She started dancin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll
—Velvet Underground, “Rock & Roll”
Why would you own a record you don’t enjoy…? For decoration? When music collecting becomes obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s time for a new hobby.
—Courtney E. Smith, Record Collecting for Girls
In March 2017, I started selling my collection of vinyl records on eBay. It was something I’d been thinking about doing for some time. I’d long since embraced the convenience of digital technology and hadn’t had a turntable in years (though I’ve since purchased a cheap one). And I had a lot of them. How many I couldn’t say exactly—a few thousand—but it had come to feel like a fuckton. I was tired of moving them around the country with me. They were heavy and took up a lot of space, and in the quarter century between graduating from college and settling in my current digs, two marriages, two advanced degrees, and several short-term professorial gigs had taken me back and forth across the Mason–Dixon line and between the Eastern and Central time zones to Philadelphia, Birmingham, Long Island, Austin, New York City and environs, back to my home state of Maine for ten months, and then out to western Pennsylvania. I’d also sunk a lot of money into my collection. I couldn’t say how much exactly—several thousand dollars—far too much for me to just haul it down to the local Goodwill. And I knew that recouping my investment would be a time-consuming process.
The immediate impetus for me to start selling my records was the election of Donald Trump. Since leaving teaching in 2011, I’d worked online for an educational testing company. The job paid me by the hour and didn’t offer health insurance, but it enabled me to cover my modest living expenses. Its virtual work environment also made coming out in my late forties as transgender a less fraught experience than it otherwise might have been. After the fall of 2016, though, my hours dropped significantly. The programs I worked for tested non-native speakers of English, most of them living abroad, and Trump’s erratic behavior and belligerent ethno-nationalist rhetoric were spooking a lot of potential test takers. The prospect of a more general economic collapse under his chaotic administration was another prod to action. I wanted to be lighter on my feet, and able to move into smaller, cheaper quarters if necessary. So I set up my online shop, and three days after posting my first listings, I sold my first item, for $300, to a guy in Austin. I took this as a good omen.
In the time since then, I’ve reflected a lot on the whys of this collection. Why did I start ordering old records through the mail when I was in high school? Why did I continue to buy them obsessively, for a time desperately, for the next quarter century? Why did I finally stop? And the time commitment aside, why did it take me so long to begin parting with them? And then there are the meta questions like why do people collect things? My own experience as a collector is typical in many ways, but there was an edge to my obsessiveness that only makes sense, I think, when viewed through the lens of my transness. This in turn bears out a truism that we trans folks often say about our journeys: every collector’s story is different.
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One reason I started buying records as a teen was the same reason my peers were buying them: I loved the music. But I also had tastes that strayed well outside the current top forty. Feeling freakish and isolated as a gender-variant kid in a small town decades before the internet, I fell in love with the 1960s. Or parts of them anyway. The counterculture’s celebration of drug use held no more than an intellectual appeal to me. I was all for altered consciousness if it meant release from the pain and confusion I was feeling, but I worried that a chemically liberated tongue might reveal too much about my struggles—something I looked on (not without reason) as a life-and-death matter. The mantra of sexual liberation was even more intimidating. Would I perform like a woman rather than a man in bed? (The fact that I was attracted to women gave me some hope that I might turn out “normal” eventually.) It was mostly the period’s gender-bending fashions and spirit of free-thinking rebellion that appealed to me. All that energy and color stood in stark contrast to the drab, conventional world I’d grown up in, and made the ’60s a sort of spiritual refuge.
So I started reading books about the period, subscribed to Rolling Stone and purchased the magazine’s Record Guide (which became my collector’s bible for the next several years), and listened to a local FM station, writing down the names of songs and groups I liked. Many of these groups’ records were easy to find locally: Pink Floyd (The Wall came out my sophomore year in high school), Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other British Invasion bands. (I was already an anglophile, and would later study nineteenth-century British lit and culture in my doctoral program.)
Two records assumed special significance for me during this time. One was British band the Small Faces’s 1968 psychedelic masterwork, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. The Guide reviewed it in glowing terms, so I ordered an import reissue through the mail, and immediately fell in love with its eye-popping round foldout cover, and with the sidelong tale of “Happiness Stan” with its swirling array of sounds and the jolly, Jabberwocky-style gibberish of British comedian Stanley Unwin’s narration, which made Pig Latin sound like the Queen’s English. The record’s rollicking air of carefree innocence became a sort of surrogate for the childhood denied me by my premature awareness of my difference (I knew by the age of three or four, and have no memories of a time before).
The second was another Guide recommendation, Love’s Forever Changes. Again, both visuals and music resonated with me. The bright watercolor collage of the group members’ faces on the jacket’s front cover paired with the surreal band photo on the back suggested a dissonance between surface and depth, one that was borne out by the contrast between the music’s lush string and horn arrangements and leader Arthur Lee’s haunted, foreboding lyrics. Together, these elements gave the record an eerie ambiance that evoked the dark, lonely strangeness of my teens, my sense that my true self, deeply repressed after years of trauma, was a remote, ineffable thing accessible only in glimpses or dreams. The fact that two of the band’s members were of mixed race similarly mirrored my feelings of being an outsider. These two records served as the bookends of a growing soundtrack that was helping me articulate what I was going through—a common enough thing in kind.
My musical tastes and collecting habits continued to play this role after I left for college in 1982. A growing sense of isolation, for example, which reached a crisis point midway through my sophomore year, drew me to post-punk bands like Joy Division, and to ’60s acid casualties Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson. Then during my junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I had my first and, to date, only sexual encounter with a man, and embraced as fellow travelers openly gay British bands like Bronski Beat, whose song “Smalltown Boy” spoke strongly to me. I also fell into something between deep friendship and love that spring with one of my flatmates, an Alabama native who was a student at a college in San Antonio. I joined her in Texas for most of that summer, above my parents’ objections, and again after we both graduated the following spring. And bought lots of Texas records.
By the time I graduated in 1986, though, my collecting had begun to morph into something different. I was becoming a completist. I wanted the mediocre records by favorite artists as well as the good ones—Love’s 1974 swan song Reel to Real, for example, as well as Forever Changes. And I was purchasing other records as much for the fact that they were in my favorite styles and periods (the mid to late ’60s, and increasingly the late ’70s to early ’80s) as for the possibility that I might love them and play them repeatedly. Indeed, I wasn’t playing them now, but instead was taping them to preserve their condition. And where older records were concerned, it was no longer enough to possess a reissue if I could afford an original. In short, my growing stack of vinyl discs was turning into an archive.
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In practical terms, building an archive imposes a measure of discipline on your collecting by focusing your buying and trading within the parameters you’ve set. The question, What drives people to this level of obsessiveness?, is more involved. Love of the music only begins to explain how a hobby becomes “a life’s work,” even an “agony.”1 My own collecting was informed by the same motives driving most serious collectors: its appeal as a form of escapism, for example, and as a means of mastering a small patch of the vast realm of human experience (a desire that my later turn to scholarship answered more fully). The motive that bore the most fraught relationship to my transness in my post-college years, however, when my record collecting was at its most obsessive, was the complex way it addressed anxieties about time.
Perhaps the best way to illuminate this relationship is to consider how archives buffer collectors themselves from the passing of time. Say you’re building a collection of ’60s British psychedelic music (The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, etc.). Because the 1960s, at least as a matter of simple chronology, ended a half century ago, the sum total of possible members of this archive, if not known, is at least conceptually knowable. Previously unknown acetates or other unreleased recordings might continue to surface, but no more recordings will ever exist than already do. The archive thus becomes a fenced off sliver of space-time where you can find refuge from the ravages of contingency, and even feel like you can exert control over them—the kind of control that other parts of your life seem immune to.
This buffer remains in place despite the fact that the archive’s contents are constantly changing as you add elusive or expensive items, and upgrade lesser copies. That’s because while comprised of the items in it, the archive itself is first and foremost a conceptual thing. It’s less the acquisitions themselves, that is, than the parameters you set for the act of acquiring them. These parameters create from the beginning, presumptively whole and inviolable, the vault you’re putting them in. The changes that matter, then, aren’t the comings and goings of individual items so much as the tweaks you make to your collecting habits and how you account for those tweaks. In my own case, since I had limited funds, I decided that the physical artifacts, while preferable, were less important than the music itself, and began accepting as alternatives vinyl reissues that replicated the originals, and later, CD versions. The elevation of music over artifact also reflected my complicated relationship with my body, in particular the unease I felt associating myself with the creature that confronted me in the mirror each morning.
I became aware of the more profound ways in which my collecting was responding to this feeling of dissonance only years later, as I’ll discuss in the essay’s final section. At the time, my coping mechanism for my unease lay in the paradox at the heart of obsessive collecting: though presumptively whole from the get-go, archives can never be completed because the impossibility of doing so is baked into the act of building them. Much of the deepest fulfilment in collecting comes from the knowledge that the object of your pursuit will always hover tantalizingly at the horizon of your ambition, beckoning you forward. This perpetuated frustration serves as a guarantor against purposelessness: you know you’ll always have something to wake up for. If the obsessive drive to acquire becomes consuming enough, moreover, it provides you with the illusion of something akin to immortality by forging an equivalence between the life of your archive and your own life. The physical stack of discs becomes an extension of, even a stand-in for your body, and the ongoing pursuit of ever more and better discs manifests the passions that make you who you are—your spirit. To have the insatiable, inviolable conceptual space of the archive in perpetuity, you kid yourself, is to have a means of escaping that far more ravenous dimension, Time. To complete an archive is to die. By the same token, the prospect of breaking up an archive can feel like contemplating suicide. One aging classical music enthusiast described the decision to part with his collection of 110,000 recordings as “a painful one,” and ultimately opted to make “an outright gift of [his] collection” to someone who wanted to make it the basis for “a cultural and educational program…in his home.” “I do so,” he said, “with the happy prospect of the collection’s preservation intact and its continued life of usefulness.”2 The key word here is “intact,” for dispersing the discs among different collectors and institutions wouldn’t have stripped them of their “usefulness.” The “continued life” this collector is worried about isn’t theirs, it’s his own.
The illusion of immortality was very important to me through my twenties. The prospect of dying carried the added terror of leaving the questions I had about my gender identity unresolved, and of stripping all the pain I’d suffered of any affirmative meaning. But since resolving these questions, I sensed, would itself be a traumatic experience, retreating into collecting helped me for a time to put off doing so, and to hide from the implications of my procrastination: that with each passing week and month, I was inching closer to just such a death.
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After I moved to Birmingham with my first wife (my Edinburgh flatmate) in 1988, my collecting increasingly answered several more mundane needs that helped make life bearable. In the first place, it became a surrogate for personal intimacy. As with the building of my archive, interactions with dealers and other collectors typically occurred within strict parameters: we talked about records and music, and little else. The level of control over the interactions that this gave me allowed me to shield myself from the dangerous spontaneity of true intimacy and the revelations it might lead to. The planning and execution of these interactions, whether my weekly mail orders or trips to nearby record shops, filled up time as well as emotional space. I obsessed over the orders, sifting and resifting my choices to get the best bang for my limited bucks. The trips to the shops, by contrast, provided me with a surrogate form of spontaneity since I typically took them on the spur of the moment. During my time as a technical writer at one of the city’s large banks, I regularly cut out during my lunch hour to one or the other of two stores in the city. I remember how out of place I felt in my suit and tie in these bohemian spaces, an incongruity that mirrored my dysphoria presenting as male. On those weekends when my wife was out of town for work, I sometimes drove an hour down I-20 to a large shop in the college town of Tuscaloosa. On a couple of occasions, I trekked the ninety-plus miles up I-59 to the little town of Fort Payne, where there was a collectors’ shop owned by a married couple. They’d recently purchased a large collection whose previous owner had written his initials rs with a black ballpoint pen in the upper right corner of the jackets’ back covers—something I was reminded of when I started listing those records for sale.
The records themselves not only absorbed much of my spare time, they also provided a sort of companionship, and something more. Used records in particular offered a tangible connection not just to the past, but also to other people—their previous owners. What were these people like? How had the records fit into the soundtracks of their lives? rs, for example, had been a fan of old British folk-rock groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, which implied a certain sensitivity and seriousness. Like me, though, his tastes were eclectic. I still have his copies of the British band Spooky Tooth’s brash, heavy belter, Spooky Two, and the wild psychedelic ride Phallus Dei by German underground group Amon Düül II. For its part, his tidy, systematic branding of his acquisitions with those two initials revealed more than a correspondingly tidy, systematic personality. It suggested a particular relationship with his collection as an extension of himself, one that reflected a secure sense of his own identity and place in the world.
I never wrote my name or initials, or put any other proprietary marks on my records. This wasn’t simply a matter of preserving them in optimal condition. It also expressed my very different sense of who I was and where I fit. My given name branded me as a member of a herd I felt I didn’t belong to (trans folks refer to the name we shed after coming out as our deadname). As such, even initialing my acquisitions would have run counter to the desire for escape that was driving me to collect so obsessively in the first place. At the same time, though, my collecting didn’t bring me closer to who I was. Rather, the affinities I created through my records enabled me to build on the surrogate intimacy of collecting by forging a surrogate communal identity. I became the sum total of my interactions with dealers and other collectors, and the life experiences I projected onto the records’ prior owners. Sheltered within this identity, I could tell myself I wasn’t the splintered, traumatized trans woman that all that repressed pain was insisting I was, but rather an expansive, possibly infinite spirit embracing the fullness of life and the ripeness of time. I could tell myself that neither the pain nor my aging body’s incongruence ultimately mattered.
The imaginary nature of these relationships and the identity I built around them fueled my obsessiveness. Like someone consuming large amounts of poor-quality food to get enough nourishment to survive, I needed to buy more and more records to continue feeling a baseline sense of connection with other people. My focus on collecting as a source of intimacy had an inevitable impact on my relationships. This is common among obsessive collectors. “As you may expect,” one interviewee confesses in an article on opera fanatics by writer/reviewer Patrick Giles, “I am single.” Another obsessive opera fan passes on an anecdote about a friend who “was once presented with an ultimatum from his long-tolerant wife: ‘You must choose—your collection or me!’” “A divorce,” he says, “soon followed.”3 For my own part, I remained distant geographically as well as emotionally from my family, and I held my wife at arm’s length despite having shared some of my gender dysphoria with her the year we met. It was no surprise, then, that my departure for SUNY Stony Brook in January 1993 to pursue a creative writing MA kick-started our long, wrenching separation.
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I continued to collect after I left Birmingham, but things began to shift, in particular once I moved to Austin in 1994 and entered my doctoral program. My budget was a lot tighter, of course, but finding myself surrounded by like-minded companions for the first time since my early twenties, and with my studies and teaching filling my time and providing me with a new sense of self and purpose, I also didn’t need to buy records like I had before.
The scholarship I was reading affected my collecting in a couple of important ways. The more obvious of these was to draw me out of my post-’50s Anglo-American rock bubble. Up to this point, my interest in other music had been desultory. I’d long been a fan of a handful of old German bands (Can, Faust, Neu!), but in no small measure because of their influence on later British groups that I liked (most notably The Fall). And I’d occasionally purchased LPs from other parts of the world (reggae group Toots and the Maytals was an old favorite) and delved into other genres of popular music (Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Leadbelly). As my studies in the nineteenth century increasingly focused on race and imperialism, though, I was drawn more and more to music from Africa and Latin America, and to a lesser extent Asia, as well as big band jazz, blues, and folk music from the U.S. The more the scope of my interests mushroomed, the less practicable the goal of anything like a comprehensive archive became.
My studies also raised more basic questions about what I’d been doing. Insights on the relationship between identity and consumption, who we are and what we buy, for example, made my collecting begin to seem blinkered, fetishistic, sterile. Then there was the affinity I saw between my collecting and the rapaciousness of European imperialism. It’s not of course that my modest vinyl archive had any of the political and economic impact of, say, the British explorer and polyglot Sir Richard Burton’s shelves of books on the languages and cultural codes of colonized peoples. But I didn’t like how the manic drive for mastery of such men resonated. I thought of Marlow’s reluctant avowal of a “distant kinship” with the Congolese peoples in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though in my case it was the Marlows and Burtons (not to mention the Kurtzes) I wanted to ghost. These implications came into sharper focus after I left Austin for New York City at the end of 1999 and started teaching in the City University of New York system. Queens College’s wildly diverse classrooms—I was sometimes the only WASP present—laid bare the densely layered power dynamics between teacher and student that it had been easier to ignore in the more homogeneous environment of UT. Then came 9/11, which with the clear view of the Manhattan skyline we had that morning from the western end of the campus, literally hit close to home. After that, changing my teaching approach became a moral imperative. The old top-down model based on mastery of a particular body of knowledge, implicated as it was in the history of colonial domination (think the White Man’s Burden), had helped bring us to the present crisis. Better, then, to employ a more horizontal collaborative approach centered on critical inquisitiveness, one that emphasized the stake all of us had in sussing out the stuff that divided but also bound us. And one of the things that bound us was music.
My scholarship was pressing some uncomfortable questions about my ongoing struggles with my gender identity as well. The unease I felt about imperialism’s toxic masculinity, notably, was my first strong intimation of the gaslighting I’d experienced as a child around who I should be. Still, though I’d done some internet research in Austin on what being trans was, and ordered some women’s clothes through the mail, for the most part I continued to shy away from probing these questions too deeply. Then a development midway through my ABD years made it easy to push them to the side again: I met a woman at the wedding of a mutual friend in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in fall 1997, and soon after fell in love. She was working in South Africa at the time, but was from Brooklyn, and her return to New York the following summer sparked a long-distance courtship that culminated in my move there. Faced with the question of whether to tell her about my gender struggles, I decided early on not to. I was afraid of being rejected, of course, but I also hoped that maybe just maybe my love for her, and hers for me, would cure me of myself and enable me to be the kind of husband I still felt I should be, and desperately wanted to be. My first wife and I had married more as friends than lovers, I reasoned, so perhaps this time would be different.
For the first few years of the new millennium, I let myself be swept up in the glow of our romance, the new challenges of being in an interracial relationship, and the excitement of living and teaching in New York. Unsurprisingly, music became a point of connection between us. I continued to buy and listen to Anglo-American rock, but now music from other parts of the world—Haiti (where her family was from) and the Caribbean, South Africa, Mexico (where we vacationed shortly before we were married), Brazil (where we honeymooned)—had a strong personal as well as aesthetic and intellectual appeal.
I put my record collection in storage in Austin when I moved north. Some months after we were married in spring 2003, we bought a house in suburban New Jersey, and not long after moving in, we agreed that paying the monthly fee for my storage space no longer made sense. So I hired a moving company, and when my records arrived, I stacked them at one end of our spare bedroom. We were then trying to get pregnant, and that room was to be the baby’s, so it was understood that I would dispose of the lion’s share of the records after they arrived. That didn’t happen, however, nor did we have a child (we more or less stopped trying after two expensive and emotionally draining rounds of in vitro, necessary because of her health). She soon grew frustrated with me for not holding to our agreement, and for the way our plans for our life together seemed to have stagnated.
Needless to say, the source of this impasse on my end was my gender struggles. As it became clear that my wished-for love cure was a chimera, I slumped into a numb, self-loathing silence. And I clung to my records. They were the most substantial constant from my post-college life, and as such they gave those two decades a continuity, even realness, that was otherwise lacking. My records and passion for music also remained wrapped up in my sense of who I was, and who I wasn’t. That is, they continued to serve as a refuge from the hateful, horrifying, and increasingly pressing possibility that I was transgender.
Our decision to separate and put our house on the market in spring 2009, though I resisted it at the time, proved to be a turning point. With the economy nosediving into a recession, I was unable to secure a full-time teaching appointment for the following year, so I applied for unemployment insurance, arranged with my parents to bunk down with them (staying in the NYC area on an adjunct’s salary was out of the question), and drank and cried a lot. But I also started ordering women’s clothes through the mail again, and in early September I shaved my legs for the first time and ordered a pair of silicone breast forms. In late September, I put my records in storage again (along with most of my CDs, books, and growing stash of women’s stuff, including the breast forms), and drove up to Maine the first week of October for what would be one of the hardest years of my life.
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A trans friend of mine described having a revelation about her gender identity one day when she was in her mid-fifties. “My penny dropped!,” she said, and in the flush of her excitement, she called her family and told them she was female—news that was received, unsurprisingly, with more than a little bewilderment. My own journey has obviously been quite different: a cautious, painful process of acceptance, and finally celebration. Given how long my record collection had been bound up with my identity, it’s not surprising that my decision to part with it was similarly gradual.
I began to entertain the idea in the last few years of my second marriage. Though I held fast to my records during that time, I saw the justice of my wife’s argument that they had become a burden on me as well as an imposition on her. When we separated, I again had to pay to store them. When I left Maine the following summer for western Pennsylvania and what was to be my final year of teaching, I again had to pay to move them, and I had to buy a dehumidifier for the basement of the townhouse I was renting to ensure their jackets didn’t mildew. Then before I moved to Pittsburgh at the end of July 2011, I dropped off my old stereo at an e-waste recycling place, leaving me with nothing to play them on. I could have purchased another turntable (and later did, as I mentioned), but by this point my records were ceasing to fill the needs that had driven me to collect them. CDs were easier to play and took up a lot less room. Having begun to accept that I was trans, moreover, I found myself seeking other forms of emotional refuge, and wondering how much I wanted to hold on to from the difficult years that my records gave substance and continuity to. With all these needs falling away, what was left to them, some old favorites excepted, besides their monetary value?
So I told myself at least. And yet I waited almost six more years to start selling them. Inertia was one reason for this delay, as I said at the start, but there was something else holding me back. Just as the things we collect and how we collect them reflect and even help make us who we are, the way we dispose of them affirms or denies that identity. My old clothes had been at best a necessary evil, and I happily carted them off to Goodwill. Because my record collecting, by contrast, had been perhaps the clearest expression of who I was from my teens into my thirties, parting with my records in an affirming way entailed first coming to terms with those years.
The rupture between past and present is one of the most challenging aspects of the traumatic, magical process of transitioning, at least for those of us who do so later in life. It’s not that we change in any essential way. The upheaval we experience has to do with our need to revise our life story to make room in it for the self we hid for so long, and to enroll others in those revisions. It’s a process that involves a complex reckoning with our pre-transition lives. In my case, this reckoning started with accessing all the pain I’d repressed for so long. As it erupted out of me during the first couple of years in periodic geysers of weeping, I came to recognize that that pain had molded the person I was—that I made no sense without it—and that for my story to be a true reflection of me, I had to avow it unequivocally. Beyond the pain, I found a series of questions about the me I’d been denying all those years. Sloughing off the male persona I’d hidden behind was a prereq for revising my story, but this wasn’t as simple as it might sound. Much as I wanted to believe that I wasn’t “him,” I gradually realized that the only way to find myself in the many years I spent presenting as him was through him—that it was impossible to separate “us.” How could I have survived all those years without infusing at least part of myself into that persona? But if he were in some measure a part of me, what part? And what did that say about who she—I—was?
Over the course of 2016, these questions dovetailed with the matter of what to do with my records. I wanted to think of my collection as a male thing, an emotional crutch that she, I, had no need of. I wanted to think that she was like the wife of the obsessive collector who after delivering her ultimatum, was separating from him. But a couple of insights I had suggested otherwise. The more obvious of these was my recognition that because my records had absorbed so much of my pain, I made far less sense without them. Before coming out, trans women of my generation often purged the clothing we obtained on the DL in the hopes of once and for all becoming the men we’d been gaslighted into believing we should be. I did such a purge before leaving Austin for New York. Getting rid of my records before I could embrace the pain they embodied would have amounted to a similar denial of who I was, to yet another expression of self-loathing. Beyond this recognition, the fact that my collection had been such a significant expression of who I was for so long made me wonder if it weren’t something more than a receptacle for my pain. Instead of the put-upon wife, that is, was she, like he—was I—in some sense a record collector as well? And if so, in what sense?
By spring 2017 when I started lugging the old paint boxes I’d stored my collection in out of my spare bedroom, I wasn’t just anxious to start lightening my load. I was also eager to take a deep dive into the records and see what there was to find. What I found was revelatory. Many of them summoned life soundtracks I’d long since discarded, or memories of certain interactions, emotions, places I’d forgotten or repressed. Coming across the ephemera I stashed with some of them (old mail-order catalogs, invoices, notes from dealers), though they addressed me by my deadname, was like glimpsing fond ghosts. Even the handwritten chronological lists of my purchases that I started keeping in different colored pens my senior year in college read like a diary. My deep dive sprang memories of pain, fear, and self-loathing, but I also found a story of resilience in the pieces of myself that I left in my collection as if for safekeeping, sensing I might need them one day. And it wasn’t until I was able to recognize and retrieve these pieces that selling my collection could feel affirmative.
This brings me to the most fundamental way in which my record collecting reflects my transness. For those of us who come out later in life, to be transgender is to be splintered. Affirming my trans identity entailed embracing this fact, and beginning to gather and assemble the shards of myself, the pieces I deposited in my collection among them, into the mosaic that is her and him and us—me. This insight points to the ultimate need my collecting filled. The process of assemblage for trans folks tends to be ongoing, the design ever changing, ever provisional. But both are informed by our feeling for what’s true for us, which sets the parameters for what shards we include—what counts as us—and how. Put another way, piecing together the mosaic of our identity is like building an archive. During the peak years of my obsessiveness, my record collecting served as a surrogate for this process, and the discs themselves as simulacra for the fragments of my splintered identity. My collecting expressed my wish to be whole. It did so, though, in a way that tried to seal out the pain of who I was. It was a wish, born of gaslighting and self-loathing, to be inviolable—not trans, not me—to perpetuate the moment of my suicide. Abandoning my record collecting was more than a coming to terms with an unhealthy obsession, then. It marked the point at which she took over the collecting duties, and turned them from burial to exhumation and the wondrous possibilities of being alive.