Thinking About Community: Opportunities and Challenges
As a social work student, I am always excited about projects that are about community building. How does media bring trans folks together? How does sharing our creative endeavors build community? As a research assistant with the Transgender Media Portal over the past year, I had the opportunity to not only trace the history of trans-created film but also to see the lengthy legacy that shows how we, as trans people, have always been here.
When I started working with the TMP team, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kinds of things I wish I could have had access to as a youth when I first started thinking about my gender.
I wanted to see the TMP become more than a research portal: I wanted it to become an interactive community endeavor that could bridge the gap between longing for a history to belong to and meeting others who experience the world in similar ways.
Given these aspirations, I was elated to be tasked with organizing community consultations for the project.
In March 2020, I organized two separate usability tests in which a total of 6 participants used the Portal and provided the research team with feedback. These tests let us know how to improve the design and functionality of the site and to discuss the broader social and political implications of having a database of trans artists.
How can we ensure that the Transgender Media Portal fights against structures of oppression and does not reinforce them?
As one of our testers pointed out, the very idea of a database is colonial in that it typically means that we capture information by slicing people into discrete parts of themselves. Entering people into a database and further assigning discrete identity labels to them is an ongoing process of negotiating how we retell the stories people tell about themselves.
- What happens when there is very little information available about a trans artist?
- What happens when what information is available is secondhand?
- How do we decide who and what parts of them are included in the database if there is no way to contact the individual to confirm their preferences?
These are questions that our research team are considering as the Transgender Media Portal continues to evolve and adapt to community feedback. While the hope is that completed database entries will give a more holistic representation of who and what is included, at the same time it is important that we acknowledge that the project is embedded within academic and state institutions: it is a federally and provincially-funded research project undertaken by a cis professor at a Canadian university that focuses on an already hyper-researched community.
I find myself torn, grappling with the tension between understanding the very real potential violences that come with this sort of tracking while simultaneously seeing and feeling the hope and excitement that comes with having access to representations of myself and my community that have not been exclusively dictated by cis people.
Our usability tests have given me—and the team as a whole—a lot to think about with regards to the systemic and institutional nature of research: how do we retell the stories that people have told about themselves, how do we create a database that requires us to separate individuals into discrete parts but still capture their whole essence as a person, and how do we ensure that those contributing to the database have a pleasurable and fulfilling experience?
The Transgender Media Portal will continue to grow in ways that allow for these conversations to take place so that we might reduce harm as much as possible and build a tool that will highlight the lengthy history of trans-created and trans-specific media.