A view inside the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive, which opened to the public in Vallejo in 2018. (Courtesy LLTA)
One of the Bay Area’s most unique, valuable public resources—the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive—began with a single person’s dedication to collecting and preserving the past. “In 1979, when I had my own apartment for the first time, I bought the premiere copy of Female Mimics International,” explains founder and director Ms. Bob Davis. Over the next 40 years, she would amass one of the largest archives of transgender and gender-nonconforming history, open to the public in Vallejo since 2018.
The collection grew from that initial purchase, blooming into a garden of Ms. Bob’s thoughtful, intentional cultivation. In the 1980s, she started relying on her own trove to write for a variety of community publications—“all of them now defunct,” she laments. By the 2000s, other writers and researchers started requesting access to her collection of rare materials, ranging from books and periodicals to personal photos.
A few years ago, it became clear that the materials—by then contained in about 35 bankers boxes—needed a stable, permanent home accessible to anyone. “Walking around my termite-infested garage, I decided to make an archive out of it,” Ms. Bob explains. Because of her relationship with the GLBT Historical Society—she served two terms on the board of directors in the 1990s—the historical society signed on as the project’s fiscal sponsor.
Fundraising and construction on the facility took two years, and a mostly volunteer team worked on organizing the collection. “When you’re doing things from the grassroots and don’t have a lot of capital, these things take time,” Ms. Bob notes. Designer Robyn Adams created the archive’s beautiful logo and graphics and administers the website. Ms. Bob’s partner, Carol Kleinmaier, known for developing highly regarded caregiver trainings through the Shanti Project, uses her invaluable grant-writing expertise to continue applying for further funds. Almost exactly three years ago, the archive opened to the public.
Ms. Bob selected Louise Lawrence as a namesake for one of several obvious reasons: Lawrence was a longtime Bay Area resident, living first in Berkeley and then San Francisco, where she lectured at UCSF, helping physicians understand that being transgender was not a mental disorder.
Naming the archive for Lawrence was also a way to elevate the progressive publisher and community leader’s status. Even a decade ago, Lawrence was relatively unknown despite working closely with sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey and co-founding the independent magazine Transvestia, a groundbreaking publication focused on gender and cross-dressing. “It’s amazing how much Louise’s star has ascended in the past five years,” Ms. Bob marvels.
Ms. Bob’s work is also finding ever wider, more appreciative audiences. In 2019, she gave a conference presentation called “Glamour, Drag and Death: HIV/AIDS in the Art of Three Drag Queen Painters,” which was recently published as a research article in Transgender Studies Quarterly and is now being adapted into a documentary film. The story centers on San Francisco drag queens Miss Kitty, Jerome Caja, and Doris Fish, who all died between 1991 and 1995 and whose vivid, contemporary works were reactions to the AIDS pandemic, including their own diagnoses. “Making a movie is a whole new exciting experience for me,” says Ms. Bob. “The talk is good, and I want this to have a larger audience.”
Another ongoing project at the LLTA is digitizing materials to share with other archives and research centers, A current partnership with the Digital Transgender Archive at the Northeastern University Library involves scanning several dozen newsletters from FTM International, one of the oldest transmasculine support networks in the nation that was founded in San Francisco in the 1980s. The plan is for the newsletters to eventually be part of a DTA exhibition.
Forming institutional partnerships and taking trans history to the public is vital to the archive’s visibility. “Archives can tend to feel that they’re turned inward,” says Ms. Bob. “I established our speakers bureau from the get-go because I wanted to share information with the community, not just academic circles, and let people know the archive is here.” Gathering together experts who can speak authoritatively about trans history was especially intuitive for Ms. Bob, who taught at City College for 40 years. “I’m used to talking to small groups,” she demurs. LLTA’s speakers include Transgender Day of Remembrance founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith and renowned scholar and filmmaker Dr. Susan Stryker.
The LLTA continues to be open by appointment, and like the best archives, it offers a quiet, safe space for research and contemplation while also establishing itself as a resource for anyone. “Public outreach has always been part of the vision for the archive,” Ms. Bob adds. “And hopefully when we present out in the community, people say, ‘Oh, now I see why you’re saving this.’”
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