Meet Alison Laing. Between 1956 and 1965, the young transgender woman was the subject of 36 photographs, taken by an unknown individual (most likely her wife, Dottie Laing). These images comprise the first album in the groundbreaking Digital Transgender Archives at the College of the Holy Cross, a 173-year-old Jesuit Catholic college in Worcester, Mass. In this first image of Laing, she appears sharply attired outdoors on the boardwalk in front of a mini-golf course and a motel. —Cleis Abeni
Here Laing is seen at an unidentified person’s home sometime between 1956 and 1965. Laing’s photographs are some of the most remarkable records of a proud, out trans woman taken during that era. Today, Laing remains a prominent leader in the movement toward affirmation of transgender Americans. She co-founded with three others the Renaissance Education Foundation, and was a director of Fantasia Fair, an annual gathering in Provincetown, that, more than 40 years after its founding, remains the longest-running trans-affirming conference in the United States.
Here Laing appears in 1961, wearing evening attire at home. The Digital Trans Archive makes artifacts about trans life accessible that would rarely be viewable without online access. The archive was founded by K.J. Rawson, a professor in the English department at Holy Cross who is a tireless advocate for trans affirmation. Along with directing the archive, Rawson teaches composition, rhetoric, digital media, and LGBT studies.
Here Laing appears without glasses at home.
“The archives has been great for the students,” says archive curator Rawson, highlighting the ways in which the Digital Transgender Archive gives Holy Cross students opportunities to learn archival research techniques by digitizing documents and cataloguing items for online access. Students at the Jesuit school also learn about the history of transgender lives and political advocacy in ways that show them actual documents that bear witness to the past. "As a rhetorician,” Rawson is concerned with how documents from the past “persuade us” of the power and uniqueness of people. Rawson praises Holy Cross for the school's consistent support for the archive.
Here Laing appears in a photo booth wearing a head scarf in undated images.
“I have learned so much!” says Holy Cross student Catarina-Oliva Beal, an English and sociology major with a concentration in creative writing. Beal emphasizes that their student work at the archive has helped them appreciate a diversity of historical experiences under the transgender umbrella, including “cross-dressing.”
Here Laing appears in a photo booth wearing a head scarf in undated images. Dallas Denny, a writer, editor, publisher, community organizer, and powerful advocate for transgender equality, helped bring Laing’s personal collection of images to the attention of Rawson and the arhive. Denny tells The Advocate:
“Her collected records and materials document not only her personal involvement, but the history of the organizations with which she was affiliated. I should note that Dottie, Alison's late wife, played an important role in Alison's transgender activism. She served a term as Director of Fantasia Fair and attended many events. Alison is no longer able to house her voluminous history, and last fall, with her permission, her daughters delivered a dozen or more boxes of papers, photographs, letters, recordings, books, newsletters, and program books to my house."
In this 1959 image, Laing stands beside a tree.
Writer, publisher, organizer, and advocate Denny shares more of her process with The Advocate:
“I catalogued and sorted [Laing’s images] and sent them to two transgender archives, one at the University of Victoria and the other at the University of Michigan. There they will be available to researchers and the general public. Many of the materials traveled first to K.J. Rawson at the Digital Transgender Archive project, where they have been and are being scanned and made available online. In this way Alison's personal history and an important piece of transgender history will be preserved and made available. In Alison's materials I found two small albums of photos which contained striking photographs of Alison during her earlier years. They reflect her expression of gender as it evolved over the years.”
Here Laing stands on a boardwalk in an undated photo.
“For our students, the work of the DTA provides opportunities to pursue original scholarship in digital humanities and allows them — and other members of the College community — to engage with a community that historically has been marginalized,” says Cristal Steuer, the associate director of marketing and communications at Holy Cross. “There have already been 15 Holy Cross students working or who have worked as research assistants on the DTA. They cite it as a transformative experience: one recent graduate is considering a career in libraries and another is pursuing transgender-related social justice work.”
Here’s Laing in a close-up on the boardwalk.
“Professor Rawson has received overwhelming support from colleagues across campus and alumni as he has developed this project,” says Steuer, emphasizing how welcoming the college community has been to the archive. “Media coverage to date has also been positive. A few alumni have had questions about the project, but the vast majority have been supportive. I would like to point out a comment from an alumnus to the Boston Globe article on the DTA:"
"As a 71-year-old graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and about as conventional as one can be, I say, 'Go Cross Go.' Learning about the unlimited possibilities of the human experience is no subject for ridicule. It is a subject for nonjudgmental inquiry and the fact that my alma mater is engaged in a front-line study is a source of pride. Learning can only lead to deeper understanding and, one can hope, increased tolerance for those people whose lives do not precisely parallel our own.”
Here’s Laing in ballet garb in an undated photo.
Lara Wilson, director of special collections and university archivist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, praises the archive, noting, “We need digital access to important materials.” She comments on how we are quickly coming to a time when knowledge about past lives is a “touch away,” as we interact with our computer screens or keyboards. The Digital Transgender Archive breaks ground in using technology to raise visibility about lives that are often made invisible, she concludes.
Here is an image of Alison and Dottie Laing, spouses, shot by Mariette Pathy Allen. For decades, Allen has photographed gender-variant people with empathy and detail.
Here Laing is shown with Dallas Denny (right) while holding an award at Fantasia Fair, the legendary transgender conference that has brought happiness, knowledge, friendship, and affirmation to countless gender-variant people for more than 40 years.
Here’s Laing with the legendary trans activist Riki Wilchins. Wilchins founded the first national transgender advocacy group, GenderPAC.
From left: Alison Laing, Ariadne Kane, Dottie Laing, Dallas Denny, Marilyn Volker, and Pam Geddes at Fantasia Fair.