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

Alison Laing
Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan

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."

'Sexology', 1954

(Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan)

This volume of Sexology contains an early scientific attempt to characterize how gender nonconforming individuals in the 1950s behaved. It also showcases the biases common at the time, referring to transgender behaviors as “deviations” and blaming things like cross-dressing on “the smothering mother.”

Alison Laing, 1961

(Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan)

In this 1961 photo, Alison Laing poses in evening wear, one of 36 photos taken from 1956 to 1965 by an unknown individual—most likely, the Advocate speculates, her wife, Dottie. 

Laing is a pioneer in the trans community. She cofounded the Renaissance Education Association, a non-profit that educates and supports trans people, and helps transgendered people with presentation tips to this day.

'Female Impersonators on Parade', 1960

(Digital Transgender Archive)

This 1960 magazine is just one edition of Female Impersonators on Parade, a magazine highlighting drag queens and other gender nonconforming individuals. The pictures inside give a fascinating glimpse into the often-undocumented world of drag, along with commentary on how cross-dressers got used to women's clothing and accounts of the difficulties faced by men who dared to appear in public as women.

“The amateur female impersonator likes the gay social movements he finds in the company of others with the same likes and desires in experiencing the graceful life of a woman,” read one article. “The sympathetic understanding they derive in knowing that others are in the same plight as themselves often compels them to take the chance of being arrested by attending so-called ‘drag’ balls, where they can act and dance like women and discuss the latest feminine fashions of the day.”

Like drag balls, Female Impersonators on Parade itself wasn’t immune to prosecution and discrimination: In 1964, the magazine was investigated by a New York legislative committee studying “offensive and obscene material.”

'Vanguard Magazine', 1967

(GLBT Historical Society)

This edition of Vanguard Magazine: The Magazine of the Tenderloin gives a sense of the issues faced by transgendered individuals living in San Francisco in the late 1960s. Covering everything from poverty to anti-gay laws, prostitution to the hippie movement, the sometimes explicit magazine was founded by street youth.

A letter in the magazine illustrates one of the reasons why San Francisco was a haven for gay and transgender youth during the 1960s—community:

“In this letter to you, I want to give moral support to anyone who may want to do what I’ve done, but isn’t sure of quite how,” wrote an anonymous author. “The change in me came after years of living without an identity. Not long ago I didn’t know who I was. Now I know.” The letter was simply signed “A Tenderloin Resident.”