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!