- Preserving the Footprints of Transgender Activism:The Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria
People who would today be known as trans*1 have always been present in lesbian and gay social communities and political activism. However, their presence and contributions have not always been fully acknowledged or appreciated. This may be because lesbian and gay social justice movements have been largely based on shared collective identities, most often framed as inborn.2 Furthermore, because lesbian and gay identities have been most easily understood in terms of conventional understandings of people as men and women, the recognition of trans*, queer, genderqueer, and bisexual people can destabilize the categories of lesbian and gay. Thus, there has been some tension over how to integrate trans*, queer, and bisexual politics into gay and lesbian political movements. As activist organizations have wrestled with these questions, so, too, have those who have sought to record and preserve the history of their work and struggles.
Similar boundary issues have daunted attempts to define homosexuality since the concept of homosexual identity was first developed at the turn of the last century.3 Early sexologists propagated the idea that homosexuality was epitomized by females who wanted to be men, and by males who wanted to be women.4 For example, a 1920 article in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, which described the transformation of Lucille Hart into Dr. Alan Hart, was titled Homosexuality and Its Treatment.5 Likewise, Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 book about a female who yearned to be a man, The Well of Loneliness,6 almost single-handedly [End Page 200] defined lesbianism in the popular imagination for much of the twentieth century, and is still widely acclaimed as a classic in lesbian literature.7 Understandably, in societies that commonly punish gender transgressions as a means to enforce homophobia, many cisgendered gay men and lesbian women have been reluctant to risk being confused with trans* people.
After a brief stint of trans* activism in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century,8 it was only in the 1960s that trans* people again began to build politicized organizations under self-defined trans* banners.9 At the same time, in the last half-century there have also been many examples of trans* people being shunned by gay and lesbian political organizations, or of having their trans* histories expropriated as lesbian or gay.10 Despite this, many gay and lesbian organizations have started to embrace and endorse the fight for trans* rights.11
These same historical currents have been evident in the building of archival collections recording the history of LGBTQ+ communities. Most collections, originally conceived as lesbian and gay, have latterly begun to include trans* in their mandates and on their shelves. However, progress has been uneven.
Knowing one’s history is essential to one’s identity. Learning the history of one’s people can be done in many ways, not the least of which is through the examination of material records of the past. Trans* people need to know their past, both as it intertwines with the history of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people, and as it is distinct. Archives are an indispensable way for people to know their heritage. As expressed in the “Universal Declaration on Archives,” issued in 2010 by the International Council on Archives and adopted in 2011 by UNESCO:
Archives record decisions, actions and memories. Archives are a unique and irreplaceable heritage passed from one generation to another.… They are authoritative sources of information… [that] play an essential role in the development of societies by safeguarding and contributing to individual and community memory. Open access to archives enriches our knowledge of human society, promotes democracy, protects citizens’ rights and enhances the quality of life.12
The Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) is exceptional in its focus, size, and scope. Our collection is dedicated to “the preservation of the history of pioneering activists, community leaders, and researchers who have contributed to the betterment of transgender people” anywhere in the world.13 The University of Victoria is a large, research-intensive public university with a strong and thorough commitment to support of...