As a queer historian, I spend a huge amount of time looking through archives that are completely useless to me – either because they haven’t collected any queer materials, or because the queer materials they do have aren’t archived in such a way as to make them findable as pieces of queer history.
Thankfully, a bevy of new queer-led archival projects, like the recently launched Digital Transgender Archive (DTA), are working to make these materials more accessible and centralized. If you’re not familiar with the DTA, it’s a portal to an incredible collection of trans materials from across the world, a great resource for researchers or any queer person who wants to spend an afternoon looking at amazing old photos, journals, flyers, newspaper reports, and more.
The DTA was founded and is directed by K.J. Rawson, an Associate Professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross. them. spoke with Rawson to discuss the DTA’s origins, how the archive handles identifying historical objects for which little context is available, and the current state of trans academic research.
How did the DTA came about?
The idea initially came as a result of my own frustrating research experiences. My Ph.D. is in rhetoric, and my graduate work looked at different kinds of archives and the ways that they acquire, describe, and make transgender history accessible.
When doing research, I had a hard time figuring out where to find significantly-sized collections of transgender historical materials. And it wasn’t just my limitations as a researcher; there are some structural barriers that make transgender history quite difficult. So I ended up trying to brainstorm a resource that could help people in a similar situation.
This is, at its core, a deeply collaborative project. I am at Holy Cross, but nothing resides here at Holy Cross. All of the materials on the site are contributed by archives around the world. As of today we have 49 different contributing institutions, and close to 5500 items up on the site.
When are the materials from?
Our official cut off is the year 2000, which is kind of funny, because in terms of history that’s quite recent. But we do make exceptions for a number of reasons. Most of our materials come from the second half of the 20th century. Our earliest materials right now date back to the mid 1700s, but as you might imagine, it’s pretty sparse once you go all the way back.
The oldest materials are a few works of art. Then after that we get some clippings. We’ve just started to work more closely with the American Antiquarian Society here in Worcester, and they are in the process of digitizing some materials from that time for us — clippings and police reports — which are really going to flesh out some of the reported experiences of gender transgressions.
Can you say a little more about the structural barriers researchers encounter in doing transgender history?
One of the barriers is linguistic. The term "transgender" is so ubiquitous in a Western context right now, but it's also a really new term. Taken together, that actually creates a really difficult research situation for contemporary researchers, because few people are actually familiar with all of the other terminology that’s been used throughout history to describe experiences of transgressing gender norms. So part of what we’re doing is taking language that is commonly used, and using that as a gateway to find materials for which that language would never be used.
Also, there are so many places throughout the world that are collecting these materials. It’s often hard for researchers to know where to go. There are many queer archives, but those archives are really just the tip of the iceberg. So a lot of the work we’re doing is to elevate and those collections and bring visibility to them.
Another issue with respect to trans history in particular is that for many transgender people, history can be a difficult thing, right? Because it can betray the identity you have chosen for yourself and that you feel fits you. History can be put to very damaging usages, so there is an ethical dimension that we have to navigate very carefully.
Think of the practice of deadnaming for example – using someone’s name that they were given at birth almost as a weapon against them, not only to out them but to shame them. This is something that everyone in the trans community is very mindful of, but in terms of history, it has a very particular dimension to it.
On the one hand, we need to be representing these historical materials accurately. So whatever names are in the materials we need to include. But on the other hand, we have an obligation to be ethical, to represent people as they want to be represented. So it’s just a really complicated situation.
What’s the process for handling objects you don’t have a lot of info about – say a photo of someone who “looks like they may be trans.” What do you do?
That is a great and very political question! We are very careful to not use transgender as an identity term, but we actually use it as a practice of trans-ing gender. The term transgender is very geographically narrow, and it’s very historically narrow. It doesn’t make sense once you start moving back in history. And as we move out of a U.S. based context, "transgender" doesn’t always translate well.
Often we’re in the really strange position of having to determine whether someone is transgressing gender norms 200 years ago in a context that we’re completely unfamiliar with. Sometimes that information is provided for us – if we’re working with a clipping, often the clipping itself will exist because the person had transgressed a gender norm of some kind. But if we’re just working with a photograph, we are often dependent on the archives that are contributing to provide us some context. What is this from? Why did you collect this?
We try not to read onto the photo too much, when we describe objects. We try not to interpret someone’s gender identity, their racial identity, their ethnicity, etc., because we’re never going to be fully correct. We try only to include information that we know to be true, which represents people in the way that they represented themselves.
Have there been things that surprised you?
I’m surprised every day! One of the tantalizing things about doing this work is that I spend so much time overseeing the process as a whole, that I don’t get as much time as I’d like actually using the resources I helped to create. We’ve been spending a little more time with materials from allies, like Dear Abby columns or Ann Landers. We just made a new collection of advice columns available that date from the mid-1960s forward. Those kinds of things are nice to see and add to the collection.
When I started this project, I had no idea that we’d be able to find transgender history in so many places. Transgender history is collected in all different types of archives all around the world, from private collections to public libraries, historical societies to university special collections. We have our work cut out for us and we're just getting started!
If someone reading this at home has materials that aren’t in an archive, but they think might be of interest, what should they do?
One of the wonderful outcomes of this project is that I am contacted on a regular basis by trans folks that have these materials that they didn’t know other people might want to see. I work with them to help find a permanent archival home for those materials. Often, the DTA also steps in and digitizes what we can, in order to to make those materials more accessible online before they find a permanent archival home.