Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects

The Smithsonian has published the book American History in 101 Objects and the BBC and British Museum has developed A History of the World in 100 Objects. The Museum of Transgender History and Art (MOTHA) has flipped this traditional series on its head with the opening of Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects: Legends and Mythologies. A physical site for MOTHA has not yet been built, so this exhibit opened on March 24, 2015 at University of Southern California Libraries and will continue to run until July 11. [1]

Through the use of objects and documents from ONE Archives and artworks by nine contemporary artists the exhibits aims to “give visibility to actual people and events that remain foundational for transgender history while embracing partial facts, rumors, and maybes.” [2] The term “hirstory” was coined by MOTHA as a way to remain gender-neutral when telling the stories of many unique individuals with varying experiences, beliefs, and opinions. I found the ideological foundation of this exhibit and future museum to be quite revolutionary and inspiring. MOTHA has not let the absence of their own space keep them from moving forward with their mission and goal of telling the complex, yet unfinished, transgender stories.

Chris Vargas, the founder and director of MOTHA, is both an artist and video maker. He focuses his work on imperfect role models, queer radicalism, and transgender hirstory. While he did not contribute a personal piece to this exhibit, he was its curator and worked with ONE Archives to fuse together the art, historical documents, and objects to create Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects.

Pube File by Emmett Ramstad. Photo Rebecca Brett.
Pube File by Emmett Ramstad. Photo Rebecca Brett.

An especially notable object in this exhibit is Emmett Ramstad’s creation, Pube File. In this work of art Ramstad has intermingled pubic hair from unidentified persons in a library card catalogue drawer. The artist is creating a safe place for transgender hirstories to be told, but allowing privacy and anonymity when desired. Ramstad has worked with The San Francisco LGBT Historical Society, The Kinsey Institute, and the Philadelphia LGBT Archive to research gay artists and take inspiration from their works to create his own. “Through manipulating these handled objects, my artwork evokes the presenceof the body without being representative, and becomes historical without being precious. I use this research into odd, archaic, and obsolete collecting habits in my art practice to shed light on contemporary social and political issues.” [3] By highlighting today’s issues in his artwork he is not letting transgender history stay in the past. Ramstad is not letting transgender history become “precious” or stagnant; it is a constantly evolving story of thousands of individuals.

The Trans flag flying in Harvey Milk Square in San Francisco. Photo by Jay Barmann.
The Trans flag flying in Harvey Milk Square in San Francisco. Photo by Jay Barmann.

Monica Helms, known as the trans Betsy Ross, is responsible for the trans flag that flies at many transgender community events, rallies, and now the Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects exhibit. Created in 2000, Helms states that “the stripes at the top and bottom are light blue, the traditional color for baby boys. The stripes next to them are pink, the traditional color for baby girls. The stripe in the middle is white, for those who are intersex, transitioning or consider themselves having a neutral or undefined gender. The pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it is always correct, signifying us finding correctness in our lives.” [4] With each transgender individual’s story being unique and personal, it is important that a visual representation of their community be something that all can identify with on some level. I think the flag does a wonderful job of showing the transition from boy (blue) to girl (pink) and vice-versa while also allowing room for ambiguity or uncertainty in the white of the flag. There is no pressure to choose a gender or color in this flag.

The Advocate has hailed the exhibit as a “groundbreaking collection” and many other transgender archives and museums have given their support to MOTHA. [5] The prominent source for information and review on this exhibit mostly came from The Advocate and MOTHA itself. Why isn’t there more publicity? This is an important part of our hirstory that needs to be brought to light; however, I could not find any major news outlets that took the lead in highlighting the exemplarity objects and art that are on display at the USC libraries. The college itself is not actually promoting it on its website homepage. I found this to be greatly disappointing and belief that it is the duty of museums and non-profits to support one another, especially when a revolutionary event is occurring; in this case it is Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects. As this exhibit is still on display, what can be done to reach a wider audience? The stories of the transgender community have long gone unheard. It is time that their lives become a part of our hirstory.

[1] “Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects,” last updated March 8, 2015, http://www.sfmotha.org/post/113084736715/one.
[2] “PHOTOS: Your 99 Transgender History Lessons,” last modified March 24, 2015, http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/03/24/photos-your-99-transgender-history-lessons.
[3] “Emmett Ramstad,” http://www.emmettramstad.com/statement-and-bio.html.
[4] “Transgender Flag Flies In San Francisco’s Castro District After Outrage From Activists,” last modified November 20, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/20/transgender-flag_n_2166742.html.
[5] “PHOTOS: Your 99 Transgender History Lessons,” last modified March 24, 2015, http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/03/24/photos-your-99-transgender-history-lessons.

3 thoughts on “Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects

  1. Wow, this exhibit seems amazing. You bring up an interesting point Sammy about the lack of publicity. Could it that this exhibit is too “out-there” for the venue (both in transgender content matter and in the physical objects themselves)? I mean, I’m all for an art installation using pubic hair but maybe the college takes a more conservative view of art?

  2. This sounds like a really interesting exhibit, and I would love to walk through it. I’m really curious what other objects are in this exhibit; it sounds like an interesting mix of contemporary art pieces and historical artifacts.
    I hope this exhibit and MOTHA get more publicity in the future. My guess is that transgender issues are seen as too controversial for most museums. But if museums do tackle this topic, it will lead to greater empathy and understanding among audiences.

  3. Like Emily and Carly, I am disappointed about the lack of publicity. I think there are more shows, movies, books, exhibits, etc. now that are incorporating transgender individuals and so it should not be considered as taboo as it has in the past. I think this should be a time to make bold decisions and publicize transgender history and art.

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