The Digital Transgender Archive

A Conversation with K.J. Rawson


K.J. Rawson, assistant professor in the English Department at the College of Holy Cross, talks with Choice about the Digital Transgender Archive, a collection created to bring transgender history to a wider audience.

How would you describe this archive to a perfect stranger?

KJ Rawson headshot
K.J. Rawson is an assistant professor in the English Department at the College of the Holy Cross. He is also the director of the Digital Transgender Archive, an online digital repository for transgender-related historical materials. His research and teaching interests include composition, rhetoric, digital media, and LGBT studies. His scholarship focuses on the rhetorical dimensions of queer and transgender archiving in both traditional and digital collections. With Eileen E. Schell, he coedited Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies [University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010], and his scholarship has also appeared in Archivaria, Enculturation, Present Tense, QED, TSQ, and several edited collections.

The Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) is an online clearinghouse for transgender history. On the site, visitors can find more than 2,000 digitized primary source materials covering a time span of more than 250 years. The DTA brings together a wide range of types of sources including oral histories, personal papers, organizational records, serials, photographs, and ephemera, all contributed by more than thirty-two collaborating institutions from six different countries. The collection also includes finding aids describing expansive archival holdings throughout the world.

Can you define the term transgender in the context of this archive? As the focus of the archive is on materials from before 2000, can you explain briefly how the use of the term has shifted?

Transgender is generally used as an identity term, as an adjective that describes people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. For the purposes of the DTA, we use transgender in a much broader capacity to refer to practices of trans-ing gender, not just people who identify as transgender. We adopted this approach because the term transgender is not only fairly recent (the earliest print usage that we’ve found so far is 1965), but the concept itself is also modern and specific to particular cultures. For example, there are many cultures around the world where, both currently and historically, gender and sexuality are not separate and discrete categories, so the idea of being transgender may not be legible in those contexts. Even in places where the term transgender is ubiquitous, it remains contentious, and there are ongoing debates about who is or isn’t transgender and who does or doesn’t want to be described with that label. For all of these reasons, we approach the concept of transgender in the broadest possible sense in order to capture transgender-related practices throughout human history and across a variety of cultures. Within the collection, we use a wide range of terminology to describe more specific experiences and identities that are represented by the materials.

Alison Laing desert overlook
Figure 1: Alison Laing on Desert Overlook.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in researching transgender history in the past? In what ways does this archive make it easier to research trans history?

Transgender history can be difficult to find for several reasons: first, it can be hard to figure out which archives collect materials in this area since their holdings may be accidental, they may not know what they have, or they may not fully advertise their holdings; second, though the term transgender is quite prominent now, it emerged quite recently, which means that contemporary researchers need to use a wide range of alternative search terms in order to be able to find related materials that predate the emergence of the term transgender; and finally, for online searches, it can be difficult to sift through popular attention to transgender phenomena and uses of the LGBT+ acronym where the T is included in name only, to find legitimate primary source materials. The DTA addresses these barriers by providing a centralized hub for researchers to be able to easily access transgender history. We work closely with archivists to thoroughly search their holdings and identify materials that relate to this topic, which is a significant undertaking that dramatically helps to make this history more visible. Then, when we digitize historical materials, we process each item individually and add information and search terms to help visitors to the site find items that they may be looking for. Finally, we have been spending more time creating educational resources for visitors, such as our DTA Starter’s Guide, to help people delve into the collection more easily.

Female Mimics magazine cover
Figure 2: Female Mimics Vol. 1 no. 10.

Can you talk a bit more about how the DTA came to be? Describe the process of getting so many other institutions involved.

I initially came up with the idea for the DTA while I was working on my dissertation. During my research, I had considerable difficulty locating transgender-related archival materials. As I continued to have conversations with archivists and other researchers, I learned that the accessibility of transgender history was a significant problem. The archivists that I worked with were eager to collaborate with me to address this issue, and our list of participating institutions snowballed from there. As the project took off, more and more archives wanted to get involved by sharing their finding aids or digitized materials. We are also in conversations with a handful of archives that are not yet on the site, but we are hoping to be able to post some of their materials before the end of the year.

What seems most compelling about the DTA is that it draws together trans-related historical materials from a variety of disparate sources. How did you confront the different, culturally specific uses of the term transgender? What is the effect of placing the varied uses and iterations of the term in one space—on a world map?

This is something that we are constantly trying to negotiate. It’s easy for us to make selection decisions that are radically inclusive based on our broad approach to transgender as a practice rather than an identity. If anything, we err on the side of inclusion, which is part of our firmly queer commitment to combat historical erasure and archival silences. What can be challenging is that the nature of this collection––that it is a transgender archive––can impose a transgender identity on people represented on the site, though often the term is historically and culturally inaccurate. Given that, we are always concerned with using transgender in a way that enacts a form of linguistic imperialism. However, we have settled on that term because it is legible to most contemporary researchers, and it usefully coheres the wide range of practices that we are bringing together in this collection. We hope that researchers will approach the collection with a critical eye, though, so that they can sort out the complex identities and experiences represented in the collection.

Figure 3: Letter from Bet to Lou.

Can you point to a few articles or images that might be representative of the archive? Are there any tensions or contradictions amongst the varied materials?

We have a wide range of types of materials in our collection. Some of our most popular holdings are photographs, such as those related to Alison Laing (Figure 1). The majority of our collection, as it stands today, is print publications, many from the second half of the twentieth century (Figure 2). A new area that we’ve started to explore is manuscript collections; we recently made available a fascinating correspondence collection between FTM activists Ben Power and Lou Sullivan (Figure 3). We’ve also begun processing some early newspaper clippings that document how people who transgressed gender norms were understood (Figure 4). This is only a glimpse into the variety of materials available in the DTA, but we see this diversity as complementary rather than contradictory. In fact, we are seeking out continued ways to further diversify the collection in order to create more nuanced accounts of trans-related history.

How do you envision undergraduates, specifically feminist, gender, and sexuality studies students, using this archive? Also, what unexpected disciplines can you imagine using this archive?

We have heard from a number of instructors––at both the college and high school levels––that they have been using the DTA in their courses. At times, students are asked to do a quick search and find just a few interesting objects. In other cases, students have been using the DTA as the basis for extended research papers and thesis projects. We’ve heard from students who have been making use of the site by approaching it from a range of disciplines, including the Digital Humanities, English, Gender Studies, History, LGBT Studies, Psychology, and Sociology. We expect that researchers in the sciences may also begin to make use of the DTA as we expand our collections related to hormones, surgery, etc. There are probably many other types of researchers who are making use of the DTA that we just aren’t aware of. One thing that has been very helpful, since it seems to bring new traffic to the site, is when libraries include the DTA in their listings of databases for researchers to make use of. Since our site is, and will always be, freely available, it’s great to have other librarians and archivists spreading the word about the work that we do and the materials that we make available.

Winson M’Cay Draws Impressions of Mr. Julian Eltinge at Orpheum
Figure 4: Winson M’Cay Draws Impressions of Mr. Julian Eltinge at Orpheum.

Do you have any future plans for the archive?

We have so many plans! We were recently awarded a Digital Extension Grant by the American Council of Learned Societies, which is set to begin in July, 2017. The primary purpose of this grant is to extend and diversify our holdings and deepen our collaborative relationships. Our goal is to more than double the size of the collection within the next year––it’s a major goal, but we are building up our infrastructure and the capacity of our lab to work toward the 5,000-item milestone. In the meantime, we are investigating ways to provide an even better experience for researchers on the site, and we are hoping to expand our social media presence. Another major project we are considering is how we might do more with born-digital materials. There are so many potential areas of growth with a project like this that we will face some difficult decisions as we determine which options to pursue.

Visit The Digital Transgender Archive at:

This interview was conducted by Emma Raddatz. She is a student at Wesleyan University and an editorial intern at Choice.