Exploring gender identity through primary sources with Villiers Park Educational Trust

24 March 2022

Gender and Sexuality | History

I recently spoke to a group of students from Villiers Park Educational Trust as part of their programme marking LGBTQ+ month. The presentation focused on a remarkable personal collection from Sex & Sexuality: the Lynn Edward Harris Papers (held at the ONE archive in California).

Image © (Mr.) Lynn Edward Harris. Material sourced from the One National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Sense of identity

Lynn Harris was the first person in California to have their sex legally changed without undergoing surgical reassignment. Born in 1950, Harris was registered at birth as female but would now be referred to as an intersex individual. His family chose not to reveal this to him and actively discouraged him from asking questions about his body and gender identity. Harris presented as female until his twenties, when he was encouraged by a friend to see if living as a man would fit better with his internal sense of identity. This ultimately led to a protracted campaign to have his sex legally changed. 

Understanding primary sources

We began with a discussion about primary sources - what they are, why they are useful for historical research, what might be their limitations - and I encouraged the students to bear all of that in mind as we went through a selection of sources from Harris's collection. These varied from excerpts of letters discussing the attitude of doctors from whom Harris sought medical help and information, to photographs of Harris from childhood through to adulthood. We focused on how these sources could be interrogated not just to learn more about Harris’s circumstances and perspective, but also to explore the wider context of gender identity.

I was incredibly impressed by the students’ level of engagement, both in terms of asking questions of me and of the collection, but also participating in a lively discussion about identity, the role of society, discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community, the need for better education, and the limitations imposed by a strict gender binary. 

Safe space

Our company mission is to empower current and future generations to challenge, analyse and debate through access to, and reimagining of, primary sources. Villiers Park and Adam Matthew were able to facilitate a safe space in which these students could do just that on a topic which clearly resonated with them – just one example of why our work here is so rewarding.

About Villiers Park

Villiers Park Educational Trust has been transforming the lives of disadvantaged young people for over 100 years, believing that a person’s background should never be a barrier to what they can achieve, and providing additional support and coaching to develop skills that will enable students to reach their academic or professional potential. Adam Matthew partners with Villiers Park to engage students aged 14-19 with our work and the field of publishing and primary sources more generally. 

For more information about Sex and Sexuality, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting products, from the First World War to America in World War Two, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, Food and Drink in History and Race Relations in America - all very different but fascinating! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I really enjoy putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our products.