Queering Trans* History: Photography and the “Family Album,” 1970–90

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:50 AM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Elspeth H. Brown, Centre for the Study of the U.S.
This paper explores photography’s affective dimensions in transgender history. In particular, I interrogate trans* snapshot practice as a technology of connection, community, and intimacy in the context of 1970s-1980s trans* activism. This paper explores two types of photographic representation: the photographs of fellow trans* activists, friends, and lovers, collected and assembled into a trans* family album, and this album’s shadow archive: the surgeons’ and sexologists’ photographs of trans* patients, a visual discourse deeply indebted to colonial photography.  

The archival base for this paper is the papers and photographs of the trans* activist Rupert Raj. Raj is a pioneering, Toronto-based activist of South Asian and Polish descent who founded several of the earliest and most extensive trans* peer-support groups, advocacy organizations, and periodicals in North America, including the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals (FACT, 1978-1980); the Metamorphosis Medical Research Foundation (MMRA, 1981-1988); Gender Review: the FACTual Journal (1979-1982); and Metamorphosis (1982-1988), among others.

As a result of his activism, Raj corresponded with trans men and women from all over the world, who sent Raj their photographs; Raj assembled them images into a trans “family album.” Snapshots are instrumental images in their ability to activate and circulate viewer affect. Scholars have written about this ideological work mostly in negative terms: the family snapshot’s role in producing heternormative conformity (Simon Watney, for example) or white racial innocence (Wexler). But the snapshot’s instrumentality can also work as a site of what Jill Dolan calls the ‘utopian performative’: producing the affective connections central to queer and trans counter-publics so necessary for living. In making this argument about vernacular photographs, I am motivated by recent work in family photography (Campt) and snapshots (Zuromskis) that sees photographs’ haptic dimensions as alternatives sites of self-making.