For Elio Colavito, oral history allows queer and trans people to speak “to and through the historical record” toward a history that allows them to simply be people, with their own rich lives and experiences and stories. But what of the process of hearing these stories? Colavito is working to create an authentic interview space that not only shows what happens when executing an interview or project, but one that captures just how dynamic oral history can be.
With International Transgender Day of Visibility coming up on March 31st, we spoke with them about their important work.
Can you tell us about your work and what led you to this research area?
When I came to grad school I had yet to come to terms with my own transness. When I finally arrived at myself, I looked to history for my own foundation; I needed to know how the infrastructures of living and care that saved my own life came to be. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, right?
Why are oral histories so important?
The archive is shaped by power, and queer and trans lives are often reduced to those of the immoral, pathologized criminal by state-organized documentation. Oral history is a method that allows queer and trans people to speak to and through the historical record by giving historical actors an opportunity to share their lives with researchers that care about their politics, pain, love, joy… It’s a place to move beyond the criminal and the medical and towards a history that lets queer and trans people be, well, people.
“Oral history is a method that allows queer and trans people to speak to and through the historical record by giving historical actors an opportunity to share their lives with researchers that care about their politics, pain, love, joy.”
Can you speak about your work with the LGBTQ History Digital Collaboratory?
I started working with the Collaboratory on the Pussy Palace Oral History Project in 2020. I’ve really become a jack-of-all-trades in my time there, but I love the opportunity to talk to people. The world around us and the university treat the individual as the principal arbiter of truth, but oral history and the Collaboratory fight against that. We share authority with one another in the interview process and in our public outcomes, resisting that emphasis on individualism every day. That’s been incredibly valuable to me as a scholar and as a member of various communities. The Collaboratory becomes a place where my anti-capitalist, decolonial, liberationist politics come to life.
How did the Traversing Temporalities interview series come about? What does it involve and what do you hope to accomplish with this series?
My supervisor and Collaboratory director Professor Elspeth Brown saw that I was struggling to find meaning in a particular phase of my life and thought that it might be helpful to give me an avenue to workshop my thoughts and feelings around the work I had been undertaking. Traversing Temporalities began as a written blog before it turned into an interview series, but the premise remained the same. I talked to scholars and community members about queer and trans oral history! I wanted to create a space for all of the behind-the-scenes muck that comes along with executing an oral history interview or project. It’s one thing to record the facts, but it’s another entirely to make meaning of what transpires in the interview space. Sometimes that was about the scholarship itself (reaching publics, the fickleness of memory, etc) and sometimes it was about working through my own emotions. I wanted other people to see how dynamic oral history can really be.
“Not only was [Mardi Pieronek] showing the platform users what trans life was like since the 1970s, but she was showing them that trans people can live and grow old and have happy lives. I wanted others to see that, and I wanted scholars to see how effective social media could be as a platform to publicize queer and trans history.”
Are there any interviews that you worked on that you found particularly impactful?
I’m a sentimentalist, so naturally, the piece that comes to mind comes from a conversation I had with a trans elder that touched me. Mardi Pieronek is a trans woman from British Columbia that shares her life stories on TikTok, and we connected on the platform after I was so moved by what she was doing. Not only was she showing the platform users what trans life was like since the 1970s, but she was showing them that trans people can live and grow old and have happy lives. I wanted others to see that, and I wanted scholars to see how effective social media could be as a platform to publicize queer and trans history. People want to learn, academics are just really bad at meeting them where they need to be met to do the learning!
“I needed to know about the trans people that built the communities I’m so lucky to have inherited, and more importantly, to know that trans people have always found ways to make our lives more livable. “
What other projects are you currently working on?
I’m in the process of developing a digital mapping project, “Mapping Transtopia: Trans-Masculine Mutual Aid, Activism, and Community Formation, 1970-2005.” The interactive map created on ArcGIS StoryMaps, a digital mapping and storytelling platform, organizes and spatializes the vastness and complexity of late 20th-century trans-masculine community building, resource sharing, and identity-making. It situates primary sources and histories of trans-masculinity to their geographies, tracing and connecting letters, magazines, and other material from sender to sender and city to city. I needed to know about the trans people that built the communities I’m so lucky to have inherited, and more importantly, to know that trans people have always found ways to make our lives more livable. I hope others will find this as life-giving as I do. I’m hoping the map will be completed soon!
Elio Colavito (he/they) is a white, trans, settler and PhD candidate in the Department of History with a collaborative specialization in Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on trans-masculine resource-sharing networks and social communities in Canada and the US from 1970 to 2005. They are also a researcher with the LGTBQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory and Queer and Trans Research Lab.