These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER 1: So it is the 22nd of January 2022 and we are in Teignmouth to record a live story interview for the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM. My name is Jana Funke and I am interviewing Lena today, so thank you so much. So the first question we are asking everyone is you’ve chosen an object from RAMM’s collections that resonates with you. So can you tell us which object you have chosen and just describe it to us?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, it’s A Spring, its official title on the RAMM thing is A Spring or Early Summer Afternoon Dress. My main memory of it is that you walked into the RAMM and went, I think it was to the right, and it was there in this glass case and it had a lot of influences from Elizabethan styles despite being a nineteenth century dress. Shall I keep talking? Is this useful?
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes please.
PARTICIPANT 1: So basically my interaction with it came from in the summer of 2017, I had a period where I was off sick from work and I was doing regular therapy in Exeter town centre. And when I ended my sessions in therapy, I’d always have to go to the RAMM because my partner was doing, would spend a lot of time looking at the sea anemones in there, so that would be where we’d meet and I remember walking into this room and always been like, really struck by this dress and it having this real emotional reaction to it and then like… to the extent I remember looking around the rest of the collection and not feeling that. Not being quite sure why that was or able to put it into words at the time. This was before I came out.
INTERVIEWER 1: So the next question is why this object? What drew you to this object? But you said you don’t actually know what it was about that particular dress.
PARTICIPANT 1: I have some thoughts. I mean it’s, I think it’s such a delicate piece. And I think it was also a matter of the time. So I’m going to go on a tangent that I’ve thought about and I hope that’s okay. When I was a very young child I was given a book on the history of costuming and clothes, fashion, and I recall spending a lot of my time looking especially at the nineteenth century page which is where the, like the eighteenth and nineteenth century is where the clothing started to seem relatable but not too relatable. I couldn’t quite explain why but that was a real draw to me and I spent a lot of time thinking about the way those were used, I think also because it was the closest thing I had to princess imagery that was accessible to me as a closeted trans girl, it doesn’t seem unusual, like if you were talking about a cisgender girl to say, at the age of five I liked princesses, but for me, that was something that I had to keep very hidden and that was like my one access to that kind of thing. So it’s always been sort of an interest to me and I felt like when I saw that, it spoke to those sort of memories of very delicate styles, very yeah, I liked the cut of it. I liked the style of it. And it was bright, it felt elegant in a way that some of the other items didn’t and however much I walked around the rest of the collection, it would be in my mind as why is this, why has this stuck with me and not this item or that item? Which were maybe a bit too removed from where I was or maybe there was something that felt almost attainable about that image of femininity as well. It did hit me as a dysphoric pain of this is not accessible. Yeah, if that makes sense?
INTERVIEWER 1: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s really interesting because there’s a lot of dresses and pieces of clothing in that room and it’s really nice to hear that this particular dress resonated with you in that way.
PARTICIPANT 1: I think it’s interesting. When I was thinking about this I was thinking about the Little Britain characters and how much when we look at the images that I had of trans women that were presented in the noughties, like something obviously drew those creators to when they were making fun of trans women, to do it through Victorian-style dresses as well and there was something about it that… I find there’s something about it that seems to speak of trans femininity and maybe it’s the over-the-topness, maybe it’s the fact that it feels a bit over-the-top in terms of its expression, that then feels not attainable but enough of a fantasy that you not picturing yourself in it, which is really important when you’re not out, because you are allowed to enjoy expressions of femininity as long as they are in no way connected to you, so yeah, I think that’s what it gave me. It didn’t feel attainable. But it felt so unattainable that it was a possible fantasy, as opposed to when you get to the more modern stuff, it’s possible, there’s the stuff that it’s possible to wear, which was a bit too much, because that could be like, at this stage that was really, for the first time in a long time I had time to process because I was off sick and I’d just come out of therapy when I was looking at this stuff and I think I was very open to being able to think about gender and so it sort of yeah, it hit that right point at that time of being between unattainable and attainable, if that makes sense?
INTERVIEWER 1: Yeah, so you said this was a few years ago. I mean when you now talk about the dress and look at the dress, has this changed for you at all the feelings you have?
PARTICIPANT 1: It’s really difficult to tell. I think it’s still a beautiful piece. I guess I have, because of the way that Victorian fashion can be used in particularly sort of transphobic settings like Little Britain being the really close example of it, the most mainstream example of it, but it’s a very… it’s a very weird part of my heritage and growth and it sort of gives me this weird feeling of all the reasons why we’re told, like being trans is a fetish, so like when I think about it I am processing it through understanding my own feelings and processing my own feelings on why I was drawn to these things and what it meant to me and I don’t know, I do find as I’ve progressed more through transition I’m less drawn to really fancy feminine clothes and more drawn to things that look comfy, has become increasingly important, especially over lockdown.
INTERVIEWER 1: So I guess I’m interested in the question of whether you think that you have quite a unique connection to that object, do you think another LGBT+ person who might walk through that space might also be drawn to that dress?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think that’s a really interesting question. Because to a degree I think we are, it can be quite difficult to talk about like those early pre-coming out feelings, because they get tied in with so many things, like you have to like… part of your brain is like, is this a fetish? What are dysphoric feelings? When you don’t know about dysphoria and don’t associate them with yourself, and I think we are still having trouble finding the language to discuss that, so it’s not like, I wouldn’t say I’ve sat down with any trans people and talked about like… why Victorian fashion particularly was such a draw for me or such a thing where I could feel a sense of comfort, so it’s hard to say. I would say that often when I’ve been in those sorts of conversations I’ve found that other people have felt the same way, but you know, when we’ve been in conversations about things we’ve experienced in the past we’ve felt the same way, but I’ve not sat down and talked about Victoriana and how it impacts, because it’s such a wide conversation as well, because it intersects with race and how do we see our history and how do we see our history as trans people when a lot of these clothing have been used, utilised in cross dressing and utilised in fetish and utilised in mocking us? And it’s like trying to untie all of that history, I guess.
INTERVIEWER 1: I guess a broader question about the museum and questions of representation in the installation as a whole is this idea of having your voice represented as part of the installation. Is it important to you to be part of an installation? If so, what is the importance to you for this project? Are there other things that we might want to do? I mean what are your feelings about the project as a whole?
PARTICIPANT 1: We especially like the trans community… have not been very well-recorded in history and I feel like particularly the trans-femme community has been recorded in very difficult ways. Sorry, my brain is putting this together and I think my thought is if you look at the people of particularly the eighteenth century, like when I chose my name I chose a name associated with, my middle name is Molly, because of the mollies who were an eighteenth century transgender group. They had these big stories and they had an identity and even when it’s talked about, even when we have records about it, historians will often ignore it. Like I recently read something where someone said of all the people in his court case used she / her pronouns to describe him, which was a real show of respect for his identity, and the fact that historians writing now are still erasing our history is really difficult. I mean I know this item and I know the items in the collection are most likely a part of straight history and we’re putting on our stories, we’re projecting our stories back and our meanings back because our history hasn’t been recorded. There isn’t Princess Seraphina’s dress is not in a museum somewhere, there are no paintings of her that are on display, so how can we make sure that, how can we add ourselves to an existing narrative, I guess, is the thing, and that’s a really troubling thing. And there’s always this thing of just trying to… I feel like especially when we are talking about these kinds of styles we are talking about things that can be heavily-fetishised and heavily underdiscussed and I’d really love it if more people who are thinking about that, like maybe there are people out there thinking about that who haven’t transitioned and would, and I guess it’s trying to find every way to send them a signal, and like this is okay, what you’re feeling now is okay and it’s worth exploring and you can think about it and that can come at so many places in your life that I think we have to make sure that that message is there, so I guess that’s the importance of it.
INTERVIEWER 1: Absolutely. So building on what you were saying; what do you hope other people might take away from your story, your engagement with the dress, the installation as a whole, the project, or this kind of project as a whole? What do you think other people will learn from it or be inspired to do?
PARTICIPANT 1: I hope that people will interrogate their feelings around costume and gender. I hope that people will start to think about why they may have particular feelings and why we have come to associate, like what does feminine, okay, so femininity is often under-respected. When we’ve looked at these kind of dresses, we often, they’re often not… respected, like often even when we have a feminist character it will be them ripping part of the their dress off to symbolise, etc., it’s almost like feminine-ness… is seen as bad. And when we’ve had these dresses it becomes… part of a story of humiliation, that feminine-ness equals humiliation, being a woman equals humiliation and being a trans woman is the most humiliating thing. And a dress like this can be so fantastically useful for that narrative, because it’s about ultra-femininity and then like so you can then have ultra-humiliation but it shouldn’t be that and we’ve got to interrogate our feelings around why. Another thing from my childhood was Bill’s New Frock, which is a book about a boy who turns into a girl and therefore has to wear a frock and is therefore humiliated and has a horrible time and nothing good can come of it and it’s trying to break that down and say actually, being a woman is good, actually, and it’s okay to be feminine. That doesn’t make you a traitor. It doesn’t make you less feminist, it doesn’t make you less valuable and I feel like part of why I want to talk about this dress is to say that. And to interrogate the history of it, because there is so much, so another – sorry, I hope it’s okay to go off on tangents – but I remember when I walk through the collection, like being able to feel like the modern things feeling too real and the oriental or African collections feeling too removed and it’s why I guess a big question is what is it in our history that like, why have we not humanised the other items in the collection in the same way? Why is our understanding, why is the thing that we’ve trained about, like princess culture, why is the thing that we teach girls so inherently white and inherently white European beauty standards? What can we do to separate the idea of there being this is like things that you could exist in and this is things that are alien and how can we make, how can we bring that together and not just queer the collection but improve our understanding of femininity to include other cultures? I don’t know if that makes sense?
INTERVIEWER 1: It definitely makes sense. Absolutely. I mean if it’s okay, you don’t have to answer, but I am interested in something you said earlier and I guess on this project, we are always thinking about what does it mean to engage with queer trans non-binary histories and I find it really interesting that you say how painful that can also be because things can be unattainable because things can feel out of reach, because also those histories have been erased or we are not taught those histories or they are not accessible to us and sometimes all we see is an absence or something we can’t easily get at. There’s no easy answer to this but I was wondering what you would say to people who are trying to do trans history or queer history or non-binary history and how it affects us, like the emotional affective dimensions of that?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think that way too often, okay, so there’s the party line, which I’m sure you know, which is we need to be honest that people are trans in the past, we need to break the assumption that everyone in the past was cisgender and if not known, they’re cisgender. Like, oh this person would not have used the term non-binary because that didn’t exist at the time, therefore they are cis, which is again another term that didn’t exist when they were alive, so there’s that side of things, but there’s also like… so we have such a large amount of like even just looking back to my youth and Little Britain and other expressions of mocking transfemininity or fetishising transfemininity is another really huge things, uses a lot of these styles and uses a lot from our history, without acknowledging that we have any place in it and it’s a pain I think that we live with because we met ourselves in stories that were negative and you have to sit with that and in a way sitting with that is not that academic work, it’s a restructuring of those stories and that’s a creative work. It’s the process of changing the language, changing the ending, making it so… Bill from Bill’s New Frock can be happy in their life. Yeah, I think that’s the biggest work that, because I am not an academic, the biggest work I see is that process of changing the stories so that we can have a place in them and agency in them. So I guess the thing to add is my interaction was that this time where I was both vulnerable and not, I was sick, and I was getting therapy, but the museum is a place of meeting and it’s a meeting place and it’s a place where you have that time to take a breath and it can therefore hit you really hard, like it’s a place where you can have these realisations, you can meet part of history in a different way and… it’s a place where you can have these realisations about yourself. I feel like having those feelings at that stage was a really early part of, like I’ve had those feelings throughout my life but that was like the point where and then they started becoming more frequent and it wasn’t a surprise that a few months later I was coming out because like I’d opened a door and the museum where it is in the centre of town can be a place where people can open that door and it can be in so many different ways and yeah, it’s about being open to that.
[00:23:12] End of transcript