Sandy Stone, the Trans Woman Who Struck Back at TERF-y Art

Allucquére Rosanne Stone, better known as Sandy Stone, has been at the center of controversy for much of her life, mostly for the act of existing. She is an artist, programmer, sound engineer, author, media creator, activist, and highly successful academic, who, at around 85 years young, is still creating. In her vast career, she has focused much on feminism, women’s rights, and advocating through music and performance art. She was there during the glory years of second wave feminism in the 1970s, and remains an active voice of the movement. She is transgender.

A large part of feminist activism, education, and women’s empowerment during the ’60s and ’70s came through the arts. Sandy Stone was there in the feminist music scene, as were many of her friends and allies—although that same art scene also inspired many of those who would become her enemies. She played an essential role in discovering a new framework for those seeking to understand both womanhood and being a trans woman. As we’ll see, her fight against exclusionary gender essentialism—the idea that there is a universal biological feminine essence that defines all womanhood—in the feminist art community became the cornerstone of her desire for positive change. 

Sandy Stone’s acceptance into women-only spaces was hotly debated solely on the basis that she was assigned male at birth. She was harassed and “outed” by certain feminists in the ’70s who would certainly today be dubbed ‘TERFs.” Transfolk have existed for a long, long time, and there have always been people who don’t understand them and want us to not exist—usually because such an existence challenges ingrained notions of gender security.

Sandy’s work can tell us a lot about how art can work as activism. She has pushed back against the long-held assumption that a trans person must medically transition and be deemed “passing” by a cisgender binary standard. She challenged the still-held notion that “true womanhood” is achieved only by a strictly defined genre of people. She continues to fight outdated ideas, as unfortunately there are still some feminist spaces maintaining that “true women” cannot be trans.

Second Wave Feminist Art

A common example of O’Keeffe’s imagery, circa 1918. Image via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

In the world of ’70s feminist art activism, the major goal was not only to push back against the uber-patriarchal world of high art, but to draw attention to women’s experiences, struggles, and perspectives. It was meant to make people uncomfortable with the harsh realities that women faced in a society of subjugation. 

With that said, many artists presented their art as though it were universally representative of all things feminine. They accepted the foundational assumption that femininity is bound to biological bodies, rather than cultural definitions. There are a myriad of examples where feminist art, like the larger movement, perpetuated these essentialist definitions of gender.  

For instance, many argued that Georgia O’Keeffe’s modernist approach to painting flowers was in fact representative of female genitalia. While she was from an earlier time, second wave feminists applied their existing frameworks to show the power of new reading practices. 

In addition to these revisionist interpretations, second wave feminism engendered a plethora of art that celebrated the female body. Generally, many feminist circles encouraged representing women as bound to their bodily essences. Two influential scholars, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, wrote a co-authored article in 1972 where they asked: “What does it feel like to be a woman? To be formed around a central core and have a secret place which can be entered and which is also a passageway from which life emerges? What kind of imagery does this state of feeling engender?”

Chicago and Schapiro, like others, often involved some form of “female” body imagery in their work. For instance, Chicago’s famous installation piece The Dinner Party presented a massive table with place settings honoring various female feminist authors represented by vulvaic designs.

In general, the dominant strand of feminist art in the ’70s utilized the feminine form established by the patriarchy. This emphasis was typically to counteract this troubling norm; to de-sexualize it or to celebrate its beauty. It is important work, and one shouldn’t discount it nor should we forget why it was done. However, there were limitations to these projects, particularly for how they excluded non-binary and non-biological understandings of gender.

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Donald Woodman. Work of art: Judy Chicago. – Megan Schultz (assistant to Judy Chicago), CC BY-SA 4.0,

Sandy Stone

By modern standards, trans and nonbinary folk, especially trans femmes and trans women, have never fit too neatly into gender essentialism’s machinations. Nothing illustrates this better than Stone’s history with the feminist movement in the ’70s.

Sandy was assigned male at birth but spent much of her life knowing that she didn’t feel like a boy, despite her male anatomy and societal expectations. She made something of a name for herself in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a sound engineer, working with well-known musicians like Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead. After a break from public life, she returned but had publicly transitioned to living as a woman, taking her name from a character in a friend’s novel. 

It was a new life and people began to accept her as a woman, including those who knew what she’d been assigned at birth. She began associating with groups of feminist lesbian separatists, particularly the Olivia Records collective. The collective began producing music strictly for women, by women, with Stone at the helm in engineering. Stone also helped in building much of the electrical and musical equipment used when the group would tour with feminist bands and musicians. The collective was her family.

Then came feminist scholar Janice Raymond. In 1976, Raymond sent a proof copy of her soon-to-be-published work The Transexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male to the Olivia Records collective. The work argues against the existence of trans women:

“Masculine behavior is notably obtrusive. It is significant that transsexually constructed lesbian feminists have inserted themselves into positions of importance and/or performance in the feminist community. Sandy Stone, the transsexual engineer with Olivia Records, an “all-women” recording company, illustrates this well. Stone is not only crucial to the Olivia enterprise but plays a very dominant role there. The … visibility he [sic] achieved in the aftermath of the Olivia controversy … only serves to enhance his [sic] previously dominant role and to divide women, as men frequently do, when they make their presence necessary and vital to women. As one woman wrote: ‘I feel raped when Olivia passes off Sandy … as a real woman. After all his [sic] male privilege, is he [sic] going to cash in on lesbian feminist culture too?’”

Raymond apparently thought she was outing Sandy, but ultimately the collective denounced Raymond and supported Stone. Unfortunately this was bad press for the collective in general, and soon they began to receive hate mail and death threats. Things came to a head when a feminist womens’ group met with the collective for what the collective assumed to be a “rational dialogue.” It quickly devolved into violent yelling and confrontation. Many people in the feminist artistic community, partly due to their own misconceptions and due to their understanding of “the feminine” essence, truly did not believe that Sandy could be a woman.

After that point, there were militant feminist groups following the collective on tour—to the extreme that the collective hired armed security. In her interview with Vice, Stone relates:

“The group that issued the threat was this radical, transphobic separatist group up there. They shaved their heads, wore camo gear, and had live weapons. We had people at the door checking for weapons. A couple of them did come. I don’t know if they brought any weapons—if they did, they were taken away. But I did the concert—I could feel the hair standing up on my back the whole time, because I was working the board, which was set up right in the middle of the auditorium. I was the sole tech person.”

Continuing Activism

After leaving the collective in hopes to spare them further grief, Stone went to work in various fields. After the personal assault from Raymond and everything that ensued at Olivia, Sandy went on to higher education, writing The Empire Strikes Back: A Posstransexual Manifesto, an essay which many deem the beginning of the field of transgender studies. 

Her academic work—from then up to the present—much like the deconstructionist feminist artists of the ’80s, calls for another approach to understanding gender and social norms.

Much of Sandy’s innovations can also be seen in her art installations and live performances. Her Public Genitalia Project, or PGP, sought to “to playfully question the boundaries between inside and outside, revealed and hidden, representation and reality.” As reported by the Austin Chronicle, an androgynous model would wear a laptop displaying images of genitalia. These  were updated to reflect how many times the words “sex” and “violence” appeared on major news sites. According to Stone herself, “Elana Logsdon’s insouciant, sexually ambiguous presentation as the model added a dimension to the audience’s reaction that I hadn’t anticipated. Not only did they respond to the images, they also spent some time sorting Elana out.” 

Much of Stone’s work has revolved around exposing the sexual spectrum as something far more complex than male/female. Her art is a means to educate essentialists about the differences between sex and gender, as well as to reveal the societal expectations placed on all of us.

What her opponents failed to see as ironic is that she argued in favor of much of the same things feminists have always wanted: equality and equity; to tear down subjugative gender roles; and to fight institutional sexism and patriarchy.

The critique she offered feminists of the day—which remains a standing issue—is that essentialism ultimately reinforces the negative stereotypes about gender roles and the gender binary. The treatment of “transsexuals” was very medicalized, forcing the individual to succumb to current standards of femininity. 

TERF Ideology

This idea that transgender existence poses a threat to the sanctity of womanhood is a very old argument. However, it mostly seems to work as a diversion for the real issues of gender expression, psychology, gender performativity, as well as the complexities of the gender spectrum. Even further, it detracts from and contributes to the statistical violence against trans women at large.

As a modern example of this thinking: J.K. Rowling, a self-proclaimed feminist and ‘champion of true womanhood’, states: “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman … then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.” 

It was this same thinking that led to a direct collision between essentialist ‘70s lesbian separatists and Sandy Stone. It would inspire Stone to create multimedia and performance pieces exploring the uniqueness of the transgender experience, beyond the rigid boundaries of “male” and “female.”  

Art, like philosophy, often begins as an underground movement only to later become more well-known—usually well after its time. It slowly or swiftly disseminates into the mainstream to influence the generation(s) that follow it. It is important to remember that those from that 1970s generation of feminist art are currently those in charge—whether of the modern art world, academia, the media, etc.

The Present

Feminist art—in any form—should serve as a means to express and build on important discussions about gender identity and power, rather than tear others down. Art, unfortunately, despite all its good within the feminist movement, has also served to exclude many transgender people from the discussion entirely. 

Sandy Stone has shown, in contrast to the classical artistic celebration of the outward female form, that being a woman, trans, nonbinary, femme, etc., is more complicated than biological genitalia. She made this point obvious in her response to the purely cisgender-focused Vagina Monologues with her one-woman show The Neovagina Monologues. Here, she told the stories of various transgender individuals and their struggles–struggles much like hers. 

Stone’s work can be seen as a response to the transphobia within the art community and general society. It is a testament to her continued dedication to extending the conversation that was started so many years ago by the feminist art movement. It is a call to renew the ideals of inclusion and liberation for anyone who thought of themselves as women. It is a continued insistence that gender essentialism in feminist art, as in life, has done more harm than good.

If Sandy’s struggle has taught us anything, it’s that the very act of existing is subversive enough when it comes to standing up to one’s oppressors. She refused to believe the narratives she’d been given about herself, from society, from the essentialists, and even from the male-dominated medical establishment of the time. She persisted and found her own way. It is a message women–and people of all kinds–can find inspiring.

In the end, the goal of feminist art as well as radical activists has been to make men uncomfortable with the realities of women’s struggles. Therefore, one would think those same individuals would be open to acknowledging the nuanced but not entirely separate struggles of transfolk. If our common enemy is the patriarchy, then why impose patriarchal standards on anyone who resists binary and essentialist notions of gender?

Further Reading:

Jakubowski, Kaylee (March 9, 2015). “No, the existence of trans people doesn’t validate gender essentialism”. Everyday Feminism.

Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago, “Female Imagery,” Womanspace Journal 1 (Summer 1973): 11-14 (written 1972).

Stryker, Susan; Bettcher, Talia M. (1 May 2016). “Introduction: Trans/Feminisms”. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. 3 (1–2): 5–14.

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JA Laflin (they/them) is a writer/artist/musician living in Eugene, Oregon. A recent Portland State University graduate, they spend a lot of time thinking and writing about gender, social justice, art, music, feminist issues/history, and humanity's future. They currently front two musical projects (A Half-Jail Onus and Imitaur), and are creating an ongoing sci-fi graphic novel series (Falling Off)--all of which focus heavily on gender and social justice issues. They also freelance graphic art for book covers as well as make musical scores for small film projects.