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The Irish Trans Archive: Taking recognition beyond the courtroom

On Zoom, Sara Phillips is framed in front of a jam-packed, but very neat, bookcase. But there’s a sense that there’s a lot more material off-camera.

As she discusses her research, she disappears for a moment and returns with a pile of books. Elsewhere in the house, she stores the entire Irish Trans Archive – of which she is the founder, researcher and archivist.

Phillips is always busy collating, cataloguing and promoting her work. The archive’s current exhibition at the CHQ building in Dublin’s Docklands tells the story of Ireland’s gender recognition legislation. But her research nurtures gender recognition among the broader public.

The Road to Recognition exhibition

As part of Dublin Pride, The Road to Recognition exhibition highlights the 22 year legal battle which resulted in the implementation of Ireland’s gender recognition legislation.

The twelve panels tell the story of trans woman Dr. Lydia Foy, who took the case, and the campaign behind it. In 2015, Ireland became the fourth country in the world to provide recognition for trans people based on a self-determination model.

“Not only did we get gender recognition, we got world-leading recognition,” comments Phillips. ”We took a massive leap!”

Though the exhibition covers relatively recent events, it hopes to make more people aware of the story. Phillips takes pride in documenting and promoting this contemporary history, but this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of her research.

Lydia Foy, 2015

The work of the Irish Trans Archive

The Irish Trans Archive was officially set up in 2016. But Phillips, who herself is a trans woman, has collected material for over 40 years.

“Back in the 70/80s, I was looking for my tribe and I would collect any little notes, books or newspaper articles that I could find,” she explains. 

In 2015, with the introduction of Ireland’s new laws, someone suggested that a collection should be created. Phillips realised she was the perfect person to do just that.

Right now, Phillips does most of the archive’s work but she gets some help along the way. People contribute information and artefacts, while the TRANS-FUSION festival has helped with exhibitions. Dr. Lydia Foy’s records will soon become part of the archive too.

Phillips welcomes every lead she can get and her research often jumps between decades and centuries as she goes down the rabbit hole on each one.

Recently, she’s been trawling through newspaper archives. And, in the coming months, lunatic asylum records will keep her occupied. In the past, she’s also discovered tales of the Irish trans diaspora in American archives.

As she delves deeper into the past, Phillips is careful about the labels used: “I’m not necessarily looking for a trans history; I’m looking for a gender variant history. Because we can’t necessarily put the language of today on the past.

She’s often surprised by the wealth of stories out there. Researching male and female impersonators of the 1800s has proven to be a particularly rich source of material.

“They’re not always doing it just for theatrical reasons,” explains Phillips. “Sometimes they’re LGBT, sometimes they’re trans and this is their way of presenting themselves… One or two of these individuals have gone on to present themselves that way throughout their lives.”

Between 1870-1899, Phillips has idenitifed 47 cross-dressing entertainers – that’s more than there is today.

It’s not a fad!

Raising awareness is also a key part of the Irish Trans Archive’s work. Phillips gives talks every opportunity she gets.

“If the archive itself doesn’t live, it’s a total waste,” she says. “We’ve got to tell people that these histories are there and they exist”.

As she sees it, the archive is about more than just preserving history. It’s also about making a present day statement. For her, it seems like the wider public think that the trans community has only appeared in the last decade or so. She wants to change that perception.

A couple of years ago, just after Phillips set up the official archive, she spoke to a group from the BeLong To Youth Services. At the end, a member of the group gave her a heartfelt thanks. They now had a response for classmates who said that being trans was just a fad.

“They can say: ‘No, have you ever heard of Michael Dillon? Have you ever heard of Albert Cashier? Have you ever heard of Dr. Lydia Foy? Have you ever heard of Edward de Lacy Evans? It’s not a fad and, to this 15 year old, it was a goldmine of information. This community has a history.”