In an amazingly short period of time, the issue of transgender rights moved from relative obscurity into the mainstream political spotlight. As gay and lesbian activists made great strides toward equality in the last decade — first the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, then nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, now the push to enact antidiscrimination laws with specific protections for gay citizens — so too did trans people become more vocal in their call for equal treatment under the law. But so far, the national discussion has largely been limited to divisive political spats (the North Carolina bathroom bill) and high-profile celebrities (Caitlyn Jenner) coming out as trans.
Out of the ivory tower
Bring Your Own Body, an upcoming exhibit at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, seeks to provide critical context to the story of transgender people in America. Inspired by the work of mid-20th-century sexologists, much of which remains archived at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, the exhibit considers some of the earliest research into trans issues and shows how attitudes toward trans people have evolved.
“Those are archives that are really kept in the ivory tower, so it’s important to think about bringing them to a larger public, especially as trans experiences get swallowed up by mainstream media attention,” says curator Jeanne Vaccaro, a visiting assistant professor at Haverford who sometimes works at the Kinsey Archives. By putting this work on display, Vaccaro says, she can demonstrate that “this [modern-day] trans tipping point has earlier iterations.”
Trans-ness without definition
Beyond the rigid parameters of academic research, however, Bring Your Own Body also features artistic expressions of trans identity through the years. Artwork on display ranges from sculpture and photography to handwritten text and other ephemera that once belonged to big-name drag queens. Attendees will be able to peruse copies of Transvestia, a magazine published between 1960 and 1980 by the late transgender activist Virginia Prince.
“We wanted to present a version of trans-ness that doesn’t have a definition, that’s open and flexible,” Vaccaro says. The tendency to focus only on certain kinds of trans women — especially rich, famous, white ones like Jenner — leaves many people out of the conversation, something that Vaccaro aims to correct.
Aside from the gallery, Haverford College partnered with UPenn for additional programming like film screenings at International House and a series of lectures at both schools. And in keeping with the exhibit’s educational bent, Vaccaro took her students to Center City to learn about LGBT history from archives at the William Way Community Center.
“We see the exhibition as a launching point for the students and for the campus to further conversations that are already happening,” Vaccaro says.
Bring Your Own Body: Transgender between Archives and Aesthetics is on view from October 21 to December 11 at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, 370 Lancaster Ave., Haverford, PA. An opening reception will take place at the gallery on October 21 between 4:30pm and 7:30pm.