CHICAGO — It didn’t happen for me during the summer of ’69, but rather sometime around 2009 when I headed to San Francisco for an internship at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. As an archives intern, I was holed up in the back of the fluorescently-lit floor-to-ceiling shelves that contained thousands of yellowing magazine pages, posters of the first gay pride marches, and perfectly preserved photographs in thick leather-bound albums. But what if the GLBT Historical Society had been started in 2008, lived online, and focused exclusively on the oral histories of transpeople?
The Trans Oral History Project is a grassroots community media initiative that collects the stories of trans, gender variant and gender non-conforming individuals. Open to all, it operates through a robust crew of individual volunteers, including Chicagoans André Pérez, Matthew Clark, and Alexis Martinez, and Philadelphia-based Helyx Chase and G Ragovin, and a steady stream of partnerships with organizations such as Allied Media Conference in Detroit, Ingersoll Gender Center in Seattle, and Soy Quien Soy in Chicago, among others. The project has been expanding since its inception in 2008, winning a Critical Fierceness Grant, launching a website for sharing video, audio, and written stories, collaborating with About Face Youth Theater, and doing workshops across the northeastern United States. I got in touch with André Pérez to learn more about what’s up next for the ambitious TOHP.
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Alicia Eler: I was really struck by this quote in the preview video from established transgender activist and community historian Bet Power where he talks about his life-changing meeting with Lou Sullivan, the founder of FTM International:
“I said I challenge everybody here to work with me on a transgender pride march. I didn’t think it would go anywhere — I say these things as they come through my head. I feel sometimes, as an archivist, because I receive so much information and I read so much, that I can channel moments in history, and it’s almost like group consciousness, and I just said this thing … “
I started thinking about how the Trans Oral History Project seems like an internet-version of the types of archives that Power has worked with previous to the internet. Is this how you would define the Trans Oral History Project? Why or why not?
André Perez: The Transgender Oral History Project (TOHP) is a community-driven effort to collect, preserve, and share a diversity range of stories from within the transgender and gender variant communities. TOHP is an acknowledgement that we are a community who is making history right now, but also one that draws form a rich, unacknowledged past. TOHP is a celebration of our elders, a point of connection between the past and future, a space for intergenerational dialogue about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. TOHP is also a space to explore the variance, contradiction, and discord within our own community. We hope to be a platform for many different kinds of trans experiences by promoting grassroots media projects, documenting trans people’s experiences, and teaching media production skills.
AE: I really enjoyed the comics and magazines in the FTM section, particularly the text of DudeMag.com and Twinks for Sale. How do you select and qualify publications to be featured on the Trans Oral History Project?
AP: In 2012, we launched the Trans Oral History Zine Distro which collects and distributes zines by trans* authors, zine compilations that include trans* authors, and zine compilations about LGBT history that are trans* inclusive. We are open to zines addressing a variety of issues, but we specifically are interested in zines that reflect people’s real life experiences (as opposed to rants, visions, and theory). We have collected over 50 titles so far, and are always trying to broaden our collection. We accept and solicit self-published works to be included in our archive on an ongoing basis. If you have something you would like to submit, please send it to us!
AE: I’m interested in the implications of transguys not identifying as trans, but rather as just gay guys. Either identification makes sense to me; in terms of the TOHP, how did you go about featuring guys who are gay but may not ID as trans to be included? Isn’t that counter the idea of not ID-ing specifically as trans?
AP: We use the word trans in the most inclusive way possible — to include transgender people, two-spirits, studs, transvestites, and other gender variant people. There will never be one word that spans the many generations, ethnicities, and subcultures that make up our vast communities. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Some of the people in our own collective have conflicting feelings about the terminology we use. At the end of the day, this is a project for people who see the value of having their voices included in this broad conversation about experiences of gender variance.
AE: Talk about the differences and similarities you see in submissions from MTF and FTM people?
AP: The Trans Oral History Project has strived since its inception to include the voices of trans masculine and trans feminine spectrum people from all backgrounds and beliefs. One of the motivations I have to continue the project is my belief that we are too fractured and divided among ourselves and we do not have enough spaces to proactively forge connections between different trans communities. TOHP fights oppression by partnering with trans groups and recruiting individuals from underrepresented communities including communities of color.
AE: What’s up next for the Trans Oral History Project? Where do you see it going from here? Do you have plans for expansion? Also, how do you operate and run as an organization? Any new plans we should know about for 2014?
AP: TOHP is working on several initiatives right now. We are developing I Live for Trans Education, a multimedia toolkit for trans educators, youth workers, and youth leaders who want to educate about issues that impact the trans community from an intersectional perspective. It will consist of four 7–10 minute documentary shorts paired with workshop curriculum for 16–21 year olds covering issues form Civil Rights to Employment Discrimination.
We also publish a yearly calendar featuring artwork from transgender artists from around the country. You can buy our 2014 Magical Creatures-themed calendar, hand-printed t-shirts, and originally designed posters on our Etsy shop.