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UVic now has the largest transgender archive in the world

Oct 31 2012
Lara Wlison, Archivist, holds a Transvestia publication at the University of Victoria library in Victoria, B.C. October  30, 2012. UVic now has the largest archives on transgendered people in the world. 

Lara Wlison, Archivist, holds a Transvestia publication at the University of Victoria library in Victoria, B.C. October 30, 2012. UVic now has the largest archives on transgendered people in the world.

Photograph by: Lyle Stafford , Times Colonist

Back in 1960, men keen to dress like the women of Mad Men didn't have the Internet to curate their interests, secrets and problems. One of their only outlets was an underground magazine called Transvestia - no larger than the palm of their hands, with similarly tiny typeface.

The 57-page first issue, with a cover sketch depicting a man in boudoir attire, is now among the rarest items at the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria - believed to be the world's largest collection concerning people who live outside conventional male-female roles.

Transvestia was published by Virginia Prince, the late transgender activist famous for saying that "sex is between your legs and gender is between your ears," said archivist Lara Wilson.

UVic owns a full run of the magazine - every issue from 1960 through 1986 - as part of a collection of thousands of items.

"Transgender means you believe that you are other than the sex organs you were assigned at birth," Wilson said. Some people opt to have reassignment surgery, while others live and dress as the gender they feel suits them.

UVic's impressive inventory of papers, plaques, photographs, newsletters, certificates, posters and tapes was the gift of Rikki Swin, a one-time Chicago manufacturer of plastic injection moulding who moved to Victoria in 2007.

She founded the Rikki Swin Institute for transgender research and education in 2001 and offered the institute's contents to UVic. With that came the archives of other leading activists such as Ari Kane and Merissa Sherril Lynn.

"We're pretty sure that we have the largest transgender collection of archival and published material in the world," Wilson said.

There are plenty of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans, or LGBT, collections in North America, but few that feature only trans. "So we're putting the T in LGBT."

Other rare items include brightly coloured 1970s booklets by Reed Erickson - who transitioned from woman to man and sought to explain everything from transsexuals and religion to counselling and family dynamics - and a copy of the Zenith Foundation's 106-page manual, Transsexuals and their Caregivers.

Along with 600 books that deal with gender identity in the UVic library, the archives now boast an "incomparable collection of newsletters and publications from both large and small transgender organizations" that stretches to more than 1,000 individual titles.

The collection is still growing, Wilson said, adding that she hopes to hear from people who have items related to transgender activism and the betterment of transgender people.

"Now that there's a website, we're getting offers from all over North America," she said.

At the moment, male-to-female material predominates, making up about 60 per cent of the archives.

About 25 per cent of the collection has been catalogued and is available to the public but only one per cent has undergone the expensive process of digitalization - but the goal is to increase that significantly.

On Nov. 21, there will be a screening of the documentary Trans to commemorate the Transgender Day of Remembrance and celebrate the archives. Regular ticket prices at Cinecenta will apply, with donations taken for the archives. A Q&A will follow the film. kdedyna@timescolonist.com

> For more information on the archives at the University of Victoria, go to transgenderarchives.uvic.ca.

Archivist Laura Wilson can be reached at ljwilson@uvic.ca.

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