If I ever do get a chance to create that exhibit, Kit Heyam’s recent book Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender will most certainly be the first I reach for.
I have been obsessed with dime museums lately. I am currently in the process of adapting my previous post on them, Dime Museums and the Exhibitionary Complex, into a full book chapter for an upcoming collection, and my mind has been racing with thoughts. Dime museums are fascinating institutions that lie at the intersections between the museum and the circus. This was the realm of the humbug, where any manner of lie would be told to an adoring public. Wax dummies next to fake taxidermy. At the very heart, where the glitz and glamour of show business crossed with the curatorial, was the freak show. It was from the dime museum’s stage where the cabinets of human curiosities could be seen.
It was popular. Really popular. It was through his dime museum that PT Barnum became a household name. They would peak in popularity between the 1880s and 1890s, suffering a slow decline until their fateful death in the interwar period. But their memory lingers, even to today. My previous post looked to apply museum theory in the form of Tony Bennett to discuss dime museums, and in researching the book chapter, I found myself thinking on another facet of museum studies; Jennifer Tyburczy’s Sex Museums and her declaration that all museums are sex museums.
I grew up in Etobicoke, in the West End of Toronto. Toronto has been called a queer city, but Etobicoke is a desert. Growing up, and still today in some respects, queerness was not spoken about very often. Not in positive terms, at least. As a queer kid, it meant a lot of hiding, being careful about what I said, else the Pandora’s box would be opened. It was not until university that I was able to start exploring my identity and face my queerness. Those old haunts have imprinted on me, helped to form my queer life. Crossdressing in lectures at Convocation Hall, only to walk home along St. George and pass impassioned protesters in front of Sid Smith for or against the latest thing Jordan Peterson has said. I would not be the person I am today if I had not walked these streets.
There is something magical about local history, where the places and spaces feel familiar. When you recognize the streets mentioned and can place them in your head. This is what I feel when I read Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer. There’s a queer history to this city, one that flows under the official stories the city likes to tell. Learning these stories and seeing the locations mentioned makes me feel more connected to them.
In the lead up to the premiere of Framing Agnes, I sought out interviews and panels for the film, thinking it might be interesting to discuss on my website. I was already excited to watch the film, but there was a sentiment that perked my interest further. Morgan M. Page, one of the writers of the documentary, mentioned that the target audience was trans people, not cisgender outsiders. My ears perked up immediately. I had come to the same conclusion about my trans museum studies work during my first exhibition, so I was very curious to see how the film handled this. My curiosity was further piqued when Jen Richards echoed the same sentiments in a different panel. In that one, Richards compared Framing Agnes to the far more straight forward Disclosure, with Agnes being much more for trans people. By the time the premiere came around, my anticipation was heightened. I am excited to say that it lived up to that high bar.
Book Review: The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes And The Unwritten History of the Trans Experience By Zoe Playdon
The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes, written by Zoe Playdon, is a semi-biography of the Scottish landowner Ewan Forbes. A trans man, Forbes had his masculine identity affirmed by a court in the late 1960s to settle an inheritance dispute. This case, which would have had significant ramifications for transgender rights around the world, but it was instead stricken from the record. The book uses Forbes’ life as a jumping off point to discuss wider movements and moments within transgender history in really fascinating ways.
Lately, I have been engrossed by the films by documentarian Penny Lane. The subjects she chooses are always very odd, the sort that seem buck wild and grab your attention while browsing Netflix. At the same time, she approaches her films with a humour and wit that elevates the topics. In Hail Satan?, she presents The Satanic Temple as a paradoxically neoliberal institution, an organization founded to offend, choosing to follow the rules of the system they are opposing. In Listening to Kenny G, Lane starts the film by stating “Kenny G is the best selling instrumentalist of all time, he’s probably the most famous living jazz musician, and I made this film to find out why that makes certain people really angry” (Lane 2021, 0:00:42) before playing Kenny G to a series of jazz critics. Both of these films are fantastic and I highly recommend checking them out, but I want to look closely at another of her films, Nuts!, which explores both quackery and authorship.
I recommend viewing the film prior to continuing to read my opinions on it. As strange as it is to say, I will be spoiling this documentary. The film is about a doctor who became successful by implanting goat testicles into men to cure impotence. That is all before the opening credits and only gets more outlandish from there. While it is not on any streaming services that I am aware of, it is available through iTunes, Google Play store, and Vimeo On-Demand.
When my previous exhibition, Transition Related Surgery: The Fight For Access, went from a physical exhibition to a digital one, I got interested in the ways that digital exhibitions are different. Scrolling through the resources that were available to me, namely JSTOR through the Toronto Public Library, I was let down to discover that very little had been written about them as a medium. A lot of what I found approached digital exhibitions with the same mentality, same rules, as in a physical building. This was not satisfying to me. I started forming some theories of my own which I would carry through into my exhibition. After I was hired by the Transgender Archives to develop a digital exhibition, I knew I wanted to take this line of questioning even further. So I sat down with John Summers, author of Creating Exhibits That Engage and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto.
I believe I first found out about The Shape of Sex shortly after I had surgery earlier this year. I was immediately interested. DeVun had previously co-edited an issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly on Trans*historicities that I have referenced extensively, so I was rather excited to get my hands on The Shape of Sex. I am happy to report that it lived up to my expectations. This book, more than any I have read before, makes a strong case of transgender studies as a discipline.
I hate Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors. Reading it is like torture to me. It is part history book, part autobiography, but unfortunately it is still one of the few mainstream books on transgender history. Feinberg is not an historian, and it shows. The whole book serves a narrative around class conflict; the upper classes subjugated the lower classes in many ways, one of which was through destroying transgender experiences. While Clare Sears’ Arresting Dress takes a similar framework, Transgender Warriors lacks any kind of nuance. Worse yet, Feinberg will offhandedly mention aspects of transgender existence without exploring them further. It becomes incredibly frustrating to read because it is clear to the reader that there is more that could be done with the history than is being presented. It is a book full of loose ends.
But there is one thing I appreciate Transgender Warriors for; its broad definition of what counts as “transgender”. The definition of “transgender” has changed a lot since Feinberg wrote Transgender Warriors; at the time, it represented anyone who was “beyond-the-binary” (Bettcher). Since then, transgender has come to mean a lot of different things, from binary transgender people to being an umbrella term for the whole community (often represented as trans*). The reasons for these changes are complicated, and even I do not fully understand them. But reading something like Transgender Warriors and calling a figure like Joan of Arc transgender for existing outside the traditional gender binary; that can be very refreshing.
My exhibition, Transition Related Surgery: The Fight For Access, launched earlier this month. This was a culmination of 21 months of work. This exhibition served as an avenue to explore the ways in which trans history and trans stories can and should be told. Because of this, I felt it was appropriate to discuss some of the choices I made in this reflection.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.