Sinister Wisdom Takes a Stand

Merryn Johns speaks with four members of the Trans/Feminisms issue co-editorial team of the beloved 47-year-old lesbian journal.

“It feels like a watershed moment for our community when such a longstanding publication decides it is time, and not only assembles an extensive and enthusiastic editorial team — it attracts a record number of submissions from trans/feminist contributors.”

Sinister Wisdom is a quarterly multicultural lesbian literary and art journal that has been publishing since 1976. If any lesbian periodical has witnessed, represented, and created space for the dynamic evolution of our community, it would be Sinister Wisdom. Always a diverse, multi-class, cross-generational lesbian space, the publication nevertheless surprised some people with its current issue.

What may not be widely known is that the periodical, which combines the personal with the political, the artistic with the academic, is long-term inclusive of trans voices and identities, from the Board of Directors to the editorial teams, to the contributors. Sinister Wisdom has never been separatist or devoted to enclaves; it has always been about establishing a community of affinity in which we can become visible to ourselves and to each other.

Journalist Sara Youngblood Gregory (she/they pronouns), one of the co-editors on the issue, has been working at Sinister Wisdom for around five years and emphasizes: “We have always published trans people in Sinister Wisdom and that is something some people know, and it’s also something some people find very surprising. But it’s not. We have published trans people, trans lesbians, queer women, non-binary people, trans men, trans masculine people, people who used to identify as lesbians — particularly butch — but now don’t but still feel strong ties to the community and still want their voice to be a part of the wider lesbian community.

“So there hasn’t been an explicitly trans issue of Sinister Wisdom up until this point, however, there has been a rich history of trans voices in Sinister Wisdom and there’s a strong overlap there.”

That being said, there has been some pushback to Sinister Wisdom taking this stand to devote a full issue to the theme of trans voices within the feminist movement; and conversely there could also be the question of why the issue hadn’t been done sooner. It feels like a watershed moment for our community when such a longstanding publication decides it is time, and not only assembles an extensive and enthusiastic editorial team — it attracts a record number of submissions from trans/feminist contributors.

Co-editor Claudia Sofia Garriga Lopez (she/they pronouns) offers some context: “Given the contentious battles that happen with trans exclusionary radical feminists we sometimes get the misconception that feminists and lesbians of the past were resoundingly transphobic and I think that’s wrong.

“If you look at the history of 1960s, 1970s feminism and on, you can find many examples of trans women and trans men and gender nonbinary people deeply implicated within those movements, in leadership positions, and that maybe we didn’t have the term trans/feminism then to articulate those connections but they were always there,” says Garriga Lopez.

As a legacy publication, Sinister Wisdom views content both through the long lens of feminist history, and through the quotidian battle for equal rights. As a long-lived, subscriber-funded, themed lesbian publication shepherded by editor Julie R. Enszer and high profile and innovative lesbian guest editors, it is fully cognizant of its role in holding space for multiple generations of queer women, and emphasizing their specificity and their connections.

The revocation of abortion rights, the waves of anti-trans legislation across the board, the epidemic of transgender deaths, and the weaponizing of trans youth access to sports and health care by the Right wing has created an urgency to publish on trans intersectionality now.

“We have the urgency to address this attack with the coalition that trans/feminism represents,” says Garriga Lopez.

Adding to the timeliness, however, co-editor Kris Grey (he/they pronouns) holds up the issue and proclaims “This is a weighty tome,” says Grey, holding the substantive Trans/Feminism issue. In their forties now, Grey is well-acquainted with Sinister Wisdom and reveals that the issue is not as spur-of-the-moment as it may seem, and is part of a longer arc of development, in planning for a couple of years. “The amount of co-editors on here is reflected in the amount of diverse voices we were able to publish and that means that we had to build up an amount of content that was way more than what we published.”

Attacks and pushbacks aside, the outreach for this issue pulled in a richness of material that is inherently connected to eternal feminist issues.

“I feel really proud of our crew for pulling voices that are talking about citizenship, about race, about ability, about class,” says Grey. “My involvement in feminism has been over three decades and I have come through many different identities, embodiments and configurations in that time frame. This is dropping at a very particular moment in history and what we see is the same tactics used over and over again to wage war on the bodies of people who are not part of the dominant paradigm.

The legislative attacks are not limited to trans folks now, notes Grey. There is a long history of public shame tactics and legal tactics that aim to “disappear and limit people’s access to life chances,” says Grey. “Which, quite honestly, as a butch lesbian was also my problem in the world. These issues are perennial issues, these tactics are cyclical tactics. I feel that it is paramount that we raise more voices within feminism because there are a few very loud trans-exclusionary voices that get a lot of attention.”

Those attacks, which gained support online, will have real world consequences. But as co-editor Shereen Inayatulla (she/her pronouns) notes, our community’s activism was not dormant during the Covid-19 pandemic that deprived us of access to our spaces and to each other. “We had been trying to gather or figure out how to stay in connection and in solidarity, doing activist work online, and because this [special issue] was happening online it also made it possible for us to collaborate with people who were in vastly far apart places. And so all of that created a wealth of submissions and people who were able to participate in the editorial process.”

As an editorial team, Inayatulla says they thought of themselves as a collective of activist/artists/writers-editors, actively committed to presenting the work and, while marveling at some “magnificent pieces”—she cites “Carry Forth Our Peoples: Womanist, Queer, Trans People of Color Lineages and Futures” on  p.137—to figuring out what the overall through-line was.

And looking at Trans/Feminisms as the 128th issue of our longest-running journal, we might see a throughline for our own community. As Youngblood Gregory observes, “Lesbianism and transness are deeply tied together and there is no separating these forces because they are not separate.”

Get the Trans/Feminisms issue here.