The Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive (LLTA or Louise), founded and managed by professor Ms. Bob Davis, is a fiscally sponsored project of the GLBT Historical Society. Located in Vallejo, California, it is one of the world’s largest repositories of archival materials pertaining to transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the world. In honor of Transgender Awareness Week this November, we interviewed Ms. Bob about Louise’s latest projects and on the significance of transgender history.
What are some of the initiatives that LLTA has been focusing on during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ms. Bob: Back in 2019, I gave a talk at the “Queering Memory” conference in Berlin called “Glamour, Drag and Death: HIV/AIDS in the Art of Three Drag Queen Painters.” It focused on the artists and performers Jerome Caja, Doris Fish and Miss Kitty, all three of whom died between 1991 and 1995, and includes analysis of artworks held by both LLTA and the GLBT Historical Society. I published an article based on the talk in Transgender Studies Quarterly this February, and now I’m working on turning the material into a short documentary film to reach a wider audience. I want people to learn about how these artists confronted AIDS. It was less intellectual; they responded in a visceral, emotional way, in a very valiant fight to retain their identities in the face of this horrible crisis. It’s now thirty years since the height of the AIDS pandemic, and there’s a whole generation of LGBTQ people who simply don’t have that lived experience. It’s important to pass on this history so they can learn about what the community went through.
What can you tell us about your ongoing online “scrapbook” project on the LLTA website?
Ms. Bob: It’s an online project called “I Think This is Our Denise: Discovering Forgotten Scrapbooks of Trans History,” and it’s based on a remarkable collection of six large scrapbooks donated by Taryn Gundling in 2014. They belonged to a trans woman named Denise, and contain over a dozen pages of candid photographs of transgender people and cross-dressers from the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time when the transgender community was just beginning to define itself and establish networks. It took four years of research to learn more about Denise and the people in the photographs. I recognized some of them in other LLTA archival collections; in issues of the first national transgender community magazine, Transvestia, which began publishing in 1960; and in photographs held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, many of which were published in the book Casa Susanna. These photos depict transgender people vacationing at several Catskill mountain resorts, one of them named Casa Susanna, run by Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie. These establishments served as safe spaces for transgender women to vacation in their gender of choice in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now we’re using the scrapbooks to do a deep dive into transgender history. LLTA is partnering with the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Transgender Archive at University of Victoria; the website “A Gender Variance Who’s Who”; and the Digital Transgender Archive to create an online hub that connects the resources of all five organizations to present photographs, biographies, and autobiographical articles about the individuals in the scrapbook. For example, many of the people in the snapshots wrote autobiographical articles in early issues of Transvestia, so the site connects you to essays they wrote about their lives. This project will allow them to really live again, and the site is being beautifully put together by our webmaster Robyn Adams.
You’ve been curating LLTA for many years now. What’s something you want people to learn about transgender history?
Ms. Bob: One of the things I’m personally interested in conveying relates to the growing awareness of trans, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer identities that we see today. When you examine historical materials, you realize that these shades of gender and gender identity have always been with us; they aren’t just emerging or being “invented” now. Trans people in the early 1960s, when the community first began to organize, were working with different terms, often borrowed from the medical establishment and out of date now. They certainly didn’t have the vocabulary that is available today. But if you dig down, the documentation reveals that people were defining, exploring, and working out their identities in complex ways. Understanding this supports us in continuing the work of building our community in the present so that we can display more of our rainbow.
Ms. Bob Davis (she/her/hers) is the founder and director of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive. In the 1990s she served two terms on the GLBT Historical Society Board of Directors.