5 Questions About: the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project


We’ve asked authors of non-print and media projects reviewed in the pages of Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should explore them. In our next installment of this series, Myrl Beam discusses the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project 

Read Liam Oliver Lair’s review of the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project which is currently available online. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

The Tretter Transgender Oral History Project (TTOHP) is committed to collecting, preserving, and making available oral histories of gender transgression, broadly understood through a trans framework.

The first phase of the TTOHP (2015-2018) was led by Andrea Jenkins—who went on to become the first Black transgender woman serving in elected office in the U.S.,—and focused on documenting the life stories and experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people, with a focus on the upper Midwest as well as those who are often excluded from the historical record, specifically trans people of color, undocumented trans people, trans elders, as well as others.

The second phase of the TTOHP (2019-2021) focuses on trans politics, activist movements, and strategy debates. Trans movements for justice demand a fundamental transformation of our society, which compels adherence to racialized gender norms and punishes those who transgress those norms. Trans movements have challenged those norms and the institutions that uphold and enforce them. In addition, trans movements have offered us new language and frameworks for thinking about gender, justice, embodiment, public space, policing, healthcare, solidarity, and queerness. Documenting the debates, organizations, and organizers that constitute this important and transformative force for social change is the goal of the second phase of the TTOHP.

A note about language: The term transgender is bounded in both space and time. It didn’t come into popular usage until the 1990s, and it is culturally specific. So, taking a cue from the Digital Transgender Archive, we approach transgender as a practice of gender transgression, rather than solely as an identity category. We also prioritize documenting gender transgression as it intersects with race, age, sexuality, citizenship, class, and ability.

How does oral history contribute to your project?

Oral history is a critical component of documenting gender transgression, as the written record is dominated by powerful institutions and their efforts to produce gender norms and police those who transgress those norms. All too often gender non-conformity is pathologized or criminalized, and so the archive of transgender history is dominated by gender non-conforming people’s interactions with those powerful institutions: the records of clinics, medical providers, psychiatric institutions, courts, prisons, police, and others. These records don’t begin to capture the complexity of trans lives or histories. The TTOHP believes that trans and gender non-conforming people, communities, and organizations are the best narrators of their own experience and histories, and that oral histories offer a critical resource for communities, students, and researchers attempting to understand gender regulation, policing, transformation, and struggle. Trans stories offer an important window onto the punishing norms that regulate gender possibility as well as the resilience, vision, power, and work of those who transgress those norms.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Because the written archive of transgender history is so dominated by the interconnected systems of pathologization and criminalization, the dominant trans narrative tends to be one of having been “trapped in the wrong body.” In this way, much of the written archive polices gender non-normativity and flattens gender expansiveness. Oral history, though, offers diverse and varied narratives of gender transgression, many of which, in fact, shed light on the pressure to conform to that dominant narrative. Oral histories also reflect aspects of trans life that are elided by written archives and helps us think differently about gender, as well as the systems and institutions that produce, police, and use gender in order to consolidate their power.

Oral history, at its best, is a window onto complexity, ambivalence, conflict, sadness, connection, joy, resilience, and work, each of which the written record often either bypasses completely or glosses over. This complexity is the value of trans oral history as well: it renders full, complex, and richly layered lives in an archive that is otherwise flat, rigid, and oftentimes dehumanizing.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in the project?

The TTOHP offers a treasure trove of primary source material that reflects the enormous diversity of trans experience. Videos recorded during the project’s first phase offer life stories of hundreds of trans and gender non-conforming people, and are richly varied in terms of age, class, sexuality, race, and gender identity. The interviews immediately dispel the notion of one unified trans narrative or experience, or even such a thing as a monolithic “trans community.” Narrators speak to the differing impacts of policing, gentrification, and employment discrimination on trans and gender non-conforming people across race, age, and class, and reflects the incredibly varied relationships trans and gender non-conforming people have with gender-affirming medical care. The project’s second phase will offer a “state of the movement” of trans struggles for justice, self-determination, and social change in a moment when trans people are under renewed attack.

Alongside the oral histories themselves, the TTOHP is also deeply invested in conversations about the complex ethical questions inherent in a project like this. What is “trans” about trans oral history? How can oral history practice be generative rather than extractive? In other words, how can oral history be used to build up community power and resilience rather than extract expertise and life history? We look to the many strategies developed by other engaged practitioners to navigate these questions as we work to build a resource that is meaningful for multiple constituencies. We envision the future of the project as creating space for conversation, cross pollination, and community engagement, and we would be eager to connect with other folks navigating similar questions.

What is the one thing that you most want the audience to remember about the project?

We find ourselves at an odd moment in transgender history: simultaneously experiencing unprecedented mainstream recognition—the “trans tipping point,” as Time magazine recently proclaimed—while also struggling with new kinds of legal peril and ongoing violence. This moment reveals to us that mainstream recognition can and does co-exist with backlash and violence, and that the safety of that recognition is often only available to transgender people with the most resources and privilege: white people, people with wealth, people who “pass” as gender normative, trans masculine people, and US citizens. These oral histories illustrate how trans people have long navigated this peril, have built strong and resilient communities, and fight to make safety and self-determination available to everyone.