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News & Ideas

Young Voices Energize Session on Transgender Archives

An overflow crowd filled Knafel Center on December 18 for a session of the Boston Seminar on the History of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, a collaboration between the Schlesinger Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Academics were joined at the Knafel Center by activists, community members, and local high school students excited to hear from a predominantly transgender panel. The gender diversity of the crowd was itself a sign of changing times and a positive step toward inclusion, as transwomen, transmen, and nonbinary people of all ages filled the room. The event, “Transgender History and Archives: An Interdisciplinary Conversation,” brought together an array of experts to reflect on transgender studies in history, archiving, and public health. The panel also explored how changes in terminology have facilitated or hindered research. 

The panelists covered a great deal of territory in their opening remarks, providing a clear foundation for listeners new to the material. Genny Beemyn, of the University of Massachusetts, offered an overview of the state of the field of transgender history, noting the value of recent work by scholars Peter Boag and Emily Skidmore in documenting the lives of transgender people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in rural and frontier communities. 

Sari Reisner, of Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, charted trends in public health research about transgender individuals and communities, noting major disparities in healthcare access for all trans people and especially trans people of color. Reisner spoke of navigating the relationship between widely recognized sexual orientation and gender identity categories and individual identity as an issue both vital and tricky for public health researchers, calling for flexibility, compassion, and prioritizing the needs and language of the individual. 

Schlesinger archivist Laura Peimer reflected on her work processing transgender collections at the Library, including the challenges involved in incorporating new terminology and categories to the catalog. One example: Archivists navigate a desire to make collections visible to researchers without imposing an anachronistic category on someone of the past or, even worse, misgendering someone. 

Panelists answered questions about whether feminist theory or feminist politics plays a role in their work, with all offering some version of a resounding “yes” to the question. When asked about race and ethnicity, given that so much of the available transgender archive focuses on white people, the panelists noted efforts to identify and elevate the existence, experience, and needs of transgender people of color. They were less optimistic about a future relationship between women’s history and transgender studies, as the binary nature of “women’s” history seemed for some to be at odds with transgender studies, in which nonbinary gender is foundational. 

The presence of so many young people in the audience energized the event with a sense of urgency and possibility. One student asked why these conversations aren’t happening in the classroom. Another sought support in making teachers and administrators understand the value of a trans-inclusive learning environment. 

Panelists and fellow audience members rose to the occasion, offering names of transgender authors and writers, websites featuring transgender history, and resources for support in their schools. 

In the end, this scholarly forum on the relationship between transgender studies and women’s and gender history was in many ways both invigorated and reclaimed—not by graduate students, nor by feminists, but by transgender, nonbinary, and LGBT+ high school students and their allies saying Why is this knowledge being kept from us? and We need this now! To which audience members and panelists alike seemed to collectively respond Yes! and What can I do to help?

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