Five years ago, the average person would not have understood the meaning of the word ‘trans’.
But since the ‘trans tipping point’ in 2014, the gender spectrum has entered mainstream culture more than ever before. Plays with trans characters such as the Olivier-winning Rotterdam have taken the West End by storm, while films including The Danish Girl, TV shows such as BBC’s Boy Meets Girl and 21st-century trans icons Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have dominated screen time.
Yet the public rarely see beyond the celebrity media circus or portrayals of trans people in entertainment. Until now.
The Museum of Transology exhibition at London Fashion Space Gallery is presenting genuine stories of trans people. It is the largest collection of trans artefacts and photographs ever displayed, with more than 120 items.
Explaining his motivation behind the museum, Curator E-J Scott said: “There has been a wider recognition of trans or non-binary people, but this has been mainstream ideas of who we are, such as your Caitlyn Jenners who have this “before and after” experience, which most don’t have. It’s been read as an expression of alternate sexualities. Because of this, transcestry has been overlooked in museums.”
He notes a resulting trend of trans people feeling excluded from heritage sector jobs. “If you don’t see yourself in a museum, why would you think you’d be welcome to work there? This is why lots of transcestry has been lost – you need trans eyes to locate trans identities.
“This collection is a challenge to museums to not miss this increase in awareness. We’re in danger of overlooking this moment in time too.”
He is adamant, however, that this societal change was not down to representations of trans people in the cis media.
“I don’t think this project has been made possible just because cisgendered people know what trans is. Trans communities are being confident enough to say ‘this is my gender identity’. Trans people are finding each other, online and at Pride festivals, so when I had this idea word got out quickly, and people started donating things.
“The community made the set too. It provided a space where we could heal and create something beautiful.”
At the exhibition, members of a university LGBTQ+ society bump into each other. One congratulated another, happily shocked about the progress of their transition: “Your face is changing, your voice is deeper!” The room instantly became a safe space for community and support, just as train tickets to Pride events and their merch are a common feature of the display.
Richard Sandell, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, agrees the Museum of Transology is breaking new ground. “In 2005, when I started looking for museum narratives on gender diversity, examples were scarce.
“My research suggests these exciting portrayals of transgender lives would not have been possible ten or even five years ago. Now curators are acknowledging the potential for more inclusive narratives.”
But why are museums so crucial in rights struggles?
“Museums don’t operate in a vacuum”, he explains. “They not only reflect social norms but shape conversations society has about difference. They inform the climate within which groups engaged in equality struggles can exercise their rights.”
He cites that the potential for museums to impact visitors emotionally needs to be harnessed, as this can move people to protest and enforce wider change.
And it’s a change that is drastically needed. The exhibition demonstrates that UK society is not adapting quickly enough. Trans hate crimes have nearly doubled in the last five years. Almost one in three have been attacked or threatened more than three times in the past year. One in three trans people have experienced homelessness. Three trans women have died after being held in male prisons in the last two years.
Mr Scott suggests that excluding a group from museum representation hinders their chance to make sense of their place in a world that may not always be welcoming. His exhibition seeks to offer them roots.
“Museums should help you look to the past to locate yourself and understand why you are in the world in the way that you are, so you can build a responsible future”.
He adds that challenging the binary archival system is the key to improving trans inclusion. “We need ways of archiving that don’t posit there’s only a male and female experience.
“How do you archive someone who identifies as being assigned female at birth but is male? When they were made to wear a girl’s uniform at school, are you going to say those photos from 20 years ago are of a girl?”
Professor Sandell says public portrayals of trans lives created by trans people themselves are important. “These hold the potential to counter negative, stereotypical accounts of trans identities,” he says.
It is putting control in the hands of trans people which makes the Museum of Transology profoundly emotive.
“I decided to have handwritten tags attached to the objects, so the donor would be in control of their own narrative. It’s not the cis media explaining what trans identities are – these are real people’s stories,” says Scott.
This personal touch, complete with endearing spelling and grammar mistakes, creates the sense that the donors are speaking to you in their own voices – a powerful way to present stories that many may not have engaged with before.
And it’s clear the public agree. The exhibition has been overwhelmingly popular – Scott notes that it’s the busiest exhibition they’ve had at the London College of Fashion.
“I’ve been inundated with requests from around the world to donate more objects. There’s been interest in having the museum go on tour. But I want to find a permanent home so the collection is preserved. It’s complicated to save.”
The complexity doesn’t stop there. It is a challenging topic to get right, perhaps explaining why so few museums have explored it. Just last year London’s Science Museum was forced to rethink its ‘Who Am I?’ exhibition when it caused controversy by asking visitors to test whether they have a ‘pink’ or ‘blue’ brain, reinforcing stereotypes.
Granted, some items in the Museum of Transology are quite visceral – you can see how it could offend a more delicate viewer’s sensibilities. Yet it is unabashed. Its brochure’s cover features a breast in a jar, proclaiming the truth of trans life from the off.
“The exhibition is unapologetically great,” says Scott. “It is a bold display of the variations in trans people’s lives. There was no editorial process – whatever anyone wanted to donate, they were allowed to donate, hence the diversity of the objects, from everyday items to challenging ones.”
Intersectionality was an important component of this diversity, too. “There are people who aren’t just trans, they’re trans and black and Muslim and differently-abled, and this complicates life,’ Scott explains. “We tried to represent that this cuts across all sections of society.”
The set includes wardrobes of clothes, and bathroom cabinets filled with make-up and toiletries – a process of getting ready that everyone can relate to – and the ‘lounge room’ of hobbies containing ballet shoes and swimming goggles, for instance. But it also proudly displays plaster casts for gender confirmation surgery, hormones, and surgical items from Scott’s own chest operation, such as syringes, the hospital gown and a bloody binder, as well what he calls “the bits that caused my lactose intolerance” – the preserved breast tissue.
This humour echoes throughout the exhibition. A tag on a small ‘pack and pee’ prosthetic reads: ‘I became more ambitious with age!’ One card mentions works from a comedic film group such as A Cismas Carol and ‘a re-imagining of the nativity story’ (featuring a pregnant Marcus and his wife Josephine). The writer notes that trans characters are often used as ‘cheap punchlines’ – this collection gives the opportunity for humour to trans people themselves.
There are heartwarming stories, such as one man’s experience on hormones: ‘Sustanon 250 is the best thing to happen to me apart from my wife and son! It’s made me the husband and father I always wanted to be.’
But the collection ultimately offers a heartbreaking insight into the struggles many trans people face, such as being misgendered and the difficult process of transitioning. The struggle to get the correct medical care is evident in the hormone tags, often leading to potentially dangerous self-medicating. The brown travel tags in the exhibition are a metaphor for this gender journey. Yet cis people go on a journey too.
Scott says: “I wanted to end with the hat stand where people could write their own tag and understand gender on a spectrum is not just about trans people. We are still struggling, despite three waves of feminism, to disassociate gender from gender roles.
“The trans experience and feminism are aligned, despite the backlash from TERFs [Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists]. The trans fight is about ensuring gender equality for everyone.”
This idea has never been more prevalent. Women’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray recently came under fire for saying trans women are not ‘real women’, just as outspoken feminist Germaine Greer did in 2015, and there has been a turn against the so-called ‘transgender lobby’. But that ‘lobby’ is ready to fight back. The Museum of Transology is just the start.
// Glossary //
Words by Jessie Honnor