Profiles | 18 April 2024

Grad Profile: Elliot Richardson


Elliot Richardson is a PhD student in History at UC Santa Cruz. His research investigates the experiences of trans people crossing the US-Mexico border through an analysis of queer zines and oral histories. Richardson served as a 2023-2024 THI Summer Pathways Graduate Fellow and was a 2022-2023 Graduate Student Success Fellow. In April, we discussed Richardson’s interest in “official” and “unofficial” documents of trans experience, his archival research at the University of Texas-Austin and in Mexico City, and the importance of peer mentorship support for graduate students. 

Hi Elliot! Thanks for chatting with us about your ongoing research. To begin, could you give us a general synopsis of your research project?

My research focuses on trans people crossing the US-Mexico border, how they decided migrate, what sort of resource networks they used to do so, and their lives after arriving in the US. So far, I have mainly focused on analyzing queer, Latinx zine archives at UT Austin and the GLBT Historical Society. Many of these zines have lists of various spaces for queer and trans community care from both sides of the border, including HIV/AIDS clinics, Drag or “travesti” bars, and nonprofit LGBTQ organizations. I hope to use these records, along with oral histories I plan to take later this year, to construct a deeper understanding of the these care networks, and, more broadly, the relationship between transness and border-crossing.

Your project is particularly interested in the treatment and experiences of transgender and gender-fluid asylum seekers from Mexico to the United States. Could you share an example from your research of how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has historically responded to these types of cases?

…one’s personal gender identity must be constantly negotiated with one’s safety…

In the breakout case Hernandez-Montiel vs. INS (2000), Giovanni Hernandez-Montiel, a migrant from Mexico, was the first to be granted asylum in the US on the basis that their gender fluidity was a reason for persecution. The court described Hernandez-Montiel as a “gay man with a female sexual identity”, describing them as being occasionally dressed in feminine clothing, and having a preference for she/her pronouns in certain settings. Hernandez-Montiel was originally denied asylum because the judge ruled that wearing feminine clothing was not “immutable” to their identity given that they only sometimes wore feminine clothing and had not tried to pursue gender-affirming surgery. This reveals how trans people, specifically trans migrants, when coming face to face with law enforcement must fit into specific binary narratives in order to be considered for care from the state; how one’s personal gender identity must be constantly negotiated with one’s safety, even when faced with more “progressive” laws. 

Why is it important for your project to focus both on “official” immigration records and federal court cases, as well as zines and comics? How do these materials reflect the capacity (or incapacity) of trans people to write (and shape) their own histories?

When looking at the more distant past, these gaps are almost all of what I have to work with.

To be honest, I’m still struggling with this question myself. When writing about people who have been historically illegible in conventional archives such as immigration records, it sometimes feels counterintuitive to look at these archives at all. We already know immigration law was/is oppressive to trans people, what we don’t know is how trans people lived their lives under these circumstances. Whenever I look at a court case or an immigration record, I am always trying to read between the lines, using them as roadmaps to figuring out what an actual trans person’s life might have been like under these conditions. When looking at the more distant past, these gaps are almost all of what I have to work with. Even as late as the 90’s, so much was erased by the AIDS pandemic that it can be difficult to get oral histories, making it difficult to be able to avoid these traditional archives and only focus on those produced by and for trans people. Even so, these gaps help guide my questions and I can sometimes lead to untapped sources and new perspectives in my research. 

As part of your research work as a THI Summer Pathways Fellow, you conducted archival research at the Queer, Latinx American Zine Archive at the University of Texas, Austin, and at the Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City. I imagine this was a fascinating process. I’m always curious about archival research, and I’m wondering if there was a specific text or specific moment from your research that stands out to you–a moment of surprise, shock, awe, or understanding you’d like to share with us?

I found one pamphlet in the LLEGÓ archive at UT Austin that contained a long list of addresses of LGBTQ nonprofit organizations all over the world from the early 90s. Many of them were HIV/AIDS organizations but there were some that focused on art as well. Most of them were based in various countries in Latin America, but there were a few in Southeast Asia as well, including ones in Indonesia and Malaysia. I found this particularly interesting because there is a wide-spread narrative that the US has always been more “progressive” towards queer and trans people than countries in the Global South, which is often positioned as the “rationale” for why queer and trans people choose to migrate to the US from these “oppressive” countries devoid of care. While it is true that Malaysia has harsher laws against LGBTQ people than the US, that does not necessarily mean that people who chose to migrate did so because they had no access to care in their home country whatsoever. If anything, the decision to migrate proves there are queer spaces available as they perpetuate the necessary information and care networks that make migration possible. This pamphlet provides us with an example of how we can use these archives to construct more nuanced and transnational narratives surrounding transness and migration which don’t assume that Western/American methods of care are “superior” in all cases.

I am grateful to THI for giving me the opportunity to connect with these students and mentors, some of whom have become dear friends. 

In 2022-2023, you were a Graduate Student Success Fellow. Why is it important to provide humanities graduate students with community and mentorship? What’s one aspect of the program that felt particularly useful/helpful to you?

As a scholar of the importance of community care I recognize how vital it is to have spaces for connecting with people. It was incredibly important to me to have that space to connect with other students in my first year, especially since there are so few opportunities for students from different departments to connect. I am grateful to THI for giving me the opportunity to connect with these students and mentors, some of whom have become dear friends. 

Finally, what’s your favorite spot on the UCSC campus?

There is a bench on the student farm that overlooks the ocean where I love to sit and reflect, but I won’t say exactly where though cause it’s MINE!

Banner Image: The US-Mexico border, courtesy of Unsplash.