Trans Oral Histories: the Transgender History Project of the Upper Midwest

archiving oral history / trans history

I realize that even though the website has a fantastic collection of websites concerning LGBTQ oral history, put together by Cait McKinney, I have not actually had the time to go through them all, and reflect on what they offer. I’m in the process of putting together a new course on Queer and Trans Oral History, and this seems like a perfect moment to explore some of these sites and reflect on some of their capacities and limitations. Rather than proceed alphabetically, I’ve decided to move forward thematically. My first theme, therefore, will be “trans oral history,” something I’ve spent a fair amount of time on myself. The first link I’ve accessed on my own page is already problematic: Access Minnesota Transgender History Project is, apparently, a link not to the project but instead to the Access Minnesota (a weekly news program) website’s interview about the project. In this 2015 interview, the host discusses the project with Lisa Vecoli, curator of the Tretter Collection of GLBT Studies at the University of Minnesota’s libraries, soon after the Tretter Collection received a grant to collect oral histories of trans people in the upper Midwest. Lisa describes the beginnings of the Tretter Collection, which began with activist Gene Tretter’s major collection of LGBT materials and their donation to the University in 2000 (3,000 linear feet of material, a major collection). They have personal records; organization records; performers; authors; activists; published materials as well, including 16,000 issues of periodicals. Lisa is a very clear interviewee, providing excellent detail, even though her interviewer is so peculiar, at least to my ears. She’s exceptionally well-prepared, using the interview as an opportunity to describe what the collections offer. Lisa describes how she’s trying to create a more intersectional approach to the archives, which at the point of the interview in 2015, was mostly white and gay male. In response to student interest, she’s trying to expand the archive to include more trans voices and stories, to use her terms. She submitted a grant to the Tawani Foundation, and it was successful: the goal is to collect 400 hours of oral histories about trans experience in the upper Midwest.Tretter Collection

When we first put the Collaboratory website together, this important project had only a Facebook page—important for spreading the word about the project, and recruiting narrators, but not so helpful in terms of accessing the interviews. Now, in late 2017/early 2018, the interviews have been archived at the University of Minnesota’s Media Archive. Currently, the site has 55 interviews available, some of them with well-known people such as Eli Clare, Kate Bornstein, and Dr. Walter Bockting. Most of the interviews are with upper Midwest folks who I’ve never heard of—not that it matters.

As some readers know, the main interviewer for this project is Andrea Jenkins, a black trans woman who is a poet and performance artist and, most recently in 2017, was elected to Minneapolis’ City Council (the first black, openly trans woman to be elected to public office in the US). I attended one of Andrea’s performances at the last Moving Trans History Forward conference in 2016, and was completely blown away. I tried to chat her up with a bit of fan girl action, but she was having none of it. I am sure she had more interesting people to spend time with there. Sigh.

Like the NYC Tran Oral History Project, a partnership with the NY Public Library, the interviews are presented on the site via tiles—a grid of trans people, photographed at the site of the interview (or perhaps they are video stills, taken from the interviews themselves.). I find this presentation of oral histories both compelling and creepy. Compelling, because the faces of all these trans people does solicit my viewing engagement, but creepy because the grid reproduces the logic of the taxonomic gaze, which is the last thing that a trans-positive project would want to reference. However, it’s fair to say that most viewers wouldn’t make this somewhat arcane critique, and having a visual representation of the narrators in an organized mode probably trumps all else. The interviews are listed by name of narrator, such as “Interview with Monica Cross”—the historian in me wants to know the date, right away, as part of the title. However, once one clicks on the interview, one is brought to the metadata page, where all this information is clearly available.

Each interview links to a video of the interview; a transcript in PDF; and to the interview metadata. In the interview with Dee Dee Chamblee, Andrea Jenkins in interviewing in Anderson Georgia. The sound is odd—Dee Dee has a lav mic on, but Andrea’s sound is echoey, not via a lav mic. Even Dee Dee’s sound seems muffled for some reason. Visually, Dee Dee is centered in the frame, rather than off to the side, in the 1/3 and 2/3 approach to framing the shot. The camera shot is also wide, in that the shot takes in quite a fair amount of extraneous material, such as the large door to her left; if it were me, I’d focus a bit more on Dee Dee, so that she’d fill up more of the frame. (Readers are probably wondering why I am focusing on all the technical stuff, but it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of interviews for Family Camera Network, and so thinking about these things.) The sound is really quite bad…is it like this for other interviews, I wonder. (The interview with Jamison Green, done in 2016, has better sound). I’m reviewing an interview Andrea did with Jane Fee in St. Petersburg, FL. The framing is similar and the sound is also a bit problematic too. I wonder why, as the set up looks fine. Jane and Andrea are old friends; they’ve known each other for 25 years. Andrea starts the interview with an interesting question: what was Jane’s earliest memory? Quite a compelling way to begin the interview, which is how (apparently) she’s been starting many of them. This interview is 2 hrs and 39 minutes. I am 4 minutes into it, and already I am thinking about switching to another interview. Why in the world is this the case? What Jane is actually saying is quite interesting. Do I have 21st century ADHD, no longer able to sit through something so long unless it’s highly produced? If this is the case, then what are we doing with these oral history projects?

I’ve looked at 3 interviews, and they are in different locations—Georgia, Florida, and Victoria, BC; clearly Andrea does these interviews as she travels. So what is the relationship to Minnesota and the Upper Midwest? Has the mission broadened from the original grant? This often happens. It would be a good thing for transgender history if she is interviewing more broadly.

Where Once Stood a Bandstand for Cruising & Shelter

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This past weekend, Toronto was alive throughout the night for Nuit Blanche, an annual night-time arts festival. The city was transformed by four large-scale exhibitions installed across the city that brought together contemporary art reflecting on revolution, activism, indigeneity and futurity. Carried out as a part of the “Taking to the Streets” exhibition for Nuit Blanche Toronto 2017, interdisciplinary artist (and CLGA volunteer!) Hazel Meyer dropped banners throughout the night from the stop of a scaffold on Queen’s Park Circle. Marked with different “lists and quotes, single words and wordplay, and stories,” Meyers explains that the banners represent “a conversation rather than a demand, the pulse of the horizontal text evokes the multiple, desiring political bodies working inside or on the periphery of Queen’s Park.” It is a work that places the complex histories of Queen’s Park–from the statues and bandstands to the protests and cruising–into conversation with urban renewal and gentrification, symbolized by the scaffolding.

Hazel's piece for Nuit Blanche Sept 30, 2017: photo by ELspeth Brown; this came out of the research on Foolscap and Desh that the Collaboratory did in May 2017. Especially Zohar Freeman.Photograph of Where Once Stood a Bandstand for Cruising & Shelter for Nuit Blanche, 30 September 2017. (Credit: Elspeth Brown)

Titled Where Once Stood a Bandstand for Cruising & Shelter, the installation draws on archival information that was uncovered from the Foolscap Oral History Project during our scholars-in-residence program. The community-driven oral history project, led by John Grube and Lionel Collier in the early 1980s, produced nearly 100 interviews with Canadian gay men in their social circles who were born in the first half of the 20th century. Digitizing the countless cassette tapes, Zohar Freeman–one of the students scholars–recounted how the interviewees talked about the bandstand previously located at Queen’s Park as one of the city’s key spaces for gay cruising and public sex. It was working with the Desh Pardesh archive and thinking through the overlapping histories of British imperialism in Canada and India that we reflected on the five-ton equestrian statue of King Edward VII (donated by the Indian government through its own decolonization program) that led to the dismantling of the bandstand in 1969. It now makes us wonder: what archival material might let us glean beyond the built environment of settlers and re-think “Queen’s Park”? As the CLGA transitions into an active collecting institution, there is a desire to think outside settler time, infrastructure and queerness. Meyer’s work leads us to the bandstand, compelling us to think about how our queer shelters from the storm of state violence have been taken down and providing us with the impetus to think queer politics and activism afresh.

Zine Digitization and Accessibility

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A potential benefit of digitizing zines is increasing their accessibility. While a physical copy of Mirha-Soleil Ross’ gendertrash from hell might be hard to come by for many people in 2017, putting a high quality scan of the zine online makes it accessible to anyone with an internet connection, right? Not really.

Depending on the context, “access” can take on very different meanings. I think we should think critically about what it means to make something accessible and who is included in what we define as accessible. Having a zine online does increase accessibility in certain ways, however, folks with certain mobility limitations which prevent the use of a mouse or keyboard, people who are blind or have low-vision, or other disabilities may not be able to access an online PDF version of a zine. There are, however, digital tools which can be used to make PDFs more accessible. Thinking about accessibility as at once an ongoing practice (nothing is ever “fully accessible”) and a collective responsibility, we have been experimenting with some of these tools at the Collaboratory and CLGA.

A rectangular image with a white background. In the centre of the image is a row of six faceless abstract figures in black which are connected together with outstretched arms. Between and around the figures are many irregular black shapes.

“Dancing Wimmin” by Jeanne B, from gendertrash issue #1, p. 9. Alt text: A rectangular image with a white background. In the centre of the image is a row of six faceless abstract figures in black which are connected together with outstretched arms. Between and around the figures are many irregular black shapes.

After creating high-quality scans of all four issues of gendertrash, we ran the PDF’s through Abbyy OCR software. This software is incredibly easy to use, it automatically analyzes a PDF and recognizes (mostly correctly) which areas of the page are images and which are text. The text can then be utilized by screen reader software, which verbalizes digital texts.

Next, we are working on adding alt text image descriptions to the images within gendertrash. You can add alt text to a PDF using Adobe Acrobat. These image descriptions will also be read by screen readers, providing the listener a fuller engagement with the zine. Writing clear and comprehensive image descriptions is surprisingly challenging, especially as many of the cut-and-paste images in gendertrash are quite abstract. However, I think it’s important to take on accessibility as a collective practice and continue working towards increasing accessibility in digital humanities projects. This is just a starting point, and I have much more to learn about digital accessibility, so I am looking forward to feedback and suggestions.

Some Thoughts on Michelle Mohabeer’s Child-Play (1997)

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TW: Description of a film that deals with child abuse

Some Thoughts on Child-Play: a self indulgent rant by an over-eager cinema student

We’ve been struggling to make our digital exhibition on SAVAC’s Not a Place on the Map Desh Pardesh oral history project more visual. The oral history interviews are riveting, but as an audience, it’d be hard to stay interested in around 36 hours of raw tapes. I was surprised and excited to come across Michelle Mohabeer’s work, especially Child-Play (1997). Mohabeer is one of the artists interviewed for the oral history project, and her work is a touchstone for many other interviewed artists who were involved in Desh.

Child-Play was a well-received film that depicts a girl who is terrorized by a Dutch man, who becomes a symbol for colonialism through the film. What struck me, aside from the way Mohabeer expertly crafts mood and space through manipulation of light and depth, was the way she portrayed violence to a child, on-screen.

Caption: Stills from Child-Play (1997), dir. Michelle Mohabeer. In the first still, the Dutch man steals the girl’s soul. In the second, she confronts him as an old woman, and eventually banishes him from her mind.

Stills from Child-Play (1997), dir. Michelle Mohabeer. In the first still, the Dutch man steals the girl’s soul. In the second, she confronts him as an old woman, and eventually banishes him from her mind.

This kind of representation interests me (I’ve seen Mysterious Skin (Araki, 2004) too many times). I must say at the outset that the strongest argument against portraying violence against children is that one must hire a child to act that scene and of course, this is not something I condone. The other, more persistent argument is that portraying child abuse – especially sexual abuse – makes the viewer complicit in the act. That is, to be interested in viewing this material, one gains as much pleasure as the perpetrator. I find this argument less convincing for many reasons, but the first still from this film approaches this in a unique way. By forcing us to view the child’s soul being taken away from above, Mohabeer emphasizes our role as a spectator. We can see everything, but do nothing.

Of course, Mohabeer is restricted in what she can film and the violence is only implied, but its effects are the same – we’re helpless and bound to our voyeurism. What makes this scene important is the redemption which comes at the end. Because Mohabeer could portray this moment, we’re able to follow the woman on her journey to confront her demons. She can give me, as a racialized subject, the feeling of power and closure. This argument is similar to the argument for depictions of (implied) child abuse. Filmic representation is a way to heal.

I initially came to this digital collections project wanting to look into film and representation, to complement my cinema studies degree. I enjoyed Child-Play because it reminded me of why I took this project on in the first place. As a racialized child, a film like this would’ve helped me to put words to the powerlessness I felt. Even the indication that there were others who felt the same way would’ve helped. I hope our digital collection can help others access this kind of history and to create the kind of resources I wish were around when I was growing up.

Touring SAVAC and Vtape

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And update from Amal Khurram, who is participating in the undergraduate Scholars in Residence Digital Collections lab in partnership with the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

Scholars in Residence group pose in the SAVAC / Vtape archives. (L to R) Mac Stewart, Amal Khurram, Caleigh Inman, Saj Soomal (SAVAC), Alisha Krishna, Zohar Freeman, Cait McKinney.

Scholars in Residence group pose in the SAVAC / Vtape archives. (L to R) Mac Stewart, Amal Khurram, Caleigh Inman, Saj Soomal (SAVAC), Alisha Krishna, Zohar Freeman, Cait McKinney.

On May 17 our group went to visit the 401 Richmond building for a tour of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) and Vtape. These organizations are central to two of the digital collections we have been working on. The Not a Place on the Map Desh Pardesh festival oral history project that Alisha Krishna and I are working on was produced by SAVAC. The gendertrash zine collection that Caleigh Inman, Mac Stewart, and Sid Cunnigham are making was edited by Mirha-Soleil Ross, whose video art is distributed by Vtape.

I thought it was interesting to see where the magic of community archiving really happens—this is where people on the ground are creating history for archives like CLGA. We were given the opportunity to leaf through some SAVAC materials that weren’t accessible to us at the CLGA, and it was interesting to spot some familiar names amongst the collected work.

Deirdre Logue introduces the Vtape archives to Zohar Freeman and Alisha Krishna.

Deirdre Logue introduces the Vtape archives to Zohar Freeman and Alisha Krishna.

The polished Desh Pardesh festival flyers and pamphlets that we got to look through were an interesting contrast from the unfiltered interview personas we have encountered through oral history interviews. Pamphlets and other promotional materials are the end product of several revisions by coordinators and funders, and they reflect broader politics and tensions behind putting on a large festival.

What we have in the interviews is everything but this and it’s interesting to see the contrasting elements of the Desh Pardesh festival. Seeing all these print documents related to the festival shows how much larger the world of the event was than it might seem from listening to interviews, decades down the line. Learning all this while standing in the vicinity of where it all went down was truly an experience.

Walking down the staircase in the 401 building’s outdoor courtyard.

Walking down the staircase in the 401 building’s outdoor courtyard.

Affect in the Mirha-Soleil Ross Archive

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Archival objects can be powerful and moving. When they are centred around LGBTQ people, they can bring hope and joy. Some objects found  in the Mirha-Soleil Ross fonds demonstrates this hopefulness to me.

In her collection Mirha-Soleil Ross donated some pictures that were professionally taken of her and her partner at the time, Xanthra Phillippa MacKay. When Ms. Ross donated the photos to the CLGA, she attached a note requesting that we digitize them soon, showing their precious status to her.

Photograph of two white trans women embracing and looking at the camera.

Photo of Mirha-Soleil Ross and Xanthra Phillipa MacKay, 1993. Photo grapher: Jennifer O’Connor. See Mirha-Soleil Ross digital collections: http://digitalcollections.clga.ca/exhibits/show/gendertrash/item/870

The amount of bravery it took to be queer and trans in the 1990s and before astounds me, especially since many trans people were fighting to deny that queerness was intrinsically linked to transness. The idea of trans normativity has been rampant for many years in the queer and trans community. This essentially means policing other trans people’s identities and making them palatable for the general straight and cis public (Matte, 126).

As a queer trans person, Ms. Ross and Ms. MacKay’s bravery and activism inspires me over twenty years later as I recognize those who paved the way and came before me.

Source Cited:
Matte, Nicholas.  “Rupert Raj, Transmen and Sexuality: The Politics of Transnormativity in Metamorphosis Magazine during the 1980s,” We Still Demand: Redefining Resistance in Sex and Gender Struggles, ed. Patrizia Gentile and Gary Kinsman (UBC Press, 2017):117-137.

Foolscap Oral Histories and Gay Bar Culture in Toronto and Mexico City

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For the past few weeks I have been reading transcripts of the interviews that John Grube conducted in the 1980s with Canadian gay men born in the first half of the twentieth century. One of the most interesting topics in the interviews is the experiences that these men had with the gay bar culture in Toronto during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Going to bars or “beverage rooms” was instrumental in their coming out experience, in their coming to terms with their sexuality, or in dealing with the difficulties of being queer at that time. As one of the interviewees stated, “before there was any kind of organization, the counseling […] went on in pubs […] with everybody who was there, there was a lot of talking a lot of mutual support.”

St. Charles Tavern in 1955

St. Charles Tavern, 1955. Photography by James Victor Salmon. Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection

Aside from my concerns as a historian, one of the reasons I have felt so interested in this topic is because it reminds me so much of my own experience with the gay bar culture in Mexico City between 2007 and 2012. I remember fondly those alcohol-free parties organized every Friday afternoon, from 5 to 8 pm, at bars in the gay village for underage queer folks that wanted access to the gay scene in the city but were not yet 18. The first time I went to one of these parties called “tardeadas” I was 16 and had just begun to come out as gay with some close friends. Going to these bars was my point of entrance into Mexico City’s gay world, and enabled me to find the friendships, support, and security I could have hardly found anywhere else at that moment in my life. Years later, every time I go to a gay bar at night and run into one of those gay folks of my generation who I met at the “tardeadas,” I smile and think about how important those parties were in my coming out experience, in my finding of long-lasting friendships—both gay and straight—, and in my dealing with my sexual orientation in a time in which I was still afraid of my homosexuality.

I am really looking forward to find more insights into the Toronto gay bar culture prior to the gay liberation movement by looking at the stories that took place at the St. Charles Tavern, Letros, the King Cole Room at the Park Plaza, the King’s Plate Room in the King Edward Hotel, the Quest, the Parkside Tavern, the Red Lion Room in the Westbury Hotel among others.

Foolscap: The Social Responsibility of Digitizing Erasure

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Listening to the Foolscap interviews, it seems impossible to have been in Toronto in the 1960s without realizing that the St Charles Tavern was a hotbed of gay activity. However, researching press coverage of the bar, it’s clear that this watering hole’s queerness was fairly hidden from most of the public in the 1960s. A brief review of Globe and Mail articles between the 1940s and 1960s rarely link homosexuality to the St. Charles Tavern.

It’s important to expand the scope of your research beyond the secondary-source materials you first encounter, particularly when researching marginalized groups. Deeper research prevents us from reproducing the erasures found in old media. Archival materials pertaining to queer spaces require us to bring in more context in order find the queer people hidden between the lines of these materials; their subtext and the details of their lives.

VandalsWreck Yonge Street Tavern article

Consider the article “Vandals wreck Yonge tavern”, published in the Globe and Mail on February 21, 1966. The article describes damages done to the bar by vandals, including flooding, smashed chairs, cracked eggs, and files dumped out with ink poured all over them. Yet, there is no mention of the impact of this vandalism had on those who patronized the bar. By some accounts, in 1966, the St Charles Tavern was already a shrine to open queerness for many gay men in Toronto. While we cannot know the intentions behind these vandals’ choice of bar, we can imagine that many queer men read this article and felt targeted. Scared, maybe. Reading the stub through the Foolscap oral history interviews, it’s possible to find those whom the article does not describe.

 

Desh Pardesh: Historicizing a new brown, queer artist scene in Toronto

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“Not a Place on the Map” is an oral history project initiated by the South Asian Visual Arts Center (SAVAC), concerning Desh Pardesh, the queer South Asian arts festival in the 90’s which ran roughly from 1988 to 2001. Interviews show that Desh provided a sense of community and gave a platform for marginalized artists. The Collaboratory, SAVAC, the CLGA, and the Jackman Scholars in Residence are working to exhibit these interviews in a digital collection.

When we started this project, I knew that “exploring the politics of South Asian cultures in the West” would be a massive endeavour. From previous experience, I know that almost any question of South Asian (specifically Indian) culture stumbles upon the prejudices of caste and the pain of colonization, two subject areas with a ton of scholarship that is new to me. On top of this, there remains my queer identity, which until very recently I refused to acknowledge. My journey into Desh Pardesh’s story has provided a history for me. Looking at these files, I am learning how people made space in a white society for a queer and brown body. This knowledge is particularly inaccessible to me—growing up, I was very much isolated from my culture in my dominantly white and Catholic schools and neighbourhoods.

Promotional postcard from 1994 Desh Pardesh Festival. Photo by Rachel Kalpana James. Source: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives vertical files.

Promotional postcard from 1994 Desh Pardesh Festival. Photo by Rachel Kalpana James. Source: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives vertical files.

It is also interesting to think about the politics of categorization and my own personal biases in research. My family is almost exclusively Indian (with potentially a distant Portuguese relative), and given the state of Hindu right-wing radicalism oppressing large portions of the Indian and South Asian population, I am trying to be conscious of excluding other South Asian and diasporic countries. The Desh Pardesh festival’s contributors show the same blind-spot as well. Even the name—“Desh Pardesh”—can come from Hindi or Urdu, but I’ve mostly seen it explained via Hindi in the oral history interviews.

Looking back at this record forces me to reflect not only on the contemporary moment, but the long history of exceptionalism and segregation which brings us to the present. Our picture of Desh is shaping up to not just acknowledge the history of a new brown, queer artist scene in Toronto, but a snapshot of competing patriotism and the consequent increasing centrism. Right now, we are trying to navigate the influences of historical and colonial divisions which reveal themselves in what seems to be standard, leftist in-fighting.

Desh Dies? Sifting through emotions in the Desh Pardesh collection

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Over the past couple weeks, my research partner, Alisha, and I have been working through a number of interviews conducted in 2014-2015 with various participants of the Desh Pardesh festival. We’ve been weaving through text-heavy transcripts, and even transcribing a few audio interviews, but in the past couple of days we’ve been finally able to come in contact with the real archives. Seeing material outside of reflection or storytelling is a completely different experience.

"Desh Dies?" Clipping for Xtra! magazine, August 23, 2001. Source: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives Vertical Files

“Desh Dies?” Clipping for Xtra! magazine, August 23, 2001. Source: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives Vertical Files

The tiny article above struck me, not by its content but by the title of it: Desh Dies? What feels so interesting about this tiny piece of paper, which was likely in a small corner of the newspaper Xtra! is that it leaves this end of Desh open to interpretation by posing the festival’s demise as a question— expressing a kind of disbelief in the notion of Desh Pardesh ending. This kind of emotion also came through in a lot of the interviews that we’ve been listening to many of the interviewees reflected on how their memories of Desh have been nothing but good (of course with minor hiccups), and a few also remarked on how Desh might reoccur today.

I found this article interesting because it takes these feelings of nostalgia and hopefulness and sums them up briefly in a couple of words — without having even lived through that nostalgia. I think its interesting how  feelings attached to he festival have carried on nearly a decade after its collapse. The parallels in time are truly representative of the kind of impact this festival had on its community, its artists, its audience and beyond.