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Transgender Day of Visibility is a day of awareness. It is therefore, in the most literal sense, a call to be aware. Aware of the beauty found in the transgender community. Aware of the accomplishments and contributions of transgender people. Aware of the transgender community’s resilience. Aware of the violence against transgender people as well as historic and ongoing oppression. It is essentially a call to know transgender history.

Unfortunately, as with most marginalized groups, uncovering the history of transgender communities and individuals in libraries and archives can be challenging. Despite existing for as long as history itself, transgender and gender-diverse history have largely been hidden and/or misrepresented by traditional collecting policies, description practices, and cataloging standards in place at cultural institutions. These practices make it hard for today’s researchers to locate relevant material, which is further complicated by relevant materials being dispersed throughout numerous repositories.

Even within a single repository, identifying material relating to transgender individuals in catalog records, indexes, and finding aids can be difficult as this material has historically been poorly or inaccurately described, if described at all. Because of these poor description practices coupled with the lack of attention paid to transgender histories, many institutions may not even be aware of the full extent of the records in their holdings pertaining to transgender history.

Visibility Efforts

Luckily, there are ongoing efforts across libraries and archives, both nationally and internationally, to bring transgender histories into the light and to do so in respectful and humanizing ways. One such effort bringing visibility to transgender history is the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA). Based out of Northeastern University and launched in 2016, this digital project seeks to “increase the accessibility of transgender history by providing an online hub for digitized historical materials, born-digital materials, and information on archival holdings throughout the world.”

Screenshot of the main page and search bar for the Digital Transgender Archive.

It currently contains material from over sixty institutions and allows researchers to browse by topic, by location through a map feature, by collection, by genre, and by contributing institution. While the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project is currently the only participating institution from Virginia, the database contains various records documenting transgender and gender-diverse history within the state.

As stated in DTA’s overview page, the project “…virtually merges disparate archival collections, digital materials, and independent projects with a single search engine. With rich primary source materials and powerful search tools, the DTA offers a generative point of entry into the expansive world of trans history.” By pulling the resources of various repositories into one large database, researchers are automatically provided with a trove of relevant material varying in geographic location and time period. The DTA also helps smaller, grassroots organizations – some of the original caretakers of transgender history – make their resources available, further expanding the types of material accessible.

Screenshot of the ``browse by`` map feature on the Digital Transgender Archive website.

In 2022, the DTA received a grant for their “’Y’all Better Quiet Down’: Trans BIPOC Digitization Initiative,” which will work through 2025 to digitize cassette and VHS interviews; mixed archival materials of various transgender leaders; Two-Spirit community materials; photograph collections; and community-focused serials. This project will further enhance the visibility of transgender history while specifically spotlighting the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who are often marginalized and underrepresented members of the transgender community.

An additional effort concerning transgender visibility is the Metadata Best Practices for Trans and Gender Diverse Resources by the Trans Metadata Collective. These best practices released in 2022 are concerned with how transgender individuals, communities, and their histories are described. This document acts as a set of guidelines for GLAMS (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Special Collections) and their “description, cataloguing, and classification of information resources as well as the creation of metadata about trans and gender diverse people, including authors and other creators.” Some of the topics covered in this guide concern: categorization of identities, name changes, lived experiences, and coming out and disclosure. Implementing best practices written by members of transgender and gender-diverse communities will hopefully assist institutions in creating better descriptions of those communities, making the cataloging of transgender history not only more accurate, but also more accessible to researchers.

These are just two examples of initiatives seeking to cast visibility on the experience and histories of the transgender and gender diverse communities.

Here is a small sampling of other repositories and resources highlighting transgender and gender diverse history and perspectives:

  • ONE Archives at the University of Southern California – the largest repository of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) materials in the world. Founded in 1952, ONE Archives houses millions of archival items including periodicals, books, films, videos, audio recordings, photographs, artworks, organizational records, and personal papers.
  • Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive – the goal of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive (LLTA) is to increase the understanding of transgender people and encourage new scholarship by making transgender historical materials available to students, scholars, and the public. The archive is named in honor of Northern California transgender pioneer Louise Lawrence. The Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive is a sponsored project of the GLBT Historical Society.
  • Outwords captures, preserves, and shares the stories of LGBTQIA2S+* elders, to build community and catalyze social change. [*LGBTQIA2S+ = Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex, asexual and ally, and two-spirit]
  • Homosaurus – linked data vocabulary of LGBTQ terms that supports improved access to LGBTQ resources within cultural institutions.
  • Transgender Archives, University of Victoria – the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria is committed to the preservation of the history of pioneering activists, community leaders, and researchers who have contributed to the betterment of Trans+ and other gender-diverse people.
  • Two-Spirit Archives, University of Winnipeg – the mission of the Two-Spirit Archives is to develop an internationally renowned center for research that supports the needs of the Two-Spirit community; makes Two-Spirit people visible in our documentary heritage; and supports the research, teaching, learning, and community mandates of the University.

Transgender History at the Library of Virginia

Like many other institutions, primary sources relating to transgender and gender-diverse history are hard to locate in the Library of Virginia. The easiest material to find will be published materials like: publications and reports from government agencies, memoirs, monograph histories, and handbooks. Most of these resources were created in the last ten to fifteen years.

Much of the archival or primary source material is scattered throughout various collections and departments, making it hard to locate in aggregate. Additionally, because this history was not prioritized, instances may appear in LVA collections, but may not have been described in a way that makes the material accessible to researchers.

It is also worth noting that only a small portion of the library’s total holdings are digitized. So even if material is not digitally available through the LVA website, a conversation with reference staff may help identify collections on site with additional research potential. Although this may not be the most convenient method of research for many, sifting through the physical records themselves is sometimes the only way to find answers.

Research Tips for Locating Primary Sources Related to Transgender History at the Library of Virginia

Be familiar with the time period you are researching

There’s no need to be a content specialist, but it is always helpful to have a general sense of the historical context for an era. Therefore, when researching transgender history for a certain period it can be beneficial to know:

  • people of interest including activists, entertainers, professionals, etc.
  • period-specific language including identifiers used by the transgender community and harmful language used against the community
  • societal expectations regarding gender, sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression
  • laws concerning gender, sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression

Use period-appropriate language

If you are interested in researching transgender and gender-diverse individuals in historical records, modern terms like “transgender,” “non-binary,” and “gender nonconforming” may not produce the best results as the language used to describe transgender and gender-diverse individuals has always been fluid. While modern terms such as these will provide results for materials created after the 1980s, if concerned with earlier histories, you may need to try alternative language. Unfortunately, this sometimes requires search terms and phrases that are harmful and offensive. Please take care of yourself when conducting research. While there is joy to be found in historic material, there is also violence and trauma.

List of modern terms and phrases to try [see GLAAS Media Guide and Glossary for more terms and definitions]:

  • transgender
  • non-binary
  • gender nonconforming
  • genderqueer
  • two-spirit
  • drag
  • gender dysphoria
  • transition
  • trans men
  • trans women
  • gender-affirming surgery
  • intersex

List of historical terms and phrases to try:

  • Transsexual
  • Transexualism
  • Transvestite/ Transvestism
  • Sex change/ sex-change
  • Androgyne
  • Male to female
  • Female to male
  • Eonism/ Eonists
  • Invert
  • Molly
  • Sexual intermediary
  • Uranian/ urning
  • Drag/ Drag ball
  • Crossdressing/ cross-dressing/ crossdresser
  • Female impersonator
  • Male impersonator
  • Male woman
  • Female man
  • Impersonating a man
  • Impersonating a woman

Seek out likely sources:

One of the most valuable elements of historical research is that research will often beget more research. It’s sometimes finding your initial starting point that can be the hardest. However, once you find that starting point, sources will often lead to additional names, locations, and events to then dive deeper into. Here is a list of possible starting points in Library of Virginia collections:

  • Books
    • Memoirs – books written by transgender individuals concerning their life experiences
    • Monograph histories – search for history books concerning LGBTQIA+ experiences
    • Fiction – creative writing, poems, and stories created by transgender authors
  • Newspapers
    • Newspapers found in the Library’s Virginia Chronicle database are likely to hold some of the earliest references to transgender and gender-diverse individuals in the Library’s holdings. It is useful to note that Black newspapers were more likely to document transgender life than other newspapers.
  • Serials [Newsletters/Magazines]
    • Our Own Community Press – publication of the Unitarian-Universalist Gay Community in Norfolk (Va.)
    • ThroTTle magazine – serial concerning Punk culture in Richmond (Va.)
  • Government Records
    • Local, State, or National government publications [largely created by specific government agencies]
      • Reports
      • Fact sheets
      • Handbooks
      • Guidance / Best practices
    • Petitions for change of name [sometimes found in Chancery Causes]
    • Criminal records and Commonwealth causes
      • Charges for crossdressing, impersonating the opposite sex, improper dress, being a “transvestite”
      • Cases involving disorderly conduct
      • Cases involving places of entertainment
    • Governors’ papers [policy documentation]

Awareness through research

Equipped with the above-listed resources and research tips, spend time today learning something new about transgender and gender-diverse history. With LGBTQIA+ youth, adults, and families currently caught in the middle of multiple legal, political, and cultural battles, awareness and education are crucial. So please, become aware.

Mary Ann Mason, They/Them

Senior Local Records Archivist

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