THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Social Science blog

09 October 2019

The 2019 Annual Equality Lecture: Jack Halberstam

We are delighted that Jack Halberstam, Professor of Gender Studies and English at Columbia University, will deliver the Ninth Annual Equality Lecture in collaboration with the British Library and the British Sociological Association. This will take place on Friday 1 November 2019, 19.00-20.30, in the British Library Knowledge Centre Auditorium.

Professor Halberstam will provide a very timely consideration of the history of Trans* communities, and examine their association with political goals and a quest for recognition. They will also offer up new and different aesthetic avenues to Trans* lives and images, and be signing copies of their latest book Trans*: a Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (2018).

In this book, Halberstam explains the inclusion of the asterisk at the end of the word ‘Trans’ as moving the idea of transition resulting in a final form, an ultimate destination and beyond established configuration of desire and identity. The asterisk, they argue, stops any sense of knowing the meaning of any given gender varying form, and gives Trans* people authorship and authority of their own categories.

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Jack Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (2018). British Library YC.2018.a.15460

This idea of ambiguity or flexibility in categories does not sit easily within a library and museum context, where material is defined, catalogued and archived for posterity.

Yet, libraries, and the worlds of words they contain, have long been a refuge for people excluded from the normative and major narratives of history and nationhood. Minorities of all types often seek evidence of themselves in the past, buried in the traces left behind. The validation of finding someone like you living and surviving in a different time, who may be long dead, can be transformative.

The exploration of the past for a minority history can be painstaking in terms of time, labour and emotional investment. However, these research journeys and the stories they uncover can have profound implications for the majority, the archive project, and the subscribed historical norms.Libraries do not just keep our stories safe; they are where new stories begin. 

Technology offers new opportunities for communities to find themselves in archival records. The British Library and its partners have digitised over 20 million individual pages of printed news media, and the use of optical character recognition (OCR) enables searches hitherto impossible in the past.

In 2018, the British Library invited Trans activists E-J Scott (Curator of the Museum of Transology), Dr Jay Stewart (Chief Executive of Gendered Intelligence), and Annie Brown (activist, artist and GI youth worker) to consider two articles found in the British Library digital newspaper collections: ‘The woman in man’s attire’ (Tamworth Herald, 1901) and ‘An extraordinary investigation’ (Sussex Advertiser, 1833)

 

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‘The woman in man’s attire: a remarkable marriage story’, Tamworth Herald (1901)

When gender varying individuals approach the binary space of archived and not archived, the past and the present collide and the researcher is subject not only to the temporal nature of our present language around gender, but also the historic lack. In this conversation between Annie Brown, E-J Scott and Dr Jay Stewart, we get a glimpse into the impact that the historical record can have for communities still fighting for representation and inclusion.

Steven Dryden (Sound and Vision Reference Specialist and co-curator of Gay UK: Love, Law, Liberty and LGBTQ Histories)