Grappling with Life-Narrative: Transgender Oral History at the University of Winnipeg

By Misha Falk*

I began the Transgender Oral History Project in Spring 2019 as part of my work as a Research Assistant (RA) for the Museum Queeries research group based at the University of Winnipeg. The goal of my project is to document the lived experiences and perspectives of transgender people living on the prairies. Towards this I conducted interviews where transgender people told stories of their lives, offering a glimpse into the breadth and diversity of trans experiences and understandings of gender identity. Museum Queeries opened up the possibility for me to explore the complexities of the changing language of gender identity and how trans life-narratives are represented (or not) within archives and institutions of public memory including museums. Drawing from this critical work, the Transgender Oral History Project is an attempt to engage archival institutions in documenting trans life-narratives with a more expansive framework for what trans life is and can be. This project was funded through my RAship with Museum Queeries and with the Abe and Bertha Arnold Oral History Grant from the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg. The Oral History Centre also provided me with invaluable resources and training in conducting and archiving oral history, and is currently the place where the transcripts and audio of the Transgender Oral History Project are archived. I would like to thank Dr. Heather Milne, Dr. Angela Failler, and Lauren Bosc from Museum Queeries for their support, guidance, and consultation in developing my methodology, finding contacts, and applying for ethics approval for this project. I would like to thank Kimberly Moore, Kent Davies, and Brett Lougheed for the technical assistance and training in conducting oral history and for promoting and archiving this project. I would also like to thank Albert McLeod and the Two-Spirit Archive, which I was connected to both through Museum Queeries and Brett Lougheed, for their resources in conducting oral histories, their advice on navigating the occasional overlaps and important distinctions between trans and Two-Spirit identities, and for providing such a great example of what community-based and critical (counter)archiving can look like. Most of all, I would like to thank my interview participants: Brandy Pollard, Mateo Llanillos, Lara Rae, Jarvis Brownlie, and Ben Baader. This project would not have been possible without you. What follows is a snapshot of the project and some preliminary analysis based on selected excerpts from my research and interviews. My hope is that this work can serve as an entry point for sharing the project with others and as a brief summary of a first stage of my research, which I plan to expand on in the future.

Transgender people are often expected to have a specific life narrative which lines up with hegemonic understandings of what transitioning is thought to be like. This narrative typically involves some sort of early childhood experience of gender transgression, a later feeling of being “trapped in the wrong body,” and then eventual medical transition where the trans person is expected to blend in with the broader cisgender public and not be recognizable as transgender. Commenting on transgender autobiographies and life stories, the trans studies scholar Jay Prosser writes that: “the autobiographical act for the transsexual begins even before the published autobiography—namely, in the clinician’s office where, in order to be diagnosed as transsexual, s/he [or they] must recount a transsexual autobiography. . . . Narrative is also a kind of second skin: the story the transsexual must weave around the body in order that this body may be ‘read.’ ” (101). Therefore, transgender people often have a particular relationship to the genre of life-narrative where we must articulate a story about ourselves in order for the cisgender public to make sense of us. 

This genre is often used by trans people almost like a tool for navigating medical institutions which expect certain narratives of trans identity in order to allow access to hormones and gender affirmative surgeries for transgender individuals. While the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) has expanded its definition of gender dysphoria to state that “the distress is not limited to a desire to simply be of the other gender, but may include a desire to be of an alternative gender, provided that it differs from the individual’s assigned gender,” the legacy of the metaphor of being “trapped in the wrong body”[1] which assumes a specific and very binary experience of gender identity, looms large over any narrative account of transgender experience. This narrative does not allow much room for non-binary and genderqueer expressions of transgender identity where the subject may not wish to conceal their difference from the binary cisgender mainstream and may even find affirmation in this difference.  

By framing these oral history interviews around asking participants to tell me their life story, I hope to self-consciously reflect back on the more prescriptive forms of transgender life narratives. By creating a setting with no consequences or penalties for what participants discuss with me and by having myself as a transgender researcher conducting the interviews, my hope is that these interviews can be a space for trans people to explore the nuances of their experiences. One participant, Mateo Llanillos, explored the complexities of his gender presentation saying: “transitioning is weird. For someone like myself who is very binary in presentation… that’s the one big negative I feel in my transition is I just look really heteronormative, and by looking at me you don’t see my history. You don’t see who feel I actually am.” While “passing” as the gender one identifies as is often seen as the ultimate goal for trans people, for Mateo, there was a loss in passing as a cis-gender man since, for him, being seen specifically as a transgender person felt important. 

While my research focused on transgender people currently living on the prairies, almost all of the participants I have interviewed so far have made their home on the prairies after growing up and living most of their lives elsewhere. This has somewhat limited the scope of my research as I have not yet interviewed a trans person who was born and raised in Winnipeg. However, this dilemma has raised interesting questions for me about how Winnipeg has been a refuge for some trans people. I’m curious now about what roles physical movement and migration play in trans narratives as many transgender people end up seeking home in places other than where they grew up. 

One participant, Ben Baader, articulated his fraught sense of what “home” means for him as a Jewish transgender man formerly involved in lesbian organizing in Berlin. For him, there was a sense of often being out of place in the cities he lived in or in some of the communities he found himself a part of. Although he identifies as queer, he has often experienced tension in queer communities. When I asked him about this tension, he answered with this:

“This has come up recently in a relationship I’ve been having with someone in Seattle who identifies very much as queer, and for whom ‘queer’ is sort of the equivalent of ‘home.’ Like queer space is safe space, and this is just not my experience… I mean, you know, starting in Germany with antisemitism and the lesbian and women’s world… So, [the] lesbian world was not safe space (laughs) and the transphobic, you know, aspects of the lesbian and gay world. I mean, for me… queer is not automatically safe.”

Like Ben, many of the participants explored how their multiple intersecting identities shaped their experience and are often in tension with one another. 

Many participants, when telling their life story, talked very little about the specifics of their experience of being transgender and instead told other stories that might not immediately seem to be related to gender identity, but which were shaped by being trans. For one participant, Jarvis Brownlie, identifying as transgender has been an important part of life but, as he articulates, it has only been one part of broad changes throughout his life: 

“It would’ve been around 33, I guess, or so, when I started identifying as trans and now I’m in my mid-fifties. So, it’s been a long span of time, and these are very different times of life, your early thirties, and your mid-fifties… different times of my career, and even different locations. So, for quite a while it meant being at odds… feeling really at odds with the society that surrounds me.”

Jarvis’s story taught me that a great deal about what it means to come to terms with being transgender at different points in a person’s life and how that does not negate the experiences a person had before identifying as trans, but in retrospect, inflects those memories with new forms of meaning.

Another participant, Lara Rae, stated that: “It bothers me when people say, “I don’t care,” you know “what your gender is,” because I care very much, and this came at an extremely high price.” I got a sense of pride from Lara’s statement as she expressed the importance of honouring her identity. Sometimes the struggle of being trans is not so much coming into one’s own identity, but the loneliness that follows when others are not able to understand or appreciate the beauty of that. In this and other statements by the interviewees, there was an interest in grappling with the different ways trans people are perceived and misperceived by cisgender people. While different participants had different responses, Lara articulated a sense that for her, being trans was not something that needed to be hidden or ashamed of. For her, being trans is something to be celebrated.  

One question I was very interested in exploring was how people initially began to understand themselves as transgender and what their connections to other transgender people were like. While trans narratives are often framed around a personal inner struggle, part of my interest in doing this project initially was to explore how trans people discuss gender identity with each other and how this might be different than the way they are often expected to present their stories for a general audience. For this reason, one of the questions I asked my participants was if they could tell me about their first experience knowingly meeting another transgender person. One participant, Brandy Pollard, responded to this question by discussing a cousin of hers who the family found out was transgender only after her cousin’s death: 

“I didn’t even know what the word transgender was. I didn’t even know was a lesbian or, or a gay person was. It was a cousin of mine, and you know, she was much, much older than I was and, um — I didn’t know about it until she passed away. She died of suicide. And…in… she was dressed… she was in a dress, a black dress and everything in, in her coffin and that’s when we found out she was living her life as a woman.”

I was moved by this response as it made me think about how many people as children first find out about transgender people either through sensationalized media stories or through tragedy. For Brandy, this cousin who she never had the chance to talk to about being transgender, was in some in ways a figure who opened up the possibility for a way of being in the world that she did not previously know about. This made me wonder about how trans people build individual and collective senses of identity. It seems often that we do so through hearing the stories of people who have come before us, stories which are often told about people not by them. Many of those who have come before us we will never meet, but hearing these stories might help to give one a sense as though there are others who have come before them and felt and struggled with similar things.  

My hope for this project is twofold: I hope that it can be a valuable resource for anyone interested in researching transgender histories of the prairies and I also hope it can be valuable for trans community members to read these interviews and learn about the experiences of different transgender individuals speaking about their lives and experiences on their own terms without the pressure to conform to a regulatory narrative such as exists in the DSM-V and many medical institutions. While the initial phase of this project consisted of five interviews which have since been fully transcribed and made accessible through the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg, I have since conducted several more interviews and plan to continue conducting interviews in the future. In Fall 2020 I will begin my MA in Gender Studies at Queen’s University, where I plan to expand my theorizing of these interviews as part of a broader project on transgender people and life narrative.  


[1]Joanne Meyerowitz notes that the use of this metaphor of being born, or sometimes “trapped” in the “wrong body,” as a way to describe transgender experience was common by the 1960s (2002, 66).

Works Cited:

American Psychiatric Association. “Gender Dysphoria.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th, ed. American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013. DSM-V.

Baader, Ben. Interviewed by Misha Falk, July 29, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.

Brownlie, Jarvis. Interviewed by Misha Falk, May 31, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.

Llanillos, Mateo. Interviewed by Misha Falk, May 18, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.

Meyerowitz, Joanne J. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2004. 

Pollard, Brandy. Interviewed by Misha Falk, April 23, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.

Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Columbia University Press, 1998.

Rae Lara. Interviewed by Misha Falk, July 22, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.

*Misha Falk is a white non-binary transfeminine settler based out of Winnipeg, Treaty One Territory. They are a recent graduate of the English honours program at University of Winnipeg and are currently pursuing an MA in Gender Studies at Queen’s University. They are also a published poet whose writing has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and they are a co-founder of Trans Hive, a peer-based residency program for transgender artists.