Q5 (#1): k. j. rawson & the digital transgender archive

K. J. Rawson

K. J. Rawson

K. J. Rawson is Assistant Professor of English at College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Mass.) specializing in composition, rhetoric, digital media, and LGBT studies. As K.J. has recently joined the LGBTQ Issues Roundtable in hopes of connecting with others interested in sexual minority archives and collections, I suggested we do a Q&A here on Queer!NEA. I hope you find K.J.’s work as intriguing as I do!

Additionally, this post marks the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing “five questions” series highlighting the work of scholars and LIS/archives professionals based in or doing research in/on New England. If you would like to participate in this series — or know someone whose work you think should be highlighted here — please let me know! Email queernea@gmail.com and our blog team will follow up.

Without further ado, I turn this post over to K.J.

Q1. On your website, you describe your scholarly research as focusing “on archives (in both a theoretical and material sense) and the ways that they facilitate the collection, organization, access, and preservation of LGBT pasts.” How did you find your way to this area of study and why have you remained with it?

K. J. A large part of my formal education, including my undergraduate work and Master’s degree, was devoted to literary studies. This training instilled in me a deep appreciation for primary materials, historical artifacts, and the archives that house them. As I found my interests drifting more toward queer activism and social change, I was drawn more towards rhetorical studies to better understand the ways that subcultures create communities and instigate change. This shift also prompted me to focus more on archives themselves, rather than just the materials that are collected within them. As I began to compare grassroots community archives to more established historical societies to even more established institutional archives, it became clear that the selection, acquisition, and organization of archival materials is a deeply rhetorical process that is shot through with complex power dynamics. In fact, the more I have learned about the archival profession, the more convinced I have become that researchers should become well acquainted with archives before delving into the materials within them.

Q2. I recently finished reading Susan Stryker’s Transgender History (Seal Studies, 2008) in which she makes a compelling argument for the history of trans* activism overlapping, but being distinct from, the history of LGB and feminist organizing. Similarly, you suggest that “how transgender people and communities rhetorically relate to and use history” is distinct from the way LGB communities have done so. Can you give an example or two of this difference in action?

While LGB and T communities share some similar historiographic challenges such as anachronistic labeling (i.e., can we consider a historical figure LGB and/or T before those terms existed?), there are some challenges that are unique to transgender communities. For example, some people who transition from a birth-assigned gender to a chosen gender may not consider themselves transgender once they have completed their transition process. Some seek to completely eradicate their past so that their chosen gender is not undermined or invalidated. Alan Hart is one such figure. A published medical doctor with a noteworthy career, Hart included instructions in his will to burn certain materials upon his death, seemingly only materials that revealed that he was born female. Perhaps he was afraid of how he would be remembered if it was widely known that he was born female? Indeed, even writing about him in this way is a violation of his final wishes. I’ve done so here to illustrate the point that trans history can be an ethically vexing enterprise and I hope that doing so is ethically defensible. Such are the concerns that frequently crop up in transgender historical work and these concerns are equally important for archives to consider.

Q3. If you had to pick one manuscript, print item, or artifact you’ve discovered in your research to share as an archival item from trans* history that we should all know about, what would it be? Why does it matter?

This is such a difficult question! There are so many archival objects that I would love to talk about here. One of the collections that I have felt deeply connected to, as have many other researchers, is the collection of Lou Sullivan’s journals that is part of the GLBT Historical Society and made available at the San Francisco Public Library. Lou was a pioneering FTM activist and his journal collection is extensive, intimate, and compelling. It provides such a detailed glimpse into his life that it’s hard to imagine a better opportunity to come to know a person through the archival traces of their lives.

Q4. Your current work-in-progress, the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA), aims to bring together digitized and born-digital materials from across the U.S. and Canada. Can you talk a bit about the logistics of this project and what lessons you have learned along the way?

In addition to bringing together digitized and born-digital materials relating to transgender phenomena, the DTA will also serve as a metadata aggregator to allow visitors to search a number of trans-related collections on a single website. Thus far, I am working with about 10 archives and several independent projects which will be sharing metadata and digital content with the DTA. I hadn’t fully anticipated it when I began the project, but the logistics of coordinating this many collaborators is quite challenging! I have been frequently amazed by the generosity of everyone who is contributing––they have been generous with their time, their ideas, and their materials. As we move forward, there are so many challenges to resolve––standardizing metadata, developing security and usage protocol, and linking among various collections, for starters––but I am confident that all of the amazing people involved in this project will help to resolve these and other challenges that we will encounter. To that end, I have learned that when I am able to recognize the limits of my own expertise and knowledge, I can reach out to those who are more knowledgeable and get the support that is necessary for the project to be successful. The DTA truly wouldn’t be possible without the incredible network of collaborators who have committed themselves to this project.

Q5. How do you hope that archivists and associated professionals within New England Archivists will contribute to and/or support the DTA project? If a reader of Queer!NEA is interested in getting involved, what should they do?

Given the important role that collaborators play in the DTA, I always welcome anyone who is interested to contact me directly. Since I am building the DTA at Holy Cross (in Worcester, MA) and there are many opportunities for undergraduate or graduate student engagement. If there are folks who would like to offer their expertise in some area of the project, I would also love to hear from them. And of course, if there are trans-related materials that you know of that should be included in the DTA (represented with metadata or including digital content), please reach out and we’ll discuss how we can include them on the site.

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