A Reflection on The Trans Oral History Panel: Narrative as Trans Worldmaking.

gay history / oral history / public humanities / trans history / Uncategorized

Narrative as Trans Worldmaking”: this concept has been foundational to the multiple projects that were presented on the Friday October 23rd Trans Oral History Panel for the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Oral History Association. What this concept aims to convey is that creating a world for trans people begins with trans people telling their own stories. Traditionally, trans people, much like other queer folks, have been expected to self-navigate in the cisheteronormative world that ostracizes them. In other words, trans people are expected to overcome oppressive obstacles to advance through a society that conventionally neglects their existence, while little attention is paid to how trans folks construct worlds for themselves. The lack of research in trans history has resulted in the trans world often being perceived as something of a mystery. There are many questions left unanswered, such as: how might the understanding of trans identity evolve over time? What other aspects of one’s identity impact their experiences as a trans person? What are the benefits of taking a look into trans history with an intersectional approach? These are all questions that inform this concept of “worldmaking” for trans people, creating a collective project that is intended to become a safe space for growth. Moreover, worldmaking would presumably remedy the impacts of any oppressive obstacles or ostracization experienced outside the trans world. Consequently, this roundtable was an opportunity for the scholars, archivists, and/or activists to share their projects, which not only present but also preserve trans narratives.

Myrl Beam, an Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, briefly mentioned an important concept when studying trans narratives: the constant struggle of manifesting the “Visibility Trap.” This concept argues that trans visibility is inherently positive, because the idea is frequent representation of trans identities would normalize trans existence. While this may be true to a certain degree, Beam argues that this is not entirely true. Beam dives more into this concept in the Transcripts podcast, explored in more detail in an earlier blog post, noting that with visibility, “we let our enemies know where we’re at.” In other words, visibility does not promise a safe livelihood nor normalize identity for trans people. When it comes to trans oral history, Beam focuses on world-building for trans folk and not just personal narratives.

Similarly, Blu Buchanan, currently a PHD candidate at the University of California, also looks into the representation of trans narratives through their project, specifically the narratives of Black trans folks. Relevant to the paradox found in the Visibility Trap, Buchanan notes that in pop culture, Black trans folks are often objects of violence. Thus, not only does the representation of Black trans folks bring forth the dangers of visibility, the type of representation that they receive only pertains to violence. Therefore, Buchanan’s project, the B.Trans Oral History Project, seeks to expand the representation of the Black trans community. An interesting cultural phenomenon that Buchanan noted was “FUBU,” otherwise known as, “For Us, By Us,” which Buchanan found that Black trans people practice as a concept of Black culture that was passed down. This cultural concept outlines that the resources created in the community are created by respective members for other members.

Lastly, Evan Taylor presented their project, which focuses on elders in the trans community. In this project, Taylor examines trans literacy and, more importantly, how the concept of “transness” differs across generations. The terminology within the community has changed generationally, ultimately offering different kinds of narratives in worldmaking for the Trans community. In conclusion, all of these projects examine the intricacies of world-building for the Trans community. The research being conducted in the trans community, working with primary resources – community members themselves – allows for a more comprehensive viewpoint in worldmaking by taking a bottom-up approach. Importantly, these projects also demonstrate the importance in considering the intersectional social categories that yield certain experiences. Exploring the different facets of the trans identity such as race or age, these projects exercise a more in depth approach to enriching trans history. 


Myrl Beam

Myrl Beam is an Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, currently on research leave, serving as the Fellow in Oral History at the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota. His work focuses on queer and trans social movements, racialized projects of inclusion and normativity, and the affective economies of neoliberal capitalism. Beam received his PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 2014. He is the author of Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). Most recently, his work has appeared in the edited volume Queer Activism After Marriage Equality (Routledge, 2019). In addition to his scholarly work, Beam is active in queer and trans leftist movements, specifically around issues of prison abolition, homelessness, and supporting the leadership of trans youth in movements for justice.

Elspeth Brown

Elspeth H. Brown is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Her research concerns the history and theory of photography; the history of US capitalism; queer and trans history; and oral history. She is the Director of the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory, a five-year digital history and oral history research collaboration that connects archives across Canada and the United States to produce a collaborative digital history hub for the research and study of gay, lesbian, queer, and trans oral histories. She has been a co-investigator for the Family Camera Network collaborative research project, where her research focuses on queer and trans family photography and oral history, in the context of global migration. She has received fellowships from the Getty Research Institute; the National Museum of American History; the American Council of Learned Societies; the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the Library of Congress Kluge Center; the American Philosophical Society, and others. She is the author of Work! A Queer History of Modeling (Duke University Press, 2019) and the award-winning The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884-1929 (Johns Hopkins 2005). She is co-editor of Feeling Photography (Duke University Press, 2014, with Thy Phu), “Queering Photography,” a special issue of Photography and Culture (2014), and Cultures of Commerce: Representation and American Business Culture, 1877-1960 (Palgrave, 2006). She is an active volunteer and Vice President of the Board, The ArQuives, the world’s largest LGBTQ2+ community archive.

Blu Buchanan

Blu Buchanan is a Black, genderqueer femme, unionista, and grad student working for liberation in California. They are currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Davis, with a completion date of Spring 2020. Blu’s research concerns n conservative gay social movements and the construction of the far right – spanning political organizations like the Log Cabin Republicans to the far-right National Socialist League (a neo-Nazi organization founded in 1974 explicitly for gay neo-Nazis). Blu writes for The Medium, and has published and/or has articles forthcoming in Radical History Review, PUBLIC: A Journal of Imagining America, and Black Feminist Sociology: Perspectives and Praxis. Blu has also founded the B. Trans Oral History Project, a collaboration between the Black trans community and its scholars. The goal is to compile and transcribe Black trans oral histories, to understand the life course and strategies of Black trans life in the United States.

Rachel Mattson

Rachel Mattson is an archivist/historian/writer with special interests in the areas of community-engaged archival practices, audiovisual preservation, and queer and trans histories. She currently serves as the Curator of the Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in the Radical History Review, the Scholar and the Feminist, Movement Research Performance Journal,KULA (A Journal of Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies), in books published by Routledge, Washington Square, and Thread Makes Blanket Press, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in U.S. History from NYU and an MLIS from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Michelle Esther O’Brien

Michelle Esther O’Brienhas served as the coordinator of the NYC Trans Oral History Project since 2016. She is completing her doctoral studies at NYU, writing on how class politics and political economy have shaped LGBTQ organizing since the 1970s. She previously worked in trans, queer, HIV and housing advocacy. Michelle also co-edits Pinko, a magazine of gay communism. Her writing is published in Commune, Endnotes, Historical Materialism and Social Movement Studies.

Evan Taylor

Dr. Evan Taylor is the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory Postdoctoral Fellow in Trans Oral History. Evan has been doing the interviewing for the joint project between the University of Toronto and the University of Victoria. 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. The previous project they 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.