Friday, December 21, 2007

Where's Our History?

by Dallas Denny

[An editorial written for, but never published in, Transgender Tapestry magazine; published here with the author's permission.]

Until 1990 or so, the transgender community had little sense of its history — I suppose because we were so very busy defining ourselves. Outside of the hands of private collectors and the occasional gender-bending article or item in gay and lesbian archives, there was nothing. Even collectors had little idea of the value of something like a 1955 program book from Mme. Arthur’s cabaret in Paris, or a 1915 postcard of the famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge, or a program from the First International Symposium on Gender Identity or an issue of Virginia Prince’s early magazine Transvestia.

I remember, in fact, way back in 1993 discussing this with Ms. Bob Davis (then plain old Bob Davis) over the telephone. We decided that if we were patient, a market would develop and would determine values. Today, thanks largely to eBay and the emergence of booksellers who specialize in transgender materials, Ms. Bob and I have notions of what transgender historical materials are worth. One might expect to pay more than $400 for the Mme. Arthur’s program, for example, or $425 for an early copy of Transvestia, or $65 for an Eltinge postcard, or $50 for the rare, but rarely collected, symposium program.

The new century has brought increased interest in transgender historical materials. Year 2000 started out with a bang, as the new nonprofit Gender Education & Advocacy (formerly the American Educational Gender Information Service) sought proposals from other nonprofit agencies to receive its National Transgender Library & Archive (see Tapestry #109 for an article about the disposition of this collection; it went, after a rigorous decision-making process, to the University of Michigan). Also in 2000, Rikki Swin, under the auspices of the Rikki Swin Foundation, purchased the private collections of early transgender activists Virginia Prince and Betty Ann Lind and the archives of the International Foundation for Gender Education. Swin subsequently purchased a personal collection from Ariadne Kane, one of the founders of Fantasia Fair and another early transgender activist.

At the 2001 IFGE conference in Chicago, attendees were whisked in chartered busses from their hotel to a building in the center city, where they trudged up three steep flights of steps to view the purported future home of Swin’s collection, (A Rikki Swin Foundation press release claimed the building had been purchased by Swin for some three million dollars). The rooms were empty, but guests were assured the collections were stored elsewhere in the building.

At least one person I know (Ken Dollarhide, if you must know) say they actually saw the shelved collections. Swin took out full-page ads on the outside cover of this magazine, prominently featuring her expensive building, paid for the expenses of medical professionals at various transgender conferences, and then—nothing.

By nothing, I mean nothing. No one seemed to know what had happened to Swin or her institute. The building had reportedly been emptied, the collections vanished. The RSI phone number has long been out of service.

Considerably later, Swin reportedly resurfaced in Victoria, British Columbia—for the geographically challenged, Canada’s westernmost province. I managed to suss this out by working my network of acquaintances. It’s probably true (I trust my network), but for the past five years, there has been no official word from Ms. Swin about her foundation or about the collections she has acquired. No word about our history, in other words.

Certainly, Swin isn’t in possession of all of our history—there are other collections, after all—but she does possess a significant part of it—most importantly, personal papers of Virginia Prince and Betty Ann Lind which document the history of early transgender organizations and of which there are no other copies. She has been absolutely irresponsible by not keeping the community informed of the collection’s condition and whereabouts. It could, for all we know, be poorly stored, shredded, or lost.

Ms. Swin, where is our history?

Note from the author:

According to Aaron Devor, the collection has arrived at Victoria University in British Columbia.


grvsmth said...

Here is the webpage of the Special Collections at the University of Victoria.

Vickie Davis said...

I did some searching for info on Rikki and found your post here and this article on her and her history. It still does not explain why she took our history to western Canada.

Rikki Swin was born in Chicago in 1947. In 1970, she started Tec Air, Inc., a US manufacturing business specializing in plastic injection molding. This business grew to annual revenues of US$20,000,000 and, in 1999,she sold the business. Taking her business acumen and the resources available to her, Ms. Swin founded the Rikki Swin Institute.

In March of 2001, the Rikki Swin Institute (RSI) opened its doors in conjunction with the 15thAnnual Conference of the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE). A first-of- its-kind educational and research facility located in Chicago, RSI was dedicated to transgender research and education. Its mission was to stimulate changes in culture to improve trans person understanding and acceptance worldwide. Contained in its own building, the Institute had four aims: the housing of a library and archives; conference co-sponsorship; digital video education; and research. institute was established to form a partnership between professional providers, corporations, individuals, and transpersons with the goal of advocating for better understanding and acceptance and benefiting society as a whole.

Rikki made the decision to move to Victoria, British Columbia and decided that the library and archival holdings would benefit from being held in the public trust. The Institute closed in December 2004. In 2007, Ms. Swin donated the entire contents of the Institute to the University of Victoria. This incomparable collection includes records of the IFGE and the Outreach Institute for Gender Studies. One of the gems of this collection is the incomparable collection of newsletters and publications from both large and small transgender organizations, including Fantasia Fair. Archival collections from Virginia Prince, Ari Kane, Merissa Sherril Lynn and Betty Ann Lind are also part of this wonderful collection.

The University of Victoria Archives is dedicated to preserving, protecting and providing public access to the valuable material in its care. Important additions such as the Rikki Swin Institute Materials distinguish the Archives. Our archival collections were built and continue to grow through the generosity of great collectors who dedicate themselves to building a collection and then graciously donate it for many to benefit. Rikki has given us a scholarly resource to be proud of, to cherish and to share.