Bridging the Gaps in Trans History: A Conversation with K. J. Rawson

Interviews — Jan 27, 2021

Since launching in 2016, the Digital Transgender Archive has functioned as an international collaboration among more than sixty colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, public libraries, and private collections. Gathering a wide range of trans-related materials, including photos, magazines, newspaper clippings, and newsletters, the website opens up new possibilities for those who research trans history and those who seek to educate on the topic. The wealth of archival materials it contains shows the root of evolving identities, language, and perceptions tied to current concepts of being transgender. The DTA shows trans history and culture as it was, the small but vibrant pockets of brave people who defied social norms. Often these narratives have been intentionally hidden from mainstream society or ignored by the public at large, but access to this archive opens a door to seeing how communities and individuals reacted to the world around them.

While I was writing my feature article for the Current on the trans community’s relationship to cinema and other visual mediums, the DTA proved to be an invaluable source that illuminated the spaces and discourse of trans people across several decades. In conjunction with that piece, I spoke with the DTA’s director, K. J. Rawson, who was instrumental in spearheading the project and is also an associate professor at Northeastern University. In these highlights from our conversation, we discuss the importance of the DTA and the ways it brings an under-researched and under-discussed history to light.


What was the work you were doing that led you to creating the Digital Transgender Archive?

The idea came about when I was trying to conduct research on trans history and I found the process to be surprisingly difficult.

 

When I first began this research, I was working on my graduate degree, and I was trying to understand how archives work and what the implications are for the archival process. My training is in rhetoric, so I became really interested in how archives function rhetorically—who their audience is, how they persuade researchers to take particular pathways, etc. Trans history is a particularly important site for this type of inquiry because there is relatively little available and, given the struggle for trans rights that is still ongoing, there is so much at stake. Access to trans history can have transformative effects—cisgender people can gain a deeper understanding of trans people and issues related to trans justice; trans people can find themselves and their community at a time when there are still so few representations available.

 

When I began thinking about the project more than ten years ago, it was a struggle to even locate where significant collections of trans materials were held. There have been slow but steady efforts to digitize trans history over the past decade, which has been wonderful to see. As most archives remain closed to researchers due to the pandemic, the importance of digital access to archival materials has only become more obvious.

How were you able to get these archives to agree to enter this digital and extremely accessible space?

Archivists are generally very eager to help researchers locate resources more easily, and this project is a great way to support their efforts. We have ongoing conversations about privacy and copyright to decide what should and shouldn’t be made available, but all of the contributors to this project share my commitment to making trans history more widely accessible. 

Have there been any obstacles in getting this off the ground?

The DTA website was launched in January of 2016. While the initial idea for the project began to develop around 2008, it wasn’t until 2013 that I began to work on it in earnest. There were challenges, but they were all expected, to a certain extent. As with any project of this size and scope, we had challenges implementing the initial design and developing a workflow that could accommodate all of our partners, but we are in a great place with everything now.

In these materials, we see how the trans community has shifted from newsletters and published magazines and in-person meetings to digital spaces like message boards, group chats, and social media. Do you sense there being a generation gap among trans people as a result of that?

While I would agree that there are generation gaps, I am not sure that I would attribute them to digital culture per se. There has been a rapid evolution of how and where subcultural communities are formed, but there has also been an equally rapid change in how trans, as an identity, is conceptualized and experienced.

Have there been any surprises you have found in tracking trans history through all of these archives?

There have been countless surprises in doing this project! I’ve found evidence of trans resilience in so many places where I didn’t expect it. The creative ways that trans people have been able to live their truth and develop community in the face of oppression is always a powerful reminder of the vibrance of trans folks.

 

One of the collections that I frequently return to is a set of photographs of Marie Høeg. Høeg was a Norwegian suffragist, and the photography studio that she ran with her partner, Bolette Berg, offered profound, world-making possibilities that freely transgressed gender norms. Those photographs bring up many complex questions of ethics and identity. Should we be looking at these personal photographs? How would Høeg identify in contemporary terms? I recently published an article with Nicole Tantum on some of the implications that they suggest.

It seems every few years the mainstream media frames transness as some new trend, in response to a famous person coming out (examples: Caitlyn Jenner a few years ago, and more recently the actor Elliot Page). Has it been frustrating to see not just how incurious these outlets are but also how the same framing of transness persists? Because, for me, in researching trans history and culture through the DTA, it seems the media for decades has treated our community like they are seeing us for the first time over and over again.

You are spot-on with this observation. The treatment of some trans figures as a new and rare trend is a common trope in media coverage of trans issues. I wouldn’t say that I find the trend frustrating so much as fascinating, especially when I think about audiences and how media consumers may respond to that kind of coverage.

During Pride month over the last few years, there has been work done to have people look back at trans figures throughout history—people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who were ignored by the mainstream at the time, or Christine Jorgensen, who was a major public figure but needs to be reintroduced to a younger generation. There has also been an uptick in community interest in Lou Sullivan and Billy Tipton (although he never publicly disclosed his trans identity), in relation to trans masculinity. Through working on the DTA, what major community figures have stood out to you, figures you think people don’t know enough about?

This is an excellent question! There are individuals like Charlotte McLeod (the second known American trans woman to have her surgery in Denmark publicized by the media) and April Ashley, MBE (a former showgirl, model, and British socialite who, after being outed by the British tabloids, became a visible activist for transgender equality). These are contemporaries of Jorgensen who are now beginning to be talked about more. But I would also steer people toward living activists, such as Miss Major, Andrea Jenkins, Rupert Raj, and Mirha-Soleil Ross, who are still actively shaping our world today.

What aims and aspirations do you have for the future of the DTA?

We are always hoping to build the collections, but I am also thinking about ways to account for histories that are not yet captured within archives. How do we tell the stories of those whose lives were not deemed worthy to record?

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