Monday, March 20, 2023

VCU Professor to Travel U.S. to Collect Oral History of Transgender Activism

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Myrl Beam, Ph.D., has been appointed as the Oral Historian Fellow for the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies at the University of Minnesota.

As oral historian in residence, Beam — an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences — will work on a grant-funded project designed to document local and national histories of community organizing, policy development and political activism for transgender rights.

Starting this summer, the two-year fellowship will provide funding for Beam to travel throughout the United States to conduct oral histories for his next two book projects about the movement for transgender rights and inclusion.

“I’m incredibly excited to embark on this project,” Beam said. “It’s a huge honor and a weighty responsibility to build this important archive documenting trans people’s struggles for justice. And it comes at a really important moment when the trans movement is at a critical juncture: Both achieving historic levels of mainstream recognition and positive representation but also paradoxically fighting regressive legislation, a hostile administration and unprecedented levels of violence.”

The goal of the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies at the University of Minnesota Libraries is to empower individuals to tell their story, while providing students, historians and the public with a richer foundation of primary source material about the transgender community.

The project’s first phase focused on documenting the experience of transgender and gender queer people in the Upper Midwest. Oral Historian Andrea Jenkins conducted 200 interviews covering identity, family, love and experiences. In the project’s current phase, it will focus on transgender issues, and will examine community organizing, policy development and political activism around the country.

“It’s important to document how we came to this moment, 50 years since Stonewall, a riot sparked by the refusal of trans women of color to accept dehumanizing treatment: What is the goal of the trans movement? Is it equality? Acceptance? Revolution? What would it really take for gender fabulous people of all kinds to not just be safe, but valued?” Beam said. “There isn’t consensus about these questions, nor should there be.”

Beam said he is thrilled to have the chance to explore those questions of movement strategy through oral histories with key movement leaders all over the country, and bring their insights to students, activists, researchers and community members through the archive itself, as well as through the book projects.

“Trans struggles for justice have literally changed the world far beyond the narrow project of formal legal equality: How gender is imagined as a broader society, how we think about the relationship between sex and gender, how we conceptualize gender transgression, and so much more,” he said. “I can’t wait to embark on the project of documenting this critical work.”

Beam’s first book, “Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics” (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), relied on oral histories, archival research and his own activist work to explore how LGBT nonprofits in Minneapolis and Chicago have grappled with the contradictions between radical queer social movements and their institutionalized iterations. The book was nominated for a nationally and internationally acclaimed Lambda (“Lammy”) Literary Award in the category of LGBTQ Studies. 

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