PM Press Blog

Rachel Pollack, trans activist and comic book writer, dies aged 77

By David Barnett
The Guardian (UK)
April 8th, 2023

Photo: Author Rachel Pollack Photograph: Joyce Tudrin/Courtesy Llewellyn Press

Pollack, who created the first mainstream transgender superhero, Kate Godwin, had been fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Rachel Pollack, award-winning author, leading authority on tarot and the occult, trans activist and comic-book writer who created the first mainstream transgender superhero, has died aged 77.

As an author of speculative fiction, she published seven novels and four collections of short stories, including 1980’s Golden Vanity and Unquenchable Fire, which won the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction in 1989. Her most recent, The Fissure King, was published in 2017.

Her first fiction success was the short story Pandora’s Bust, published in Michael Moorcock’s seminal new wave magazine New Worlds in 1971, and she transitioned very soon afterwards.

Her friend, the author Neil Gaiman, visited Pollack at the home she shared with her wife Zoe in Rhinebeck, New York state, shortly before her death. She was diagnosed seven years ago with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and was, says Gaiman, drifting in and out of consciousness when he was there.

Pollack’s death was confirmed by her wife who posted a message on Facebook which was tweeted by Gaiman.

Gaiman, who first met Pollack in 1985 while interviewing her about tarot for the now-defunct Today newspaper, said: “Rachel was a beloved writer of fantasy, but I prefer to describe her as a magical realist. She wrote these wonderful books of heightened reality and magical worlds where she would concretise metaphor.

“Rachel and I bonded over many, many things, one of which was Jewishness, and despite being a bastion of the new age she was also incredibly Jewish. There’s an orthodox prayer that begins ‘Thank you, God, for not making me a woman.’

“I remember her telling me that after she came to following her surgery she said, ‘Blessed to you God for not making me a woman, but thrice-blessed to the doctor who did.’”

Pollack, born in Brooklyn, New York, on 17 August 1945, was one of the earliest trans activists, and moved to the UK when she transitioned in her early 20s, following a career as a professor of English.

British writer and cultural critic Roz Kaveney recalls that when she moved to London in 1971 she went to the Gay Liberation Front and “asked them if they were doing anything about what we now call trans stuff. They said they had a small group coordinated by Rachel Pollack, and I went to see her the very same day.”

Pollack and Kaveney belonged to the group that drew up the first trans manifesto, published in the GLF’s newsletter in 1972, entitled Don’t Call Me Mister You Fucking Beast, and which included: “There are many questions we are just beginning to examine. Why is Danny La Rue a West End institution, when we get kicked out of our flats for wearing a skirt? Apparently it’s all right if you’re doing it for money, but perverted if you do it for personal satisfaction.”

Kaveney said: “Rachel was a crystallising force in the trans movement and so many other areas. She was perpetually an inspirational figure, and was one of the first professional trans writers who had a career while out, and proved that it was possible to do that.”

Pollack lived in Amsterdam for almost a decade from the mid-70s, where she had her gender reassignment surgery, before moving back to the US.

Between 1993 and 1995 she wrote the monthly Doom Patrol comic for the DC Comics Vertigo imprint, a title that had previously been rebooted by fan favourite writer Grant Morrison, and for which Pollack created what is considered to be the first transgender superhero in mainstream comics, Kate Godwin.skip past newsletter promotion

Gaiman said: “It was very hard for anyone to follow Grant Morrison in writing a series, and I think it’s only recently that Rachel’s work on Doom Patrol has been reassessed and seen as genuinely ahead of its time, and it’s about time, too.”

Aside from her prose and comic successes, Pollack was seen as a giant in the tarot and occult worlds, and her friend, writer and historian Morgan M Page, said: “Quite simply, Rachel was the greatest living authority on the tarot.”

Jessica Dore arranges tarot cards at her home in Pennsylvania. ‘Tarot is a set of metaphors that can help somebody understand something.’

Her 1980 book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is, said Page, “the basis of all modern tarot interpretation. Every book that has come since is basically cribbing her work.”

She added: “When Rachel first became interested in the tarot, writing on it was very basic, very fortune telling-based. She researched it and brought in psychoanalytical ideas, Jungian readings of the tarot.”

Pollack designed her own tarot decks, and became a huge force in the women’s spiritual movement, especially in the area of reclaiming the goddess figure, and bringing trans women into that fold.

Page added: “She was from that generation of trans people who were encouraged to disappear into society, to not be visible once they had made that decision. Rachel was one of the very few people at that time who refused to go away.”