the first digital transgender archive is a lesson in history, discrimination, relationships, and everyday life

For the first time, decades of transgender history has been made available to the public. The resulting collection is an intimate walk through 60 years of culture and community.

Mar 1 2016, 3:00pm

The archive includes hundreds of personal photos. This one is captioned: "Ariadne Kane is pictured smiling in the mirror, likely after getting hair and makeup done".

For much of history, the transgender experience has been muted, ignored, or erased. This year the Digital Transgender Archive was launched to preserve and share trans history. The massive project was put in motion by K.J. Rawson an assistant professor of English at the College of The Holy Cross in Massachusetts. It includes contributions from colleges, universities, non-profit organizations, and private collections from all around the world. It's the first time such an extensive collection of transgender history has been made available to the public, and it's amazing. 

Comic from 'Chrysalis Quarterly', 1991

Speaking to i-D, K.J said that although the project took two years to complete, the idea of establishing a collection of accessible transgender-related history has been germinating for several years. K.J realized that without an exhaustive resource, individuals and academics' abilities to research transgender history were considerably handicapped.

Poetry and illustrations from Vanguard Magazine, 1970

Much of the content in the archive had never been digitized, so time and issues around shifting language made tracking it down difficult. Searches for historical documents on the topic were complicated by the fact the word Transgender is not only culturally specific, but it's also only a few decades old. Most documents they were sourcing didn't even include the term.

An illustrated essay on bisexuality from Vanguard Magazine, 1967

K.J stressed to i-D: "We are careful to emphasize that the DTA does not include materials related to transgender identity, but rather practices of trans-ing gender. This is important because it significantly broadens the scope of the collection and allows us to collect across times and places where 'transgender' is not a legible identity category." This decision is reflective of the spirit of the archive, which is as K.J says is to "further explore cross-cultural experiences of trans-ing gender."

While the archive is undoubtedly an invaluable academic resource, it also offers a surprisingly ordinary and often intimate look at the lives of trans individuals over half a century.

Alison Laing is one of the most regular faces in the archives. Dozens of her personal photos have been recorded.  

The digital repository includes materials that date back to the 50s; and among them are event fliers, independent publications and even personal photos. Magazines like Vanguard, Cross Talk, and Chrysalis Quarterly span half a century and include articles touching on everything from Halloween costume ideas, Star Trek, make up, passing, civil rights, gender expression and even the need for a trans archive.

Trawling through the archive can quickly dissolve hours as you're invited to pour over articles such as TranScript's photo feature Sluts a-Go-Go! or Chrysalis Quarterly's 1991 article Gender Support in the Computer Age. But perhaps most magnetic are the family photos of people just living their lives. Easily the most familiar face in the archive is that of Alison Laing, the Executive Director of the International Foundation for Gender Education. The archive contains pages and pages of her personal photos—snaps from holidays, formal dinners and in front of the home she shared with her wife Dottie. They're pictures that could be in your own grandparent's albums -- not of people trying to make history, but rather be a visible part of it.

The cover of International TranScript, 1992

Part of a photo essay published in International TranScript, 1992

Wendy Parker at home in 1990. Much of the archive is dedicated to ordinary personal memories. 

Photo from a counter demonstration in Vanguard Revisited, 2011. The 1966 protesters are standing against a call to clear the "drug addicts, pillheads, teenage hustlers, lesbians, and homo-sexuals" off San Francisco streets. 

An illustration looking at mental health issues in the trans community from Vanguard Revisited, 2011

Alison and Dottie Laing on Ferry, date unknown.

Naomi Owen poses in formal wear at IFGE Houston, 1992

Alison Laing (left) and Rosalyne Blumenstein (right) at an event. Date unknown.

Alison Laing in 1963.

Unidentified model photographed getting makeup done on beach, date unknown.


Text Wendy Syfret
All images courtesy of the Digital Transgender Archive