Making Our Stories More Visible: The State of Trans Oral History in 2022

Artist: Ethan Parker

2022 has been a rough year for visibility for trans people. It has been a year for record anti-trans legislation and public debate about trans people in the public eye. When Trans Day of Visibility rolls around each March, the trans community spends time reflecting and celebrating a year of accomplishments. In a year like this one, where we are seeing more anti-trans legislation being proposed across the country it becomes more important for us to look back on the success we have had throughout history. To do this more effectively, I coordinated a virtual roundtable between trans archivists and oral historians about how they see work moving forward now and into the future.

I asked historians and oral history projects from 4 different parts of the US to participate. In a beautiful moment, as you’ll read, the themes and impacts of the contributors overlap and reference each other. I think that this speaks both to the importance of trans oral history and how it can build community.

Myrl Beam is a Fellow in Oral History at the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project and Assistant Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Tracee McDaniel is an activist and volunteer for the Georgia State University Trans Oral History Project. She is a Trans Human Rights Advocate and published author Tracee McDaniel is motivated by a strong desire to ensure that all Trans and Gender Non-Conforming people also receive equity, justice, civil and human rights protections.

The New York City Trans Oral History Project is a community archive devoted to the collection, preservation and sharing of trans histories, organized in collaboration with the New York Public Library. They participated with a collective response. S

Samantha Rosenthal is Associate Professor of History and Coordinator of the Public History Concentration at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. She is the author of two books, Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City and Beyond Hawai’i: Native Labor in the Pacific World and is co-founder of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project.

Boy Radio Silhouette, 2016. Photograph: Fred Attenborough

What makes trans oral history unique?

With this question, we look at what role trans oral history has in relationship to larger versions of history. We see that trans people telling their own stories works as a way to reclaim the ways that other have shaped trans experience. These other range from larger systems that work marginalize or minimize trans experience to interpersonal engagement with the past.

MB: Trans oral history is a uniquely necessary aspect of the broader project of trans history because of the specific and problematic nature of the “trans archive” upon which so much of trans history is based. In much of the extant written archive, gender nonconformity is largely documented in the materials of powerful institutions like medicine and the law, institutions that understood gender nonconformity as a problem to be managed, either through pathologization or criminalization. The fact that trans people largely enter the archive only in the records of their encounters with powerful institutions means that the archive plays a key role in producing gender nonconformity as a problem to be managed, usually through criminalization or pathologization, through fear or pity, and by tough-minded protectors or kind-hearted saviors – always centralizing cis subjectivity and passively naturalizing a racialized gender binary. This produces a damaging and flattening history of gender non-conformity, even, to some extent, in contemporary trans studies accounts. Jules Gill-Peterson makes the important observation that trans studies itself reproduces – and enhances even – the whiteness of trans history in part because of its over-reliance on the medical archive. So, put simply, the “trans archive” offers us distorting, problematic, dehumanizing narratives – archival material that is important to excavate to understand the relationship between white supremacy, eugenics, capitalism, and the production and regulation of gender norms, certainly, but not material that will ever offer us three dimensional, fully human stories of gender transgression, of people who transgress gender norms. So, I think trans oral history offers the possibility of gender transgressive people narrating not just encounters with those powerful institutions, but also the full breadth of life – trans people’s relationships with one another, their political organizing, their cultural productions, the ambivalences, hopes, fears, pettiness, dreams – the full scope of humanity in all of its joy and messiness that is so missing from the rest of the archive. Trans and gender non-conforming people aren’t problems to be managed, they are actors navigating a compulsory racialized gender system, making do, carving out space, and, ultimately, transforming the terms of livable life.

TM: I visualize our oral history being used to educate the next generation and following generations. Our true history, starting with the eunuchs during biblical times, up to the Twenty First Century, especially black trans people like myself have been purposefully twisted, systemically distorted, and not acknowledging our true contributions to society. I believe that it’s my responsibility to smooth out the pathway for the next generation, just as the generation before did for us.

We accomplish that by writing and telling our stories in our very own voices, so that there’s an accurate record of what really occurred, leaving no room for misunderstanding who we really are as human beings.

NYC: The NYC Trans Oral History Project was created to confront the erasure of trans histories by non-trans folks, “elites” and medicalized documentation focused on the examination of trans bodies. What we now call “Top down” trans history was authored through legal and medical interests creating unethical data collection. Our project intercepts and decentralizes this standard by documenting the experiences of trans people as intersecting with race and racism, poverty, disability, aging, housing, migration, HIV/AIDS, and sexism. The NYC Trans Oral History Project (TOHP) began in 2014, emerging from conversations with local activists organizing low-income trans people of color, who expressed their desire for some initiative with the capacity to systematically collect and preserve their constituency’s remarkable stories of survival and resilience. The collective was equally inspired by the notion put to us by organizers that oral history might not simply build a record for posterity’s sake but could also be a tool for community organizing and advocacy. Activists pointed out that trans communities are possessed not just of remarkable historical memory, but also expertise at our own survival—and that lawyers and policy advocates could have much to learn from collecting community survival and worldmaking strategies. Additionally, not just the final product—a recorded archive—but also the collaborative process of trans oral history could be a tool for building community engagement and leadership in its own right; including opportunities for intergenerational relationship building and cultural transmission, to which trans communities otherwise rarely have access. Those who would become the initial NYC TOHP collective—a small group of academics, activists, artists, and cultural workers—were struck by this glaring historical lacuna, as there had never been an archival initiative focusing on trans New Yorkers, despite NYC’s extremely vibrant and heterogeneous trans community which also been long recognized as uniquely historically significant.

SR: This question reminds me of the great article by Kevin Murphy, Jennifer Pierce, and Jason Ruiz in The Oral History Review, “What Makes Queer Oral History Different?” which itself builds on the famous Alessandro Portelli essay “What Makes Oral History Different?” We can certainly ask what makes trans oral history different, and a recent article in The Oral History Review, “Toward an Ethos of Trans Care in Trans Oral History,” by Elspeth Brown and Myrl Beam, begins taking us there. 

I’m not sure I have a global answer for what makes trans oral history different, but what has made it unique in Southwest Virginia and in my life is the way that intersubjectivity impacts interviewing—how doing and listening to interviews has shaped my experiences of becoming a woman, and how my own transness has shaped the way I approach the past. This intersubjectivity is also found in queer oral history encounters, as detailed in Nan Boyd and Horacio Roque Ramirez’s Bodies of Evidence. But there’s something about the T4T encounter in oral history that has been particularly life altering for me. We have gone further in our own interpretive work, such as in our “Living Trans History” interactive theater workshops, to bring trans oral histories into conversation with trans and non-binary teenagers, as I write about in my book Living Queer History. These cross-generational engagements are a really important part of trans oral history practice. 

Trans Life & Liberation Art Series/ Micah Bazant

How do you envision trans oral history being utilized in the future? 

At a time when the trans community is facing a variety of hardships, sometimes it can seem like oral history may be an academic or removed activity. Here we see that our contributors look to trans oral history as an action, not merely storage unit for experience. Trans oral histories work to foster community, collective knowledge, and understanding.

MB: Because of how damaging the majority of the “trans archive” is, and how circumscribed, individualized, and overly medicalized most mainstream trans representation is, oral history opens up new ways of documenting trans life. So, the oral histories themselves are just a wealth of insight and historical documentation which is enormously valuable. But the practice of trans oral history is just as valuable, and one that I’d love to see proliferate, and for folks who have been locked out of it, primarily because of the paucity of funding and how that funding is primarily available to academics, to have the opportunity to have compensated, supported opportunities to tell and listen to trans stories within specific local communities.

I actually think that we tend to over-value the product of oral history and under-value the process of community building that enables it, which is, often, I think, the more impactful and long lasting, as paradoxical as that sounds. We tend to think of relationships as ephemeral and therefore less meaningful, and oral histories as archival and therefore permanent. But I’ve been so struck by the impact that the NYC Trans Oral History Project has had on the field in part because they’ve offered a way of thinking about relationship, community, and connections as a key part of an oral history projects. Oral histories are less used than we might wish they were. But the experience and practice of deep listening, of honoring someone’s story, is truly transformational, and is certainly as important as the product itself.

TM: We’re resilient. Human Rights are Trans Rights and Trans Rights are Human Rights, and we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of how we’ve individually identified. Registering to Vote and actually voting will also contribute to changing the inequities that Trans, Gender Non-Conforming and Non-Binary people face on legislative policy levels.

NYC: Our project believes oral history is a powerful tool for community organizing and anti-oppression work. This archive has been instrumental in supporting and building records of narrator’s lived experiences through their own storytelling. We, as community oral historians, are the custodians of stories that have and will be used as a legal support, as evidence of solidarity between sex workers, unions, and other labor movements. It will help kids living outside city centers find language around their transition. Our project is historical recuperation and refuge for building testimony. Memory is collaborative and locating a trans-historicity between generation and movements builds collective power. History building is our resource towards preservation that hopefully will be utilized to empower trans life, continuity, and mobilization with one another.

SR: We don’t know. In their introduction to Bodies of Evidence, Ramirez and Boyd write about the dangers of people or institutions using queer oral histories as evidence to identify us and harm us. My students have imagined a future government using the interviews we make in malicious ways. We try to have that conversation with narrators before sitting down to an interview, to ask them to imagine all the ways their interviews might be used against them. Most recently we had a narrator decide to embargo their oral history interview because of pending court cases and the threat of their story being used against them. In Living Queer History, I write about an interview with a trans sex worker that brought up all manner of legal issues, and the actions that we took to try to protect ourselves and the narrator from harm. 

But it’s not all gloom and doom. In Living Queer History, I think back often to Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopiaone of my all-time favorite works of queer theory. I do believe that trans oral histories make the future possible—a future in which trans and non-binary youth in Appalachia have a sense of a shared past, a local and regional past, that is trans. I have written about this in The Conversation, that trans youth in Appalachia benefit from knowing the stories of their elders, from feeling connected to a local and regional history that includes transgender people like them. 

Do you have a favorite piece of wisdom or insight that you’ve learned through collecting trans oral history? 

As we can see, trans oral history encompasses a variety of projects including the role of regionality, class, and language used to describe and connect around trans experience. These oral histories and the process of collecting them are then transformative processes that connect people to ideas to lives and more.

MB: One of the things that I’ve been very aware of as I’ve been working on the TTOHP is that we are in a moment of trans visibility, a moment of visibility that has, frankly, enabled funding for trans oral history projects like the one I work on. But visibility as a strategic endeavor, as a tactic, is complicated, uneven, and, often, dangerous. I’ve been really informed by the work that Tourmaline, Johanna Burton, and Eric Stanley did in their book Trap Door to lay out the dangers of what they call the “visibility trap,” in which visibility is imagined as the one avenue for recognition and safety, but that often can actually endanger folks most marginalized within trans communities. This is especially true of a kind of thin trans equality framing. I remember clearly when CeCe McDonald was being prosecuted for defending her life, and the prosecutor Mike Freeman headed off criticisms of the violent systemic racism and transphobia of the criminal court system with the rejoinder, basically, “we’ve had trans sensitivity training, so we’re good.” Visibility can be used against us. Or more accurately, visibility can be, and is, used against Black and brown trans femmes. For instance, in an oral history I conducted last Fall with Chicago-based organizer LaSaia Wade, founder of the Brave Space Alliance, I asked her how she makes sense of the paradox we find ourselves in, a moment of increased positive representation AND increased violence. She named the visibility trap quite succinctly: “we let our enemies know where we at.” Wade, along with many other oral history narrators to whom I posed the question, noted that increased visibility had not made their lives safer, but instead meant, for instance, that they were more likely to be clocked by police.

So, what does that mean for trans oral history? How can we document the richness of trans life and activism, highlight the incredibly important lessons and frameworks and world-imagining possibilities of trans activism, without participating in a project of thin visibility that is so easily co-opted and used against the most marginalized within trans communities? The answer to this has to involve looking at every part of an oral history project, from inception to community building and accountability, to staffing, to metadata, to the oral histories themselves. So, one big lesson for me is resisting the impulse to try and focus on what trans-ness is, and that actually perhaps the project is multiplying and unleashing transness. I appreciate KJ Rawson’s definition in the Digital Trans Archive, that the DTA approaches trans as a practice rather than a singular identity.

And it also has to do with creating space for narrators to paint a full picture of themselves in community, their politics, their cultural production, their friends, mentors, and inspiration. Because, in fact, much of what we call “positive” media representation we now see is deeply individualistic, a-political, redemptive, medicalized, binaristic, stories which are ultimately norm affirming rather than norm exploding. Capturing oral histories that challenge that singular “trans narrative” is incredibly valuable.

TM: It’s very important for us to show up and participate for equity, human and civil rights protections, so that we may have access to gainful employment, quality healthcare and fair housing. Furthermore, I also believe that our visibility, voices, and stories save lives.

NYC: There are 10000’s of gender expressions; language and meaning move through trans history as fluidity as people finding their way through different parts of their gender. The most important lesson is to be present for what people have to say. Most of us know how to narrate parts of our histories because we’ve told the stories so many times before. This is a unique instance in which there’s room to complicate it— orality is anti-fixity. The voice cannot be contained!!

SR: Keep going. Many LGBTQ oral history projects throw in a few trans narrators for token representation. Our project was guilty of that in the past, and perhaps we are still guilty. In the past few years, we have endeavored to maintain 25% of all interviews with trans, non-binary, and/or gender non-conforming persons. It’s important to also consider race, class, residence (urban vs. rural), and other factors when choosing narrators. It is too easy to slip into patterns whereby transness gets coded as a certain kind of ‘trans’—and it is particularly easy to fall into thinking that ‘trans’ looks like me. This is especially true when working with elders. We have to let go of any gatekeeping around the language that people use to describe their experiences. We need more interviews with self-described cross-dressers, transvestites, butches, kings, and queens, and more—not just people who then, or today, use the language of trans.

Build community! Trans oral history isn’t just about collecting stories. It’s about forming relationships—often cross-generational ones—with trans people. Have potlucks; throw dance parties. Bring trans people from different backgrounds together to talk about our lives. Bring trans people into the project’s governance. Crash the cisnormative gay and lesbian spaces around you. Have fun. We need each other. 

We need each other. As we honor trans visibility, the reminder is that visibility is not just about letting the dominant culture know that we exist, it is a reminder to our big and widely different trans community members that they are not alone; not now, not in the past, and certainly not in the future.

Molly Vaughan., “The Pits”, 2017.

AC Panella, Ph.D. is a teacher, activist, and trans archival nerd.

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