Tag Archives: Transgender

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

By Jase 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.  


Note:

[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 Jase 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 Jase 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 Jase 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 Jase 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 Jase 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.


*Jase 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.

Archiving Trans History: How Institutions of Public Memory Negotiate the Changing Language of Gender Identity

By Jase Falk*

In June 2018, as a Research Assistant for a team project at the University of Winnipeg called Museum Queeries, I went on a “Pride Tour” offered by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I was specifically interested in how gender identity and transgender communities were being represented by the museum. The only point in our tour that directly discussed transgender identity was when we stopped by the bathrooms where—to the side of the male and female stalls—we were pointed to a single stall accessible washroom which our tour guide used to highlight the importance of including people of diverse gender identities. While it is good that they have this accessible bathroom stall, it felt like the purpose of this stop in the tour was meant to acknowledge transgender people by way of raising the “bathroom issue” that is getting some attention in popular discourse [a current topic that the museum wanted to weigh in on], but not as something that was taken into account during the actual curatorial process of the Museum’s exhibits¹. I thought that reducing the expansive range of issues implicated in representing trans communities to one reference to the “bathroom issue” was a disappointing oversimplification. In thinking through questions of how trans histories are represented and the futures these histories might orient us towards, I considered how the language to describe transgender identity has changed over time, how trans people have appeared, or been left out, within broader queer spaces, and what the impacts of racism and colonialism have had both as external pressures and from within queer and trans communities. The Museum’s failure to address any of these complexities prompted me to look for other spaces of public history in Winnipeg where representations of transgender stories might be found.

Photo of the author, Jase Falk, with a Swerve magazine.
Photo of the author, Jase Falk, with a Swerve magazine (photo credit: Heather Milne).

Archiving trans history has some particular challenges. While certain identity categories have been used to describe the experiences of groups during specific time periods, these categories were often placed upon communities without the community’s consent, leaving them to negotiate how they related to these taxonomies in retrospect. At present, it appears that the transgender community has much greater say over how gender identity is articulated through language than they did in the past². It is important not to impose present discourses of identity onto historical understandings of language and identity. However, it is also necessary to critically examine how the language of identity is operating and how diverse experiences existed even when there were fewer categories of recognition available.

An example of the complexities of changing gender identity language can be seen in the 1994 premier issue of Winnipeg’s Gay and Lesbian magazine Swerve,which included a demographic survey of its readership. The first question asked “you are…?” with only two possible responses: ‘male’ and ‘female’. At first glance, it may seem that the publication was unaware of gender expressions that exist outside of this binary understanding; however, if you read further on, this is not the case. Later in the quiz, there are references to ‘transvestites’, ‘drag queens’, ‘effeminate men’, and ‘butch women’. The absence of direct acknowledgement of gender identities existing outside of the binary should not be taken to suggest that there was no experience or discussion of gender non-conformity. Rather, this absence can be understood through the lens of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis, as “this is not a plain and simple imposition of silence. Rather, it was a new regime of discourses. Not any less was said about it; on the contrary. But things were said in a different way; it was different people who said them, from different points of view” (27). Clearly, Swerveand its readership were aware that many people live in tension with the concept of the gender binary; at the same time, the quiz also reveals that gender was thought of differently even within queer communities at different points in history. 

Photo of four copies of the magazine Swerve.

As new language for identity emerges, people begin to understand themselves through it and can demand institutional and cultural recognition by rallying around specific identity markers. Gender theorist Paul Preciado says “there are not two sexes, but a multiplicity of genetic, hormonal, chromosomal, genital, sexual, and sensual configurations. There is no empirical truth to male or female gender beyond an assemblage of normative cultural fictions” (265). Thinking of gender as a fiction can make it seem meaningless, but this is not the case. The normative fictions perpetuated by society are already alienating for many people, and, if gender is a fiction, then alternate fictions can be created to challenge the narrative that binary gender is an inherent truth. For instance, when ‘non-binary’ became a term in the queer community, many people who already were gender non-conforming found this term meaningful as a way to articulate their understandings of their own gender beyond the binary system that holds ‘male’ and ‘female’ to be the only essentially true expressions of gender. This is not to say that the feelings which draw people to identify with the term non-binary did not exist prior to the word emerging, but that they would have been understood differently both by the community and by larger cultural discourse; different language would have existed to articulate these experiences.

When I visited the Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives to do some research on transgender history, I saw this tension between how individuals and communities create language to understand themselves and how institutions negotiate this first hand. Just from its name, I could assume that the Archives would have more resources on the gay and lesbian community than on trans individuals³, but, since there is no specific transgender archive in Winnipeg, I thought it might at least be a good starting point for understanding how this community is represented within archival spaces.

In the Archives, I found the most material on transgender history in box 20, folder 6 titled “Transvestites & Transvestism, Transgenderists”. These are words very few people within the transgender community describe themselves with today. While in the study of transgender history, it is important not to impose present understandings of transgender identity on how people in the community understood themselves in the past, the fact that the majority of the contents of this folder were article clippings from the Winnipeg Sunand the Winnipeg Free Pressfrom the 80s and 90s and not content from the transgender community directly makes me think that the understandings of identity articulated within the archive do not necessarily come from the community itself.

Queers who do not fall into normative scripts, which inherently privilege whiteness and cis-normativity, are allowed into archival spaces only as recent add-ons—tokens for the institution to show how ‘progressive’ they are.

While queer archives might be assumed to be progressive or radical, the curatorial starting point of these archives are often tied up in the same projects of whiteness, colonialism and imperialism as their straight counterparts. Syrus Marcus Ware critiques BIPOC representation within queer archival spaces, observing: “this erasure is part of the larger conceptualization of the black queer subject as a new entity, whose history is built upon an already existing white LGBTTI2QQ space and history” (170). Queers who do not fall into normative scripts, which inherently privilege whiteness and cis-normativity, are allowed into archival spaces only as recent add-ons—tokens for the institution to show how ‘progressive’ they are. Ware suggests that “we start with a black trans and queer history as a way to orient us towards different pasts and futures” (170). By centering archival work being done by those who have historically been disregarded in queer archiving, the conversation around identity and representation can be opened up for many marginalized communities to have greater autonomy to represent their identities and narratives themselves rather than being fit into normative discourses.

In 2014, the University of Winnipeg held a conference called Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticism.Looking at the description of the conference perhaps offers some evidence of how the transgender community—at least its literary and scholarly members— has more recently come to understand itself. The second paragraph of the conference description reads: “What is or might be Trans Literature? Transsexual, two spirit, genderqueer and transgender literatures? What are or might be trans genres, narratives, figures, poetics? What makes writing trans?” While the conference is a pretty specific context and does not represent the trans community as a whole, this flurry of questions serves as a reminder that trans cultural production and identity is not static. Instead of a folder label that tries to encompass the trans experience, questions like these reveal how trans identity is held open within certain contexts in the community as something that is actively being negotiated and resisting being fitted into boxes.

In thinking through these examples of trans representation within institutions that facilitate the creation of public memory in Winnipeg, I was struck by the necessity of critiquing sources both inside and outside the community. Trans communities are not homogenous and a multitude of experiences and expressions exist within them. As language to describe trans identity changes—sometimes at different times and in different ways across parts of the community—it is necessary to rethink how we approach archiving these histories. Centering trans communities in the archiving process, particularly QTBIPOC communities, can point trans histories in radically new directions. Questioning what has been deemed worthy of archiving, and noticing what has been left out, can open up new possibilities for imagining what trans futurity might look like.

Notes:

  1. While the accessible washroom was the one stop related to transgender issues on this particular Pride Tour, according to some of my colleagues other Pride Tours at the CMHR have highlighted a story on transgender musician and activist Michelle Josef which is located in the one of the digital memory banks which visitors can explore. This being said, the memory banks are extensive and can be difficult to navigate, meaning that stories such as Michelle Josef’s are hard to find unless they are specifically pointed out.
  2. Online platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter are examples of digital spaces where communities of primarily young trans people have played with language, debating which words to reclaim, and even inventing new terms to describe and make sense of their experiences.
  3. The Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives website includes a short sentence and hyperlink directing researchers to the University of Victoria’s Transgender Archives if they are specifically interested in this topic.

Works Cited:

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Random House, 1978.

Preciado, Paul. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Bioplolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. The Feminist Press, 2013.

Ware, Syrus Marcus. “All Power to All People? Black LBGTTI2QQ Activism, Remembrance, and Archiving in Toronto.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 2, 2017, pp. 170-180. DOI: 10.1215/23289252-3814961.

Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticism. Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies, 2014, http://www.writingtransgenres.com/. Accessed 29 August 2018.


*Jase Falk is an undergraduate student working towards an honours degree in English at the University of Winnipeg. She is particularly interested in queer theory with a focus on trans subjectivities, cultural production & history.