On January 30, Abigail Thorn, the youtuber Philosophy Tube, released a video coming out as transgender. In her video Identity: A Trans Coming Out Story, she rather poetically discussed the philosophy behind questioning one’s gender. I would recommend watching it before finishing this article. Thorn’s video caused me to revisit a lot of thoughts I have not returned to since I was questioning my own gender, today being four years since I “came out to myself”. A lot has happened in those four years so looking back on that questioning process, especially with my Museum Studies degree, produced some very surprising realizations.
The part of Thorn’s video that really felt relevant to me was the section on memory and interpreting those memories. Thorn quotes John Locke, saying that memory is key to a person’s identity, and then goes on to question the act of remembering. We do not just remember what happened to us as it happened, that memory is shaped by the emotions that we associate with it, and those emotions can change. As time passes by, we gain new contexts from which to view those memories. As Thorn says, “remembering something is an act of interpretation.” And so, what does it mean to remember those same memories but in a new way?
This idea of looking back on your life and trying to find some new meaning, discovering the big picture that was previously just out of view, is so central to coming out. I, of course, cannot speak for all trans people, but I believe this is common enough that it has become a frequent joke in trans circles. Among my friends, we often comment that “there were no signs” when talking about our histories. These moments are so obvious in retrospect that we collectively laugh at them.
This reflecting on one’s own experiences and understanding them anew is very much true of my own coming out. It was the final semester of my undergraduate degree, and I approached my own life with the same rigour that I would any of my other history essays; I searched for the arguments that would defend the thesis that was my transness. And I found multiple, they would become anecdotes that I would use to laugh at how obvious it was in hindsight. After all, there were no signs. I created a new narrative for myself, for who I was and how I came to be that person. That very act of creating a narrative became part of a metanarrative that explained how I was so certain of my identity. Abigail Thorn’s video caused me to seriously reflect on that process I went through four years ago in a way that I had not considered at point prior.
I have done a lot of living in those four years. I have changed a lot in that time. Evolved. I have a Masters of Museum Studies now, and am trying to build a career around how to tell trans stories in the museum. And it is with this degree that I look back on that coming out process. Through my coming out, I curated my life. The first trans story I sought to craft in my career, was my own.
Trans people are natural curators. We often have to be. We have always been writing and rewriting our stories for different audiences. Sometimes to understand ourselves better and be able to vocalize our existence, but also for outside perspectives. It can be a powerful way of claiming your own existence, despite everyone around saying otherwise but it can also be a necessity for accessing health care, as is the case with many gatekeeping institutions around the world. As far back as 1974, Dr Betty Steiner, the head of the newly created Gender Identity Clinic at the Clarke Institute in Toronto, complained that “distortions occur” in patients’ life stories in order to get through the process. It is unfortunate she never questioned why trans people felt they had to “distort” their life story in order to get the treatment they need. In such situations, it becomes necessary to know what these doctors are looking for and be able to tell them exactly what they want to hear. This kind of curating one’s life became very common in trans health care, with resources and zines giving tips on what to share with clinics in order to navigate such gatekeeping.
This sort of curating becomes even more interesting when it becomes explicit, as with the case of the Museum of Transology. Based in the UK, the Museum of Transology was an exhibition that collected and displayed objects donated by local trans people that reflected some part of their journey. These objects are displayed with a handwritten label that explains the relevance of that object to the donor. Most of these are everyday objects, but their association allows for them to be transed in very fascinating ways. One excellent example is a pair of swim goggles; it was their owner’s first pair of goggles in years, which they bought after having top surgery and was therefore comfortable enough in their own body to be able to go swimming again. It shows the growth and self-love that comes with transition in such a unique way. And each object in their collection tells a similar story, exploring the diversity of trans life. It creates compelling look into the lives of so many and how they choose to describe themselves in their own words.
With that in mind, I decided to make my own homage to the Museum of Transology’s curating. Below, is the outfit that I consider to have made me realize I was trans.
Scott, E-J. and Richard Sandell. "Museums and the Transgender Tipping Point." School of Museum Studies, 8 February 2019. YouTube video, 1:17:50. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZZHDVFcSXg&ab_channel=SchoolofMuseumStudies
Thorn, Abigail. "Identity: A Trans Coming Out Story | Philosophy Tube." Philosophy Tube, 30 January, 2021. Youtube Video, 37:39. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AITRzvm0Xtg&ab_channel=PhilosophyTube.
Steiner, Betty W., A. S. Zajac, and J. W. Mohr. "A Gender Identity Project: The Organization of a Multidisciplinary Study." Canadian Psychiatrist Association Journal Volume 19 (1974): 7-12.
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Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.