Partial Histories, Historical Context, and the Search for Trans* Truth

Since my last post turned toward teaching, I wanted to use this post as a space to discuss and reflect on my recent trip to the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria. While at the archive, I wrote notes about specific documents, general field notes, and (perhaps my favorite) email updates for my friends & family. The tone and tenor of these bits I’ve left behind are strikingly similar to the documents I encountered within the folders and boxes nestled deep in the archive’s vault. Assessing the “true meaning” of these documents is quite impossible – and addresses the wrong questions. Our histories are always partial, contextual, and embedded within complex power relationships. What follows is an exploration of historical processes written in and through my own travel narratives.

In March of this year, the archive hosted the Moving Trans* History Forward symposium. The symposium was designed to bring together scholars, archivists, and activists for lively discussions about historical processes, trans* subjectivity, and preserving the history of marginalized people & social movements. I had initially planned a research visit to the archive to coincide this symposium. However, as it usually does for academic laborers, funding dictated the structure of my visit. I was awarded a Summer Graduate Fellowship instead of travel funding for the spring semester, and I had to forgo the MTHF symposium in favor of a summer research visit.

Fresh off an invigorating & energizing NASSH conference in Glenwood Springs, CO, I flew & ferried & bussed to the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, BC. My first email update, sent from my room in the UVic residence hall after I arrived, captured the whimsy and frustrations of “international” travel (I’ve only been to Canada once before and never outside of North America). As a visibly queer person, I often get marked for special search and security procedures by TSA officials, this trip was no different. I quipped in my email: “As predicted, I got pulled out of the security line and checked – so did my school bag. Don’t worry, Dean Spade’s book was in there giving them the stink eye (for those of you not intimately related to my research, Spade is a scholar/activist who critiques systems of surveillance and oppression – like the TSA).” I quickly moved on to describe my ferry ride, “I was told I may see whales and that my food might be stolen by predatory sky rats. There were no whales, but also no angry birds. The most captivating part of the trip was actually the drunk old white couple from Sonoma, CA (don’t worry they’ll tell you) who stumbled around, dropped their drinks (wine from home – of course), lost their hat overboard ($65!!!), and then made-out on the deck for 55 of the 75 minute trip. If nothing else, I’ve now got the beginnings of a great preface to my dissertation.”

So, what exactly is the preface to my dissertation that I captured here? An amusing story of scholarly travel? A window into the classed, raced, and gendered word we all inhabit?

My whiteness and ability to move about with middle-class privilege allow run-ins with the TSA to be mere frustrations rather than arduous, humiliating, and often violent ordeals. And yet, travelling while queer is quite anxiety & dysphoria producing. So, in my email, I down-played the airport scenes in favor of a humorous one involving white, middle class American tourists. However, I spent several hours and pages in my first field notes addressing the ways that my ability to travel connects with the ways in which trans* history is and is not recorded & recognized. By negotiating the airport in ways which causes me the least amount of harm in the moment, I go relatively unchallenged officially. All my IDs are marked F and my legal name is almost universally recognized as F, but my voice & appearance can be (and often are) perceived ambiguously. Yet, as far as I know, I am not the subject of official reports and documents as a problematically queer traveler.

What do I have then, besides my stories? And, how are my stories recorded? How might my own emails one day be received by an enterprising young scholar? Would they be recognized and categorized as queer? Would they be archived alongside the stories of first time attendees of Fantasia Fair or Gender Spectrum, conferences for men who cross-dress and children with diverse gender identities & expressions respectively? The documents, program flyers, book manuscripts, and personal letters found within the archive were all donated specifically because they were perceived as trans* related. The archive now has over 300 hundred linear feet of material holdings from people and organizations associated with transgender activism.

Yet, the sheer volume of materials was not the only reason for my visit. In my dissertation, I’m examining & theorizing the shifting definitions of the terms “transsexual” and “transgender” within sporting contexts. Renée Richards played a large role in the development of trans* policies in the 1970s. To put the events surrounding her successful lawsuit against the USTA and subsequent participation in the US Open into context, I examine the ways that different trans* activist groups were positioning themselves and how they were articulating trans-ness at that time. You might think, then, that sorting through the archive’s voluminous holdings would validate my claims that the officially recognized definitions of transsexuality did not encompass the full range of experiences.

However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t “getting it right” as I dug through materials dedicated to sorting out what counted as trans* at that time. After a particularly exhausting day half-way through my visit, I asked myself, “Am I looking for a smoking gun? What did I even come here for?” The field notes from that day are quite illustrative of the frustration and confusion elicited by my first ever extended visit to an archive: “In looking for expansive definitions of trans*ness, am I only seeing what I want to see? The writings are all very emotionally powerful, but is that their only truth? What are the implications of juxtaposing Renée Richards with men who cross-dress?”

A wonderfully timed email from a friend reminding me to “bring my headlamp” helped me recall why I was there. Paying attention to the process and keeping the historical context always in mind, I went back into the archive with renewed energy. There were few blanket statements that said a trans* person is _____. Instead, there were personal stories of how affected people were attending a conference for the first time or talking with their family members about the way they experienced their gender. There was a book manuscript with extensive hand written notes in margins. There were flyer drafts with slightly altered fonts & styles. There were the very real material artifacts of lives lived outside prescribed gender norms that defy officially recognized definitions.

Of course, these artifacts demand attention to major questions that take power relationships into account: What definitions of trans* were available at that time? Who was considered trans*? Whose opinion counted? What counted as “trans* activism?” Who has access to these groups and spaces?

These are questions that I am still answering in my scholarship five months after my visit and will continue to answer materially my whole life.

Cathryn Lucas-Carr is a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa and can be reached at cathryn-lucas@uiowa.edu

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