Trans Elders’ Life Histories


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.