Opening a New Archive

By Parker Marie Molloy, Photos by Rob Carlin

Earlier this year, Assistant Professor of English K.J. Rawson earned the coveted American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Digital Innovation Fellowship. The fellowship is awarded each year to a handful of academics in all disciplines of the humanities and related social sciences as a means for them to advance digital humanistic scholarship. (Projects studied by the seven winning fellows include a digital approach to the study of cultural change in 10th-century China and building geospatial models of movement in the Great Lakes.)

Rawson’s proposal, “Building the Digital Transgender Archive,” aims to develop a database of information on the works, studies and experiences of transgender individuals and the social movement to advance their rights. 

Historically speaking, even physical archives on this topic are hard to come by, and Rawson’s digital undertaking is the first of its kind. By building the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA), Rawson will dramatically improve access to a broad range of documents through the development of a publicly accessible website. 

“Transgender” is a term used to describe an individual who identifies with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. The term is a catchall phrase that has often included individuals who physically, socially and medically transition genders, as well as individuals who simply identify with a gender outside their birth-assigned sex without seeking surgical or hormonal support. The broad nature of the term serves as one of the core reasons the development of an archive along the lines of the DTA does not yet exist.

Rawson, who joined the Holy Cross faculty in 2012, began work on the DTA last summer with the development of the archive’s basic architecture. This semester, though on junior research leave, Rawson is working with Cecilia Wolfe ’15 and Rachel Greenberg ’15 on an independent study to develop materials for the Archive. Also working closely with members of the Holy Cross ITS department, he hopes to have a beta version of the site live by the end of the year. During the 2015-2016 academic year, four student researchers funded by the ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship will assist Rawson in digitizing some of the analog content held in the 10 archives that are collaborating on this project. 

“What’s unique about the DTA is that it won’t be a typical digital archive,” Rawson points out, “but closer to the Digital Public Library of America: a collaborative project with a robust search engine that virtually merges disparate collections of materials.”

Development of the DTA coincides with growing mainstream interest in transgender issues. In May, actress Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be featured on the cover of TIME magazine. The issue, heralding the “transgender tipping point,” has itself become an important piece of transgender history. With the recent surge in transgender media coverage, Rawson’s archive can serve as a point of historical context for those just introduced to the topic. 

“The whole purpose of the Digital Transgender Archive is to increase access to transgender-related history,” Rawson explains. “The DTA is certainly attempting to address issues of exclusion, silencing and revisionist history. It will help put all sorts of people, from seasoned researchers to inquisitive youth, in quick and easy contact with primary historical materials so that they can better understand transgender phenomena.”

Rawson is aware of the challenges ahead. “I am careful not to imagine that the DTA can escape all of the challenges that any archival project faces,” he says. “For example, I am already having to make decisions about what will be included and excluded, what counts as transgender history, and what can be made accessible in digital form. As someone who has spent many years analyzing and thinking critically about archives, I am facing completely new challenges now as someone who is building an archive.”

Other hurdles include the initial challenge of setting up the site’s framework in a way that is both current as well as sustainable. As a particularly data-heavy project, it’s important that the DTA not find itself in need of an aesthetic overhaul within a few years.

In the classroom, Rawson regularly teaches Academic Writing and Rhetoric. “I love teaching those two courses for a number of reasons, but largely because it’s so wonderful to see how students grow and develop as they learn the core communication skills of writing and public speaking,” he says. In the spring, he will also teach Queer Theory, a field of critical theory that examines sexual and gender normativities.

“Since I began sharing my ideas about the DTA at Holy Cross, I have been amazed, time and again, by how much support and enthusiasm I have received for this project,” says Rawson. “The core Jesuit qualities that distinguish Holy Cross also inspire this project; as the mission statement successfully captures, Holy Cross encourages every member of our community to be passionate about truth, promote social justice and foster dialog in order to more deeply understand and respect diverse experiences. The DTA will further these qualities by counteracting negative and hurtful stereotypes of transgender people with more truthful and historically informed representations. 

“The DTA will provide dramatically improved access to transgender history,” Rawson continues, “which is the foundation for seeking truth and social justice for transgender people and communities. I could not imagine a more welcoming environment for the DTA.” Rawson makes the argument that even those who don’t necessarily approve of transgender individuals can find value in the DTA as an academic work.

“A person might object to transgender people for any number of reasons, including religious beliefs, but such objection doesn’t eradicate the existence of transgender people,” Rawson says. “The DTA represents a viable and important scholarly enterprise.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Margaret Freije agrees, saying she is delighted to support Rawson’s work on the DTA.  “The archive will not only begin to document the history of transgender people by identifying and gathering important archival documents, it will also further scholarship in this area by making these materials available to all,” Freije says. “Given our mission as a Jesuit undergraduate college and our commitments to scholarly excellence and engagement with the world, it seems particularly appropriate that this work will allow our undergraduates to pursue original scholarship in digital humanities and will allow them to engage with a community that historically has been marginalized and excluded.”

Rawson reports that alumni response to the proposal of the DTA has been positive. “I haven’t heard a single negative thing,” he says. “In fact, I have been directly approached by a few different alums who have been out of touch with Holy Cross for many years, some for decades, because they had some negative experiences around GLBTQ issues on campus. When they learned of my project, they reached out with excitement and enthusiasm that Holy Cross was supporting this type of work.”  ■

Parker Marie Molloy is an essayist and media advocate from Chicago. She has written extensively on the topic of LGBT issues in society, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Advocate, Slate, Salon and The Daily Beast.