. When I was done reading it, there was a standing ovation."

Yet Stone has faced a good deal of opposition throughout her professional career. During her 20 years as a professor and artistic mentor at the University of Texas – Austin, she founded the ACTlab in 1992, which is credited for coining the term "New Media." Despite the creative innovation, many influential faculty members in the Radio-Television-Film Department worked diligently to end it. "There were a number of powerful people in the department who were too conservative to understand what the hell we were doing,” recalls Stone. “They kept concocting these wonderful political plots to get rid of me. It was a continual campaign of sabotage. But we were impregnable because we were so damn popular." Since Stone left UT six years ago, the ACTlab has been dismantled.

While some faculty members were disapproving of her efforts, others could not have been more supportive. "The original invitation for the job was, 'We want you, specifically, to drag the department kicking and screaming in the the 21st century," she says. "I managed to drag them into the 19th – anything beyond that would have required the power of God."

Stone continues to teach, create, and inspire the queer and artistic community. She says The Empire Strikes Back underlies her primary advice to young queer artists. "By the act of speaking, utterance is creating. Speaking yourself is writing yourself into these discourses. Find your voice. That's job number one. If you don't do anything else, figure out what you want to say and how to say it."

OUTsider’s Legacy Award Ceremony honoring Stone and her work will take place Fri., Feb. 17, 11am, at the OUThouse. A copy of The Empire Strikes Back can be found on Stone’s website.

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Sandy Stone, OUTsider Fest, OUTsider Festival 2017, The Empire Strikes Back, OUTsider Legacy Award, ACTlab

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