Meet Our Collaborating Scholars: Dr. KJ Rawson

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As the Collaboratory works to connect LGBTQ digital histories projects across Canada and the U.S., our Collaborators share resources and expertise, and develop new methods in conversation. We invite you to meet our collaborating scholars – read on to learn more about some of the incredible work they have underway. 

KJDr. KJ Rawson (he/him/his) is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the College of the Holy Cross, and Director of the Digital Transgender Archive – a collaborative online hub of transgender history, including digitized historical materials, born-digital materials, and information on archival holdings throughout the world. His scholarship is at the intersections of rhetoric, LGBT studies, digital media, and feminist and queer theory. Keep up with the Digital Transgender Archive on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram, and learn more about KJ at kjrawson.net.

 

Let’s start with your name, pronouns, and honorific.
Dr. K.J. Rawson (he/him/his)

I’d love to know a bit about your thoughts on transgender archiving, as “both separate from and in conjunction with queer archiving.” What has your work taught you about the benefits of both approaches? 

LGBTQ+ archival collections are rich treasure troves of materials and they are an excellent place to find transgender historical materials. The same is true for non-LGBTQ+ specific collections––university-based special collections, for example––where transgender history can be found in surprising amounts. I have also been quite interested by trans-specific archival initiatives that devote time and resources to trans materials in particular. Each context provides a rich environment for doing historical research in this area.

What are the challenges you’ve faced or observed working in conjunction with queer archiving and archives?

It can often be challenging to work with historical figures whose identities we don’t or can’t know given the differences in historical context and shifting understandings about gender and sexuality. My experience has been that archivists and researchers are quite well intentioned, but there are times when it’s genuinely unclear how to best describe or understand historical figures and practices of gender.

A lot of collaborative models are emerging to connect oral histories and archives. Are there specific approaches/groups/communities/projects that you find especially compelling when it comes to collaboration?

To me, the most exciting thing about all of the trans oral history initiatives is the sheer quantity of them. We have a difficult time keeping up with all of the interviews that become available through all of our partners and we are always rushing to link out to them to make them more widely accessible.

What position does community and community engagement play in the work of the DTA?

The work of the project is constantly in conversation with community—from the students who work in our lab, to our advisory board, to content creators for the site, and all of our contributing archives. We are in contact with an even broader community through our social media channels, through presentations, and at various events that we attend throughout the world. One of the best parts of this work is getting feedback from people who are using and appreciating the site.

What are you interested in learning next?

Personally, I have been spending a lot of time working on the Homosaurus. The Homosaurus is an International LGBT Linked Data Vocabulary and I co-chair the editorial board for the project. It’s been a great way to develop and improve a resource to make LGBTQ+ materials more discoverable in archives and libraries.

 

Welcome to the Team: Elizabeth Holliday

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Hi there folx! My name is Elizabeth Holliday (they/them/Mx.), and I’m a new Research Assistant with Dr. Brown in the Collaboratory. My duties include a whole variety of things, including posting on this website, which is why you’re getting an introduction to me straight from me. Read on to learn a little about me, and I’ll catch you on our social medias!

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Photo by Avery Holliday

Born and raised on Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory in British Columbia, I moved to Tkaranto just a few months ago to start my Masters of Information in Library and Information Sciences at the University of Toronto’s iSchool. I moved to New York at 17 to pursue a Certificate in Integrated Performance (Musical Theatre) at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, did a year of courses at the New School for Public Engagement, and then moved back to BC to complete a BA in Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia.

Since beginning my undergrad, I have worked in theatre, radio, magazines (print and online), publishing, and book sales, often non-profits, always looking to facilitate community and marginalized access to media and media making. Having fallen in love with libraries at a young age, I decided to take that passion and pursue my MI for work in public libraries. I am deeply passionate about the library’s potential as a resource in low-income and queer communities (which often intersect). One such resource is the development of special collections of local histories, one designed by and for the community of patrons. This is what draws me to the Collaboratory. I am thrilled to learn more about the world of community archives and the barriers and successes of documenting Queer history, in the hopes that I can lend my skills to improving the systems we want to keep, and dismantling those that no longer serve us.

In addition to being an aspiring librarian, I am also a drag and theatre performer (alias Dank Sinatra) – there is some exciting Drag-related work coming down the pipe from the Collaboratory, so keep watching this space!

 

The Queer Peel Oral History Project: Queer Histories from Edge Cities

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Meet our new undergraduate research assistant, Luke Drummond (he/him or they/them), as he introduces you to The Peel Oral History Project! Luke is a fourth year English undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, and is currently working as Dr. Elspeth Brown’s research assistant, helping develop her course on queer oral histories of Peel. Fun fact: Luke is fluent in American Sign Language!

The Queer Peel Oral History Project, conducted by Dr. Elspeth Brown for her 3rd year history Special Topics course at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, will document the histories of LGBTQ+ individuals in the Peel region (comprised of Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon). Documenting the histories of queer, trans, non-binary and other LGBTQ2S+ people in the Peel area is important because Peel is both an edge city and a suburb. Queer oral histories from both suburbia and edge cities are noticeably absent in both queer archives and in academic histories and documentation. This absence is particularly true of queer folks in a Canadian context, where documentation of queer histories and experiences are usually centered around the larger cities of Vancouver and Toronto. While the city of Toronto, about an hour from the Peel region, has a well-documented queer history and culture, the queer histories and present-day experiences of queer people in the surrounding edge cities have yet to be documented and archived. The Queer Peel Oral History Project will seek to address this gap.

Gathering these narrators’ histories allows us to explore and document the ways in which the experiences of queer folks in edge cities differ from those in larger cities, particularly those with established queer communities. Specifically, the Peel Oral History Project asks, how do queer folk find each other, spread information, and collectivize when queer culture is not established or centralized in the same way it is in large cities?

Through interviews conducted by Dr. Brown’s students as part of their coursework, this project will ask Peel queers (and other LGBT2S+ people) to recount their histories of finding queer people, places, and things in their area. Interviews with our narrators will take place between January and late March, 2020, and will be archived afterwards at The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2S+ Archives, the largest and oldest community-based queer archive in the world. If you are someone who has lived in Peel for at least 1 year, are over age 18, identify as LGBTQ2s+, and are interested in contributing your story, please contact elspeth.brown@utoronto.ca.

Welcome to the Team: Dr. Evan T. Taylor

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We’re excited to announce the addition of a new member of our team – Dr. Evan Taylor! Our new Post-Doctoral Fellow in Trans Oral History, Evan holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Social Work, and a PhD from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Language and Literacy Education.Evan’s considerable experience has found them working at the intersections of LGBTQ+ identity, Trans(gender) literacy, health literacy, and culturally appropriate access to public institutions and citizenship for marginalized populations. Read on to learn more about Evan and their work with the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria!

2ed64541Name, Pronouns, and any other identifiers you’d like to share.
Evan T. Taylor. None, or They/Them

You have an extensive academic and work background in the intersections of LGBTQ+ Identity and Healthcare. How have archives shown up in your previous work?
The previous project I worked with as a researcher was the Cancer’s Margins project – which was Canada’s first nationally-funded project to investigate the intersections of breast and gynecologic cancers with both sexual and gender marginality – and part of the project was to develop the first online archive of queer cancer stories. www.lgbtcancer.ca 

Elevator Pitch time – what’s your position with the Collaboratory?
My post-doctoral fellowship is a joint fellowship that partners the University of Victoria’s Transgender Archives and the University of Toronto’s LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory. We are collecting oral history interviews with trans elders about their history of activism on behalf of trans people and communities in order to establish trans-specific and trans-positive primary source historical narratives that can be preserved for future generations. 

You’ll be working primarily with the Transgender Archives at University of Victoria – can you tell us a little bit about that archive?
For this one, I’ll refer you to the website, which says it all quite succinctly (https://www.uvic.ca/transgenderarchives/collections/index.php). 

“University of Victoria Libraries is home to the largest Transgender Archives in the world. We preserve original documents recording the history of pioneering activists, community leaders, and researchers who have contributed to the betterment of trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit people. Our records span over 160 meters or 530 linear feet (1.5 football fields long), go back over 120 years, and are in 15 languages from 23 countries on six continents. We are accessible to everyone, free of charge.”

What are you excited to bring to the Collaboratory?
I think we are living in exciting times of increasing trans visibility and community. But, with that being said, visibility doesn’t come without risk surrounding the production of marginalized populations. And one of those risks is that history will forget those who fought to create that visibility and safety. So, I think there is great value in documenting the history of trans activism to both honour those who have sacrificed so much to build and mobilize trans communities, and to preserve the history of social activism. 

What are you excited to learn from the Collaboratory?
I’m really excited to learn about how generations of trans people before me found each other and created community activism [before the internet]. I’m really most excited to learn about the history of trans activism – from the people who were actually doing it!

——

We’ll be posting regular updates on Evan’s work here and on our social media over the next few months. Find us at @lgbtqhistory on Twitter and join the LGBTQ Oral History and Digital Archives Collaboratory Facebook Group!

Trans Oral History Post-Doc! (6 months)

oral history / trans history

Post-doctoral Fellowship in Trans Oral History

The LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory (University of Toronto, ON), in collaboration with The Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria (Victoria, BC) will award one six-month Postdoctoral Fellowship. The fellowship is to be taken up, and concluded, between 1 June 2019 and 30 March 2020 (exact starting and ending dates to be negotiated within this time frame). The Fellow will be expected to coordinate and conduct oral histories with trans people who have been trans activists in the U.S. and Canada. Co-supervisors will be Dr. Aaron Devor (University of Victoria) and Dr. Elspeth Brown (UniversiScreen Shot 2019-01-25 at 8.30.01 PMty of Toronto). Our preference is that the Fellow will be based in Victoria but we may consider other possibilities. Priority consideration shall be given to candidates with a Ph.D. received between July 1, 2016 and June 1, 2019.

The successful candidate will have a proven track record in the area of trans studies, historical studies, and qualitative interviewing. Lived experience in trans or non-binary communities, or as a trans or non-binary activist, would be an asset.

The six-month fellowship includes a salary of $30,000 CAD and enrollment in the University of Toronto employee benefits program.

All qualified candidates are invited to apply online by sending the application materials to historical.studies@utoronto.ca by 31 March 2019. Applicants must submit a cover letter, a current curriculum vitae, a 1-2 page research statement outlining current and future research interests, a sample of scholarly writing not to exceed 30 single-spaced pages, and contact information for three referees. Please send with the following in the subject line of the email: Trans Oral History Postdoc.

We recommend combining attached documents into one or two files in PDF or MS Word format. If you have any questions about this position, please contact Dr. Elspeth Brown (Elspeth.brown@utoronto.ca) and/or Dr. Aaron Devor (ahdevor@uvic.ca).

All application materials will be accepted until the closing date of 31 March 2019, or until the position is filled.

The University of Toronto is strongly committed to diversity within its community and especially welcomes applications from racialized persons /persons of colour, women, Indigenous / Aboriginal People of North America, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ persons, and others who may contribute to the further diversification of ideas.

The University of Victoria is committed to upholding the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion in our living, learning and work environments. In pursuit of our values, we seek members who will work respectfully and constructively with differences and across levels of power. We actively encourage applications from members of groups experiencing barriers to equity. Read our full equity statement here: www.uvic.ca/equitystatement.

All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadians and permanent residents will be given priority.

The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ Oral History Project

oral history

Fabulous oral history projects continue to unfold. One of the endeavors and I have explored recently is the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, which is both an oral history project and an archiving initiative. It was founded in 2015 by Dr. Gregory Rosenthal, Assistant Professor of Public History at Roanoke College, either on their own or with others (it’s hard to tell from the website). This is an ambitious project that includes an oral history project that has so far collected interviews from 33 narrators, many of whom are queer and trans women, as well as many queer and trans people of color. They are also collecting archival objects, which make their final home in the Virginia room of the Roanoke Public Library. (Kudos to them  for collaborating with the library to create an archival home for these materials!) It’s also possible for folks to upload their own documents to the archive through this link. In addition to the oral histories and archiving work,  the project is also engaged in several public humanities initiatives. These include monthly walking tours concerning the queer history of Roanoke and two digital exhibitions drawn from the oral histories and archiving work. One of the exhibitions concerns gay and lesbian community organizing in the early 1980s, and the other focuses on gay liberation in Roanoke from 1966 through 1980. Like many of these projects, including my own, I wonder about questions of access and sustainability. Who is using these materials? Will people be accessing the entire two hour interviews (unlikely)?  Is Prof. Rosenthal keep track of who accesses and for how long?  Who will be working on this project over the long-term, etc. These are questions that all of us face.  I hope to learn more about the project on January 5,  after I have a chance to meet Gregory at the American Historical Association meetings in Chicago.

Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project

Finding the Body in Foolscap

Foolscap / gay history / oral history

The Foolscap Project consists of a series of oral history interviewees, mostly conducted between 1981 and 1989 by John Grube and Lionel Collier conducted a series of oral history interviews with gay men born in the first half of the 20th century.

The project produced over 100 autobiographical interviews. These interviews were invariably informed by conditions contemporaneous to the project: the Stonewall riots, Operation Soap, the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the community and the proliferation of a wide array of new queer spaces and social, community, and health-related groups

The directors of Foolscap were particularly interested in certain topics: psychiatry, policing, criminalization, sex work, intergenerational relationships, gay social structures, and health and aging.

In the last couple years, records from the Foolscap project have gradually been flowing into the CLGA. I have been given the opportunity to process and digitize these materials. In the last fifteen months, we have digitized over 300 audio recordings from 125 interviews with 100 sets of subjects.

The Foolscap project does not truly document a history of HIV/AIDS in Toronto. The way in which the oral histories were conducted was not really aimed at garnering information so much as gathering profiles of the gay community. However, in collecting these profiles, what the Foolscap project does document is the way in which people told their life/body-stories in that moment of time.

The Foolscap project spans across multiple bodies: personal, geographical, temporal, spatial, and material. The onset of HIV/AIDS for Toronto’s queer and trans community, which began contemporaneously to the Foolscap project, situated all of these bodies in new contexts. As a result, the project took on a particular salience in its reference to HIV/AIDS. It offered community members an opportunity to re-write their queer body-histories, which took on new character alongside HIV/AIDS. The narration, and thus production, of these new queer body-histories and futurities, which were informed by HIV/AIDS, fed back into the subjective forces involved in the project. In this way, the Foolscap project itself formed a technology of interference, and its histories are constituted from layers of interruption. 

It is tempting to see ‘interruption’ as instantaneous; a particular moment or event whose durativity exists is only in its legacy, rather than its process. But, in reality, interruption itself is durational. Take, for instance, a cassette tape. Over time, it degrades. This degradation interferes with its content, noise interrupting the audio it was intended to contain. While I listen to it, I perceive one moment of this interference; I hear a particular instant of the process, and might find it to be “inaudible” or, hopefully, “audible”. But, in reality, its degradation occurs over an infinite series of moments, accumulating and effecting itself. The tape’s degradation is collaborative as well, determined by numerous dimensions including the tape itself, the type of recording, its age, the places it has been housed, and the conditions it has been exposed to. This interpretation of interruption as durational is the one I use to characterize the ways in which HIV/AIDS was constituted within Foolscap. Foolscap characterizes HIV/AIDS as an ongoing interruption of queer bodies and spaces. 

Some Foolscap interviewees characterize HIV/AIDS as an interruption of the body; in the Foolscap interview with Ed Fanantu, Fanantu describes in detail how HIV interrupts what he characterizes to be regular bodily function, particularly fixating on a friend with HIV who experiences blindness. Interruptions with bodily function were recognized as signs pointed towards HIV/AIDS; in the first Foolscap interview with Alan McMurray, McMurray is sick with a flu, and suggests that this indicates he may have HIV. 

HIV/AIDS is understood by others as constituting an interruption in gay space-making and geographies. Contrasted against memories of the care-free cruising and sexual rendezvous in  decades past, new meanings and realities came to define cruising hubs like Queen’s Park, Hanlan’s Point and Balfour Park as HIV/AIDS entered the lived experiences of the queer public. Businesses were to be graded based on their response to the epidemic: in gay entrepreneur Peter Bochove’s interview, Bochove chastises the Roman Bathhouse for not giving condoms out, while applauding Club Toronto for offering protection. Perceptions of the safety of parks was also interrupted. For example, Vernon Duval and Lionel Collier discuss at length in their interview how HIV/AIDS changed the cruising scene at Allan Gardens. In another interview a man titled ‘CCB’ for anonymity describes how HIV/AIDS has made him lose interest in bathhouses and parks.

For Foolscap interviewees, HIV/AIDS interrupted most relations between land, bodies, minds and objects. In the Foolscap interview with Gordon Whitrock, Whitrock takes on an optimistic characterization of HIV/AIDS, describing HIV/AIDS as a galvanizing moment for the gay liberation movement. Ed Fanantu describes how HIV/AIDS has defined new body-readings and body-aesthetics within the gay community. In the interviews, everyday objects like KY Jelly lube were re-read as contagion, becoming politicized as they were blamed for the deaths of friends and partners. For many, the act of sex became increasingly divorced from sexuality; many interviewees describe choosing celibacy over risk of seropositivity. 

One of the Foolscap project interviewers, Lionel Collier, describes HIV/AIDS in the community as ‘war’. I take ‘war’ to mean a loud and brash interruption, blurring the lines between public and private spheres for the queer community.

These interruptions asked community members to reinterpret their lives with a sense of urgency. As HIV/AIDS demanded new temporalities and futurities from Foolscap interviewees, personal histories had to be marked against new rubrics. The Foolscap interviews were one site where these personal histories could be revised and spoken into the record. As subjects were asked to trace their own histories, their autobiographies could be told in new ways centred around their experiences with HIV. For instance, previously, Foolscap interviewee Burt Sutcliffe may simply have described his relationship with his partner Ralph as always monogamous. But now, with Foolscap, Burt Sutcliffe could characterize his relationship as one which had always been monogamous, and even if it hadn’t been previously, would be now. People interviewed by the Foolscap interviewers could revise their life stories to identify, for those who were seronegative, how their decisions and experiences directed them away from HIV/AIDS, and, for those who were seropositive, how their decisions and experiences shaped their serostatus.

This notion of re-interpretation is true to all oral history; while oral histories are recounted, they always form a site for re-constitutions of the body-mind.  In this way, the act of retelling an oral history, too, acts as an interruptive force, as this re-constitution may not be aligned with the intent of the subject. 

A particularly interesting example of this is the Foolscap interview with Earl Whitfield Slipp, which was partially conducted in a hospital. In this interview, a host of interruptions take up most of the duration of the recording: noise, interference from medical equipment, and prompts from doctors come to tell Slipp’s health history for him. 

The interviewer also forms an interruption in oral history, prompting and refusing the speaker, shaping the interviewee’s identity in the process of it being written. Just as Foolscap interviewees framed HIV/AIDS as interruptive, so did the Foolscap interviewers through their questions. Emphasis in the Foolscap interviews was typically placed on early sexual experiences and present sexual experiences, emphasizing a contrast between “sex before” and “sex now”. Interviewer interference was often quite blatant: as the project went on, Foolscap interviewers increasingly closed interviews by prompting interviewees to consider using condoms.

Archiving necessarily expects the archivist to perceive artefacts and their histories as existing in finite temporalities; the process of preservation imagines archival ephemera as belonging in a certain time or space, with particular character and content reflective of that time and space. 

In reality, the archival objects of the Foolscap interview do not characterize the time and place of HIV/AIDS, but rather the change within that time and space. Foolscap interviews, as with all other oral histories of HIV/AIDS, document the re-constitution of bodies in times of drastic change and interruption. 

Foolscap does not offer a survey of all experiences shaped HIV/AIDS, but rather tracks how people’s perceptions of themselves and their bodies changed as a response to these experiences. Today, as the cassettes these oral histories are housed in continue to respond to change, degrading over time, we watch these bodies continue to respond to interruptive forces. It is these layers of interruptions which come to constitute our histories.

Remembering the Delisting Years, Twenty Years Later

oral history / trans history

Twenty years after the delisting of gender confirmation surgeries in Ontario, the recent return of the Conservatives to power forces us to remember the ten year struggle for relisting that resulted from this decision.

On October 1st, 1998, the newly-installed Conservative provincial government removed coverage for gender confirmation surgeries under the Ontario health care plan (OHIP). The delisting of these procedures, formerly referred to as sex reassignment surgery (SRS), was part of a broader plan of cuts to public services and the provincial welfare system as influenced by neoliberal austerity, widely popular amongst Western governments by the end of the 1990s.

The delisting took the transgender community in Toronto by surprise. Those who were undergoing their transition at the time and were in the process of obtaining approval for their surgery were left with no other options as public coverage for their procedures ended in such a sudden manner. As a result, many transgender Ontarians saw themselves embracing the role of activists as they now had to fight for their rights and those of their community. For some like Martine Stonehouse this led her to take her case to the Canadian Human Rights Review Panel in 1999, eventually launching into a human rights case against the Province of Ontario.

Several trans activists formed collectives and coalitions in order to come together and press for the needs of their community. One of them, the Trans Lobby Group, formed in 2001 as activists and community members organized to lobby politicians about the social determinants of health for transgender people, emphasizing the effects of societal and institutional transphobia on the life and wellbeing of this collective.

NM and Susan Gapka

NM and Susan Gapka, one of the project interviewees

Inspired by the need to raise awareness of the dire state of transgender health in Ontario in the 2000s, Sherbourne Health Centre oversaw the creation of the Trans PULSE Project as a community-based research endeavour. The Trans PULSE Project resulted in many studies on the status of transgender health in Ontario based on a series of surveys conducted in 2009 and 2010 with over 400 members of this community. Although all of them offer insightful details about the social determinants of transgender health, one particular report sheds light on the challenges and difficulties that arise when transgender people have inadequate access to health care. Worryingly, the report claims that by 2009 a number of transgender Ontarians had engaged in non-prescribed hormone use, while a smaller number of participants had performed surgical procedures on themselves. As the data collection for the Trans PULSE Project took place shortly after coverage for gender confirmation surgeries was reinstated, it can be assumed that these individuals were led to oversee their own transitions due to the faults and shortcomings of the provincial health care system during the delisting years.

In a province with a tradition of universal health care, excluding transgender people from accessing coverage for vital procedures for ten years is a demonstration of how easily transphobia can get institutionalized under a hostile administration. While coverage for gender confirmation surgeries was eventually resumed after the return of the Liberal party to power, the ten years that transgender Ontarians had to live without access to vital surgeries permanently scarred this community and initiated a generation of relentless trans health care activism.

Twenty years later, and at the dawn of a new Conservative government after fifteen years of Liberal grip over the province, the landscape for LGBTQ+ rights and activism is perhaps as dire as it was in 1998. While Doug Ford has not necessarily made any direct attacks or threats against the transgender population, the cancellation of the OHIP+ program and the decision to revert back to the 1998 sexual education curriculum lead us to believe that this administration has no qualms about cutting back socially progressive policies.

Amidst a hostile environment in North American politics where right-wing politics are ever more enmeshed with anti-trans sentiment, the next four years of Conservative leadership hold a fair amount of uncertainty and anxiety over the state of transgender health in Ontario. As LGBTQ+ Ontarians, we can only hope that two decades of lobbying, organizing, and activism have solidified the severity of our claims, and therefore that we will not see a return to the ten years without coverage that left many in Ontario without a hope to live their true lives.

Queering Family Photography: A Short Film

oral history / photography / public humanities

In May 2016, The Family Camera Network launched a public archive project to collect and preserve family photographs and their stories, providing a resource for teachers, historians, and scholars to write new histories of photography, family, and Canada…The project has conducted over 30 interviews in total, including 16 oral history interviews with 13 queer and/or trans narrators about their family photographs. The photographs and video interviews are being preserved at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (a portion of which is represented in this video) and at the Royal Ontario Museum. This video draws from interview footage in this archive.

Queering Family Photography

oral history / photography / public humanities

On April 21st, 2018, the Queering Family Photography exhibition opened at Stephen Bulger Gallery, in conjunction with artist Sunil Gupta’s exhibition, Friends and Lovers – Coming out in Montreal in the 70s.

Queering Family Photography explored the critical work that queer, trans, and two-spirited family photos do in documenting and creating queer modes of belonging, and how our emotional attachments to queer family photographs have also sustained LGBTQ2+ lives. The show traced how queer, trans, and two-spirited people draw on photography to redefine family to include queer kinships outside the heteronormative, nuclear family model. It considered the social, political, and technolo

INSTALLATION OF QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY AT STEPHEN BULGER GALLERY. PHOTO: M. KASUMOVIC, 2018.

INSTALLATION OF QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY AT STEPHEN BULGER GALLERY. PHOTO: M. KASUMOVIC, 2018.

gical factors that structure queer kinship, and the ways that LGBTQ2+ communities creatively reimagine family, linking public and private spheres together. The images on display captured fleeting moments of love and desire, as well as generational bonds, which are often fractured by a normalizing state and culture.

 

Queering Family Photography was curated by Elspeth Brown (lead) and Thy Phu, with the assistance of Sajdeep Soomal, Richard Fung, Mark Kasumovic, Tori Abel, Lucie Handley-Girard, and Sarah Parsons. It featured over 100 photographs, as well as oral histories, collected through The Family Camera Network, and loans from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA), a partner in this project, and from the Two-Spirited Collection at the University of Winnipeg Archive. It was organized by The Family Camera Network and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, with the support of Western University, Stephen Bulger Gallery, and York University. The exhibition was on display from April 21st to May 26th and it was a featured exhibition in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

Thematic Sections

Queering Family Photography was presented in three thematic sections: “Instant Intimacies,” “Domesticities,” and “Publics.” The exhibition also included a selection of albums in vitrines, as well as a video projection that showcased FamCam participants and their stories.

INSTALLATION OF SUNIL GUPTA: FRIENDS AND LOVERS (IN THE FOREGROUND) AND QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY (IN THE BACKGROUND). PHOTO: © SCOTT POBORSA / COURTESY OF STEPHEN BULGER GALLERY & SUNIL GUPTA, 2018.

INSTALLATION OF SUNIL GUPTA: FRIENDS AND LOVERS (IN THE FOREGROUND) AND QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY (IN THE BACKGROUND). PHOTO: © SCOTT POBORSA / COURTESY OF STEPHEN BULGER GALLERY & SUNIL GUPTA, 2018.

Instant Intimacies

The first section of the exhibition explored photographic technologies that enabled a sense of “instant intimacy,” through a small selection of Polaroid photographs and prints of digital images. Candid Polaroid prints from the 1970s-1990s brought desires into view while limiting the threat of public exposure at a time when non-normative sexualities and genders were strictly surveilled and policed. This technology of instant intimacy has also captured and created camp, queer humour, and two-spirited kinship during moments of levity and connection. Although the demise of Polaroid coincided with the digital turn, its influence persists in the era of social media, which embraces the immediacy and spontaneity that older instant cameras introduced. In “Instant Intimacies,” viewers experienced Polaroids of friends hanging out, in drag, and at parties. The digital images in this section included: selfies, a screenshot from a LiveJournal chat room for trans women, and a screenshot of a son and his parents as they connect from their respective homes in Toronto (Canada) and Mumbai (India).

Domesticities

Through a display of over thirty photographs hung in a salon style, “Domesticities” examined how family photos also shape domesticity as an ideology that forms gender roles and polices sexuality in a way that intersects with the public sphere. LGBTQ2+ people make and remake family by creating domestic images that redefine normative meanings of “daddies,” mothers, siblings, and kids. LGBTQ2+ people have reimagined these domestic descriptors in queer family photographs taken not only inside homes but also in public spaces: at the beach, in a stairwell, on the street, and elsewhere. “Domesticities” highlighted the generational bonds between parents and children, between romantic partners, and between strangers who, despite their brief connection, come together in defiance of norms and laws that criminalize queer desire and gender expression. Here, visitors saw the diverse types of images that compose family photo collections, including: baby pictures, school pictures, wedding photos, holiday snapshots, commercial images, and press photos.

INSTALLATION OF QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY AT STEPHEN BULGER GALLERY. PHOTO: © SCOTT POBORSA / COURTESY OF STEPHEN BULGER GALLERY, 2018.

INSTALLATION OF QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY AT STEPHEN BULGER GALLERY. PHOTO: © SCOTT POBORSA / COURTESY OF STEPHEN BULGER GALLERY, 2018.

Publics

LGBTQ2+ people draw on photography to expand and queer the notion of family through spectacular and quotidian means, including the highly visible spaces of the street and park, and less visible spaces such as bathhouses, coffeehouses, and clubs. Both types of spaces are pivotal for expressing queer desire yet are targets for state suppression. Events such as powwows provide opportunities to reflect further on two-spirited kinship in relationship to Indigenous cultures and queer modes of belonging. In a neoliberal era, however, many queer family spaces have become gentrified and commodified in a process that benefits some LGBTQ2+ community members while marginalizing others on the basis of class and race. The “Publics” section included photos taken during demonstrations and pride events, including images capturing: the “No More Shit” demonstration against the Toronto bathhouse raids (1981), a Zami gathering (1983), a Gay Men of African Descent march (1995), a Campaign for Equal Families demonstration (1995) and the 22nd Annual International Two-Spirit Gathering (2010).

Albums

The CLGA collection contains several family albums, which document travels and migrations, capture everyday moments and significant events, represent chosen families, memorialize friends and family members, and even acknowledge public figures in the medical profession who have been advocates for LGBTQ2+ people. The exhibition included a selection of these family photo albums and album pages in two vitrines. Some of these items included: a page with a “Spirituality in the 1990s” flyer by two-spirit activist Albert McLeod, Rupert Raj’s personal photo album featuring his cross-dressing friends, a family album with snapshots of author and photographer Terry David Silvercloud (formerly David Blair) growing up in Halifax, and an album with snapshots of Robert ‘Robbie’ Gaston Fortin, a Toronto and Vancouver-based Drag Star (a.k.a. Mrs. Wiggins), that was created by his mother for the Drag Hall of Fame after he passed away.

Video Projection: Queering Family Photography (2018)

A projection on the north wall of the exhibition space presented an original video directed by Thy Phu, and edited and animated by Maryam Golafshani and Mark Kasumovic, showing clips from oral history interviews collected by The Family Camera Network. In May 2016, The Family Camera Network launched a public archive project to collect and preserve family photographs and their stories, providing a resource for teachers, historians, and scholars to write new histories of photography, family, and Canada. At the time of the exhibition, the project had conducted over 30 interviews, including 16 oral history interviews with 13 queer and trans narrators about their family photographs. FamCam photographs and video interviews are preserved at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and at the Royal Ontario Museum. This video draws from interview footage in the FamCam archive at the CLGA.

QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY ROUNDTABLE AT HART HOUSE, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO. PHOTO: M. KASUMOVIC, 2018.

QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY ROUNDTABLE AT HART HOUSE, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO. PHOTO: M. KASUMOVIC, 2018.

Exhibition Outreach & Programming

Queering Family Photography reached broad audiences as one of the featured exhibitions of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Around 300 people visited the gallery during the opening event and the show saw between 25 to 50 visitors a day during its run. Several attendees wrote comments in the guestbook that expressed appreciation and gratitude for presenting a show that highlighted LGBTQ2+ experiences and families.

Remarking on the show and the audience it garnered at the gallery, Stephen Bulger commented:

“It was a distinct honour to offer some of our gallery space for the Queering Family Photography exhibition. CLGA’s initiative enabled Sunil Gupta to explore an old body of work for the first time which, when presented in conjunction with the archival treasures from the CLGA served to broaden the issues depicted. I also enjoyed seeing how the two exhibitions would often each attract its own audience, and how delighted they would be to discover a second, complimentary exhibition. Coupled with the audience attracted to the CONTACT festival, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect time to have hosted the two exhibitions.”

— Stephen Bulger

The Family Camera Network also hosted a Queering Family Photography roundtable on April 26th, 2018. Acclaimed filmmaker Richard Fung moderated a panel featuring prominent two-spirited activist Albert McLeod, artist Sunil Gupta, and curators Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu. It was held at Hart House (University of Toronto) and explored the themes and content of Queering Family Photography and Friends and Lovers – Coming Out in Montreal in the 70s. This free public panel drew an audience of over 60 people.

In the Media

Queering Family Photography was well-received in the media. It was hailed as a “must-see” exhibition of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Canadian Art and theToronto Star. Associate Editor of Canadian Art, Yaniya Lee, wrote:

“Growing up, I rarely saw representations of my own, two-momed type of family unit. For a long time I had the odd sense that these kinships were strange, illegitimate or shameful. […] IMHO, portrayals of alternative family structures like these, so seldom given a space to be visible, can shift our perception of what a ‘normal’ family should look like.”

— Yaniya Lee, Canadian Art, 26 April 2018

Art critic Murray Whyte drew a connection between The Family Camera (Royal Ontario Museum, 2017) and Queering Family Photography, and noted that the images on display were, “warm in their simple truth – of the intimacy and comfort of nearest and dearest, a universal necessity that knows no gender or orientation.” Interviews with lead curator Elspeth Brown were also featured on Metro Morning, Toronto Life, Yohomo: Toronto Queer Culture Now, and CBC Arts.

INSTALLATION OF SUNIL GUPTA: FRIENDS AND LOVERS (IN THE FOREGROUND) AND QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY (IN THE BACKGROUND). PHOTO: M. KASUMOVIC, 2018.

INSTALLATION OF SUNIL GUPTA: FRIENDS AND LOVERS (IN THE FOREGROUND) AND QUEERING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY (IN THE BACKGROUND). PHOTO: M. KASUMOVIC, 2018.