Transgender knowledge and archival practice

· September 14, 2020

I recently read an article by T.L. Cowan and Jasmine Rault entitled “Onlining queer acts: Digital research ethics and caring for risky archives”. In this article, Cowan and Rault discuss the ethics of digitising material relating to queer arts communities and making it available online and the need to incorporate transgender epistemologies into research ethics. I found myself feeling enraged reading the article, not because I fundamentally disagree with anything Cowan and Rault are saying, but because it only gets taken seriously when it gets written up and published in an academic journal. I feel like I’ve known the things that Cowan and Rault are saying for a long time and use that knowledge to inform my professional practice. But I know those things in the wrong way, which means I can’t express them publicly, or if I do try to express them I do so in the wrong way and am punished for it.

I was already angry at academic ways of knowing. When I was a young adult, burying myself in academic study was a way for me to dissociate from my body. Intellectual pursuits are subtly male-coded in the Anglo world, so by focussing on my academic studies I was not only escaping into my head, but also into a heteropatriarchal realm of ideas. This dissociation, while it wasn’t the worst possible coping mechanism, also wasn’t healthy for me. Academic ways of knowing didn’t give me the tools to deal with being embodied or with my emotions. When I dropped out of academia to deal with my gender, I realised that my time in formal education had left me without any of the skills I needed to live as a real human being. This included all the skills I use now in my professional life, including ethical and emotional skills.

Since then, I have amassed plenty of lived experiences as a man with a transgender history, as a records subject, as a member of online communities, and as a research participant. I’ve spent a long time thinking through many of the same kinds of ethical questions and issues that Cowan and Rault discuss, from the position of having a visceral emotional investment in the privacy and security of the records and data involved. The risks for the data subjects in Cowan and Rault’s archive are risks that I live with in my personal and professional lives every day. My lived experiences, and the understandings I have of data, privacy, and research ethics as a result, have shaped my professional practice in a way that academic study never did and never could. But that’s not something I feel able to share and have acknowledged openly, precisely because of the privacy risks involved.

In her article “Dusting for fingerprints: Introducing feminist standpoint appraisal”, Michelle Caswell has argued for the importance of the archival profession explicitly making space for and valuing the embodied lived experiences of all archivists, as well as recognising that the supposedly objective archival stance is in fact a specific, situated position. Despite Caswell having opened the conversation, my lived experiences do not yet feel valued by the archival education system. Since I started studying for the Masters of Information Studies (MIS), I’ve submitted three assignments that draw on my lived experiences of gender and sexuality. With each one, I’ve been rewarded with a mark that is a grade below the marks I’ve received for all other assignments I’ve submitted. By contrast, the one assignment I really didn’t care about and was completely emotionally disengaged from got me a mark that was a grade above all other marks I’ve otherwise received. My grades are inversely proportional to the amount of personal investment I have in the assignment. What is this teaching me? That to succeed as an information professional, I need to be emotionally detached, impersonal, and disinterested. It’s teaching me that I should not bring my full self to my work and that if I do, I’ll be punished for it. The academic standards by which the course is run promote a specific set of heteropatriarchal epistemological values, and those values do not make space for me to be my full embodied self, bringing the full range of my lived experiences to my professional life.

I feel that my lived experiences do make me a better information professional. I have no way to demonstrate this, because bringing my experiences to my studies goes against academic epistemological principles and results in poorer grades. I can’t directly share my experiences in a professional context, because it would violate my privacy to do so. I have numerous ideas about issues and challenges in archiving and recordkeeping that need to be addressed to meet the information and recordkeeping needs of people of trans experience, but the only way I can think of to have these be taken seriously is to do research and publish on them. This is something I’m not prepared to do, because my time in the academic world has been so detrimental to my health and well-being as a person of trans experience. I’m not quite sure where this leaves me. I don’t see any way forward whereby I can gain recognition for my knowledge and experience or push for the kind of changes that I think need to happen in the field without engaging with ways of knowing that are harmful to me or violate my privacy. So I feel kind of stuck and frustrated.