Building a Trans-Gender Archive

On the classification and framing of trans-gender knowledge

Dr. Richard Ekins

Ll.B, Ph.D, M.Med.Sc. Psych. Psychotherapist and Trustee, Gender Trust, U.K. Director of the Trans-Gender Archive, University of Ulster
Gendys Conference, 1990

Dr. Ekins
is a prolific writer
in this area.
For further details
see our bookshop:
Male femaling
and as editor with
Dr. Dave King: Blending Genders


This paper is about my attempts to build a 'Trans-Gender Archive' at the University of Ulster in Londonderry/Derry, Northern Ireland. I will say something about the Archive's origins and development, and about its composition and system of classification. I will end by floating a suggestion as to where we might proceed from here, and to ask for your help in contributing to future developments. I say "where we might proceed" because I see the Archive as very much a reference and information resource made by, and existing for, the transgender community. I take the transgender community to include every one with a serious interest in and commitment to transgender matters, of whatever type and for whatever reason.

It is convenient to start the story in 1980, when I first went to Northern Ireland. For a variety of reasons, both personal and professional, I determined to make transvestism and transsexuality a major professional interest.

At that time, I approached things from the standpoint of the sociology of knowledge. The sociology of knowledge examines peoples's beliefs, ideas and 'what counts as knowledge' to them (Schutz, 1967). It tends to be more interested in questions relating to the origins, dist ribution, transmission, and consequences of 'knowledge', rather than its 'truth'. It sees so-called 'common sense', 'everyday', 'taken for granted', knowledge as equally deserving of serious study as so-called 'scientific', 'expert' knowledge. It is sensitive to changes and move ments in ideas, beliefs and knowledge over time and place. It does not assume that the knowledge of a particular time and place, or of a particular group or individual, is superior to that of any other time and place, group or individual (Berger and Luckmann, 1971).

When I came to look at people's ideas, beliefs and knowledge about transvestism and transsexualism from this background in the sociology of knowledge, it became part of my task to take on board the full range of views on all aspects of transgender, without fear or favour. This, I think, proved to be an excellent background for a subsequent Archivist.

For some years I spent a lot of time with transvestites and transsexuals, met, mainly, at the various group meetings, in pubs and clubs, at drag balls and so forth. Then I focussed on the various and very different ways so-called 'experts' - psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, social anthropologists, lawyers, and the like, looked at 'transvestite' and 'transsexual' phenomena. By now I was 'bracketing' (Husserl, 1970) and putting in scare quotes, the terms 'transsexual' and 'transvestite'. This, I think, is necessary if one is to remain sensitive to just how much the meanings of what have come to be called transvestite and transsexual phenomena change over the years in different places and amongst different groups, indeed, in individual biographies.

Undoubtedly there have always been men who want to be women and men who want to dress and behave as women (and vice versa). However, the meanings, possibilities and actualities of what might more broadly be termed 'trans-gender' phenomena depend on all sorts of biological, psychological, technological, social and other factors, which it became my task to map, both in isolation and in their interrelations.

Thus, to give just one example, it was not until 1949 that the term 'transsexual' was first used in print (Cauldwell, 1949). It was not until the late 1950's and early 1960's that the term became established as a recognisable diagnostic entity (Green and Money, 1969). And it was not until this point had been reached that so-called 'sex-change' operations became a very practical possibility for the many people who now defined themselves in terms of the new category, and came to see themselves and organise their lives very differently as a result.

To go some way towards organising the very different ideas, beliefs and 'knowledge' about transgender phenomena that I came across, I came to see them all in terms of a three fold classification: material relating to what so-called 'experts' had to say on the matter - 'scientific' knowledge if you like; material relating to what transgender people themselves had to say about the matter - what I call 'member knowledge' and material relating to what lay people thought about it all - 'common-sense' knowledge.

Certain individuals may, of course, be both 'experts' and 'members', and I see all of us as rooted, more or less, in a world of 'common-sense' knowledge (Schutz, 1967). Again, it makes sense to see our transgender worlds as constituted by and within the inter-relations of these three 'knowledges', but I don't want to dwell on such issues in this paper.

What matters, rather, in the present context, is that this sort of framework highlights the necessity for building up the widest possible range of material. Technical books, scientific papers, interviews with 'experts' were one aspect of things. The collection of 'member' publications, life histories, letters, photographs, documentation of group meetings, etc. was another aspect. Sensitivity to what lay folk thought about things, the collection of mass media treatment, and the like, was another.

For some five years I worked on all of this, much as any other individual researcher might have done. I built up material as and when I came across it, through doing the usual sorts of things, literature searches, collecting documentary evidence, and the like. However, with each new aspect of transgender phen omena that I explored, I was struck by the fact that I had to set about getting the material more or less from scratch each and every time. Thus, to give just one example, when I worked on Mark Rees's Case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, I had to obtain legal precedents and so forth more or less one by one. It was disappointing to find that despite the important and valuable work being done by various 'experts' and 'members' on certain aspects of things, nobody seemed to have any particular interest in systematically collecting, classifying and making available a wide range of material. Typically, many tv's and ts's would destroy or keep very private their own material, while the academics and clinicians would restrict themselves to highly specialised material. There seemed to be a need for somebody to collect as much material as possible and seek to make it available to all interested parties.

After talking with various people - and the people from what was then SHAFT (the Self Help Association for Transsexuals), were particularly helpful - it seemed a good idea to institute a research and information base in a University setting. It was in this way that the Trans-Gender Archive, of the University of Ulster, came to be formally established in 1986.

The interviews I gave in 1987 and 1989 (Ekins, 1988; 1989) are the best introductions to the work of the Archive. They deal with such issues as the Archive's beginnings, its general scope, its funding and staffing, who makes use of it and so on. In these interviews I emphasise that the Archive is pretty much a one man operation, and one that values integrity, respect for privacy, and sound foundations, above all else.

Also, since May 1989, the Archive has produced its own occasional newsletter, Archive News: The Bulletin of the Trans-Gender Archive. This exists to provide news for transgender groups and commercial publications. It informs the transgender community of the progress of the Archive. It is also designed to help the Archive improve its deposits. Copies of the interviews and of the Bulletin are available on request.

Right now, however, I want to develop just two issues. I am often asked how the Archive handles the vexed problem of classifying material and I will say something about that. This will give you some feel for the range of material housed in the Archive. Then I would like to open up a general discussion as to where we might go from here.

Firstly, a brief word on the system of classification adopted by the Archive. I have tried to develop a system that does justice to how TV's and TS's, themselves, order their worlds, whilst at the same time incorporating important distinctions made in the technical literature between sex, sexuality and gender (Ekins, 1984). I am also mindful of the fact that many individuals and groups seek to distance themselves from erotica, from material which they may find pornographic and offensive.

Initially, material is classified into one of three collections: the 'S' collection, the 'G' collection and the 'Y' collection. The 'S' collection includes material in which the transgender phenomena considered refers primarily to biology and the body. This would include all material on transsexuality, for example. The 'G' collection includes transgender material where the social correlates of the biological division between the sexes are paramount. This would include transvestite, drag, role reversal, gender bending, gender blending, gender fuck material, and the like. Finally, there is the 'Y' collection, where the emphasis is upon the overtly erotic and the pornographic. The Archive houses a large collection of she-male erotica, for example.

Rigid distinctions are often neither desirable nor strictly possible, but you might say that the 'S' collection is the collection concerned primarily with crossing the conventional arrangement between the sexes in its biological and physical aspects; the 'G' collection, in crossing it in its social aspects; and the 'Y' collection, in crossing it in its pornographic aspects.

Set within this threefold distinction, material is then classified according to its status as primarily 'expert' (E); primarily 'member' (M); or primarily 'common sense' or lay (L). The E classification is then further subdivided according to such classifications as biology (Biol) Psychology (Pso), psychiatry (Psi), social and political (Soc) and the like. 'M' includes material that sociologists would call sub-cultural - group magazines, photographs of 'members' taken by and for group members, private letters, etc. 'L' includes mass media material generally: material intended for lay folk in whatever format - popular novels, biographies intended for a mass audience, magazine articles, newspaper features, etc.

Finally, the classification is as to medium; book, article, video tape, audio tape, photograph, artifact, etc. You might like to know, for instance, that the Archive houses the pair of stockings worn by the 'transvestite' bride at the first United Kingdom 'gender transient' wedding.

Perhaps the best way to build up a picture of this classification system is to look at some of the annotated bibliographies, videocassette listings, and the like that the Archive is compiling. Thus, for instance, Archive News, July 1989, featured a listing of holdings on Trans-Gender Biography.

For the moment, however, I would just emphasise that every item has a three-fold designation within which are incorporated any relevant sub-divisions, before the item is given a catalogue number. Thus the user faced with "SEPsiB.88" knows that the item is a psychiatric book about transsexuality; "YLBBiog.3" is a biographical book intended for a general audience which has been classified as erotica; "GMPt.8" is a 'member' pamphlet, part of the 'G' collection which includes transvestism and role reversal material of various sorts.

Thus far, the annotated bibliography of holdings contains some 65 pages of book items, some 25 pages of magazine and pamphlet items and some 35 pages of technical articles items, to name the major listings. Vast amounts of videotape, audiotape, newspaper cuttings, and other material await proper classification.

When it is remembered that the Archive seeks to develop as large as possible a collection of the full range of transgender phenomena, it should be obvious that the task is enormous. The explorations of the depth psychologists, particularly those in classical psychoanalysis, provide us with unmistakeable evidence that each and every individual is transgendered in all sorts of respects (Bak, 1968; Kubie, 1974). Carrying this line of enquiry to its logical extreme would deny the Archive of any specialist function at all. All human phenomena might be seen as transgendered in some regard or other. It is necessary to be restrictive to some degree. But to what degree? This has become an ever increasing problem as the work of the Archive has progressed.

The problem is well illustrated with reference to a recent deposit. A short while ago, the Archive took receipt of a car load of waste-bin liner bags brim-full with allegedly transgender material - a deposit from a 'gender transient' donor and assistant to the Archive. I was, of course, immensely grateful for the work and effort s/he had put into the donation, as well as for its prospective value. However, as I went through the individual items I found very little that, to me, was obviously transgender material.

I received the following reply when I took the matter up with the donor (PK/BL, 1990):

"I count as specifics: gays, drags, comedy drag, occasional non Tran drag, all cases of child molesting especially involving boys. Prince, Jackson, Boy George, Bowie and the Stones (who began in Max Factor in the 60's), Grace Jones, Eurythmics, Duran Duran and others who were/are involved in gender bending."

"Those, beside TV and TS of which there is more in those bags than ever before because I dumped whole files of it into them, plus my mail and a few manuscripts (sic)."

"Peripherals include odd fashions, people who have previously been implicated with any of the above, and general views on feminism and masculinism."

"(The bags) also include.. the pages from Radio Times and TV Times relating to what I tape, and all the full copies of the Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday Sport, since its attitude in general relates to psychology."

"(In the) loan boxes... will be all to do with Tula, Rocky Horror and TV/TS crime...."

"You have all my mail to and from Mrs. Thatcher, and all mail related to other issues and campaigns of mine."

"I held back the Gambian and French files and video tapes, but you will get copies of what I want to keep, plus a major part of it that I don't need. You already have the sound tapes. You will also get copies of the books on them when published."

"So now, would you please write and clarify what you are complaining about?"

It is deposits like these that have led me, albeit reluctantly, to the view that the time has now come to acknowledge that the Archive cannot cope with such a range of material and deal with it with the respect that it deserves. It seems to me that the time has now come to establish some sort of federation of 'Archives' across the U.K. manned by Archivists who are able to collaborate with each other, develop particular specialisms, and then make available the combined results of their work to all interested people.

I have collaborated with such important transgender collectors as Phaedra Kelly on the Isle of Wight and Peter Farrer and Dave King, both in Liverpool: to name just three. Undoubtedly, there are others who have important collections. I should dearly like to hear from them.

More particularly, I would like to end this paper by inviting suggestions, from each and every one of you, as to where, and how, we might proceed from here.


I wish to thank Miss Phaedra Kelly and Ms. Wendy Hanna for assistance with this paper.


  1. Bak R. (1968) The Phallic Woman: The Ubiquitous Fantasy in Perversions, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 23: 15-36.
  2. Berger, P. and T. Luckmann (1971) The Social Construction of Reality, Penguin.
  3. Cauldwell, D. (1949) Psychopathia Sexualis, Sexology, 16: 274-280.
  4. Ekins, R. (1984) Facets of Femaling in Some Relations Between Sex, Sexuality and Gender, paper for the Annual Conference of the Sociological Association of Ireland.
  5. ----- (1988) News from Around the World - In Their Own Words: Interview with Dr. Richard Ekins of the Trans-Gender Archive, University of Ulster, Renaissance News, 1 (5), pp 4-5. [The Chrysalis Interview].
  6. ----- (1989) Archive Update: Interview with Dr. Richard Ekins of the Trans-Gender Archive, University of Ulster, Fanfare, No. 41: pp 9-12.
  7. Green, R. and J. Money, eds. (1969) Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment, Johns Hopkins Press.
  8. Husserl. E. (1970) The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston, Illinois.
  9. Kubie, L. (1974) The Drive to Become Both Sexes, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 43: 349-426.
  10. PK/BL (1990) Personal Communication, 3.9.90.
  11. Schutz, A. (1967) Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality, Nijhoff: The Hague.
Citation: Ekins,R., (1990), building a Trans-Gender Archive: On the classification and framing of trans-gender knowledge, Beaumont Trust International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. 06.07.06 Last amended 17.07.13