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This Transgender Archive’s Oldest Artifacts Tell a Story of Courage and Community

The Digital Transgender Archive was born out of two researchers’ frustration with finding materials by and about transgender people

(Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan)
smithsonian.com

People whose gender identity does not conform to the one assigned to them at birth have long faced discrimination, harassment and assault. Though it remains unclear just how many people identify as transgender today, trans visibility in mass culture is higher than ever before. Now, a new digital archive is calling attention to the long history of transgender people—and its oldest artifacts highlight trans culture and remind people of just how long transgender people have been struggling for visibility and civil rights.

The Digital Transgender Archive is an online hub for materials about trans people. It encompasses more than 20 public and private collections of documents, ephemera and memorabilia from gender nonconforming people in an attempt to make their history more visible.

Gathering those materials hasn’t been easy. The archive itself was born out of two researchers’ frustration with finding materials by and about transgender people. The term “transgender” is only a few decades old, as the archive’s team explains, which makes the search for older materials and the process of finding which institutions own which materials challenging. In response to the lack of a comprehensive, organized history, an international collaboration was born and thousands of documents have been collected and digitized.

The collection's holdings illustrate the courage and resilience of transgender people who lived long before things like gender confirmation surgery were widely available. Here are a few of the archive’s oldest (and most interesting) holdings:

Editor's Note, April 5, 2016: The world's largest transgender archives can be found at the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria.

Reed Erickson, 1931

(ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives/USC Libraries)

This photograph is of Reed Erickson, a trans pioneer who helped educate the world about transgender people. Born Rita Erickson in 1917, Reed officially changed his name in 1963 and had gender confirmation surgery two years later.

A successful entrepreneur and wealthy businessman, Erickson founded the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF). His initiative funded innumerable research and education projects that taught the public about transgender people, sex reassignment and gender identity. At the time of this photograph, Reed was 14 years old and still lived as "Rita."

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