As the transgender community becomes more visible, scholars like K.J. Rawson are working to make trans history more accessible. In February, the College of the Holy Cross English professor launched what he says is the first digital repository of transgender history.
Already, the Digital Transgender Archive has illuminated some of the unique challenges facing researchers who want to document something that has long been so misunderstood and taboo. It also raises questions about how to accurately document a history that’s often filled with anonymity and pseudonyms.
Rawson became an archivist by accident. As a graduate student in rhetoric, he chose the rhetoric of transgender history archives as his dissertation topic. “My first challenge was, okay, now where do I find these materials?” Many libraries held relevant documents, but they were scattered and irregularly categorized. For example, one grassroots LGBT archive labeled its homophobic holdings with an expletive that might be loosely paraphrased as “garbage.”
The word transgender has only existed for 50 years, but practices we now associate with trans identities have been around for centuries. As a result, historians have to cast a wide net when looking for materials, often by using older and very different keywords like “cross-dresser,” “transvestite,” and “transsexual.” The DTA now has more than a thousand documents, including magazines, photographs, and letters.
As simple as it seems, compiling an online archive related to a formerly taboo or underground culture presents a host of challenges. Many transgender newsletters include dozens of authors, and sometimes their names change over the lifespan of a publication. “The more we can normalize names, the better. But of course, that is a very political practice,” Rawson says.
Individuals who change their names may not want to be connected with their past work — which, at times, brings pragmatism into conflict with privacy. “We certainly don’t resurrect names, and we don’t apply them to people who no longer use them. That’s a particularly sensitive issue for trans people,” Rawson says.
Copyright restrictions also pose a challenge for online archives. Because some trans publications are circulated in tight-knit communities, Rawson can’t always assume that their creators would want their words and images online. He’s contacted dozens of copyright holders for permission. “There’s a lot of dead ends,” he says. On the other hand, a few contributors have provided not only permission, but also piles of private documents they’d like archived.
Catarina-Oliva Beal, a student and research assistant who works at the DTA, scrolls through several scanned periodicals, pausing to laugh at a comic in “Crosstalk,” a cross-dressing newsletter. It depicts a man who’s struggling to fit into a “maidenly form” bra. “It’s a more personal look at people who identify as cross-dressers,” Beal says of the periodical. “There’s a lot of humor.”
Not all of the archive’s holdings are amusing: Many trans-related historical texts demean or objectify trans people. For example, the 1964 book “Sex Life of a Transvestite” was marketed as a “confession” from “that strange breed of men who have the compulsion to dress up in women’s clothes.” Though it supposedly advocated “a more tolerant attitude” toward cross-dressers, it also labeled the practice as “unhealthy” and “neurotic in origin.”
Other publications in the archive, like a series called Female Mimics, sexualized trans people with a style reminiscent of Playboy or Penthouse. “You don’t have to go very far back to find an overwhelming amount of representations of trans people that are highly eroticized,” says Rawson. “It’s sort of a question of what constitutes history.”
For now, such materials are only a small part of the DTA. “I want to focus on materials that were created by trans folks for trans folks,” Rawson adds. Dozens of newsletters in the archive document and discuss trans issues. Issues of Transgender Tapestry magazine include editorials, interviews with “tall blonds,” and obituaries for the victims of hate crimes. Although most of the DTA’s holdings come from the US, a few documents come from Africa and Europe.
The current inaccessibility of trans history poses a problem on two fronts: it slows the acceptance of the trans community, and it prevents trans people from seeing their own stories in history and pop culture.
Rawson says his work as an archivist has made him a more aware scholar. He used to visit archives for the documents they contained, but now he’s conscious of their symbolic importance — for example, as institutions that can “counter the fear of the unknown.” He also believes archives need to do more to preserve materials created online, from email newsletters to Tweets to viral memes.
Because College of the Holy Cross is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that has been criticized for its LGBT policies, the school seems an unlikely home for the Digital Transgender Archive. “I was surprised it existed at Holy Cross,” says Michael DeSantis, another student who works at the DTA. “We just don’t have a lot of this type of material in our courses here.”
But Rawson says the school has been deeply supportive of the project. He points out that Jesuit Catholicism takes a special interest in “seeking out the poor and the powerless, and understanding marginalization.” Students tend to be curious, not critical, and the DTA has raised the profile of Rawson’s transgender studies courses. “Whenever you do this kind of work, you take on a responsibility on behalf of a community,” he adds. “I’ve taken on a lifelong work in this project.”
Daniel A. Gross is a writer and public radio producer based in Boston. He tweets at @readwriteradio.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story used an imprecise pronoun. It has been updated for accuracy.