Transmissions: Our trans legacy

| Feb 20, 2017
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by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

This article first appeared in the Bay Area Reporter. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

I’ve always had a keen interest in history. As a kid, I would hit the local library for history-related books, haunt the two-room local history museum, and even gladly tag along with my parents on their weekend jaunts to antique stores.

When I was young, I loved a series of biographies penned for kids, focusing on the lives of Clara Barton, Marie Curie, and Harriet Tubman. Through those, I could learn the struggles and successes of women like me, and how their stories impacted the world I live in.

There is no such thing, however, for those of us in the transgender community, and we remain largely ignorant of our own history. I’ve always felt there is a value in knowing where you come from, and what others like you have faced in the past, so this has been a frustration for me when it comes to my own community.

It’s a systemic problem, you see. Over the decades of transgender history, we were pushed to disassociate with each other, and squelch any public indication of our transness in order to get medical care. What’s more, many of us choose to do the same regardless of any doctor’s admonishment. Our own personal histories can often be difficult, full of years of discomfort and dysphoria.

There’s also precious little out there in the public record. As many of us have led lives in the shadows, there are not a lot of historical items to point to. Many “purge” themselves of their trans-related materials out of guilt and shame, or because one feels no need to cling onto them after a transition. After we die, our families may be just as happy to cart things off to the dump. As a result, those few items that are kept are often in private collections, far from the public eye.

This is unfortunate. As our community continues to grow, and we start seeing transgender people come out at younger and younger ages, having a strong history they can point to can be vital to their own development.

I had the pleasure to end up in a conversation via social media recently, trying to pin down the important parts of our history, and who would fit within a trans-themed biographical series akin to what I grew up with. There were some great suggestions.

Top of the list, of course, were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and their involvement in the Stonewall rebellion. British Mount Everest expedition member and writer Jan Morris was mentioned, as was “Bond Girl” supermodel Carolyn Cossey. Members of the 1990s Transexual Menace group were named, as was Christine Jorgensen, Wendy Carlos, Canary Conn, the Warhol Superstars, and many others. It would be vital to expand this list even further, pushing for the inclusion of transpeople of color, trans men, and others within our history.

These are only the tip of the iceberg, too, and focus largely on those who have biographies on the shelves. This doesn’t include transpeople whose stories are largely unsung, or others like Lynn Conway. Her work with computers may well have allowed me to input this very column. There are more people whose stories about how they helped shape our community we do not know.

Many outside the transgender community want to look at trans people as being a modern creation, and even those with a broader understanding of our history might be able to point back to Jorgensen and her 1952 transition, or even as far back as Lili Elbe’s in the early 1930s. Our roots go much further back in time, existing for centuries before the modern era.

In the late 1990s, I was involved with the GLBT Historical Society. As part of a larger display focusing on artifacts important to many local LGBT subgroups, I had the pleasure of helping curate an exhibit on transgender issues. One of those who contributed resources, time, and a bed when I missed the train home after a late-night setup was Ms. Bob Davis.

Ms. Bob

As I type this, Davis is starting plans for a California-based archive for the transgender community. This would be a place to house our history, starting with her own sizable collection of historical materials.

Her Indiegogo fundraising page for the project, The Louise Lawrence Transgender Archives, can be found online here. So far, nearly $2,000 has been raised of the $25,000 goal.

Davis’ effort is not the first attempt to create a transgender archive, and not every project has been successful. Indeed, I’ve been wary of a few in the past, viewing them as very much ill-considered and under-planned.

I don’t feel this way about the Louise Lawrence archive plan, having seen the extent of the facility in Vallejo and financial plans in place. The historical society is listed as the project’s fiscal sponsor. I also have seen some of the materials already in holding for the collection, and see it as a treasure trove of material that could redefine the history of the transgender community.

Lawrence began living full-time as a woman in 1942, first in Berkeley, then San Francisco. She and others began publishing Transvestia in 1952. She was instrumental in developing the trans community’s connection to pioneering sex researchers such as Alfred Kinsey and Harry Benjamin, according to the fundraising page.

I would hope that this will be a first step to providing a space for research into our past, and could lead to more understanding of our history. I want to see a community that can move into the future, buoyed by our long – and rediscovered – history.

More than that, I want to know that a young trans kid might one day be able to learn about their trans forebears, and take personal strength in hearing their stories, in a similar way as I did. We need our stories to come into the light, and inspire our future generations.

Gwen Smith wonders who will tell our story. She can be found online here.

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Category: Transgender Community News, Transgender History


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