Mess, Letters, Reviews: Teaching Transgender Histories from Digital Archives

 “I have worked on several research projects on theater concerning HIV/AIDS. When it comes to theater concerning HIV/AIDS, the pieces that are shown in the historical record overwhelmingly deal with the perspective of gay white men with AIDS, most among them being upper-middle class or wealthy. Therefore, I am always looking for perspectives of HIV/AIDS, specifically theater, that fall outside of that dominating perspective… I could see using a quote from one of the panelists in order to illustrate some of the reasons why the experiences of GNC (Gender Non-Conforming) peoples are not as visible in theater concerning AIDS.”

This was Quinn’s response, after watching a panel discussion from the Audio and Video Collection of the Digital Transgender Archives, consisting of Lou Sullivan, a Trans activist, Janet Taylor, a therapist/sex worker, and Mark Olsen, a drag queen. Quinn was among the twenty-two students in Dr. Julie Beaulieu’s Transgender Studies class who was browsing through the Digital Transgender Studies Archive. Quinn was responding to questions in a worksheet that asked students to consider how the object(s) in the archives that they have encountered is/are connected to a broader question that they might have about a topic of their interest. What stood out to me about this response was how the archives could participate in a form of worldmaking and open up conversation about forms of performance such as theatre, which could receive more attention in Trans Studies scholarship. Quinn was not the only one who came across such gems in the archive. Another student, Logan, found a part of Trans history of Pittsburgh through an exploration of clothing collection of The Transexual Menace, a group that committed direct action against the APA (American Psychiatrist Association) for having gender identity disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). It was a moment of recognition for Logan that something as material and intimate as clothing could offer a way of understanding trans resistance.

For our module on Global Trans Histories, supported by the Humanities Engage Collections-Based Curriculum Development Grant, students watched before class short pre-recorded videos, where I introduced them to the idea that working with archives can be a way of “dreaming freedom” (to use words of another mentor of mine, Dr. Khirsten Scott). I reviewed the history of Digital Transgender Studies Archives and gave them direction, as a tour guide of sorts, in how to use the rich archival sources of the collection. They also read an interview of the founder and project director of the archive K.J. Rawson about how this archive came into being. In the synchronous class itself, which I moderated, students spent time reflecting on an opening writing prompt about the challenges of doing transgender histories and how might one overcome them. After the initial reflections, students spent time as part of an in-class activity browsing the archive on their own. The idea was that the activity would allow them to negotiate the joys and challenges of the archive. I had my module on Fanfare (the South African magazine) ready, but I delayed it until the next class so that we could listen to students about their excitement and difficulties. Emotions ranged from the sheer happiness that such an archive exists to being overwhelmed with what to do when you have so much material to work with.

As a way to demonstrate to students how to narrow the scope of their project, I used the letters to the editor within the Fanfare collection to illustrate how they could approach their own primary sources. These letters were written by mothers, wives, sisters and letters condemning the politics of visual representation in the comics, followed by responses of the illustrator defending the visual choices. Sometimes these letters asked for suggestions about make-up, and sometimes they criticized the choice of place for having member meetings of the Phoenix Society (who published Fanfare) in inaccessible spaces. The letters offered a spectrum of possibilities to understand what it means to be accepted by one’s family; the right to private life; how one might end up appropriating a trans discourse; and glimpses of trans political imagination in 1980s South Africa. The students used the letters to delve deeper into the collection of the Fanfare magazine, leading them to ask difficult questions about the role of artists who drew the comics, the role of translation, and the circulation of global print materials and news. For instance, Bailey, one of the members of the class, pointed out how one of the illustrators was from the student’s hometown in New York State, and Bailey was baffled about how an artist from New York not particularly known for pro-trans stance came to be drawing for a trans magazine in South Africa. Was it commissioned? Or was the magazine open to receiving contributions from all over the world? Some questions remained unanswered, but they needed to be asked. One particular activity that I designed for this class that the students seemed to enjoy was the archive review activity. The philosophy behind the activity was that the review as a genre would allow students to practice the art of academic generosity while being rigorous. At the same time, this activity would enable them to see how reviews can make a difference to the practice of Digital Transgender Studies. Student reviews of the Digital Transgender Studies Archive are available.

Moving forward, I envision that teaching through and with digital archives will be a cornerstone in how I envision myself as an educator and as a researcher. In the classes that I have taught so far as an instructor of record, working with primary sources in the digital archives is one of the tracks that students could pursue as a final project. However, working on curriculum development for a collections-based module has offered me insights into the process of archiving and digital architecture itself. In the future, I would like to make a shift where students collaborate in the process of creating a digital archival collection using resources available at Pitt such as Omeka as part of a semester-long project rather than a one-off unit. As I trained myself in learning Omeka through workshops offered by the Digital Scholarship Services at Pitt, I realized that the work of creating a semester long digital archiving project has its own values. It could lead students to see that the process of deciding what goes into an archive and what’s eliminated, the process of creating metadata, and the act of curation are indeed political endeavors. I have also been thinking about the intersection between digital archiving and virtual museum exhibitions, especially after reading about my colleague Jacqueline Lombard’s work on creating a virtual gallery for her module on “Race, Religion and Identity in the Renaissance” and Prof Elizabeth Pitt’s co-curated exhibition on “Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology”. I am hoping to learn more about their work as I envision creating an Indian Ocean Visual Archive as part of a possible component of my dissertation project.

Lastly, I don’t think that I could have done this work without the constant support, encouragement, and generous mentorship of my collaborator Dr. Julie Beaulieu. She has been my most ardent cheerleader in this process, and the things I learned from her during our almost weekly conversations I will continue to carry throughout my life. I remember that during one of our meetings when we were discussing US exceptionalism and ways in which we could engage students with global discourses of Trans studies, Julie told me, “It is easy to end up alienating students when talking about the category of ‘global,’ especially if they think that it is not their space to inhabit. One of the possible ways to avoid this would be to engage with archives in a historical and cross-cultural context so that they feel drawn in. How about you share your own process of engaging with the Fanfare collection with them, which could then open up a space for cultivating radical vulnerability?” Dr. Beaulieu’s practical suggestions about identifying specific themes and genres in the Fanfare collection to engage students so that they have a model to approach primary sources when they work on their own independent research project was helpful, as it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with digital collections. With an eye on professional development and an (almost absent) humanities job market, she also invited me to contribute this module as part of the ongoing library guide on LGBTQ Digital Archives in the Classroom at Pitt that her students are making for her Archives Studies class so that my contributions remain documented. I am currently working with the intern of this project, undergraduate Olivia Mania, to get the module up on the library guide for a wider community of scholars and teachers so that they will be able to use and adapt it for their own class. Thank you, Julie! This is the mentorship that I needed as a first-generation graduate student.

To archival futures and radical solidarities…

December 15, 2020

Learn about all the projects from the Curricular Development Opportunity for Ph.D. Students