A Menace to Society
Transgender heritage comes in many forms, and one of these is T-shirts. Since
about 50 years, the T-shirt has been more than just a practical piece of clothing.
It can also be a signpost with which you can make a statement about who you
are and how you want to be perceived. That is what this episode of the Know
Your History series will be about.
In the early 90s of the 20th century, some transgender people in the United States
decided to become more activistic. They wanted to do more than just support
each other. The time had come to send a message to society, and the gay
movement, because during Gay Pride activities, they were often pushed aside
and ignored. Together with a few other people, trans activist Riki Anne Wilchins
founded the direct action group The Transexual Menace, with which they meant
to be something like the ‘transsexual plague to society’. No, not a spelling
mistake, transexual with one s; it was deliberately subversive spelling.
The Transexual Menace protested during legal proceedings around
transgender issues, like the court case of the infamous murder of Brandon Teena.
The members of the group also often crashed the board meeting of the Gay
Games to demand that trans women would be allowed to participate without
having to expose their entire medical history.
Eventually, The Menace turned into a national organisation with 24
branches in the big cities of the US. Members of the group wore a gothic-style T-
shirt, inspired by the Rocky Horror Picture Show. With captions such as New York,
Pittsburgh, Texas-Lone Star State, the shirts referred to the branches.
Such trans activism could not be found in the Netherlands at the time. Existing
groups, such as the one by Humanitas, were mostly focused on mutual support
and aid. During that period, internet was starting to emerge in a rudimentary
form, mostly accessible via universities, which were connected to an international
network. The bandwidth could still be measured in a few bytes, but nevertheless,
the door had been opened to direct contact with the rest of the world. Through
so-called news groups, like-minded people could connect, and quickly the first
online transgender forums were formed.
A Dutch trans woman, who came into contact with the action group
through a news group, decided that those T-shirts would be a good idea in the
Netherlands as well. She place a large order, for which, instead of an American
city, she chose the caption ‘it’s contagious’. Whether this idea originated in the
Netherlands or this version already existed—I don’t know. If you do know the
story behind it, please let me know via Trans Magazine…
The T-shirts reached their destination in the Netherlands, but what happened?
Almost no one wanted one. The thought of outing yourself by walking around in
this shirt only appealed to a selected handful of people. The large box of shirts
ended up in an attic, and remained there for years. Until I wanted to exhibit one
of the shirts for the exhibition I was setting up, ‘Extraordinary History.
Transgender in the Netherlands’. I learned of the unsold stock and decided to buy
the remaining 20 shirts. The time seemed right, after all: nowadays it is popular
to be proud and visible. And that turned out to be true, I only have a few shirts
Which statement do the proud owners make now? Do they want to be a
menace? Is it meant ironically or campy? Is it a tribute to the activistic
trailblazers of thirty years ago? Tell me: what do you notice? I, for one, notice one
beautiful thing: heritage in movement.
P.S. Are you interested? Let the team know (firstname.lastname@example.org). One shirt costs €20 excluding shipping. Only available in size L (large fit)