Digital Transgender Archive
DTA Starter's Guide
NEW TO TRANS HISTORY?
Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe someone who does not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. Because transgender is a fairly new word—people started using it in the 1960’s—the history of self-identified transgender people is rather short. As a result, we treat transgender as a practice rather than an identity, so we include materials by and about people who trans- gender in some way, not just those who refer to themselves as transgender. Though the project is called the Digital Transgender Archive, the term transgender is more complicated than it seems and visitors should be aware that many people represented in the collection would not use the term themselves. We try to be very careful with the language we use to describe people and we would encourage you to do the same.
Want to know more about prominent trans people?
You may have heard of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, but they’re not the first trans people to be media sensations in the U.S. One of the first people in the United States to have gender affirmation surgery was a woman named Christine Jorgensen. In 1951, she traveled to Denmark for the series of operations and gained national recognition upon her return to the U.S. She gave transsexual people visibility in a time when few people knew that a person could change their sex. You can find more about Christine Jorgensen here and here. If you want to learn more about other pioneers, explore these materials on Alison Laing, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Reed Erikson.
Want to be an ally?
We need to understand terms to understand trans history, but there are a few other components to being a good ally. Around here, we don’t assume we know anyone’s gender. Instead, we ask pronouns and encourage everyone to do the same. This way, no one will be misrepresented. To fully equip yourself with the best tools for being an ally, read these tips from GLAAD and this speech given by a trans person on her experience with family. Also, check out this pamphlet from Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), which covers a range of information for allies.
Interested in art?
A great place to start would be with this 18th century portrait of the Chevalier D'Eon. The Chevalier was a French spy, politician, and writer who is the subject of many of the DTA's materials. You might also take a look at Maya Suess's portrait of trailblazing activist, counselor/psychotherapist, and educator Rupert Raj, or at the psychedelic art in Vanguard Magazine.
Want to jump into some controversy?
Learn more about trans activists’ response to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law passed in the U.S. in 1990 that prohibits discrimination based on disability. The ADA specifically excluded “transvestism,” “transsexualism,” and “gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments,” using language that attorney Helen Cassidy criticized as “ignorant” and “insulting.”
In this 1995 issue of TransSisters, Kristine Wyonna Holt discusses her efforts to establish transsexuality as a disability, as well as other trans activists’ criticism of this cause. Another important read is this 1992 court case in which an unnamed trans woman sued Boeing for failing to accommodate her gender dysphoria as a handicap. For a more recent perspective, check out this 2016 oral history with genderqueer disability advocate Eli Clare.
Interested in intersex activism?
Intersex is a general term used to describe people whose bodies don’t fit society’s binary definitions of male or female. Read through some of the materials in the collection Hermaphrodites with Attitude, a newsletter published by the Intersex Society of North America. The newsletter was a really important place for intersex activists and academics to connect and make their voices heard. Though hermaphrodite is used in the title (they were trying to reclaim it), the term is considered offensive by most people and the word intersex should be used instead.
Want to get political?
Plenty of people in LGBTQ2+ communities are also activists. Activists like Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major and have done a great deal to advance queer and trans rights, and this work is important for the historical record. Check out this collection of activism fliers, specifically this one. We also have a great collection of shirts, many of which were created by prominent activist groups like Transgender Nation or for marches. To learn more about the 1969 Stonewall riots, one of the most important events in the LGBTQ2+ liberation movement (which Pride commemorates), click here. Another great resource is this zine, which provides brief histories of groups like the Gay Liberation Front and ACT UP.
Tired of only hearing about trans people in the U.S.?
The site also has plenty of materials from all over the world–take a look at this flyer from Norway, this article from Salvador, and these photographs of Japanese celebrity Akihiro Miwa, for starters. To learn more about different trans-related identities around the world, explore these Global Terms.
Even within the U.S., gender varies by culture. Check out this recent newsletter about a collection related to Two-Spirit people, an umbrella term used by some Indigenous North Americans to describe gender-variant people in their communities. Two-Spirit doesn’t adhere to other definitions of sexuality and gender identity—it is typically a sacred spiritual and ceremonial role that is recognized and confirmed by the elders of an Indigenous community.
Want to know more about gender and psychology?
People whose gender falls outside static binaries have often had a rocky relationship with the medical community. Throughout history, people expressing genders that do not conform to the perceived gender binary have been treated like they are sick and often diagnosed with mental illnesses. The Erickson Educational Foundation describes the psychological evaluation of trans people as "including intensive interviews and testing, interviews with the patient’s family where possible, and perhaps a course of supportive therapy." To see more about how transsexuals were "managed" in the past, check out this pamphlet. For a bit of an update, take a look at this article, and for the current state of gender in psychology take a look at this page.
Interested in Drag?
Drag is a form of crossdressing for art and performance that has been performed for centuries. Drag often involves over-the-top performances of gender. Though many people consider it a part of their identity, drag isn’t necessarily something that's tied to gender identity or sexuality—some people just enjoy wearing fun clothes and playing with gender. Check out Drag Magazine to see some examples.