Q5 (#7): Jen Manion

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Jen Manion is Associate Professor of History at Amherst College. Jen’s research and teaching focuses on gender and sexual nonconformity, race, and the carceral state in the early United States. Manion received the 2016 Mary Kelly Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic for Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). Jen is currently at work on a new project, “Born in the Wrong Time: Transgender Archives & the History of Possibility, 1770-1870.”

Q1. How do you go about exploring archives for materials relating to gender nonconformity when the materials are likely not classified or advertised in ways that would immediately imply relevance to these topics? How do you begin to construct a picture when the language and discourses surrounding these ideas were so different during your period of study from those of today?

When you read 18th and 19th century newspapers, you find a surprising number of references to people who are crossing gender in some way. Often they are small blurbs or ‘anecdotes’ copied and reprinted widely – as was generally common in newspapers in the early period. By later in the nineteenth century, these references are more likely to be listed in the police blotter. Most historians and archivists of the period have seen them but we generally don’t know what to make of them. Broadly speaking, I’m interested in any discourses about sexual difference, which are quite abundant of course because people were always working through, defining, debating, and sometimes changing what they viewed as key distinctions between men and women.

Q2. Could you talk about some of the types of sources and repositories, particularly in New England, that you’ve consulted for your research?

I spent a considerable chunk of time doing research at The American Antiquarian Society on an NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] fellowship in 2013. The biggest surprise for me was the abundance of relevant sources in the children’s literature collection. One of my favorites was published in 1859 by the McGloughlin Brothers entitled “The Tom-Boy who was changed into a real boy.” They also have a one-of-a-kind rare newspaper collection for the period that gave me access to a very wide range of references. Some of this is digitized and so research that previously would have taken over a decade could be done in a matter of months. Once I identified keywords that were commonly used in the kinds of sources I was interested in, I could do sweeping searches. Some of those phrases include “male attire” or “female husband” or “female soldier” just to give you some idea. I also worked at the Massachusetts Historical Society with a rather different set of materials. I studied records of the 19th century women’s rights movement, which were filled with exchanges about the sameness or differences between men and women. I also focused on their materials on women’s education, which had some really interesting references to physical education for women. By learning about the proscribed borders for physicality, I could create the context for my analysis of gender crossing during the period.

Q3. You’ve written about the reasons why you seek “to understand the function of ‘transgender’ as an analytical category; to explore the meanings given to representation of transgender experiences – or gender crossings – in history.” What are some of the benefits and challenges of using this approach, and how does it influence your upcoming work, “Born in the Wrong Time: Transgender Archives and the History of Possibility, 1770-1870?”

One type of primary source that is full of amazing content are the many different narratives of so-called “passing women.” I don’t necessarily think that is the most useful or even accurate way to refer to these people from the past. Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to ask them their preferred pronouns or gender identity – a concept that was not formally defined until very late in the nineteenth century. Did they understand themselves in a way that is familiarly transgender to us? Perhaps. In most of these cases, the records are extremely limited and we will never know. But what seems like a barrier — this inability to understand individual subjectivity – is also an opportunity for us to focus more intently on structures and norms that commonly facilitated or obstructed gender crossings.  I think commonly used concepts such as “cross-dressing” or “passing women” impose limitations on our ability to imagine a more nuanced experience of gender. Terms such as “transgender” and “queer” challenge us to open up our conceptual framework and blur conventional barriers and binaries.

Q4. You “see knowledge of the past as a very powerful tool that can help us achieve social justice in the present,” and you have noted the connection between scholarly work and activism. What does this look like to you in practice? How can your work on gender in the early United States inform queer and trans activism today?

I think knowledge of our own past is very important for contemporary social justice movements. LGBTQ history has been one of the most exciting and fresh historical fields in the past few decades. We still have considerable work to do in getting it integrated into US History textbooks and convincing teachers and professors that it is vital information for everyone to learn about – it humanizes us. Transgender history today is where gay history was thirty years ago. Path-breaking scholarship by Susan Stryker, Leslie Feinberg, and Joanne Meyerowitz has charted the course while more recent work by Bambi L. Lobdell, Clare Sears, Finn Enke, Peter Boag, and Trystan Cotton is advancing the conversation. But we still know very little about life in the past between or beyond the gender binary and I am very committed to contributing to this important body of scholarship. I think when a community has a history, it helps us to understand ourselves differently. We know we are not alone or even unique. We can learn from the organizing successes and failures of those who came before us.

Q5. What are some exciting developments and possibilities within queer and trans early-American history that are emerging right now? How can archivists facilitate this scholarship?

Students love learning about the possibly transgender, possibly intersex person Thomas/ine Hall who lived as a servant in 17th century Virginia. Kathleen Brown wrote definitively about Hall in the Journal of the History of Sexuality in 1995. A 2014 special issue of Early American Studies on “Beyond the Binaries” edited by Rachel Hope Cleves highlights the most recent work in the field, including a revisit to the Hall case by Kathryn Wichelns as well as interesting work on “the Publick Universal Friend” by Scott Larson and “The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman” by Lizzie Reis. One of the new trends, marked by several essays in the issue as well as my own work, is the turn from sexuality to gender as a productive site of knowing. Sociologist Clare Sears also made an important contribution to this field with their 2014 book Arresting Dress which examines the increased regulation of cross-dressers in San Francisco in the late nineteenth century.

I think archivists have a tremendous role to play in facilitating this scholarship because sources are so difficult to find or identify in the first place. It’s important to have an open mind about what constitutes a “good” source for queer or transgender history. You often have to read between the lines. Sources that seem anecdotal or comical or even mocking of people challenging gender or sex roles are really important for us in piecing together widely held assumptions. So much of the archive of the history of sexuality and gender nonconformity is hostile to its subject but that is just as important for us to know about as records of agency, community, and progress.

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Q5 (#5): Doug Johnstone and the Provincetown History Preservation Project

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Doug JohnstoneDoug Johnstone


Doug Johnstone is the Town Clerk of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the coordinator of the Provincetown History Preservation Project. The Project maintains a digital archive of items relating to Provincetown history on its website.

Q1. The Provincetown History Preservation Project’s “About Us” page states that, prior to the start of this project, “the material had since been stored in an inappropriate and inaccessible attic storage location and was quickly fading from public memory.” What inadequacies did you see at the time, and what made you decide that these materials were worth preserving and sharing?

The sentence references the initial focus of the Provincetown History Project: the material and artifacts that were once a part of the Provincetown Heritage Museum, in operation from 1976 until the doors were closed to the public in 1999. The Museum, and its contents, remained in the closed building from 1999 to 2002, when the Provincetown Public Library was scheduled to move into the old Heritage Museum building and the contents of the Museum were then moved to “temporary” storage on the third floor attic space in one of the Town’s municipal buildings, a wooden structure originally built in the early 1800’s. The attic space was only accessible by a narrow wooden staircase, with little to no ventilation and subject to heat and humidity. The Town’s plan in 2002 was to have the material conveyed to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, but negotiations between the Town and the Monument had broken down completely by 2004 over additional money that the Monument required the Town pay in order to properly house the collection. While the initial dollar amount of $800,000 the Monument was requesting was ultimately reduced to $500,000, the Town could not afford to pay, and by 2005 the short term storage location had become more or less permanent.

The space was cramped, dusty, humid, not secure, and completely inadequate. Due to limited space, boxes were piled on top of each other and amongst physical artifacts. Any manner of material, including glass plate negatives, photographs, paper documents, and books were mixed in with actual artifacts, that included just about everything from whale bones, assorted furniture, oars, signage, cannon balls, and netting – all on top of each other, with no clear pathways or room to get to a particular box even if it could be easily located.

I had the archive index on my computer. By default I became the person people came to in order to research or access material they believed to be a part of the Heritage Museum. There was no way that researchers, or the public in general, could directly access the material, so it was up to me to retrieve items for review. There were several problems with this, as you can imagine: the attic storage was not in the building I worked in; inevitably, whatever box I was looking for was always on the bottom of a large pile and way in the back under the lowest part of the roof; material, once retrieved, needed to be returned to the proper box; the attic itself was secured with a simple lock and chicken wire, with little or no security as numerous people had access to the key and there was no daily oversight of the attic storage area.

There was never a doubt in my mind that the material was important and needed to be available, as it was carefully and thoughtfully curated for the past thirty years by one of the Town’s foremost archivists and founder of the Heritage Museum, Josephine Del Deo. Once I knew for certain that the material would not be transferred to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, and that the Town had no plan for the material other than to leave it in the attic, I began to discuss the problem with others in the community and that was the start, in 2005, of the Provincetown History Project.

Q2. It seems like digitization and accessibility have been at the heart of this project from the beginning. How did you decide on this approach for sharing Provincetown’s history? What are some challenges and rewards you have encountered along the way?

There were several goals, some of them immediate concerns that became priorities and others more long term. We needed to get the material out of the inadequate attic storage area and to find a suitable location that would allow us to inventory and assess the material. Another one of our goals was to get the material out in public view, for if it simply remained in boxes it would likely fade from public memory or vanish altogether. Digitization appeared the best way to accomplish this goal while also protecting the originals as much as possible.

There were many challenges in dealing with the material at hand: finding sufficient space to inventory and assess the material; finding people with the time, and in some cases expertise, to help with the evaluation process; equipment to scan selected material, not to mention archival supplies to protect the material; money to pay for equipment and materials as no budget was allocated for this purpose; and ultimately development of a website. As if that wasn’t enough, a further long range goal was to display the physical artifacts in some way throughout the Town’s municipal buildings. This group effort relied on much hard work, good will from the community, monetary support from incredibly generous donors, community grants, luck, and what I can only attribute to divine intervention.

The experience has truly been a rewarding one. Working with others in the community on a common vision is a great experience. Meeting goals that at times appeared insurmountable continues to astonish me. A few years into the History Project we also began to digitize the material in the Town’s own municipal archives, and also began receiving significant material from the public and other Town institutions that otherwise may not have been available to the public at large. Having all of this material available to the public through our searchable website is incredibly satisfying. My own ongoing education about the Town’s history and the importance of preserving and remembering our past has been an unexpected and much appreciated benefit as well.

Q3. You were the Town Clerk when Provincetown began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. How do the materials in the Same-Sex Marriage Collection help create a portrait of the town at that time?

The material found in the Same Sex Marriage Collection on the History Project website is from my own files that I managed to keep at the time and was planning to archive in 2010. I remember thinking in 2010 that it was way too soon to place it on the History Project website, but felt it important to remember the event that had such a positive impact on the community. Provincetown became a focus of intense national and international attention during that period, and I had wanted to show the immense outpouring of excitement and support from the community not only on the issue of fairness and equal rights for all, but also to the Town Clerk’s Office specifically. Town government officials took a truly activist stance in response to then Governor Mitt Romney’s attempt to prevent issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples, and their leadership actions are an important reminder of what our community values. The plan is to add to the collection as material presents itself. While certainly not the definitive record of events from that time, it provides some insight to any future researcher interested in the issue.

Q4. Collections such as the aforementioned Same Sex Marriage Collection and the Safe Harbor/AIDS Archive provide glimpses into the ways one community has responded to developments that have impacted queer people nationwide and beyond. Building on the last question, but thinking more broadly, what can an understanding of Provincetown’s history teach us about queer history in the United States?

The two collections referenced in your question represent, to me, the importance of documenting and remembering our past. As specific members in the community change, and as the community itself changes, it is far too easy to forget the joy, celebration and fight over same sex marriage that the community experienced, for example, or the true heroism, dedication and loss experienced in Provincetown in response to HIV/AIDS. Each collection is a snapshot of the community at that particular place in time and clearly show the community values of the period. Provincetown, like other communities, is always changing. Provincetown’s response to the AIDS crisis within the community, and even more recently the Town’s reaction to same sex marriage, both relatively recent events, are already relegated to a memory that not everyone who lives here shares. As a community, if we don’t know where we came from and what we valued, we risk losing our identity.

Q5. Is there a particular item or aspect of Provincetown history that is particularly intriguing to you? Why is it so interesting or significant?

Personally, I am always on the lookout for material related to the late 1960’s and 1970’s. This time period is little represented in Provincetown History Project material that is currently in the collection. I suspect people might have thought it not of historic value, or historic enough, to save or consider donating or lending to the Town. Parts of the Town’s collective memory of that period may also have been lost far too prematurely due to the ravages of AIDS in the community in the decades that followed. As a teenager experiencing Provincetown for the first time in the mid 1970’s, the sense of belonging and excitement in being gay was palpable at a time when this was certainly not the case throughout the country. Gathering material from this period may provide further evidence in the historical chain to help determine just what it was about Provincetown that brought about that spirit of openness and acceptance. This is a question I find people asking to this day, and will likely continue to ask well in to the future.

event: roundtable meet-up 1/10 in montague (mass.)

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Saturday, January 10th, 2015, 12:00-2:00pm
Montague Bookmill (Montague, Mass.)
Please RSVP by Friday (1/9).

2009-01-15 09.33.11This Saturday (1/10), the LGBTQ Issues Roundtable leadership will be meeting at the Montague Bookmill (Montague, Mass.). We will be discussing business matters from 11am-12pm and then plan to hang out book browsing and tea drinking from 12-2pm. Members are welcome to join us for the afternoon if you are in the area and would like to connect face to face!

The Montague Bookmill (“books you don’t need in a place you can’t find”) is, as the name suggests, an old mill building converted into a used bookstore. There is a cafe attached, a used music store and an arts cooperative nearby.
This meet-up will be pay-your-own-way for books, beverages, and food.

Email queernea@gmail.com to RSVP or with any questions.

2009-01-15 09.31.24

event: roundtable meet-up 12/13 in jamaica plain (mass.)

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I hope everyone had a restful Thanksgiving weekend. Can you believe it’s December already?

Based on the feedback I received from folks interested in attending the December meet-up, I have selected Caffe Aromi in Jamaica Plain (Mass.) for our Saturday (12/13) gathering. If you know where the Angell Animal Medical Center / Shelter is in JP the coffee shop is right around the corner from their main entrance.

I’ll be hanging out there from 10:00-12:00 that day. Coffee and pastries (or their seasonal chocolate chai!) are on NEA. Bring your holiday cheer, knitting, professional angst, gossip, etc.

Caffe Aromi
403A Centre St
Boston, MA 02130
(617) 524-2200

caffe-aromi-map

There has also been some discussion among the round table leadership about the possibility of a meet-up in Western Massachusetts in the new year (January/February) as well, so if you are unable to make it to Boston for this gathering, stay tuned!

~Anna
Anna Clutterbuck-Cook
Co-chair

commentary: anti-discrimination law marks 25 years

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via The Boston Globe:

On Nov. 15, 1989, Governor Michael S. Dukakis signed a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, credit, and access to restaurants and other businesses.

And while the long, bitter fight over a non-discrimination measure seems hard to imagine today, many of the tactics used by gay rights activists at the time are not dissimilar to those employed by advocates for gay marriage years later.

Back then, gay advocates in Massachusetts wanted to add just two words: “sexual orientation,” to the state law that already prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, or ancestry. Though the bill had been introduced since the early 1970s, it passed for the first time in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1983.

via @mombian.

news: radio boston talks to incoming attorney general healey

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via Radio Boston:

Maura Healey overwhelmingly won the attorney general’s race, 62 percent to 38 percent on November 4. But the work is not over. As she prepares to become the state’s top lawyer, she will have to focus on a host of issues including controlling health costs and enforcing the state’s casino law.

Listen to the eleven-minute segment at the Radio Boston website.

news: maura healey first openly gay attorney general

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via WBUR:

Healey, a 43-year-old Charlestown Democrat making her first run for public office, had won 63 percent of the vote compared to 37 percent for Miller with 87 percent of the votes counted Tuesday night. Her win will make her the nation’s first openly gay state attorney general.

…During the race, Healey stressed her experience as the chief of the civil rights division in the attorney general’s office, running on an anti-casino platform and saying she’ll use the office to act as the “people’s lawyer,” citing her argument in 2009 against the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court as an example.