Notes on Research (Part One): Thoughts on Trans Narratives and Discontinuity

When I first arrived at the Trans Archives at the University of British Columbia at Victoria, I had hardly figured what was relevant; I was only four years into my doctoral program at the time. I was eager for so many reasons. There was, of course, the standpoint of research. I needed data for my dissertation. I needed the stories of, by, and about trans communities in North America. Whether they were confined to second half of the 20th century or were fragmented medical narratives of its first, I was dedicated to my research. I sought a politics of ordinary transness from the vantage of their inner-worldly perspective. What that looked like, well I had yet to determine that. I took my sense of method from queer feminism and felt that, as someone finally learning to become a genderqueer self, I would saturate those few weeks with as many stories as I could locate. Rather than winnow down the documentary trail, rather than seeking within a text that one “critical object” signifying my idea of ordinaries, my idea of politics, I would surround myself with a plenitude. Documents can vary by way of source, print type, and I couldn’t risk losing a radically ordinary trace of life because of an overbearing sense of economizing time. Was the role of the archival researcher not unlike that of entering the allegorical cave whose denizens awaited not so much the epistemic clarity or salvation I could (not) bring—but my ethical relation to them as an encounter with my otherness? These documents were the traces left by forms of life, voices like so many piles of old news ready to be forgotten, unredeemed dreams of gender affirmation or transsexual satire. This was the political task of un-forgetting at the site where memorials of transness were no different than a diary, a notebook, a scrap of paper etched with the ink of someone I had never met—but whose words were consonant with my own gendered sensibility.

The text is an encounter that blurs the form/content distinction into its rightful place as fiction. So a poem becomes an expression of, say, the structure that ordinary fantasy gives to desire. But this is no less true as a poem being the ordinary writing habit of a given person. I found a few poems. One of a trans woman who took that moment of her day, week, month—for that matter how many times did she edit it before it felt complete—time to inscribe a single page with words that expressed her habits, exchanges, relational misgivings. The agon of the archive is not my desire. It is the tension beneath the texts that came to me in boxes of folders in what seemed like endless supplies. Can a life be so meticulously transcoded into documents and texts, words and things, so that our organic bodies are, like a telos, text-bound? I read through the obituary of a man whose medical career was spent serving the trans community. Someone had inscribed “gender disorder narrative” on a piece of paper and clipped it as an addendum. Dr. John Money was both famous and infamous. Was this note an indictment at the scene where time met event, making history readable in that moment, for me, as an exchange between activist Ari Kane and this man’s life’s work? Was she waiting to use this obituary for some future exchange between a colleague, or at another Fantasia Fair she co-organized each year? These speculations bring anxiety to the political researcher. If answers are not immediately forthcoming then the questions must be unimportant. But I think this anxiety misses a point. These writers—most of whom are not remembered by history because they did not “make” History—are ordinary. And their speculations were ordinary, too. They were within History. Their voices made small but relatable; some were recondite statements; some were re-descriptions of gender. They speculated on the importance of their own lives into the world to which I was ethically bound as my own otherness. To speculate is an adoption of the Latin term specula, meaning “lookout post.” Was it wrong, then, for me to speculate in this archival lookout post of sorts—one node among the few (but growing) that exist in which trans narratives, memories, feelings, affects, and artifacts were stored? I could see that the ordinary had become a kind of tactical survey on my part. And that narratives of the ordinary kind were not productions of linear time, or demonstrative of a time and place. They were also fragments, discontinuities of trans life.