Q5 (#7): Jen Manion


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.


Q5 (#4): Ryan Conrad


Ryan ConradRyan Conrad

Ryan Conrad is an Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD candidate at Concordia University’s Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Society and Culture, and he teaches in the university’s Interdisciplinary Sexuality Studies program. Conrad has written for a variety of publications, and has edited several anthologies for Against Equality, “a digital archive and publishing collective” that he co-founded.

Q1. This summer, you are digitizing a variety of LGBTQ newspapers at the University of Southern Maine in the Special Collections’ Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine. Could you talk a bit about your inspiration and goals for this project, as well as anything interesting you’ve come across while working on it?

I am digitizing a collection of LGBTQ newspapers from the 1990s because I am interested in researching the parallel histories of the AIDS crisis and the battles over non-discrimination laws in Maine. The AIDS crisis arrived a bit later to Maine thanks to its geographic isolation from the rest of the US and it’s largely dispersed rural population. The battle over non-discrimination laws begins in earnest in the early 1990s and doesn’t conclude until the passage of a state-wide law by referendum in 2005. So there is this interesting and devastating overlap between the loss of life during the AIDS crisis and the massively public homophobia resulting in resounding legislative defeats over the most basic rights to housing and employment. Maine is unique in that it is relatively easy to overturn laws passed by the legislature by gathering signatures and putting a law to referendum. This is known as the people’s veto in Maine, and has largely been used by social conservatives to overturn laws they disagree with. This happened with many non-discrimination laws in Maine, but also more recently with gay marriage in 2009. My goal with this project is to do a discourse analysis of the ways in which LGBT community-based journalists talked about the political mood of the decade. I’m really interested in the work of Raymond Williams (structure of feelings), Jonathan Flatley (affective mapping; counter-moods), and Deborah Gould (emotional habitus) in thinking about the ways emotions and collective mood shape the realm of what is politically imaginable/possible. I’m trying to wrap my head around the conservative turn in gay and lesbian politics in the 1990s and thinking about affect and emotion is a useful place to look for clues beyond the obvious impacts of economics and financialization which queer and feminist theorists like Lisa Duggan, Yasmin Nair, Silvia Federici, Samuel Delany and others have already done quite successfully.

Q2: In “Against Equality, In Maine and Everywhere,” you talk about the gap between the needs identified by working-class queer and trans Mainers and the goals of larger political groups leading up to the 2009 marriage referendum in Maine. Similarly, you recently wrote on your website, regarding your current project in Maine, that you are “excited to be thinking about affect & trauma as it relates to the pre-protease inhibitor AIDS crisis days outside of major urban north american gay centers and how Maine’s multi-year failed non-discrimination ordinances intersect with this history.” How can greater access to materials such as newspapers aid the push against dominant political narratives and movements that are disconnected from the material needs of marginalized queer and trans people?

The newspapers I’m digitizing vary in form and content, and surprisingly there were a lot in circulation in Maine. 10%, Apex [now available on the USM website], Community Pride Reporter, Fast Times, Our Paper, and The Gay & Lesbian Times are amongst the serials I’ve been looking at and what’s wonderful about them is that there is constant criticism amongst the different papers as to how issues should be framed and which issues should be prioritized. The “Letters to the Editor” sections of these papers are treasure troves of internal community dialogs. Whether it’s the exchange between lesbian feminists and the police chief over how to support a LGBT non-discrimination campaign, or whether or not seeking inclusion for LGBTs within the boy scouts should be a movement goal or not because the boy scouts are inherently militaristic and misogynist. I don’t see a lot of these kinds of conversations happening today, as most internal dialogs are lost on insular Facebook comment threads that contain more sniping than thoughtful criticism—not to mention how difficult it is to track and archive online content in this form. Plus, large multi-million dollar non-profit LGBT rights organizations largely dismiss and disregard dissent, if not downright muzzle it.

I think what these papers offer is a recent historical example of how we used to have more valuable public conversations about movement priorities than we do now because we leave that to the so-called experts that run these high profile well-funded non-profits that are more accountable to funders than any semblance of community. In digging through these papers, I’ve also uncovered a more radical political LGBT history than the one we are told by the media and pop-historians who rehash superficial queer histories every June. Queers in Maine have been fighting against our murder, rape, violence, misogyny, rural poverty, isolation, access to reproductive health, universal health care, safer sex education for young people, and the list goes on. This local history is there, but somehow the story we are told as queer Mainers is both urbancentric and false. We go from Stonewall (our liberation), to AIDS (our downfall), to gay marriage (our redemption) in a linear progress narrative that is being told by the mainstream gay media and liberal LGBTs alike. I hope to be able to provide a more localized and more accurate depiction of our collective recent past that tells a more complex and inspiring account of how we arrived where we are today.

“Dykes Against the Klan,” Annette Dragon Papers, Courtesy of the LGBT Collection, Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, University of Southern Maine Libraries.

Q3: The Sampson Center at USM holds a collection of materials that were donated by you. Some of these materials seem to predate Against Equality. How did you initially become interested in queer activism and archives?

In 2005 I assembled a ‘zine called Out of the Closets and Into the Libraries that I made for a workshop at the Gulf of Maine Social Forum, which took place in my hometown of Lewiston. The ‘zine and workshop began because I had just graduated from undergrad and lamented that I barely learned anything about queer people or politics. I never learned my history and felt a bit lost. I grew up in a small, socially conservative town in Rhode Island and didn’t know a single out gay person until I was in college in Maine. So for me this early LGBT history project began as a way for me to figure out how to reconcile my hard-line anarchist anti-capitalist politics (thanks to reading Emma Goldman as a punk rock teenager) with my sexuality, which to me at that time only seemed to exist as a commercial niche market that I was decidedly not interested in. I was looking for proof that others like me had come before and with a bit of persistence, I found them, lots of them! So my interest in queer history began as a need for affirmation and proof that you can be both queer and radical. Today I deeply value queer history, because without it, pride is just a shitty commercialized parade.

Q4: You have edited several anthologies for Against Equality, which are now available in one volume as Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. You’ve also written and spoken about access to digital resources and the desire to complement digital archives with print publications.1 How have these initiatives with Against Equality been successful so far? Considering that the number of digitization projects, such as the one that you are currently completing, is increasing, how could archivists and those interested in expanding access to information benefit from keeping these ideas in mind?

The Against Equality archives are unique because we are solely a digital archive, meaning we only exist online. Creating print publications for that project is sort of doing the reverse of what most archives are doing today. In fact, we are pretty much running in the opposite direction, archiving digital work and then creating print publications from this previously published web-based material. Most archives today, and projects like the one I am doing at the Jean Byers Sampson Center, are trying to figure out best practices for digitizing print material that is not available publicly online yet. It has been interesting working with Against Equality because we are really doing something that feels quite unique and our publications have been incredibly successful, distributing over ten thousand books over the last five years including nearly 1000 to incarcerated LGBTQ folks that have no access to the digital world. But the problem of digitizing work is something I think about a lot as I imagine a lot of others do. When I was doing research in 2009 at the New York Public Library it was rather difficult to get my hands on the physical objects from Gran Fury that I was researching because I was told that the material was all scanned and available online. The archivists were sympathetic to my requests as I argued that seeing, touching, smelling, and engaging with physical objects, especially large ones like broadsheets and posters, was important to my understanding of said object. But I think this is something many of us that work for and with archives are thinking about these days: how to best share information and cultural objects digitally in order to make them more accessible, without decontextualizing these things from their thing-ness.

“Front page, Apex Vol 2 No 9,” Courtesy of the LGBT Collection, Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, University of Southern Maine Libraries.

Q5: Gay marriage is legal all throughout the United States now. As this has been the primary focus of mainstream LGBTQ activism for so long, there is now talk about what the “next” struggle should be. Why is it imperative that we continue to have an understanding of a variety of queer histories if we are to challenge these current developments and narratives?

I understand why people would talk about the “next” struggle, but in that way of framing the issue we actually lose sight of the fact that gay marriage has failed to provide much-needed comprehensive family law reform for many different combinations of families (gay and straight) that are left behind by the couple form. Feminists have been making this argument for a century, but this history has been ignored and usurped by today’s gay and lesbian marriage activists. A lot of people can easily see why gay marriage was not necessarily the most urgent priority, but I think it is important to push it further and actually make it clear that gay marriage itself was a bad goal and fails many of us by retrenching a model of privatization where all material needs should be met through a closed family unit headed by a conjugal couple. Sure there are lots of other battles today on which we need to be fighting in addition to family law reform, but I think the rhetoric of the gay marriage campaigns has been so successful in marginalizing other forms of family and kinship networks that it will actually be more difficult now to make those demands of our governments and social institutions. In passing gay marriage we did nothing to dislodge the ideology of family, and today we need to continue the fight to make family law support our families as they exist, and not the other way around by forcing our kinships to match the confines of the law. The battle for gay marriage has been ahistorical, anti-feminist, and extremely conservative. We must not let the present moment of gay marriage jubilation, or the coming moment of trans jubilation over the imminent admittance of trans people to the US Military, rewrite our much messier and hard fought histories of struggle against heterosexism, imperialism, oppression, and hierarchy.


1 Ryan Conrad, Karma Chávez, Yasmin Nair, and Deena Loeffler, “Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion,” in Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion, ed. Ryan Conrad (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014), 9-11.

scholarship: anne lister (1791-1840)


via FWSA Blog:

When I made a casual visit to my local archives some three decades ago I was quite unprepared for what I found. My interest in Anne Lister had been sparked by the knowledge that extracts from her letters had been published some years ago in the local press. As I was looking for a subject around whom I could write a short article I decided to investigate the archival resources of the Lister family.

What I found, and subsequently published, has provided a new perspective on the subject of sex between women in a different era to that of our own, for Anne Lister was a lesbian who lived in a society that did not recognise a nature such as hers. She therefore had to devise ways and means whereby she could keep her sexuality secret while attempting to find another woman with whom she could share her life. Her journals tell the intimate story of that quest in addition to giving a fascinating and detailed account of life in the Georgian era as it was lived by people in a small English town during the early era of the Industrial Revolution. She also relates in detail her adventurous travels, her studies in Greek and Latin and her management of the Shibden estate. Her business acumen was as sharp, if not sharper than many of her male counterparts in her home town of Halifax.

Read on at FWSA…

scholarship: bisexual men fight for visibility


via The Rainbow Times:

Efforts to raise awareness of bisexual issues, including last week’s Bisexual Awareness Week, often focus on the health and well-being disparities faced by bisexual women, which are significant. It’s also important to realize that biphobia negatively affects bi men too. According to BiNet USA, bisexual men have significantly higher rates of suicide than all other groups except bisexual women, and they are also much more likely than gay men or straight men to experience sexual assault and domestic violence.


event: queering u.s. immigration history


via UConn Events Calendar:

Thursday, October 2, 2014, 12:00pm – 1:30pm
Storrs Campus, Rainbow Center @ Student Union 403

Rainbow Center’s Out to Lunch Lecture Series continues the semester with a presentation by Julio Capó, Jr., entitled, “Queering U.S. Immigration History: The 1980 Mariel Boatlift.”

Using the 1980 Mariel boatlift as a case study, this presentation explores how queer sexualities have historically informed, altered, and challenged U.S. immigration policies.

Julio Capó, Jr. is assistant professor in the Department of History and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His research and teaching interests include transnational and inter-American history, with a focus on queer, sexuality, gender, Latina/o, and migration studies. Capó is completing his book on the history of queer Miami, which won the Urban History Association’s Best Dissertation Prize in 2012. His article, “Queering Mariel,” which appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of the Journal of American Ethnic History, received the Carlton C. Qualey Memorial Article Award.

submitted by community member Elise Dunham.