Editor’s note: Some sources in this story are referenced using the gender-neutral pronouns “they” because they do not identify with masculine or feminine pronouns.
Through sharing stories and personal accounts, hundreds of people will engage in a new project that aims to spread awareness about the transgender community.
The Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota Library recently received a multi-year grant from the Tawani Foundation that will allow the collection to gather and share transgender experiences to preserve the group’s history in the Midwest.
“There isn’t a lot of documented history or personal experience available for people who want to understand how transgender people have lived their lives in the transgender community,” said the collection’s curator, Lisa Vecoli.
During the next three years, the Tretter Collection will gather the oral histories of 200 to 300 transgender individuals throughout the Midwest.
Vecoli said the project aims to include the history of transgender individuals from the 1960s to today, with about 400 hours of oral stories.
The Tretter Collection currently contains more than 100,000 items of LGBT history, from a 4,000-year-old statuette to current editions of GLBTA periodicals.
But Vecoli said the collection doesn’t hold a lot of historical materials on the transgender community. And in the past few years, there has increasingly been more interest in the community, she said.
“We have material for gay men, less material for gay women, less material for gays of color, and even less for transgender individuals,” Vecoli said.
Director of the University’s GLBTA Programs Stef Wilencheck said discrimination that transgender individuals sometimes face is partly why their stories and lives aren’t very visible throughout history.
“Their voices have been lost and not highlighted, and therefore haven’t been documented,” they said.
Because the Tretter Collection doesn’t have access to many printed records of transgender individuals, individuals behind the project decided to use a different approach to presenting the new material — oral histories.
In collaboration with the University’s Program in Human Sexuality, Vecoli said the Tretter Collection will be hiring a team responsible for identifying and reaching out to transgender individuals interested in sharing their experiences.
She said the group will hand out fliers at events that are targeted for transgender audiences, work with transgender organizations and contact people in the community who have showed interest in the project.
Once the team is hired, it will develop questions that will best aid people in understanding the transgender experience and also reflect on what transgender individuals are willing to share.
Transgender people may not always feel safe or comfortable sharing their stories because of discrimination they may have faced, Wilencheck said.
“It can be difficult and unsafe to share your story, and there needs to be a sense of trust,” they said. “But there are people who are willing and excited to share their story.”
While the group doesn’t expect to begin obtaining oral histories until 2015, Vecoli said there has already been an enthusiastic response from people in the community.
Creating a transgender-specific collection is important, Wilencheck said, because the public can learn a lot about the group from hearing firsthand about their experiences.
“When you don’t have primary source material and people telling their own story, the people who are writing history interpret it through the lens of other people’s viewpoints, and they fill in gaps,” Vecoli said. “What we want is for people to tell their own stories.”