Susan Stryker spoke at the 2018 convocation ceremony at Mills College on Sept. 26.
Susan Stryker, a professor, author, filmmaker and transgender activist, was the keynote speaker at this year’s ceremony. She was an adjunct professor in the history department at Mills during the last year of her Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley in 1991. Stryker says that since then, she has been connected to the Mills community.
“For more than a quarter century I’ve felt in connection to Mills based on that work,” Stryker said. “This is a really wonderful institution and I am truly honored to offer the convocation address today.”
Stryker began her speech by acknowledging the testimony given by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, encouraging the audience to speak their truths in the face of adversity. Stryker went on to address the parents in the audience, thanking them for supporting their students.
“Thank you for the work of raising and supporting them and for investing in their individual futures,” Stryker said. “For they are truly our collective future.”
After thanking the parents, Stryker thanked the trustees in the audience for their support of the historically women’s college. Stryker said that as the student body and mission of Mills continues to evolve, it is important to keep up with the changes in society.
“As a college with a predominantly white history in a part of the city that has been predominantly Black since the middle of the last century, part of Mills’ evolving mission surely must be to serve as a laboratory for experimenting anew with how we might all live out a shared commitment to justice that cuts across many differences that can characterize our common home,” Stryker said.
Senior Angelica Sanabria attended convocation, and enjoyed listening to Stryker’s speech. Sanabria appreciated the acknowledgement of Mills as a predominantly white campus historically.
“As a trans activist she was multidimensional in her articulation of struggle,” Sanabria said.
After addressing the trustees, Stryker spoke to the faculty of Mills. With her own experience in teaching, she acknowledged the strength and dedication it takes to teach.
The final group that Stryker addressed was the students. She spoke directly to the new students and first years, reminding them lean on their sources of support when things get stressful.
“You are the reason we are all here,” Stryker said. “Accept that this entire enterprise really does revolve around you.”
After addressing the students, she went on to talk about trans issues in today’s society, stating that more than 1.5 million people in the United States over the age of 18 are identifying as trans, non-binary and other gender identities that aren’t cisgender at three times the rate of older people.
“Trans is now, but it’s not new,” Stryker said. “I know that in my bones, as a person who recently turned 57 years old, I’m one of those trans people who felt trans as far back as I can remember.”
Stryker spoke about how when she was growing up, the only literature on the trans experience was stigmatizing, derisive and hateful. Senior Rachael Mellows was impressed to learn how much Stryker contributed to the history of the trans experience.
“I found out that she basically wrote the trans history,” Mellows said. “She was talking about how there was very little positive representation or discussion of that history at all being documented, so she wrote it.”
When Stryker began transitioning medically and socially, in 1991, she was almost 30. She was teaching at Mills, and Stryker said that her students were some of the first people she opened up to about being trans. After she began her transition, she experienced an immense amount of hate.
“Serious unemployment and underemployment, divorce, losing friends, being shunned, being ridiculed, experiencing sexual harassment from people in positions of power over me, experiencing transphobic vandalism of my home and my car, being kicked to the ground and stomped on by strangers,” Stryker said. “I call those years my unpaid internship in transgender studies.”
Stryker emphasized again that trans is now but not new, this time speaking as a history scholar.
“From the earliest days of European presence in America, the settlers who came here and imposed gender binary categories on indigenous people as part of the process of colonization and the destruction of many cultures,” Stryker said.
Since trans is not new, the idea of gender is constantly being reinvented.
“Trans people have some experience with reinventing gender. We make our gender identities real to others through the actions that we take,” Stryker said. “This is our necessity, our talent, our burden, our gift, we change and in changing we bring our worlds along with us.”
After discussing the heavy challenges that this generation of students will face, Stryker urged the crowd to still practice self care.
“As you rise to meet the challenges of the day, don’t forget take some time to just goof off,“ Stryker said. “Binge watch your favorite TV shows, read for pleasure, eat your comfort food, laugh, flirt, look your absolute hottest, have orgasms, get enough sleep and exercise, stay hydrated, eat plenty of dark greens and whole grains, spend some time in the non-human world, keep your feet in the ground, keep peace in your heart and your eyes lifted.”
Mellows appreciated the ending to Stryker’s speech after her discussion of such heavy content.
“She was laying out all the stuff future generations have to work on,” Mellows said. “But then she was like, eat your vegetables, have orgasms, I was like thank you, I can definitely do that.”
Stryker spoke about the challenges of being a student in higher education, as well as the challenges that the current generation of students will have to tackle in the future. Although the tasks feel daunting, Stryker said that Mills would equip the students to take on that challenge of our changing society.
“Mills College is on the bleeding edge of figuring out how to understand, address and accommodate that change,” Stryker said. “The education you receive here will better prepare you to live in the world as it actually is, as well as to work towards how it can be better.”