Friday, December 8, 2023

Positioned between the two disparate cultural milieus of the 60s and 80s, the 1970s is a pivotal and intriguing decade.

DiCesare Headshot Photo
Morgan DiCesare, Communication Studies doctoral student

Communication Studies doctoral student Morgan DiCesare’s research focuses on trans histories in this decade. Through archival investigation, DiCesare highlights relationships and systems of support between and for trans women.

“I'm interested in the caring relationships of trans people historically,” DiCesare says. “In addition, I’m drawn to the ways that we practice care for those memories.”

Through focusing on these caring relationships, DiCesare sheds light on oftentimes erased dimensions of trans histories.

As a result of this outstanding research, DiCesare is a recipient of the Graduate College’s 2023 Ballard and Seashore Dissertation Fellowship. Specifically, DiCesare’s doctoral research focuses on the lives of three trans women who impacted the narrative of trans women and feminism in the 1970s.

DiCesare’s research highlights the intricacies of the lives of these women, Barbara Dayton, Beth Elliott, and Holly Woodlawn, demonstrating how their histories evaded one narrow storyline. For example, Holly Woodlawn was a Puerto Rican trans woman who starred in niche films produced by Andy Warhol.

“I’m interested in Holly Woodlawn’s life and how she made and sustained these brilliant, larger-than-life ideas about how the world was and what it could be,” DiCesare says. “Pulling those moments out allows for us to rethink our future and the present, and acts as a reminder that trans people are not a recent thing in our world.”

Archives Shaping Memory

The Communication Studies Graduate Program is intricately related to archival projects. Archives transform the way we understand and think about history by preserving the past, grounding the present, and shaping the future.

DiCesare describes how her work also steps away from traditional archival approaches to examine and interrogate various histories.

“Trans history is often told through medical journals and newspapers because those are the most widely available sources,” DiCesare says. “But, I'm interested in the social relationships and the feminist politics of individuals, rather than the institutional politics of medicine and newspapers.”

This interrogation of the archive is pivotal in DiCesare’s article “Queer/ing Archives” (2022) published with Professor Charles E. Morris III of Syracuse University.

“There are two general ways the queer archive has been approached. First, through counter public collections which focus on the preservation of explicitly queer content,” DiCesare explains. “Second, queer archives are approached in, oftentimes straighter, institutional collections where researchers frequently have to read against the grain of an archival collection to make sense of its queer potentiality.”

 Approaching archives in this way allows for DiCesare to excavate and expand the archive.

My work also points to the significance of everyday practices of care that enable the preservation and maintenance of intimate histories beyond the walls of formal archival collections,” DiCesare says.

“I’m interested in what you don’t necessarily see on the archival side, and instances when the publishers or journals maybe weren’t seeking out to preserve trans history, but because of what they did perfectly preserve, they have this beautiful account of trans people's histories and experiences.”

Creating Connections at Iowa

DiCesare describes how the certificate in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies has been an important pillar in her experience as a doctoral student. In addition, DiCesare had the opportunity to take advantage of the Big Ten Academic Alliance, by taking a semester of courses at Penn State University.

Alongside these opportunities that have supported her work, DiCesare gives back to the community by volunteering with the LGBTQ Iowa Archive and Library.

Volunteering with the LGBTQ Iowa Archive and Library provided me an opportunity to meet a range of different community members in Iowa City,” DiCesare describes. “These experiences and ongoing interactions continue to remind me of the significance of daily life in the preservation of queer and trans pasts.”

The relationships built in the Communication Studies Program sustain and support doctoral students’ work. DiCesare highlights her relationship with Associate Professor E Cram, her advisor.

“E Cram is one of my biggest supporters. They have been an excellent mentor and continually push my thinking in new directions,” DiCesare says. “Without them, I would not have engaged with care as an archival approach.”

This year, DiCesare and Cram published “Transfeminist Possibilities and Remembering the 1970s”, which focuses on the sustained, caring connections and communities of trans women in the 1970s.

“By transfeminist possibility we mean the felt potentiality of relationships that affirm trans people’s lived experiences and allow for even temporarily changed social worlds” (DiCesare & Cram, 2023, p. 244).

This work serves as a reminder of how the present is tethered to the past, and narratives of the past shape understanding of the present.

“My research shows that the trans 1970s were an era of multiplicity, inclusion, and deep care,” DiCesare says. “I hope my work serves as a reminder of the long and variegated histories of trans life.”