Studying transgender and transvestism: a new archive

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By | From the Collections

Wellcome Collection’s exhibition about the study of sex, The Institute of Sexology, highlights the profound effect that the gathering and analysis of information can have in changing attitudes and lifting taboos. Much of the display takes its inspiration from archives collected by the Library; here Dr Lesley Hall describes a recent addition to the Library archives on sexology.

We are pleased and excited to announce that Dr Dave King’s research collection on transgender and transvestism is now available to researchers in the Library. This collection significantly contributes to expanding our understanding of historical developments around trans* questions in the UK since the high-profile ‘sex change’ cases of the 1940s, 50s and 60s such as Roberta Cowell, Michael Dillon and April Ashley.

Anti bullying poster

Public information poster. 2009. In the Dave King archive. Wellcome Library reference: PP/KIN/C/10/1.

Dr King, a sociologist at the University of Liverpool, contacted numerous doctors (representing a range of specialities) and other professionals who were involved in the treatment of cases involving gender dysphoria and desire for sex change during the late 1970s and early 1980s. His files include published and unpublished papers by them, correspondence, and the records of his interviews with them.

While pioneers such as Sir Harold Gillies were already dead by 1970, King was able to meet with and interview such foundational figures as John B. Randell, who founded the Gender Reassignment Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital, London (PP/KIN/A/2/46/1-8). This work illuminates the attitudes and practices of the medical profession in what was then a very marginal area. There are also files on various high-profile trans* individuals.

front cover of Shaft publication

SHAFT [Self Help Association for Transsexuals] publication, 1981. In the Dave King archive, Wellcome Library reference: PP/KIN/C/14/1

A particular strength of the collection is a substantial amount of material on a range of organisations, from support groups to activist campaigners, including newsletters and other publications, across the trans* community. The commercial sector providing services of various kinds, from feminine clothing in larger sizes to electrolysis to full sex-change packages, is also represented.

SHAFT [Self Help Association for Transsexuals] publication, 1981. In the Dave King archive, Wellcome Library reference: PP/KIN/C/14/1

Support Services flier from the Dave King archive. Wellcome Library reference: PP/KIN/F/2/1

The popular narratives around ‘sex change’, from sensationalism in the 1950s to the legislation of the 2000s according trans people various civil rights, is documented in three boxes and one large folder of press-cuttings and other media material (PP/KIN/G/1). The rather salacious tone of journalism that can be found in much of this reportage is even more apparent in the material to be found in ‘adult’ magazines for a general audience of the 1970s (PP/KIN/G/2/2). There are also some examples of magazines and other publications produced for the more specialised market (PP/KIN/G/2/3).

While the post-war developments that made physical change of gender a possibility were a consequence of the understanding and isolation of the sex hormones during the interwar period, advances in plastic surgery were driven by the need to repair the wounded in two world wars. The collection places these biomedical developments in the longer context of cross-dressing, ‘drag’ and gender masquerade with files of historically important articles on these subjects and material on pioneers in sexology and the study of gender anomalies.

(Attention is drawn to the James Gardiner collection of photographs also held by the Library.)

L0076698 Victorian crossdressing. Photograph album, late 19th century

A man in drag with the expression of being deep in thought. Photograph in Victorian album, published: [189-?]. Part of the James Gardiner Collection, Wellcome Images reference L0076698.

The papers of King’s collaborator, Professor Richard Ekins, did not remain in the UK but have been transferred to the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, so we are particularly pleased that Dr King’s important documentation is now with us in the Wellcome Library.

Parts of the collection have had to be closed for a period in accordance with Data Protection and our Access Policy (pdf), most of it is now open to researchers either completely or following the completion of requests to view restricted access material for specific items.

Besides the archival material, the Library also holds not only his own books but volumes from his personal research library, which includes many rare items. His recordings of relevant television and radio programmes are held in our Moving Image and Sound Collection.

Author: Dr Lesley Hall is a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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