Researching Trans History from the ‘Outside’: The importance of community engagement

The following post is by Rebecca Brookes, a graduate of the University of Manchester’s History MA program and the 2017 recipient of the University Distinguished Achievement Award. Here, Brookes reflects on some of the methodological challenges and rewards of creating inclusive histories of Trans communities in the NorthWest.


When I started the MA History programme in September 2016, I had already decided that my dissertation would focus on trans history… 

Inspired by a close friend who had begun their transition a few years earlier, I had tried to find trans histories as a source of support and encouragement for them. While I found many memoirs and autobiographies, and plenty of post-structuralist discourses on gender, I found only one example of the kind of politically-charged social history I was looking for: Susan Stryker’s 2008 Transgender History: a comprehensive account of trans activism in the USA, from the anti-crossdressing laws of the nineteenth century to the LGBT movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s.[1] With this work, Stryker – an out trans woman and academic historian – aimed to restore the contribution of trans activists to the wider narrative of lesbian and gay liberation in the USA. A similar account of UK trans activism would, I believed, be of enormous political, social and historical value. The question was, could I (and, more importantly, should I) be the person to attempt it?

Although I consider myself to fall under the LGBT umbrella, I do not personally identify as trans. I therefore spent a lot of time grappling with the ethical issues involved in doing research as an ‘outsider’ to a community. From the beginning, I considered how my project could benefit and be meaningful to trans communities, rather than simply focus on the academic justification for the research. For me, this meant that, as far as possible, I would endeavour to centre trans people’s voices and experiences in the narrative to challenge the ‘erasure’ of trans people as historical subjects and actors. Faced with a lack of traditional archival sources, I developed a research methodology that used oral history testimony and autobiographical texts as my primary sources, as this approach harmonised wonderfully with my political aims for the project. However, while the books were relatively easy to find in online bookshops, I had to put in a bit more work to find willing interviewees!

In February 2017, at the beginning of my project planning stage, the Manchester LBGT Foundation, to coincide with LGBT History Month UK, rather fortuitously dedicated their monthly #TransMCR event to local trans history. There, I was lucky enough to meet two veterans of trans activism: Jenny Anne Bishop OBE, who gave a lively account of trans social communities since the 1960s; and Christine Burns MBE, promoting her forthcoming book Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows – ironically, the exact kind of social history I had previously been looking for and had been unable to find! By speaking to attendees, I was also given the name of Dr Carol Steele, founder of the first trans support group in the UK, who I later contacted by email. The interviews I subsequently carried out with these three women were incredibly influential in formulating the structure of my dissertation, and I am immensely grateful for their participation. By cross-referencing each interview with printed autobiographies and other oral histories available online, several key themes emerged to form the boundaries of my research: the importance of trans social groups and networks; negative representations of trans people in the British media, the impact of key cases in the European Court of Human Rights, and the founding of trans lobbying group Press for Change.

My dissertation ultimately charted the 20 year-period between April Ashley’s landmark divorce case Corbett v Corbett in 1970, and ending with the formation of Press for Change in 1992, to investigate why no coherent national movement for trans rights emerged in England prior to the 1990s. My research found that it was not possible for a trans social movement to develop in the 1970s and 1980s for several reasons: the small size and geographical isolation of trans groups and organisations; the marginalisation and/or hostility towards trans issues by more effective social movements such as gay liberation and feminism; the overwhelmingly negative representations of trans people in the British media; and the privileging of the views and opinions of medical professionals over trans people themselves. This isolation and insularity, owing to hostility from society at large, also means that trans groups and communities are at present largely absent from traditional archives, although the situation is changing (for example, the Hall-Carpenter Archive at the London School of Economics now holds collections of material from the Beaumont Society and Press for Change, while the National Archives have published guidance on researching trans histories.) Welcome as increased visibility in archives is, however, for my project I held that it was simply not possible to do the subject justice without a commitment to engaging with trans people, as a wealth of source material can currently only come from within trans communities themselves.

Trans Civil Rights Press for Change
Photograph courtesy of the private collection of Stephen Whittle.

It is now February 2018, 10 years after the publication of Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, and I am now happy to see that the UK finally has its own published social history of trans activism, in Christine Burn’s Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows. An edited collection of articles by 22 contributors from within trans communities, Trans Britain highlights many of the same themes and topics that shaped my dissertation. However, most importantly, both the book and my dissertation prove that trans people and communities have a long and valuable history. As Christine herself writes in the book’s introduction: ‘The roots of trans people’s journey into public consciousness were sown long ago. They reach deep and they have been growing for decades.’[2] It would be wonderful if more historians took an interest in exploring those roots further.

[1] Susan Stryker, Transgender History (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008).

[2] Christine Burns (ed.) Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows (London: Unbound, 2018), p. 7.

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