Trans archive would be a first for Bay Area

  • by Sari Staver
  • Wednesday February 22, 2017
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A fundraising campaign to preserve an extensive archive of transgender history has been launched by a Bay Area activist who has collected hundreds of publications and thousands of photographs from around the world, some over 100 years old.

In January, Ms. Bob Davis launched an campaign, hoping to raise $25,000 to enable her to sort and preserve the collection, now in storage in 70 cartons.

At press time, $1,999 has been raised, most of it during the first week of the campaign. Davis said there are a number of "competing" transgender-related fundraising efforts on now and hopes to supplement individual donations with grants.

Davis, 69, a transgender woman, said in an interview that the goal of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive, or LLTA, is to "increase the understanding of transgender people and encourage new scholarship by making historical materials available to students, scholars, and the public."

The archive, which will be housed in Vallejo, is named in honor of northern California transgender pioneer Louise Lawrence, who began living full-time as a woman in 1942, first in Berkeley, and then San Francisco. She, along with Virginia Prince and others, published the first incarnation of Transvestia in 1952. Lawrence's address book was the initial subscription list and she was instrumental in developing the trans community's connection to pioneering sex researchers such as Alfred Kinsey and Harry Benjamin, according to Davis.

Davis, who has been an instructor in the music department at City College of San Francisco since 1976, said that the history of marginalized communities is "elusive, imperiled, and best preserved by the community itself."

Davis has also served two terms on the board of directors of the GLBT Historical Society, one as secretary. The society is serving as the archive's fiscal sponsor.

"It's been a joy working with Ms. Bob on this project," Terry Beswick, historical society executive director, wrote in an email. "She has been involved with the GLBT Historical Society for many years, so it was a natural fit for us. Of course, we are always interested in collecting transgender materials in our own archives, but I really wanted to support this project because it will be transgender-specific space, organized and operated. And we'll obviously be making referrals and collaborating back and forth."

Beswick pointed to the dearth of trans archives.

"There are a few other transgender-specific archives, in Houston and Victoria [British Columbia], and each has unique collections and a regional focus," Beswick added. "I think it will be great to have a transgender-specific archives available to researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area."

Aaron Devor, Ph.D., chair in transgender studies and founder and academic director of the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in Canada, told the Bay Area Reporter in an email following publication of the story that in fact, the Victoria archives, at 320 linear feet, are the largest in the world.

"Furthermore, our collections come from 18 countries on five continents," Devor clarified.

Beswick also said that the LLTA will serve a vital role in preserving trans history.

"I think there is such power in that history, in the telling of the individual stories, the personal journeys of self-discovery, coming out, and the courageous claiming of sexual and gender identity," he wrote. "The power is in the specificity of the story, and yet there are lessons to be learned that transcend the specific identity of the story's subject."

Other archivists chimed in their support of the project on the fundraising website.

Devor called Davis' collection "a treasure trove."

"The collections are both varied and deep. The materials are meticulously cared for, and most carefully organized. Anyone who uses the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive will be pleasantly and continuously delighted. Even more so if you have the opportunity to benefit from Ms. Bob's vast knowledge of the field," wrote Devor.

Dallas Denny, founder of the National Transgender Library and Archive, housed in the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said, "The depth and breadth of the material is astonishing, ranging from autographed books to support group newsletters to slick magazines to rare publicity shots from the turn of the century onward. Even better, she has become an expert at deciphering and finding meaning in early material. She and her library are treasures and must be protected at all costs."



Of the thousands of items in her collection, Davis said she has two favorites �" a 100-year-old "tiny little photograph" of a man dressed in women's Victorian clothing where someone apparently took a pin and scratched off some of the photo to make the man's waistline look more feminine. Davis bought the photo at the Treasure Island Flea Market for $2, she said. The man who sold it to Davis didn't realize it was a photograph of a man, and said he tried to scare his daughter by telling her the picture was of her grandmother.

Davis' other favorite is a 1920s-era photograph, probably shot with a simple camera like a Brownie, of two women, one in drag in a man's suit, with her finger under the other woman's chin, staring into her eyes.

"It's such a hot picture," Davis said.

Davis said that she's been collecting one thing or another since her childhood in Philadelphia.

In fourth grade, Davis took an interest in turtles and had seven at one time. She also collected newspaper clippings about comedians, stamps, seashells, Mad magazines, and Davy Crockett ephemera, including a coonskin cap.

As an adult, Davis collected music books and, in particular, written material and photographs from the "Three Penny Opera."

Raising money for historical projects is a challenge, Davis conceded. Historical archives are "important to a small group of people," and often don't have the same appeal as direct service projects, she noted.

"For over 35 years I have been fascinated by the history of my trans community, the people who formed it and those who preceded it," Davis said. "The first transgender magazine I bought was the premiere issue of Female Mimics International in 1979. By the early 1990s I had accumulated a rich trove of transgender history, information that many in the community wanted to see."

Davis said she shared her information by writing history columns for trans community publications such as Lady Like and Transgender Community News. Many of the articles can be found at the Transgender Forum archive,

"I have presented lectures on trans history at conferences such as the second International Congress on Crossdressing, Sex and Gender, California Dreamin', and Fantasia Fair (2014)," Davis said. "By 2000, scholars of transgender history had begun requesting access to my archive because of its depth and the rarity of its holdings."

She said the next logical step was creating LLTA, "a community-based institution that will make this important collection available to scholars and the public."


To donate, visit Perks for donations begin at the $15 level, which yields an LLTA sticker, with additional gifts for larger donations. All donations are tax deductible.