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Grief! in the Archive

I started really exploring archives in 2021 — which meant that until recently, most of my archival experiences were digital. Digital archives and digitized archival materials are imperative resources in making research and history more accessible, and the Digital Transgender Archive and JSTOR’s Independent Voices collection have allowed me to familiarize myself with many independent publications and make intergenerational trans connections. Even so, the physical and digital archive experiences are different — different in a way that I have found to be emotionally intense. In person, the experience was often more like sorting through a loved one’s things after their death than the CTRL + F  mechanism that dominated my digital archive surfing.The viscerality of holding Adam O’Connor’s last journal and seeing how many pages went unfilled would be hard to reproduce digitally — would a scan even include the empty pages, or just the ones he had time to fill? 

Adam O’Connor’s unfinished journal

Image description: a white person’s hand holds open a graph paper lined notebook. There are a few illegible marks in black ink on the left page and the right page is empty. The hand shows the amount of the journal, maybe a third to half of it, that was left unfilled. A blue-gray archive box and yellow folders are visible in the background. 

Another in-person contrast to my digital archival experience is the ways in which the materials are organized, or rather, my interactions with how the materials are organized. The chronology gives me a sense of first time traveling backwards forty-odd years, then forward again one year at a time.  In encountering the organization files of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus (NYCGMC) at the NYPL, for instance, I found a folder for each year. At the Lesbian Herstory Archives, I came upon a chairman’s note in an NYCGMC December 1980 concert program that referenced “the November 19th tragedy,” which I later found referred to the Ramrod Bar shooting during which former NYC Transit Authority cop Ronald K. Crumpley killed Vernon Kroening and Jorg Wenz at a Greenwich Village gay leather bar. As 1981 dawns in the papers I rifle through, I feel a sense of increasing dread, even guilt, as I know what’s coming even though my subjects do not. AIDS.  I feel simultaneously omniscient and powerless. 

Writing in early 1981, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus urges prospective donors for their upcoming national tour to “Help make 1981 a memorable year for gay people everywhere.” 

Excerpt of letter asking for donations to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ 1981 National Tour 

Image description: slightly faded serif printed text reads “Help make 1981 a memorable year for gay people everywhere – a year in which we show our country that being gay is not just a life-style but is a contribution to the richness and diversity of our nation. Sincerely, The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.” 

One of the aspects of going through a personal collection that can make it feel odd is that you are going through someone’s stuff — even if they donated it, even if they’re dead. It can seem voyeuristic, one-sided. In a way, reading someone’s memos, their notes on the back of a weekly chorus bulletin, even their diaries — although arguably one-sided, this is a more intimate knowing than I have with most acquaintances and even many friends. The one-sidedness makes me wonder if maybe it’s like mourning the death of a celebrity you never met in person — but no, it’s much more intimate than that. You’ve held things they held and read their private correspondence, maybe even their diaries. 

There are instructions on how to handle the materials in a physical sense — keep the folders flat on the table, remove one at a time — but no one prepares you for how to handle what you find in the folders. Folders full of memorial service programs, diary entries reflecting on one’s own mortality or listing sick friends.  

Archival grief to me is mourning the loss of someone you never met but feel as if you’ve gotten to know. 

Undated journal entry by Adam O’Connor, probably written no earlier than 1994, as O’Connor died from AIDS complications on April 17th, 1996

Image description: blue ink on graph paper reads “When they told me I was dying, I wasn’t surprised. Enough of my friends were dying or dead that I shouldn’t have expected to escape. I had had time to think about my fate before I knew that it was my fate.” 

Perhaps my grieving for these people I never met is my way of trying to bridge the gap, of making the archival experience a bit more two-sided. 

(In the past few years, work such as that by Lynette Russell, Cheryl Regehr et al., and Jennifer Douglas et al. has begun to discuss affect in the archive and archival grief responses, but it remains a newer topic of focus.)

The Sonic Transition Timeline: “This is my [singing] voice 6 months on testosterone.”

Even if you’re not trans, you’ve probably seen a transition timeline. Two pictures, marked with dates, perhaps presented as a “before” and “after” photo, although of course they are actually a during and during, two snapshots of one life. The most popular ones are usually of someone who meets all the benchmarks of conventional attractiveness –– often white and thin –– and perceived gender conformity in both photos — a bearded person with a flat chest and short hair on one side and  the same person with long hair, breasts, and carefully-applied makeup. These pictures could be in either order depending on the narrative the poster wants to tell.

Transition timelines or updates, can occur via video and sound clip as well. YouTube has been a repository of these for over a decade. Let us call the audio parts of these sonic transition timelines. There is a common script: someone looks straight into the camera and says,“Hi, my name’s ___ and this is my voice [number] [days/weeks/months/years] on testosterone.” 

At the age of 17, Skylar Kergil started posting transition videos on YouTube in 2009, when trans lives were far less frequently discussed in mainstream media. His videos, several of which feature him singing and accompanying himself on the guitar, provide weekly insight into his vocal changes for his first year on testosterone (frequently abbreviated “T.”) Captivating his audience with a goofy, scruffy, boy-next-door vibe, he writes songs for his girlfriend and gives his thousands of followers vulnerable updates on his transition, his songwriting, and his life.. Kergil embraces the voice cracking in his early transition videos, leaning into the cracks for his vocal stylistics, and demonstrating how he can make his voice crack at will as a fun fact. Some of Kergil’s videos, as well as those of other transmasculine YouTubers, have an instructional component to them, demonstrating how to inject testosterone, how to navigate the complexities of the medicolegal system, or providing “passing tips.” 

This kind of intracommunity knowledge sharing was not an invention of the 21st century. In 1985, Lou Sullivan published an informational pamphlet titled “Information for the Female-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual” with chapter headings such as “Body Language,” “Hormone Therapy,” and “How to Look 30 When You Are 30.” Although Sullivan does not specifically address the singing voice, he writes of the voice on testosterone, “The vocal cords thicken, the voice sounds hoarse and cracks like an adolescent boy’s, and eventually deepens to a man’s.”

YouTube videos, in addition to their descendants, TikToks, function as a more accessible — and more interactive – version of earlier DIY guides and trans autobiographies. Many of these videos reproduce the same narratives as the autobiographies and are formatted the same as one another, but they actively build community as well as celebrity, as users post their own content, comment on each other’s videos, and pose questions for one another, seeking or giving advice and encouragement, remarking how much one poster’s voice has dropped since the last update. 

Laura Horak posits that these videos establish a temporality of hormone time in opposition to the notion of queer time. While queer time eschews linear chronology, hormone time progresses in a linear manner, measuring itself against a date of perceived genesis: the first pill of estrogen or first injection of testosterone. YouTube videos are titled accordingly, such as “six and a half months on T + 5 ‘random facts.’” “Hormoniversary” and “tranniversary” are terms sometimes used to mark the starting date of HRT (hormone replacement therapy), further highlighting these ideas of a “second birthday” that parallel the common use of “second puberty” for hormonal transition.

The sonic transition timeline tends to be a bit more hidden than the photo comparison. Historically relegated to full-length YouTube videos, it was more likely to be found by those who were intentionally searching for that type of content than it was to pop up in a social media feed. However, TikTok may be changing this. 

With commonly applied hashtags such as #ftmsinger (17.1 million views), #TransSinger (4.9 million views), #Tvoice (6.4 million views), and #VoiceUpdate (66.5 million views), these sonic timelines are reaching a larger audience than even the most popular trans YouTube videos —  two of Skylar Kergil’s videos break 1 million views, but his first video has only 170K views and 1,400 likes. A compilation of a young trans singer, Dan Rice, performing musical theatre songs from age 15 (pre-testosterone) to 20 (4 years on testosterone) garnered over 100K likes and more than 400K views. The video begins by showing him as a fifteen-year-old ingénue soprano, singing up to a B5 in a semi-operatic role, clad in puffed sleeves and petticoats. Next, Rice appears six months on T at the age of sixteen, belting in a high tenor range. In the third soundbite, he is 1.5 years on T, his tone has broadened and his voice has settled further into the tenor range. By the fourth clip, he is 2 years on T, has significantly more vocal control, and performs a classical piece with light vibrato in contrast to the previous musical theatre selections. By 3 years on testosterone, his voice has deepened even further and he is a baritone with a much fuller voice than even one year before. At 4 years on testosterone, he is able to mix his chest voice with his head voice with more control than in the previous clips. Starting hormones in high school, Rice likely followed a gradual introduction of testosterone into his endocrine system that more closely emulated his cisgender male peers’ puberties than the higher starting doses of testosterone that are prescribed to adults. For adults on a ‘standard’ dose of T, the majority of the vocal drop has usually occurred by the time they have been on T for between six months and a year. 

The comment section for this sonic transition timeline video is filled with other young people who are interested in starting T themselves. These commenters ask Rice for advice, compliment his voice, and tell him that his videos have alleviated their fears about navigating singing on testosterone. Despite the TikToker having a smaller follower count, his videos often reach more people than Kergil’s do. TikTok seems to be allowing videos to break outside of their initially intended sphere in a way that was not happening on YouTube. The app also enables users to quickly reply to one another’s questions or comments, as can be seen when Ezra Michael provides a personal answer to the question “can trans masc folks on T still sing in falsetto?” with a demonstration of what him accessing his falsetto register sounds like. Unlike the photographic transition timeline, the sonic transition timeline, whether on YouTube or TikTok, becomes a more active source of knowledge seeking and sharing.