Mapping Transtopia | Trans + Script

I’m not the first queer person to say that I was really into Matilda (1996) when I was a child. I loved the scenes of Matilda in awe of her public library, enchanted by the escape it offered from her home life. The library was her safe place. My research is mine.

With a focus on trans and non-binary library workers, the Trans+Script column celebrates the experiences of people working in libraries as well as those in adjacent fields. Author Elio Colavito shares their story of how a love of libraries, an appreciation of affirming library staff, and personal research interests come together in a powerful way.—Elsworth Carman


I’m not the first queer person to say that I was really into Matilda (1996) when I was a child. Don’t worry, this column is not about my attraction to Miss Honey. It’s easy to imagine how a queer and trans person could identify with Matilda, a character misunderstood and unappreciated by her family by virtue of her difference. But I loved the scenes of Matilda in awe of her public library, enchanted by the escape it offered from her home life. The library was her safe place. My research is mine.

I haven’t always focused on trans history. Like Matilda, I went looking for knowledge because I needed it to survive. Being trans can be incredibly hard in this world, and my GALE-CLGBTH [Committee on LGBT History] Non-Residential Fellowship–funded digital mapping project, “Mapping Transtopia: Trans-Masculine Mutual Aid, Activism, and Community Formation, 1970–2005” has become my architecture for living. The interactive map created on ArcGIS StoryMaps, a digital mapping and storytelling platform, organizes and spatializes the vastness and complexity of late 20th-century trans-masculine community building, resource sharing, and identity-making. It fixes primary sources and histories of trans-masculinity to their geographies, tracing and connecting letters, magazines, and other material from sender to sender and city to city. I needed to know about the trans people that built the communities I’m so lucky to have inherited, and more important, to know that trans people have always found ways to make our lives more livable. I want other people that need these histories to know them, too.

While I’m not trained in Library and Information Studies myself, I feel an affinity with those who are. Many of the people supporting my project are librarians and archivists, and we share a passion for accessible public knowledge mobilization. The first person to contact me about “Mapping Transtopia” was University of Toronto User Services Librarian Jesse Carliner, offering his time and resources to help me embark on this project. People in this field, more than anyone, care about public access to these histories, and they are truly the most helpful and encyclopedic people I have ever encountered. If it weren’t for them, I would have left countless research days with a fraction of the material I pulled from collections. If you ask someone in library and information studies a question, they always have an answer, and that answer goes above and beyond your expectations 90 percent of the time.

I wouldn’t have known what kind of questions I should even ask without Eastern Michigan University (EMU) Archivist Alexis Braun Marks. Alexis was my mentor during my EMU Archives internship in 2019. Her archive was the first I had ever been in, and Alexis introduced me to the world of library and information studies. In the semester that I worked at the EMU Archive, I learned how to be the researcher that I am. Alexis also nurtured the trans child in me before I was ready to. I remember a handful of conversations with Alexis, who never shied away from acknowledging my queerness, that made me feel safe. She was the first real adult that I felt I might be able to talk about my gender with. I knew that if I said that I didn’t always feel like a woman that Alexis wouldn’t bat an eye. Not only did I feel seen, but I felt seen by someone who worked in the fields in which I wanted to build a career. Just knowing that someone like Alexis was working in the university library assured me that I made the correct choice in applying to graduate school.

The safe place I created for myself in my research was made possible by countless librarians and archivists. They’re the same people that made the library a safe place for Matilda, and they’re the same people that will continue to provide access to life-giving and life-saving information to people who need it. There will always be Matildas in libraries. What’s that? Oh, I didn’t know Matilda was going by Aiden now.

Elio Colavito (they/he) is an interdisciplinary trans scholar and PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Toronto.

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