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 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.
When I think about how I describe my current career trajectory and the aim of this blog, the phrase I frequently come back to is “bridging the gap between trans studies and museum studies.” I think this really highlights what I am trying to achieve. Museum studies alone is not at the point yet where I feel it can quarrel with the very broad idea of transness on its own (just recently I found an article published last year that used a definition that misgenders trans people) and so it is frequently within the sphere of trans writing that I find relevant material. This was the case with Clare Sears’ Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco and one section in particular.
CW: Talk of Transphobia and TERFs
When I started searching for materials on transgender museum studies, I found essentially nothing. Literature on queer museums focuses so much on sexuality that I have seen LGBT and sexual minorities used interchangeably. In one of the few articles that I found that actually addressed transgender issues in a meaningful way, Robert Mills described “the T in ‘LGBT’ is often a fake T” (Mills, 256), a phrase often by trans activists to discuss the lack of trans visibility in the queer community. That article was originally published in 2006 but even 15 years later, I do not believe enough has changed to make that characterization any less true. For the most part, this usually encourages me to keep doing what I am doing, reminding me just how important my voice is to this field, but it can get so exhausting.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.