International Women’s Day

This International Women’s Day, we want to celebrate someone who strongly felt her own womanhood her entire life despite what the world often told her. I’m delighted to share this story today because I feel honoured to have had a hand in stewarding her legacy.

S.C. Heal was a Navy veteran who published maritime books and articles under the name Sydney Heal. They were heavily involved in the maritime community and the Vancouver Maritime Museum and their children donated part of their archival materials to us after they passed away in 2017. Until recently our records about Heal have used the name Sydney and he/him pronouns.

When it recently came to our attention that Heal was a trans woman named Stephanie, we felt it was our responsibility to learn more. We wanted to answer two questions:

This semester, three graduate students from the Master’s of Archival Studies program at UBC have been coming in to work on various processing projects. Since I considered this research to be of the utmost importance, I pulled one of our students, Cameron Welsh, away from their regular work to look for information about Heal’s identity. I also asked Cameron to figure out how best to reflect Heal’s identity in our description.

We learned the person that we had known as Sydney Heal had experienced gender dysphoria from the age of four. She came out as a trans woman late in life and began identifying as Stephanie Castle. Stephanie medically transitioned at the age of 62 and was a leader in the trans community. There was no indication of this in our records about her. A note in her biographical description indicated that she was involved in transgender advocacy. The record didn’t mention she was transgender herself.

In 1992, she wrote and published an autobiography entitled Feelings: A Transsexual’s Explanation of a Baffling Condition under the name Stephanie Castle. After 1992, she published nine novels with transgender themes. She founded the Zenith Foundation, which fought for gender rights, and created and edited Zenith Digest. She published under the name Stephanie Castle for works related to transgender matters and continued using the name Syd Heal in her maritime work. Even after her death in 2017, her work remained separated. All archival materials related to what she called her marine life came to us.  All the materials related to what she called her trans life went to the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria.

When Stephanie came out as a transgender woman, she was already known in the maritime world as Syd Heal. It seems that even after she came out, she faced opposition and continued misgendering from the maritime community that made it difficult for her to fully present as a woman in those spaces. Not everyone who knew her in her maritime life was aware that she was a trans woman.  Many of those that did know she identified as a woman continued to refer to her using he/him pronouns.

As far as we can tell, this reception from the maritime community influenced her decision to continue to use a male name and wear male-presenting clothes in maritime contexts. In her biography she explains that it just “save[d] a lot of confusion” to still be Syd in the maritime world. She also continued to dress as a man in certain situations because she wanted people to realize that she was “still the same person [she] was, or have been, all along.”

When dealing with the records of individuals from the LGBTQ2IAA+ community, archivists often face the challenge of describing individuals the way they would have described themselves, even though terminology may have changed over time. For example, when I first learned that Heal identified as a woman named Stephanie in one part of their life but continued to identify as a man named Syd in other parts of their life, I wondered if this person was what we describe today as genderfluid or gender-nonconforming. But I wanted to avoid describing Stephanie with words she would not have used to describe herself. Fortunately, further research revealed that we do not have to speculate. Her own words tell us how she felt about her identity:

“I had half written a preface [to the biography] … explaining why I changed back to Sydney, at least visually – it is only a visual thing. I never abandoned Stephanie, but rather I kept Stephanie in a different compartment. I found that useful in dealing with my transsexual life and dealing with what I call my marine life, which is all full of ships and shipping.” – Conversation with biographer, 2014

“I am a transgender woman. Do not be put off by my appearance.” – Speech at Moving Trans History Forward conference, 2014

“Today, I am sensitive about letting it be understood that I am not a male anymore. I am a female by adoption and that is the way I like it.” – Speech at Moving Trans History Forward conference, 2014

Based on our research, Cameron and I believe that Stephanie was a trans woman who was fully out in her personal and professional lives. There is therefore no danger of outing her against her wishes. To best reflect Stephanie’s true identity, we changed the pronouns in her biographical description to she/her pronouns and we added the name Stephanie Castle to the record. Because she continued to publish as Syd Heal even after she transitioned, we have kept both names in the description.

Archives are not just rooms of dusty old papers; they’re the records of real people’s lives. People are multifaceted, and there might be whole parts of their life that you would never know about unless you ask. Stephanie was a treasured member of the maritime community and a treasured member of the trans community, and her legacy lives on in both worlds. I feel grateful to honour her life – all parts of it – through her archives.