Acts of Defiance: Trans history on display in new exhibit

Acts of Defiance: Trans history on display in new exhibit

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Philadelphia’s history of trans activism is the focus of a new exhibit, “Defiant Archives: Trans Histories of Existence, Resistance and Brilliance,” running through Sept. 20 at the William Way LGBT Community Center. 

“Defiant Archives” is a collection of material curated and collected, in part, by local trans community members.

Local trans activist Sharron Cooks said the items on view came from both the center and the community.

“We basically looked through the John J. Wilcox Archives at the William Way Center and pulled a lot of material from there. A lot of the things that will be in the exhibition are things that were donated, researched or obtained by the William Way Center in one form or another,” Cooks said. “Then we used social media to reach out to various transgender organizations, artists and illustrators to be able to collaborate on this particular project. There were various members of the community that brought personal items of their own to be showcased and that is really exciting. So a lot of the process was about community engagement and outreach to the community and having them participate in whatever capacity. People looked through files with us. People came and brought new articles and items that they had from their life experiences. It was a great project to work on.”

Ezra Berkley Nepon, a Philadelphia-based writer, trans activist and curator of “Defiant Archives,” said the contributions from the community helped to fill in some of the history that wasn’t in the archives.

“Within each section of the larger LGBTQ archives, there are specific pieces that were very relevant to the story of trans activism in Philadelphia,” Nepon said. “There are some clippings, some organizational files and some personal collections. For instance, Tommi Avicolli’s personal collection has a lot about trans history in the 1970s. We used photos and other items donated by Ben Singer, a longtime Philadelphia trans activist. We also included many awards donated to the archives by activist Jaci Adams, who passed away in 2014. There are a number of publications that are relevant to this exhibit, and a few are on display. We also partnered with the Trans Oral History Project, who are sharing multiple videos of interviews with Philadelphia activists.”



Both Cooks and Nepon said there are some watershed moments in trans history represented in the exhibition.

“We were really excited about the 1970 ‘Transvestite and Transsexual Liberation’ manifesto from the Gay Dealer newspaper,” Nepon said. “The successful RAGE campaign to get SEPTA to stop using gender stickers also got a big highlight.”

“We have a lot of the RAGE literature and information,” Cooks added. “There are a lot of pivotal moments. We have a display case for Jaci Adams and a lot of the accomplishments and awards that she got. Those are some of the strong points for me personally because I’ve had personal experiences with these individuals and this particular kind of activism. There are a lot of people that were around at that time so for them it’s very personal. These were people that were very visible and did a lot of work helping to change the community. It’s a very personal community exhibit. It’s not just the items that are there, it’s all the energy and work that the center put into making this project come alive. It really translates when you actually see it.”

Nepon added the exhibition does not limit itself to labels and definitions.

“One of the things that is really exciting to me is that we tried to have a really open definition of what counts as activism and what counts as transgender. Between 1965-2015, the language we use for trans identity has shifted so much that it can be hard to find trans history in the archives or to know how someone’s identity would match up with our current definitions. In 2015, trans and drag are not the same —  but over the history we’re sharing here, the lines between those words and identities have been blurry and the struggle for gender freedom and self-determination has often been shared. The borders have shifted many times over the years. We’re honoring that those lines are blurry in this exhibit. We’re acknowledging that that interweaving between drag and trans communities has happened throughout time and still happens.”

Cooks said the visibility of transgender individuals on high-profile televisions shows and in mainstream headlines might increase interest in the exhibition.  

“I think any time there is something positive that is going on in the mainstream media, it’s definitely something that the community can benefit from in a positive way,” Cooks said. “I do think with all the visibility everywhere, that push forward makes people want to be a little more interested — not just the trans community, but allies as well.”

“Trans people have always been here,” Nepon added. “I hope that the increased awareness and visibility of trans lives and struggles helps to acknowledge and honor that. If people didn’t see us before, it’s not because we weren’t here. This exhibit is also a way for trans people to see ourselves, and to know that we come from a history and a legacy. The demands that the trans community and trans activists are fighting for in 2015 are similar to those of the 1970s. The struggle continues, so let’s hope for a turning point.”

Nepon added that exhibit organizers are also aiming to generate interest in documenting trans history, through such resources as the center’s archives.

“One of the things we are trying to encourage with this exhibit is to say that the story of the trans experience in Philadelphia is represented but not as well-represented as it should be,” Nepon said. “There are other parts of the story and we hope that many more trans community members will consider sharing their histories with the archive collection.” 

“Defiant Archives” is on view through Sept. 20 at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. For more information, visit or call 215-732-2220.


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