Trans Elders’ Life Histories

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It started innocently enough at a plenary panel the last morning of the Moving Trans* History Forward symposium at the University of Victoria in the spring of 2014. Presenters recounted their experiences in activism, writing and engagement with and within the transgender community. Immediately following the panel, I approached my colleague and friend, Aaron Devor, symposium organizer and now Chair in Transgender Studies at UVic, expressing both enthusiasm and concern. On one hand, I was perturbed that, by definition, these founding “elders” will inevitably leave us and someone should be recording and archiving their stories. On the other hand, I was drawn both to the stories and to the story-tellers. As an Anthropologist, I have the training, experience and interest to undertake this kind of research. But how to proceed? “Ask them,” Aaron said.

So, I approached three of the panel speakers and invited them to consider collaborating with me in writing their life histories. Hoping for perhaps one agreement, I was astounded when all three immediately said yes. I suppose one should be cautious about what one wishes for. Nevertheless, the collaborations have been challenging, joyous and enlightening for me (and I hope for my collaborators, too). The research methodology consists of classic anthropological approaches: fieldwork, participant observation, informal and semi-structured interviews. But the most surprising and innovative outcomes have resulted directly from the intentionally iterative process (ongoing regular, sometimes weekly, conversations) that have characterized our work together over the past several years.

To date, more than 170 hours of recounted experience, perspective and opinion have been recorded: the volume of which is transcended only by the wealth of detailed and nuanced insight and humour these articulate, thoughtful and creative individuals bring to their personal journeys. Truthfully, not all of the recorded material is about transgender issues per se. Logistics, establishing relationships, planning, current events, all constitute portions of the conversations, along with much of the mundane that comprises our day-to-day lives.

And, there are constraints, not only in terms of time commitments for both researcher and collaborators, but also in the challenges associated with transcription (estimate 5-7 hours to transcribe every hour of recorded conversation) complicated by idiosyncratic speech and the specialized language of transgender community. Even with financial support (many thanks to the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory) and professional transcription services, it remains a daunting task. Next steps include coding, categorizing and organizing the data, preparing it for formal presentation but also for inclusion in the UVic Transgender Archive for the benefit of future scholars.

Humbled by the confidence my research collaborators have placed in me, I admit that from time to time, I’ve questioned whether I’m up to this responsibility. Nevertheless, in the end, what emerges are finely-nuanced and singular representations of intimate and idiosyncratic transgendered experiences that provide rare insight into these courageous, steadfast and indomitably genuine lives. And, through them we orient our understanding of the varied paths along which the transgender community, its history and experience have journeyed.

 

Margot Wilson, PhD.
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of Victoria.

Bridging the Gap with the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony (ALOT)

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By Mary Corbett, ALOT Archivist

The Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony collects, digitizes, and makes available online oral testimonies from people who presently or at one time identified as lesbian, and is supported by the Simon Fraser University Library. As part of our recent SSHRC Insight Grant, we are undertaking a study entitled “Bridging the Gap,” which aims to explore methods that an institutionally-hosted online archives (like ALOT) can employ in order to better involve and serve its community members; we’re particularly interested in better engaging our non-specialist community. Our project further investigates Anthony Cocciolo’s suggestion that building an online environment where users are “first class entities in the system” creates an “architecture of participation” that is welcoming and community-building. [1]

Since we are an online archives, our users have direct and instant access to the audio and visual oral histories that we host online. Some of our content is restricted to researchers only, but the majority of ALOT’s content is available at the click of a button. But, the ALOT site’s current form was not designed for interactivity: users can watch and/or listen to the content and read transcripts, but not much else. So, we are looking into tools and functions for our Drupal site that will allow users not only to view content, but also to be active in contributing and annotating content. We want the site to embrace many of the characteristics of a community archives, as much as any institutionally-hosted site can: we want to value and involve our community members’ knowledge, and to encourage openness, participation, and collaboration. We hope to achieve this by exploiting the unique possibilities enabled by an online environment.

We are currently in the early stages of planning and implementing changes to the site, and we are receiving invaluable assistance from SFU’s new Digital Humanities Innovation Lab. Soon, users will be able to create profiles on ALOT’s site, so that they can become visible members of the community. Eventually, users will be able to upload their own oral histories directly to the site (with requirements for necessary permissions and consent), and to participate in free-tagging the content, for classification and findability. We are also working to make content on the site more shareable on social media; to develop our collection agreements & policies so that they can accommodate a variety of scenarios; and to find ways to encourage direct interaction with the aural and visual—we are hoping to eventually move some of our efforts away from creating transcriptions and toward directly indexing the audio/video (if we can find a way to do so!).

I am eager to see how our plans play out as the project progresses, both technically and with the groups we will survey as part of the study (our first information session is on November 13th in Nelson, BC!). Ultimately, the project’s goal is to engage with and develop ALOT’s connection to the broader community, by creating an online space where members, both specialists and non-specialists, can connect and collaborate.

[1] Cocciolo, Anthony. 2010. “Can Web 2.0 Enhance Community Participation in an Institutional Repository? The Case of PocketKnowledge at Teachers College, Columbia University.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 36 (4): 304-12. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2010.05.004.

Publishing and Queer/Trans Public Praxis

publishing

https://static.pexels.com/photos/33130/typewriter-keys-mechanically-letters.jpg

As historians such as myself move from more traditional forms of scholarly work to a form of ongoing digital “making” that is the work of the Collaboratory, how do we make this work professionally legible? I have the great fortune to be tenured, so for me the stakes are not quite as high as they are for my more junior colleagues, where digital humanities and community-engaged research and scholarship remain, sadly, invisible and unvalued in most R1 settings. This blog post seeks to answer a basic question: where and how to peer-review publish on projects such as the Collaboratory? One possibility is Ada, which is not the journal of record for the American Dental Association (the first hit that shows up on Google). Rather, Ada is a journal of gender, new media and technology that (I assume) is named after Ada Lovelace, the 18th century British mathematician. Ada is committed, in particular, to politically engaged, intersectional approaches to feminist media scholarship, so this bodes well as a site for Collaboratory work. They publish twice each year, but their next cfp isn’t up yet. However, this does seem like a great place to write about some of what we’ve been up to recently, whether it’s trying to shoehorn trans content into a gay and lesbian archive, digitizing oral history collections about pre-Stonewall gay or lesbian life, or building digital exhibitions on Omeka with undergrads, grad students, and volunteers. For example, Ada published this Roxanne Samer’s article on “Revising ‘Re-vision’: Documenting 1970s Feminisms and the Queer Potentiality of Digital Feminist Archives” in issue #5. So here is a good possibility.

Building our Racks: “Obsolete” Tech and Digital Archives

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Over the first two years of the Collaboratory project, we have devoted a lot of energy to setting up technical infrastructure for doing digitization here at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, where our work is based. This has meant finding and servicing good used equipment that will play the “obsolete” media formats that make up the collections, like audio cassette and VHS tapes.

Any digitization system begins by assembling what’s called a “Rack.” Here’s a sample of a very fancy rack at Duke University libraries, which can digitize U-matic tape, VHS, and high-8, among other formats.

At the Collaboratory, our work is more modest. We build digitization stations that are easy enough for staff and volunteers who aren’t trained archivists or technicians to use. So far we have built systems that we use to digitize audio cassette tapes, VHS tapes, and large-format print periodicals.

It’s always hard to make choices about what kind of technology to use as the basis for these systems. For our audio digitization station—the first that we built—we started out by buying a used, high-grade cassette deck and sending it out to be refurbished. Unfortunately, the rubber belts in the machine were too dried out to save; they kept snapping, even after the machine had been serviced. Luckily, we learned that new decks could still be purchased here in Toronto from a specialty audio store. This wasn’t a cheap fix but ended being the safest and more efficient choice for our needs.

pile-of-old-tech

Meanwhile at CLGA, donors often bring in old equipment to the archives, hoping it might be useful for playing the wide range of media that the organization collects. Recently the Collaboratory helped CLGA sort through all of this donated technology to choose the best machines for playing—and one day digitizing—each format. There are beta players, super-8 projectors, and reel-to-reel players, amongst other kinds of machines.

Part of the work we do is helping organizations like CLGA build capacity for creating and preserving digital collections. Sometimes this means doing the less-than-glamorous work of sorting through old VCRs to find the best one!

 

Mirha-Soleil Ross in the Archives: Transsexual Artist, Sex Worker, and Activist

trans history
Cait and Aaron hard at work!

Cait McKinney and Aaron Cain hard at work with the Ross Collection at CLGA

The Collaboratory is beginning its work in organizing the archives of this amazing transsexual artist and activist, housed at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto.

Eight years ago, while CLGA was moving into its current location at 34 Isabella Street, a large collection of Mirha-Soleil Ross’ personal papers, videos, notebooks and other material arrived at the archives. This week, Cait McKinney (Collaboratory postdoctoral fellow) and Aaron Cain (CLGA volunteer and iSchool grad student) began organizing this collection. The photograph above shows Cait and Aaron taking their first look at the collection’s 25+ boxes of material. They’re able to pick up where Al Stanton-Hagan, Amanda Zelkin, and Marie-Lyne Bergeron had left off in their earlier work with this material. We’re determined to complete the process of organizing and describing the collection over the next few months, with the goal of opening the collection to researchers and celebrating Mirha’s accomplishments in early 2017.

Mirha-Soleil Ross (b. 1969) drew up in working-class Montreal. At age 20, around the time she began her tranistion, she began working as a sex worker. In her childhood, Montreal’s sex workers were powerful figures, respected in working class neighborhoods. As Al Stanton-Hagan has written, Ross described her history as a sex worker in positive, sexually validating terms; these experiences have shaped her life-long activism in support of transwomen and sex workers. In the early 1990s, Ross moved to Toronto, where she began to produce videos and performance work while supporting herself with sex work. She became an activist in anti-poverty and AIDs prevention work within the transsexual community, as well as working to educate service providers about transphobia and the needs of transsexual women. In 1998, she became the founding coordinator of the Meal Trans Program at the 519 Community Centre in Toronto and, the following year, she founded the Trans Sex Worker Outreach Program.

The Ross collection at CLGA contains her spiral-bound notebooks from her early years in Montreal, where she kept notes of every film or cultural event she attended in the late 1980s and 1990s; jotted down recipes; and taped newspaper articles about political protests concerning AIDS or Indigenous rights. The Ross Collection also contains about 30 hours of video diaries from 1990-1993 that document Ross’ transition and sex work in Montreal. She intended these documents as an intervention into the erasures that shape the experience of most transwomen. These tapes also represented the archival material for Ross’ one-woman show, Yapping Out Loud, which was staged in Montreal, and then in Toronto at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in 2004-05.

The collection also includes materials relating to Ross’ zine, produced with her partner Xanthra Phillippa MacKay, gendertrash from hell (1993-1995). Ross also founded the Counting Past 2 (CP2) festival, a performance/film/spoken word festival with “transsexual nerve” that ran from 1997-1999 and then again in 2002. The Ross collection contains materials relating to CP2, which Ross founded as a festival that unfolded outside the constraints and expectations of non-transsexual curators, whether queer or straight. CP2 included performance, especially cabaret, as a way of including the work of working class transsexuals, and transsexuals of colour, who might not have access to film production equipment.

There is probably a lot more material in Ross’ collection, but as we have not finished organizing it, it’s hard to descibe in full here. We hope you will check back to see how we are progressing in this work soon!

Update on Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony

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Collaboratory Partner, The Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony (ALOT) recently announced the hire of a new archivist to support their Bridging the Gap project. Mary Corbett (MLIS) will be joining ALOT, bringing her skills in archives, community engagement, and digital tools to the project.

ALOT's new Archivist, Mary Corbett

ALOT’s new Archivist, Mary Corbett

Principal Investigator Elise Chenier (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver) was awarded a major research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for this new project, which explores how digital architectures of participation on websites can build connections between ALOT and the communities the archives serves. This research will not only advance ALOT’s own infrastructure, it will also improve understanding of how to build digital archives that invite meaningful public engagement.

ALOT will be travelling to several communities gathering new oral histories and empowering community members to use new web tools to engage with these histories. Their first stop is Nelson, B.C.

You can follow ALOT’s updates directly via their Facebook Page.

Reflections on the SRS De/Re-Listing Interview Project

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At the beginning of almost every SRS interview, Nick asked the question “Where were you in 1998 when SRS was delisted?” My answer is fairly boring. I was still in diapers and barely two years old. But the answers that I’ve been lucky enough to hear from interviewees including Martine Stonehouse, Greta Bower, Susan Gapka, Nick Mule, Cheri Dinovo, Anna Travers and Rupert Raj have been far from that.

The SRS delisting interview project was headed by Nicholas Matte as part of his postdoctoral work with the LGBTQ Digital History Collaboratory. Having experience in Trans Studies courses, working with community organizations, and being involved in a large amount of trans activism, Nick decided to focus on the oral histories of the delisting of SRS in Ontario because of the way that these stories connect with many other significant narratives regarding queer and trans health and activism. This project allowed Nick to document testimony from major trans and trans ally activists that is bound to be valuable in the future. In wake of this year’s Toronto pride, mainly the great expansion of Trans Pride and the work of Black Lives Matter TO, it is evident now more than ever that there is still a great amount of work to be done to address trans issues, lives, and activism in all of their complexities.

a man and a woman stand in front of a stained glass window

Nick Matte & Anna Travers

Over three months we had the chance to interview Martine Stonehouse, Greta Bower, Susan Gapka, Nick Mule, Cheri Dinovo, Anna Travers and Rupert Raj. The majority of these interviews saw the quiet reading room of the CLGA turned into a bright studio, fully equipped with lights, our trusty Canon camera, and a team consisting of Nick, two crew members, and the interviewee. The Memorial Stained Glass Window provided the perfect backdrop as interviewees took hours to share their stories with us. Along the way we figured out the perfect method that worked for us, from learning to track down a piece of the lapel mic that always seemed to go missing, situating the camera in a way that caught the interviewee’s eyeline, placing the interviewer in a way that caught the focus of the interviewees in the lens the camera, to always ensuring there were extra lightbulbs (almost every member of the team broke a lightbulb over the course of our interviews, it was an expensive rite of passage almost). As the weeks passed from early May to late July, our process moved from a hurried scramble to a quick and efficient dance, and the culmination of all of our efforts resulted in dozens of hours of oral history footage. This project was definitely a time intensive one, with each interview averaging four hours of work for each of the four people present, plus countless hours of interview preparation and post-interview video processing, but it was a project that left each of us with something special.

One of Nick’s major goals for this project was to learn to and practice conducting video oral histories, as well as instill those skills in us. As readers of our blog are most likely aware, our entire team went through extensive training so that we could operate as a film crew. Before working on this project alongside Nick and the rest of the team, I had only ever read transcriptions of oral histories while writing research papers, and my work behind a camera had been purely photographic. However, this project ensured that as work studies Oli and I were left with the skills and knowledge to conduct oral history interviews and videography skills that will be extremely helpful in any community work or research we do in the future. But videography skills weren’t the only thing that I was left with.

Nick & Susan

 

Even more special to me was the chance I had to share space with these great community leaders and activists while they took the time to share their often extremely personal narratives with us. A number of times I found myself wiping tears out of my eyes as I listened. Sometimes those were tears of rage for the horrific systems and burnout that our subjects had to face, other times from containing my laughter from a joke that a interview made in order to not ruin the audio.

For Nick, it was extremely meaningful that he had the chance to record these narratives that have been so often ignored. A key goal of his was to develop videography skills in order to create accessible oral histories with community members in a way that would be beneficial and accessible to the community. These skills went to great use in this project, as many of the narratives we had the chance to record may not have been recorded otherwise, and could have been lost. A major theme that came up time and time again throughout the interviews was activist burnout, and a name that came up just as often was Kyle Scanlon and the great work he did for the community. Nick was extremely glad that along with the (integral) work each of our interviewees have done for trans health and trans rights, the work of Kyle Scanlon was able to live on through these interviews through the people who each worked with him and can now speak about his work.

two men stand in front of a stained glass window

Rupert & Nick

Now that the SRS Interviews are complete, digital copies will be donated to the CLGA, as well as the Digital Transgender Archive and the UVic Trans Archives, where they’ll be accessible to researchers and community members. Though the end of July marked the end of this stage of the SRS Interview Project, Nick looks forward to expanding this work, as there is much more to be done and many other narratives to be heard.

Lesbians Making History Digital Collection Launch

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The Lesbians Making History (LMH) Digital Collection is now available online through the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives new digital collections site. Streaming audio, full transcripts, and some images have been added to the collection and we will continue to build on this over the coming months. This is the last stage in the Collaboratory’s ongoing work to digitize and make available the Lesbians Making History tapes, an important record of mid-20th century lesbian life in Canada. This is also the first digital collection to launch on the CLGA’s new Omeka platform.

LMH on Vimeo

The LMH collective came together in the mid-1980s and was inspired by oral history projects of gay lives coming out of Buffalo, Boston and San Francisco. The collective interviewed 8 Toronto-based women about their experiences as ‘out’ lesbians in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Their stories discuss butch/femme dynamics, coming out, incarceration, sexual and romantic relationship, work, class, and feminist activist worlds. Detailed abstracts for each tape are available through the digital collections site.

In 2014 the original LMH audio tapes were given to the Collaboratory. Embedded at the CLGA, Collaboratory members digitized LMH materials and created new verbatim transcriptions. Original LHM collective members assisted with editing transcripts, identifying key words and writing abstracts for each oral history interview. Special thanks to Maureen FitzGerald, an original collective member who has been instrumental in the digitization process.

Ontario SRS De/Relisting Project Interviews: Rupert Raj & Anna Travers

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As you may have read in our previous posts, this summer we have been conducting a number of oral history interviews focusing on the 1998 delisting and 2008 re-listing of sex reassignment surgeries in Ontario. This July our team had the pleasure to finish up the series of interviews with Rupert Raj and Anna Travers, two integral activists in the fight to have SRS relisted in Ontario, and major figures in trans healthcare in Ontario since.

two men stand in front of a stained glass window

Rupert Raj and Nick Matte

Rupert Raj has worked as a trans activist since the 1970s, as well as a trans medical professional since the 1990s. Along with sharing his experiences regarding the formation of the Trans Health Lobby Group, his work alongside Susan Gapka as a principal investigator in the Ontario Public Health Association’s Trans Health Project, and his involvement with groups such as EGALE and Rainbow Health, Rupert also gave us personal insight into his experiences navigating the health system while transitioning over the span of four decades. Rupert spoke passionately about the need for barrier free trans health care even after the 2008 relisting, citing gatekeeping, lack of resources, and the lack of OHIP approved SRS clinics as just some of the currently existing barriers.

Anna Travers has served as a fierce ally for trans health rights, and was spoken highly about throughout our series of interviews by many different interviewees. Anna spoke at length about her experiences working with George Smitherman to develop a proposal for Rainbow Health Ontario, as well as working with CAMH and in the community to address gaps and needs in trans health care. Travers’ work has been integral to the formation of trans health care infrastructure in Ontario, and her experiences gave great insight into the ways that the work done between 1998 and 2008 has continued into the present day.

a man and a woman stand in front of a stained glass window

Nick Matte & Anna Travers

We were lucky to have the chance to interview Rupert and Anna in succession, as their histories and experiences complimented the other’s very well. Both shared their activist knowledge and lived experiences with us, as well as the perspective of working on the inside as a health provider for trans individuals. Both Rupert and Anna played a key role in promoting and growing trans health care infrastructure, and both worked at the Sherbourne Health Centre pre and post relisting, Anna from 2001 to 2016, and Rupert from 2002 until early 2017*. The Sherbourne Health Centre has served a key role in providing the infrastructure for trans and queer health in Toronto, largely in relation to the sheer amount of trans folk who inquired at the clinic after not being able to access hormones or surgery elsewhere. Rupert spoke about the major backlog that the SHC experience post relisting, exemplifying that the effects of the 1998 delisting didn’t end in 2008.

Next week our blog will focus on reflecting on the SRS Delisting and Relisting Interview project as a whole, and will feature reflections from project leader Nicholas Matte, as well as the rest of the team.

*Rupert Raj is on Long Term Disability and is not currently working at the Sherbourne Health Centre. He will formally retire February 2017.

Omeka Training at the Collaboratory

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Exciting things are happening here at the collaboratory! Today we were lucky enough to be trained by Al Stanton-Hagan on how to use Omeka, an open source web-publishing platform for the display of museum and archival collections and exhibitions.

Al Stanton-Hagan uses a CLGA Omeka exhibit as a training example.

Al led us through an extremely thorough yet easy to understand training session, and we at the collaboratory are so excited for the possibilities that Omeka gives us in publishing our materials. Going forward, Omeka will give us the capability to create easily accessible online exhibitions of our projects, from Lesbians Making History to Foolscap. Omeka exhibits can include image, audio, pdf and video files, making it easy for audiences to view all pieces that we have collected in our projects.

Nick and Elspeth watch Al’s presentation.

 

In the next two weeks our blog will focus on the SRS re & de-listing oral history project as the interview stage wraps up. Look forward to reflections on the interviews as well as the project as a whole.