UWM completes transgender histories project

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The cover of the first guidebook for female-to-male persons, ''Information for the Female to Male Cross-Dresser and Transsexual,'' written by Louis Sullivan and published in 1980. Sullivan was born in Milwaukee and was a pioneering figure in the history of trans activism. – Courtesy UWM Archives Dept.

Listen up about listening in: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries archives department invites researchers to listen in to a history of the local transgender community.

The department, which collects materials documenting LGBT life and culture, has completed a history project focusing on Milwaukee's transgender community from the 1960s to today.

The Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project consists of eight oral histories, preserving the recollections of social activists, community leaders, health care workers, service providers and drag queens.

Dr. Brice Smith, author of "Yours in Liberation: Lou Sullivan and the Construction of FTM Identity," conducted the interviews with Jay Botsford, Josie Carter and Jaime Gays, Loree Cook-Daniels, Gretchen Fincke, Meredith Leischer, Jolie McKenna and Michael Munson. 

"I sought out individuals who have played a significant role in making the community what it is today," said Smith, who conducted the interviews mostly in homes and used a digital recorder.

A press release from the archives said the interviewees "self-identify across a broad spectrum of gender identities, and some resist identification entirely."

In the interviews, they cover a range of topics – drag pageants before and after Stonewall, community activism, building organizations and dealing with access to medical services, transitioning and marginalization within mainstream and LGBT culture.

The history, open for review in the archives department at UWM Libraries, includes about 10 hours of audio and more than 200 pages of transcriptions, said department head Michael Doylen.

"I cannot emphasize enough the significance of this project in strengthening the LGBT History Collection," Doylen said of the new addition. "Our goal is to develop a collection that is genuinely inclusive and representative of the diversity of the Milwaukee LGBT community. Transgender people were not previously well documented in the historical record, and this collection helps to address that."

The UWM collection is the largest bank of LGBT primary sources in the state, containing personal papers of history-makers at the national and local level, including Eldon Murray and Miriam Ben-Shalom. The collection also includes the archives of community groups such as Brady East STD Clinic, Cream City Foundation, Gay Peoples Union and the Lesbian Alliance of Metro Milwaukee. Community newspapers, such as Wisconsin Light, InStep, Queer Life and Wisconsin Gazette, are archived in the collection.

UWM associate professor Cary Gabriel Costello, who coordinates the LGBT Studies program, called Smith's interviews a vital addition to the collection: "The individuals interviewed present a picture of the rich and multifaceted history of transgender life in Milwaukee during the past half century."

The project was funded through gifts from Joseph R. Pabst, the Johnson and Pabst LGBT Humanity Fund of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Eldon E. Murray Foundation Fund.

Pabst, a major supporter of the LGBT collection, listened to the interviews several weeks ago, and said he hopes they "promote not only tolerance, but compassion."

"Hearing the powerful voices of these remarkable people at the forefront of the transgender community was astounding and touching," Pabst said. "Their stories reveal the transgender experience with such depth and grace."

On the web

A guide to the Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project collection is at http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/wiarchives.uw-mil-uwmmss0302. Plans are under way to place interview excerpts online.

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