Anne Hartman 2014-02-10 10:52:03
The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) Archives had the state’s largest collection of Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual- Transgender (LGBT) primary sources. A bevy of movers and shakers within the LGBT community had a presence in the collection, like Eldon Murray, who helped pioneer the national gay rights movement. The collection was also home to the records of noted community groups like the Gay Peoples Union, the first gay rights organization in Milwaukee. The archives had been actively building the collection for the past decade. But Michael Doylen wasn’t satisfied. As head of the UWM Archives, he knew the collection—like all collections—had its strengths and weaknesses. This collection’s weakness wasn’t what was contained within it, but, rather, what was missing. Although the collection aimed to cover LGBT history, there was a noticeable lack of records on transgender individuals. Making a Change Milwaukee, as it turns out, has a rich history of transgender activism—making it all the more important for the UWM Archives to cover transgender history. The city is the birthplace of Lou Sullivan, founder of FTM International, the largest continuosly running organization for those on the female-to-male (FTM) spectrum. It’s also where the peer support group FORGE was founded, which eventually became the first transgender organization to receive a federal grant. Dr. Brice D. Smith, an independent scholar, says the UWM Archives wasn’t alone in its lack of materials relating to transgender individuals. “Unfortunately, this is something we’ve found with history,” Smith says. “Even though it’s referred to as LGBT history, it mostly covers lesbians, gays, and to a lesser extent bisexuals.” Doylen set out to break the trend. He was familiar with Smith’s dissertation research, which was a biography of Sullivan titled “Yours in Liberation: Lou Sullivan and the Construction of FTM Identity.” Smith, who’d been active in Milwaukee’s transgender community for several years, is also transgender himself. Doylen contacted Smith, asking if he’d be interested in conducting interviews with individuals who could shed light on Milwaukee’s transgender history. Smith jumped at the chance. The Interviews Over the course of several months in 2011, Smith traveled to homes throughout Milwaukee to interview the eight individuals chosen to be featured in the Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project. Among them are social activists, performers, health care workers, and organizational leaders. The result for listeners is a raw, fly-on-the-wall experience of hearing individuals fearlessly recount not Only Milwaukee’s transgender history, but also deeply personal memories of what it was like to live as transgender individuals at a time when most couldn’t—or didn’t want to—understand. Smith, for instance, interviewed Jolie McKenna, executive director of the LGBT Center of Southeast Wisconsin in Racine. McKenna, who identifies as transsexual, speaks about the isolation those in the trans community often feel. “It’s when we internalize that isolation, we ourselves are the ones that are complacent in continuing isolation. And we can decide to break that,” McKenna says. Gretchen Fincke, a retired certified sex therapist, speaks about the lackluster medical services transgender individuals had access to in the mid- to late-twentieth century. “There really was no body of treatment, no body of research, nothing for people to go on,” she said, adding that doctors were frightened of working with transgender individuals and took an intensely medical approach, creating strict criteria that patients had to fulfill to be considered transgender to the medical world. Sharing as a Basis for Understanding “What surprised me most was how much these individuals shared, how open they were in sharing things, and how willing they were to Do this to help others really better understand what it means to be transgender,” Smith says. The recordings and transcripts are available at the UWM Archives and online at http://www4.uwm.edu/libraries/digilib/transhist. By making the interviews available to a broad audience, Smith hopes they’ll help “not only people who are studying transgender or LGBT history, but also people who identify as transgender themselves or are questioning whether they are.” Smith also hopes this project will inspire other archivists to take on similar initiatives. His advice: Forge relationships with the transgender community to build a richer, more authentic collection. “It’s important to keep in mind that members of the transgender community have been told or denied who they are for a significant portion of their lives, so it’s that much more important not to deny their proper place in history,” Smith says. “Collecting these materials will help transgender people see themselves in history, but will also help people in general have a better understanding of humanity and the great diversity that naturally exists.”
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