Ohio’s Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming History

By Svetlana Harlan, Community Engagement Coordinator

March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV), an annual recognition of transgender people and a celebration of their contributions to the LGBTQ+ community and to the larger world. TDOV was founded by Michigan-based activist Rachel Crandall in 2009, who created the day of appreciation in response to a lack of recognition for transgender people within the LGBTQ+ community. Crandall hoped that TDOV would provide an opportunity to refocus the dialogue around transgender people and identities and to highlight the lived experiences of transgender people, especially those experiences that were positive and celebratory.

In recognition of TDOV 2024, this blog post aims to bring attention to the stories of transgender Ohioans within the GOHI Collection. It will also acknowledge that the proportion of the GOHI Collection that currently centers transgender stories does not sufficiently represent the great impact transgender individuals have made on the larger Ohio LGBTQ+ community. Finally, this blog post renews GOHI’s commitment to preserve and share Ohio’s trans stories.

Interpreting Transgender Stories

Before diving into specific historical collections and documents, it’s important to review the best practices for interpreting transgender identities in the field of historical preservation. The American Alliance of Museum’s (AAM) LGBTQ+ Alliance Task Force for Transgender Inclusion developed a guide in 2022 titled, “Interpreting Transgender Stories in Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions.” This guide tackles the challenges of interpreting gender expansivity within historical records – challenges that have kept many historians and museum professionals from the task altogether.

An image of the cover of the American Alliance of Museums LGBTQ+ Task Force for Transgender Inclusion, titled "Interpreting Transgender Stories in Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions."

In interpreting LGBTQ+ identities in history, challenges arise around classification and labeling, and for many years the standard in historical interpretation was to assign labels such as “gay,” “lesbian,” or “transgender” only to those who explicitly self-identified with these labels. However, in recent years, history professionals have been reconsidering this stance and beginning to move away from placing so much interpretive consequence in self-reported identities. After all, the linguistic trend of utilizing one or more letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym for personal identity has been a relatively recent phenomenon – one that traces back to the beginning of the sexual revolution in the 1960s.

Many historians and museum curators have been working to decenter the historical subject’s self-reported identity (or lack thereof) in recent years. Instead, they have begun to focus more on how individuals and communities challenged gender norms and expectations at various times and places in history. This more expansive interpretive model allows historians to explore gender more completely in each historical setting. As the AAM Task Force states, “Rather than viewing gender in connection with the boundaries of a strict binary, transgender identities present the opportunity to explore it as a dynamic, ever-changing form of social categorization. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? How have those boundaries been transgressed by individuals, groups, and communities, and how has society responded to these transgressions?”

The AAM Task Force also addresses the issues of “deadnaming” and pronoun usage in historical interpretation. As they define it, “deadnaming” is, “the act of referring to a transgender person by a name that they no longer use, such as their birth name.” The issue of deadnaming can be complicated when we’re considering a historical subject. The Task Force recommends utilizing any gender-affirming name that the historical subject identified with. However, researchers may not have knowledge or documentation of names that were not officially recorded. In such cases, the interpreter should make a note that the official name is the only one documented and will be utilized with the understanding that the historical subject may have identified with another name that affirmed their gender.

For pronouns, it is generally accepted best practice to use the pronouns that the historical subject used to describe themselves at the end of their life. In cases where the subject did not conform to the expected gender norms of the period, some researchers choose to utilize the gender-neutral (or inclusive) they/them/theirs pronouns. As with naming conventions, the Task Force recommend that researchers use their best judgement and be sure to provide historical context for names and pronouns used.

Transgender Identities in the GOHI Collection

The strongest representation of transgender identities within the GOHI Collection is currently in the audio-visual domain. The collection contains four original oral histories that share the experiences of transgender Ohioans. The Oral History Association defines “oral history” as, “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.” Oral history is especially useful for learning about LGBTQ+ stories, as documents related to queer communities have often not been preserved in traditional archives or historical databases, or the documents that have been preserved only represent the criminalization and/or medicalization of this community. The format of oral history allows LGBTQ+ individuals the opportunity to tell their own stories.

GOHI’s oral histories include Shane Morgan, founder of the statewide non-profit, TransOhio; Jennifer Isenstadt, a Navy veteran; and Luster Singleton, a Zanesville native who has championed LGBTQ+ community organizing for decades as well as being an accomplished drag performer and co-founder of H.I.S. KINGS drag troupe.

Luster Singleton

Luster is a native of Zanesville, Ohio. Luster is a trans-masculine activist, a TedX speaker, and a Drag King performer who founded a Drag King show and community experience...


Jennifer Isenstadt – Veteran’s Oral History

Jennifer Serene Isenstadt enlisted in the Navy in 2005 as an Information Systems Technician. Isenstadt talks about growing up in a Navy family that moved often, her father’s...


Viola Pagliaro & Nick Stellanova

Viola Pagliaro & Nick Stellanova are member of the LGBTQ+ community who share with us their experiences of coming out and finding a home together in Columbus, Ohio. Viola...


In addition to oral histories, GOHI’s “LGBTQ+ History Vault,” a collection of digitized audio-video materials from the 1980s to the 2000s, contains a roundtable discussion titled, “The History of the Transgender Community in Central Ohio.” The roundtable was created and moderated by Rob Berger, former President of Stonewall Columbus.

The GOHI manuscripts and museum objects collection includes transgender identities and individuals, but rarely centers them. Many of the archival collections, such as the H.I.S. Kings Records (MSS 1419) and the Ohio State University Gay and Lesbian Alliance Records (MSS 898), as well as periodical collections, such as Gaybeat (Cincinnati, 1985-199) and GEAR (Cleveland), include transgender people and identities under the umbrella of the LGBTQ+ acronym.

There are currently a few historical manuscripts and objects in the GOHI collection that specifically center transgender and historically gender non-conforming identities and experiences. This is an area in which GOHI hopes to grow and expand the collection in the coming years. As interpreting gender expansivity and non-conformity become more standard within the field of historic interpretation, parts of Ohio History Center’s (and GOHI’s) collections can be reconsidered through a new lens.

The work of reinterpretation to include consideration of gender non-conforming subjects is already underway at Ohio History Connection. For example, former OHC manuscripts curator Kieran Robertson identified an interesting case of gender non-conformity in the Laura Cunningham Photograph Collection (AV 298). The collection primarily includes family photos of a Warren County family throughout the late nineteenth century. Kieran noticed that one frequently photographed family member, Mary Eva (or Ned) Ross, was clearly defying gender norms of the period through their clothing and chosen name. As Kieran notes, the photographs display Ned’s choice of masculine stance and dress, including jackets, ties, and hats. No other female members of the family were photographed wearing clothing that would be classified as “masculine” or “for men” by the late nineteenth century standards. Members of the family used the nickname “Ned” to refer to Mary Eva, with an annotation on one photograph reading, “Ned Ross, as most of us knew her.” This suggests that members of the family were calling Ned by the nickname (rather than by their birth name – Mary Eva) and that Ned’s chosen name, as well as their clothing, defied gender conventions.

A photo of Ned Ross in the 1890s. Ned is wearing a heavy dress and a men's long-brim hat in the photo.

Ned Ross (Laura Cunningham Photo Collection – AV 298)

Other Collections and Untold Stories

Unfortunately, there is currently no public archival collection centered around the lived experiences of transgender Ohioans. However, there are some national or international archives that house at least some of Ohio’s transgender history. The Digital Transgender Archives (DTA) is one such database. Based in Boston, DTA aims to increase the accessibility of transgender history materials to the public. Searching “Ohio” in the database delivers 967 documents.

An image of the front page of the CrossPort June 1996 newsletter, InnerView from volume 12, issue 6

InnerView (CrossPort Newsletter), Volume 12, Issue 6, 1996. (Curtesy DTA)

Within DTA, you can find CrossPort’s newsletters, dating back to their inception in 1985. Crossport was founded as a social support organization for transgender individuals in the Greater Cincinnati area. By exploring the archive for Crossport’s newsletter, InnerView, researchers can learn a great deal about the Greater Cincinnati transgender community.

In the coming years, GOHI and other historical institutions have the opportunity to continue building collections that center transgender individuals and experiences. There are currently untold numbers of stories just waiting to be recorded, preserved, and shared. One example is the history of gender-affirming care, which does not currently have an Ohio-based collection. Though, some initial steps have been taken to begin preserving and sharing this story.

Current TransOhio Board Member Ginger Williams has been working to bring to light the story of Dr. Richard Murray (1921-2002) and his gender-affirming medical practice in Youngstown. Dr. Murray began providing gender-affirming procedures at his practice, Medart, as early as 1972. Williams has previously given presentations on Dr. Murray’s life and career. Her next presentation will be taking place at the Stark Library in Canton on Thursday, April 18.

Conclusion and Call to Action

This TDOV, GOHI acknowledges that there is still a great deal of work to be done to equitably preserve and share Ohio’s transgender history. The work requires continued engagement and trust-building with transgender Ohioans, a task that GOHI undertakes enthusiastically and with great pride.

If you are interested in telling your story in an oral history or donating historical documents and/or objects to the GOHI Collection for preservation, please reach out to [email protected].


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