From the Philadelphia Gay News

June 18, 2015

By G Ragovin

As the media and public start to pay more attention to trans celebrities, it’s important to honor, remember and document the lives of transgender and gender-nonconforming people from the past — most especially the activists who created the foundation for current trans visibility and legislative gains.

With this goal in mind, members of the Philadelphia transgender community are collectively curating “Defiant Archives: Trans Histories of Existence, Resistance and Brilliance,” an exhibit on trans history and activism in Philadelphia. Opening July 24 at William Way LGBT Community Center, “Defiant Archives” will showcase materials from the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, the Trans Oral History Project and the private collections of the trans community. It is dedicated to the memory of longtime activist Charlene Arcila-Ecks.

On April 16 and 20, two collective curation workshops took place at William Way. Participants examined material from the Wilcox Archives, discussed what items to include in the exhibit and also brought up what aspects of trans history are missing from the archives, and how to represent them in the exhibit. Everything from the content to the design of the exhibit is being created by trans and gender-nonconforming volunteers.

Part of the 50th anniversary of the Annual Reminder Days, “Defiant Archives” focuses on the history of trans communities in Philadelphia and their resistance to violence and oppression. The first Reminder Day took place July 4, 1965, and is widely considered to be one of the first acts of public protest by the then-young homophile movement and a major milestone in the ongoing fight for lesbian and gay rights.

However, the Annual Reminder protests, which were held from 1965-69, demanded gender conformity from participants, who were expected to dress “respectably.” Holding hands by same-sex couples was controversial and discouraged by the leadership. The homophile movement did not see gender-nonconforming people as part of their community or an important part of the struggle for civil rights, despite their presence in the bar scene and their triumphant sit-in at Dewey’s just a few months before the first Reminder Day protest.

Nevertheless, before, during and after the Annual Reminder protests, transgender and gender-nonconforming activists have mobilized for sexual and gender self-determination. “Defiant Archives” hopes to reflect that history of activism and culture-making in Philadelphia, focusing on how trans people have talked to each other, rather than how the state, the medical establishment and the mainstream news have talked about trans people.

One goal of “Defiant Archives” is to increase intergenerational connections among trans and gender-nonconforming people in Philadelphia. Aging can be isolating, and being trans can be isolating, so it’s vital for trans folks of all ages to reach across intergenerational lines to provide each other support. This also means that community and movement history is not lost and the legacy of trans elders is not forgotten.

Archivists at the Wilcox Archives want to increase content relating to the history of trans Philadelphia and hope that sharing what is already in the archives with the wider trans community will encourage people to donate material from their own personal collections. The curation process is also an exploratory learning effort, highlighting important people, events and places that are not reflected in the archives and written history. This will also be an opportunity for the Trans Oral History Project to connect with potential interviewees.

Trans and gender-nonconforming people in the Philadelphia area who are interested in contributing items to the exhibit (photographs, documents, publications, clothing and other objects — anything that is an important part of your history!) can email defiantarchives@gmail.com.

“Defiant Archives” is co-sponsored by the LGBT Elder Initiative, which fosters and advocates for services, resources and institutions that are competent, culturally sensitive, inclusive and responsive to the needs of LGBT elders in the Delaware Valley. To comment on this article, suggest topics for future articles or for more information, visit www.lgbtei.org, call the LGBTEI at 215-550-1460 and watch for “Gettin’ On” each month in PGN.

G Ragovin is a writer and radical archivist who lives in Philadelphia. They are working on an independent oral history project about the history of queer collective living in Philadelphia, and have written a zine, “Very Bad Nihilist,” about queerness and nihilism.