As I have been creating work based around the concept of gender it seemed logical to research into the LGBTQ+ community. Specifically I looked into gender identification definitions and went on to look for work produced by or about transgender individuals.
A few months ago I discovered Juliana Huxtable from Frank Benson’s 3D-scanned plastic sculpture, which is simply titled Juliana. The unveiling of the sculpture in the New Museum 2015 Triennial catapulted Juliana’s status from New York ‘it’ girl to trans icon. Her resume spans DJ-ing, modelling, writing and art. Her local celebrity status and Instagram fame has acted as a role model and encouraging presence for trans people everywhere.
Rhys Ernst & Zackary Drucker have received recognition for their photo series “Relationship” which documents the simultaneous evolution of the couples gender transitions and bond of love. Rhys once lived as a gay woman, Zackary as a gay man. Both have now switched genders and live together as a couple. Many of the images in Relationship will be familiar to any couple; candid holiday snaps, the pair embracing in the sun, a bedroom portrait. Others are unique to their experience; shots of matching plasters on their backsides from hormone shots. In an interview Drucker and Ernst discussed whether the focus of their work was their transition. They replied that first and foremost it was a documentation of their relationship but that of course to cisgender people the transition would be an insight. They discussed that greater visibility of trans and gay people in arts and media meant that presenting themselves was slowly becoming less about just a statement about being trans and more about simply being appreciated as an individual. This extract in particular demystifies some questions:
“There does seem to be a pretty big fixation on the body and what it physically means to be trans*.
ZD: “Definitely, definitely. We were just talking about that this week, actually. Being trans* at heart: how you self-identify and how you shape your [exterior] to be perceived by the outside world as one thing or another.”
How do you react when people seem to be preoccupied with what the transition entails? Is that insulting? Is that irrelevant?
RE: “It does get very tiresome.”
ZD: “But, it also is normal — if you want to talk about what’s ‘normal.’ I think that is the first step in understanding. It’s the lowest common denominator. It’s where the discussion really originated. If you go back to the beginning of sex reassignment surgeries and Christine Jorgensen, the dialogue was about ‘I’m trapped in the wrong body and if I don’t get out of this body — if I don’t turn this body into something that matches more closely to how I feel — then I can’t exist in this world.’ So, there was some focus on our exterior. I think, culturally, that’s really what the twentieth century was about.”
Awareness is helping more people to understand that gender can be altered, that it shapes your identity beyond physicality and is more about a state of mind.
This is relevant to my work because I am trying to remove visual symbols of gender to see how this effects the reading of an image and the interpretation of it’s context.
Social portraiture by Nan Goldin, and Diane Arbus before her, played a big role in increasing the visibility of marginalised LGBT people.
Although Arbus’s work did not specifically focus on the topic she did deliberately seek outsiders for her portraits. Be that in their dress, physicality or lifestyle. Several of these portraits are of cross-dressed men.
Nan Goldin produced work throughout the late 20th century, much of it focused around LGBT community. Her images document the lives and activities of friends in clubs and bedrooms, showing the emotional, gritty style to a lifestyle based on glamour and facade.
In the image below (Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC 1982) shows Goldin’s friends Robert and his male-to-female transexual partner Greer. Yet without this information many may not question whether or not Greer is a ‘real’ woman. This in turn questions the definition of a real woman.