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B.C. attracting researchers as home to world’s largest transgender archives

Visitors come from all over the world to study the archives at the University of Victoria
The University of Victoria is home to the world’s largest Transgender Archives. (Graphic from Aaron Devor).

Every year, the University of Victoria’s Transgender Archives attract visitors from all over the world looking to study and learn from its history.

The archives are the largest of their kind and one of the few trans-specific archives anywhere in the world.

Housed in UVic’s McPherson Library, the archives consist of materials from 23 different countries in 15 languages, including organizational records, audio histories, community-based newsletters, personal papers, photos and original art works that trace the history of transgender people dating back to the 19th century.

The archives were founded by Aaron Devor, chair in transgender studies at UVic. He said the beginning of the archives resulted from “pure serendipity” after Rikki Swin agreed to donate her collection, previously located in Chicago, to UVic.

“At that time, we did not consider ourselves the transgender archives,” Devor said. “We just had a large collection from Rikki Swin.”

The second collection came as a result of Devor’s extensive research on the life of trans man, activist and philanthropist Reed Erickson. Many years after Erickson died, his daughter reached out to Devor and discussed donating his papers to UVic.

It was not long after this point that Devor decided the university didn’t just have a couple of collections — it was home to archives.

Officially launched in 2011, the Transgender Archives have since grown to become the largest in the world and are accessible to the public free of charge.

The archives are home to popular collections such as the works of Haudenosaunee artist, scholar and storyteller Aiyyana Maracle, who explored a decolonized version of gender and sexuality until her death in 2016. Materials include texts, sound and video recordings, as well as objects such as garments, masks and accessories she used in her performances and art displays.

Also included in the archives is the entire 26-year run of Transvestia, the first widely-distributed magazine focused on the cross-dressing community. Published from 1960 until 1986, the magazine allowed trans people to write about their experiences and connect with each other in an era before the internet.

Transvestia, among other publications and materials Devor said are “long-lasting and far-reaching in the community,” have been digitized and are available on the archives’ website.

While digital materials are accessible from anywhere in the world, Devor said physically interacting with the collections is a unique experience.

“There is something special about actually putting your hands on the physical objects that make our history,” he said.

The university’s Diana M. Priestly Law Library is also displaying a pop-up exhibit with materials from the Transgender Archives, highlighting documents from the Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon — a landmark case for transgender rights.

While Nixon ultimately lost the case on appeal after alleging the VRRS discriminated against her on the basis of her identity as a trans woman, the case prompted many national women’s groups and sexual assault crisis centres to adopt trans-inclusive policies.

Devor’s position as chair in transgender studies is currently the only one in the world. As more scholars begin to approach and write about history from a transgender lens, he said the growing archives contain original material that is vital to understanding the lived experiences of trans people throughout history.

“Trans people didn’t just appear yesterday,” he said. “Trans people have been around as long as there have been people … These are people who have been building community and fighting for rights for a long time.”

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