Being trans in a cis culture means that too many first encounters with oneself come through the shame of exposure. I remember being called gay by kids so many times in childhood, long before I knew what that word meant, that now it almost recalls an atmosphere an insult that saturated the air I breathed. Years later, when the pain of the unnamed difference inside my body became unbearable, I figured that those kids must have been on to something. I adopted the word from them for a long time because I didn't know any better.

Something happened recently, something I can't forget. A few months into hormones I took a trip to New York City. I was hitting a point where the need to stop dressing androgynously convinced me to fly in a new denim skirt. During that trip, and for the first time that I could recall, I had moments of feeling comfortable in my own skin. I felt incredibly vulnerable, but in ways that also made me feel newly desirable. I spent my last evening in Brooklyn at a party with other trans and nonbinary people of color. It was quietly exhilarating. I felt tender, I wanted to be kissed.

When I went to the airport to fly home the next morning, I was sleepy with daydreams until I entered the body scanner. Predictably, it flashed over the "anomaly" of my body. The TSA agent stopped me and said I would have to be searched below the waist "because you are...because you have..." without finishing the sentence. I said do it right here. But as soon as her hand touched me I knew that had been a mistake. I don't know how long this kind of search really takes, but it felt like forever. I couldn't hear anything, my vision went a little blurry. When it was over, I walked out of security and waited at my gate, crying. The night before I had found a flash of desire in my body. The first person to touch me afterwards was a TSA agent.

This essay is about the ways that a cis culture and its institutions can shock trans people into being through exposure, stigma, misrecognition, and harm. Such processes make the self into a bad trans object of cis culture. Yet this is not a plea to ditch all the "bad" objects of that culture. Rather, I'm interested in what kinds of shifts a different set of bad objects archival objects can induce in ourselves and our writing when our subjectivity and subjection are entangled with our work. Dispossession creates objecthood in two senses. If subjection sometimes produces a feeling of being someone else's object, how does that affect how we engage with literal objects, in the archive, that belonged to someone else? I researched and wrote my first book before I transitioned; though its archive moved me deeply, I maintained a certain distance from its materials out of deference to the lives whose traces they bear. As I look back now, I can admit a real fear of proximity, of not wanting to be entangled with objects in the archive because I didn't want to take on their attributes when I didn't know if I could handle seeing myself as trans. I feel some shame about that.

Now, not long after, but long enough into finding space for myself in the world as a trans woman of color, I can't proceed but otherwise. The exposure to shame in the archive is not the same as the exposure to shame that can come in an airport security line. Yet I find that my experience of the archive today is predicated on a desire for a relation between them. My unmet desire in finding bad objects in the archive has become, strangely, important in refiguring my experience of being made into a bad trans object in moments of subjection.

To explore why, in the tradition of queer of color and trans of color critique, is to theorize the resilient and creative counter-strategies of reading, resignification, and disidentification that trans people develop and sometimes pass along to one another, reworking moments of shock and exposure into different zones of meaning that instruct in how to live in a radically insufficient world.1 In this case, I highlight my desire for something political that the archive cannot actually give, but that is, nevertheless, vital.

I survey two small archival clusters that I have explored for a book project I am writing about the history of trans do-it-yourself (DIY) knowledge and practice, where encountering bad objects prompted surprisingly meaningful outcomes. To prioritize how race materializes gender difference in all of this, the first cluster of objects is about white femininity and my ambivalent relation to it, while the second touches on brown trans folks, my kin.

My White Ladies

For the past few years I've tried, almost obsessively at times, to reconstruct the lives of a small cohort of trans women from the mid twentieth century sometimes called the "Long Beach Group." The name comes from the queer oceanside community at the southern tip of Los Angeles County where they lived at the turn of the 1950s. Not much is known about their biographies including most of their names but one of their signature accomplishments has been catalogued as a first in trans history. In 1952 the Group put out two issues of an underground newsletter, Transvestia, the first substantial trans-authored publication in the United States. (The name Transvestia is usually associated with Virginia Prince's magazine of the same name, which she began printing in 1961. This earlier newsletter iteration is distinct, though Prince who then went by Muriel was part of the Long Beach Group and contributed to both issues.2

Calling this a group of trans women, as I've come to do, is itself controversial. They were self-described transvestites. Some only spent the weekend, or part-time, as women. Some went by the names assigned to them at birth. Many insisted, however they may have felt, that they were not actually trying to live as women, but merely liked to dress. Yet at least two members of the Group, Joanne Thornton and Edythe Ferguson, did live full-time as women. Ferguson, in particular, rented her apartment under "Edythe," choosing to give up any safety that may have come from the part-time compromises of other transvestites.

Living full-time is no litmus tests for determining who was "really trans" in the past, as if that were a legitimate endeavor to begin with. I elect to name the Long Beach Group as trans or transvestite women because their perspective as trans people ignites a different account of the postwar era than has been typical in trans history, where the celebrity of Christine Jorgensen and transsexuality have shaped the narrative of the 1950s. Positioning themselves against transsexuality, the Long Beach Group articulated one of the first critiques of modern medicalization. Ferguson, in particular, who ran a do-it-yourself correspondence course on how to transition without institutional medicine, saw her life's work as contributing to the freedom and happiness of her sisters by eclipsing the growing monopoly of doctors and psychiatrists.3

I'm drawn to the Long Beach Group because they comprise an important DIY origin of, if not trans studies, then something like critical trans study. They offer the starting point for a small but profound empirical claim that animates the book project I'm pursuing: to show unambiguously that the experts on transness in this world are trans people, not the many self-appointed institutions, doctors, and psychiatrists that have dominated knowledge production around gender. But as I've followed the ephemeral scraps the Long Beach Group left behind letters, mimeographed manuscripts, parts of the newsletter and the DIY course I've struggled to understand the limits of my investment in these white ladies as an origin story for DIY trans knowledge. As a matter of historical interpretation, their whiteness can't be made to fit the imperatives of critical, intersectional scholarship.4 These ladies are bad objects.

By that, I mean that they are bad objects for me. At best, as middle-class adherents to the most narrow ideals of mid-century white femininity, it could be said that they rerouted some of their resources as part-time straight white men into a trans underground. That's certainly interesting, but nothing like redemptive. The Long Beach underground may have been mixed between cis and trans, or straight and gay, but it was most certainly reserved only for white people. While the incipient trans of color cultures of the era were usually quite public, often homed on the street, the Long Beach Group elected to stay in the safety of the domestic sphere, meeting privately in Thornton's apartment a luxury to choose that trans women of color in that era, like today, were not granted. My hope is to galvanize and disseminate trans-authored bodies of knowledge, to value the margins of knowledge production around gender, and to reclaim trans knowledge as a form of expertise in its own right. The domestic middle-class whiteness of the Group's work partially refuses those terms.

After a year and a half of meticulously reconstructing the basic outlines of the Group's work I found myself at the Kinsey Institute archives in Indiana. I was starting to think I had hit a hard limit. I had only two names and no obvious way to gather more biographical data. I couldn't find anyone still living who might have known them. Yet it was precisely this lack that drove my research. If I were only to find more, I thought, I might find a better story about them with which to start a book. And then at Kinsey, in a photo album of another Californian trans woman, I found them: a few pages of black and white photos of the Group gathered at an apartment.5 "Joanne" (Thornton) and "Edythe" (Ferguson) were even identified on their own individual photo pages. I was, to put it mildly, shocked. Crying in the archive is surely more common than we admit. I had never expected I would get to see these women. I had felt so strangely close to them as I accumulated fragments about their largely unknown lives. To look at them was overwhelming. These tears of relief and intimacy didn't feel all that different from the tears shed out of subjection or exposure during a TSA search.

But it wasn't a moment of clean identification with the past. The feeling was less definite, more diffuse: one set of tears helping dissipate the other. This kind of crying concerns what I think of as the ground floor of doing trans history. The proximities of the archive disperse the feeling of otherwise being consumed by the present and its many emergencies of living overexposed, on the other side of that so-called "trans tipping point."

And yet, after my initial shock and relief came a different feeling, driven by their stark whiteness gazing back at me, a brown trans girl. I blushed with shame. It wasn't so much the Long Beach Group's racial exclusion and class privilege that induced such a feeling in me that day. Of course, I wouldn't have been welcome in the trans-affirmative world they were imagining. In my work, I've long felt that problem take the form of a banal question: why do I keep coming back to white ladies when I know they'll disappoint me?

On the heels of any answer to that question, I felt shame for having thought my political desire animating this book project would be enough to frame these white ladies as Chapter One. To find an alternate starting point for narrating the trans 1950s that places trans-authored knowledge center stage was, precisely, the goal of my search in the archive. I had found the ideal material. But whatever hope I had previously maintained when the archival picture of their lives and work remained, well, unpictured, was shattered by my exposure to them: by our exposure to each other there, in that archive.

A Trans of Color Vernacular

Nearly a decade after the creation of the Long Beach Group's newsletter, Female Mimics began to appear on the newsstands of seedy establishments. Far from a trans-authored publication, it never styled itself as lifting up trans people. It offered smutty before-and-after pictures of professional and amateur female impersonators. Accompanied by short captions or biographies, these were not stories about trans women who did drag or liked to dress. The magazine was quite careful to stress that they were men and not even gay men, at least according to what was printed about them who did female impersonation as a job, or just for fun.

Female Mimics, then, isn't a likely place to find a good trans of color story from the 1960s. The first time I flipped through a few issues in an archive, I assumed as much, glancing at pictures I thought were cute before moving on. A few months later, when the magazines landed on my desk in a reading room again, I gave them a more careful read. I was interested in whether the magazine made anything of its few covergirls who weren't white. Unsurprisingly, it didn't. But now I noticed a short section in the back pages of some issues: letters to the editor called, as if to signal annoyance, "The Reader Always Writes." The letters were short and tended to stick to the same format: praise the magazine and thank the editors for putting it out; say something about how much they had enjoyed the last issue; express excitement about purchasing the next one. But they often included some personal details about cross dressing, transvestism, or possible part- or full-time lives as women. Letter writers sometimes sent in photos.6

It was in these letters that a very different picture of the readership emerged. Many were from people of color, who in one issue from 1963 identified variously and idiosyncratically as Black, indigenous, and Latinx. In the back pages of this definite bad object for trans history one of so many semi-pornographic publications that could tease trans life only by grossly misrepresenting it I sensed a trans of color vernacular. I say "vernacular" to juxtapose these short letters with the whitewashed and closeted content of the rest of the magazine, but also to signal the mundane historical testimony they bear. All they share are a few short references to dressing as women in culturally overdetermined ways often in modes so kitschy that they provoke an uneasy feeling about trans of color racial performance. They suggest a trans of color social heterogeneity, but that's all they rise to: a suggestion. This vernacular was never meant to match the dominant grammar of white female impersonation that the magazine featured. Still, these letters invoke a trans of color readership that reworked Female Mimics to ends that suited them. With this, I felt a different sort of shock and resignification in the archive.

Female Mimics had no discernible goal other than profit. But its inadvertent role as host to a trans of color readership cuts through the whitewashing of trans history that is so often a feature (not a glitch) of the archive. As such, I imagine these trans of color letters as indirect replies to the Long Beach Group, holding them to account for their unexamined whiteness by interrupting the flow of the archive of the trans mid-century. Finding photos of Joanne and Edythe precipitated tears that gave way to frustration and shame in my persistent search for useful meaning in white women's politics. Here the inverse happened. In a mood of disinterestedness or wariness, there emerged the scene of the mundane, the trans of color vernacular. I didn't cry that day in the archive. But I did feel bolstered by the letters. I related them to the affective landscape of my trans feminine of color everyday, defined by hypervigilance, by the feeling of actually getting used to the possibility that something bad can happen to you at any moment. To write back in such a situation a letter to "the editor," so to speak is no small feat.

Living On In This World and Its Objects

I suspect that any relation to the trans past is mediated through its bad objects. For me, these bad objects reflect on how to live on in a cis culture that renders trans people into its bad objects. If Long Beach or smut magazines feel very far afield from my opening story about airport security, consider that Ferguson's DIY transition lectures spend time training students how to walk down the street not simply to look like a woman, but to evade police harassment under cross-dressing laws. I recognize the extent to which she too had a critique of state violence conducted through the policing of gender in public space: the ladies of Long Beach are not that bad.

These archival objects ask me to work in what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called a reparative mode. They can only serve the purpose of writing trans history if their interpreters are willing to repair their compromised context, or at least to make up for their ephemerality with imagination.7

In return, such objects do a little reparative work themselves, for us. Or, more humbly, they have for me. They have invited me into their affective lives to, in turn, affect mine. One of the lessons they have taught me is what it feels like to live under the constant threat of being made into a bad object, or what it feels like to be jolted, stung by transphobia but then to continue on. Hardly redemptive or even resistive, these objects instead teach a small lesson in how to live on in a world that does not nurture trans life, or openly wishes for its extinction. Regarding these objects reparatively disperses shame. And while the dispersal of shame bears no grander guarantee, to me it still feels immense. It keeps trans desire alive.

It almost feels like the kiss I wanted that night in Brooklyn.

PS: I since had that kiss.

Jules Gill-Peterson is Assistant Professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child (Minnesota, 2018) and is currently at work on a book project entitled Gender Underground: A History of Trans DIY.


  1. The relationship to cultural objects and strategies of readership that maneuver around the trap of visibility or legibility come to this essay through a love of queer of color and trans of color critique, especially José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); and Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017).[]
  2. Richard F. Docter, From Man to Woman: The Transgender Journey of Virginia Prince (Northridge, CA: Docter Press, 2004).[]
  3. What remains of Ferguson's lectures and correspondence is held in the Edythe Ferguson Collection in the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana.[]
  4. And on this vast and complex matter, I recommend Jennifer C. Nash's brilliant treatment in Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).[]
  5. Louise Lawrence, "Transvestites I Have Known," undated photo album (c. 1950s), Louise Lawrence collection, Box 8, Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, Indiana.[]
  6. "The Reader Always Writes," Female Mimics 1, no. 5 (1963): 56-57.[]
  7. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You," in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 123-151.[]