There are lots of yous inside of you that no one will ever see. Layers of self between the frosting of experiences and thoughts, all covered with a pretty, flawless ganache. You’re not batter, sugar, eggs, you are instead just a simple cake.
“It’s what’s on the inside that counts” is a pervasive idiom, even if for many it doesn’t count for much, because it’s what’s on the outside that we see.
What if it was the thing that is the most external, the most taken-for-granted, that was buried on the inside? Not just your thoughts and feelings, but what if your most basic identity was in direct contrast to what others saw? More than meets the eye.
When you look a certain way on the outside, your clothes, your hair, the shape of your body, the curve of your neck, you are a “girl” or you are a “boy.” This has nothing to do with the day you are born – gender is not purely physical. But what if what’s on the outside isn’t you? Gender is very grey and very personal. However, gender is also very public and physical because the external gaze assigns it to us based on our appearance, whether we are that way or not.
Gender identity seems to be this slippery game of
matching, helping oneself and the world match the external with the internal. Perhaps this is why transgender individuality can strike a cultural pose that is so outstanding. This may be a necessary posture to impress upon the outside that it is the person herself that has the power to decide who she is and how the world will be obligated to see her.
Transgender individuality was expressed prominently in the underground ballroom culture of 1980s New York City. Different “houses” competed against each other in a fringe version the beauty pageant. The House of Xtravaganza, founded by Hector Valle originally as an all Latino LGBTQ house, was the subject of the film “Paris is Burning.” The house later expanded to included those of other races and ethnicities. Inspiring Madonna’s iconic “Vogue” track and birthing countless other influential choreographers and designers, the innovation and talent that came from this community is significant.
However, these houses weren’t simply organizations of artistic expression, but rather were formed in part in response to the large numbers of gay and transgender youth that found themselves homeless. The lack of acceptance from their own families often orphaned them or prompted them to seek a structure in which they could exist as themselves. Forming alternative families, each house has a house “mother” and a house “father.” Members take the last name of the house. Alvin Balltrop photographed the darker side of disenfranchised youth along New York’s Westside piers – not all costumes and dancing. Far from it.
Prewar as well as 1960s Paris also was a site of transgender expression. In the 1920s, Paris was known for its “lesbian” nightclubs though it seems likely that the term “lesbian” at that time encompassed transgender women as well. Within this climate of relative tolerance was Le Monocle, which is credited with being one of the first, and certainly the most famous, “lesbian” nightclubs. It was opened by Lulu de Montparnasse in the Montmartre area, and most of its patrons were women dressed as men, in tuxedos with their cut hair in a bob. In the 1960s, transgender women, many in conservative attire and well-coifed hair, could be found in Pigalle, a safe haven for expression during de Gaulle’s ban on transgender communities. These women were famously photographed by Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm in Les Amies de Place Blanche.
There is a fine line between understanding an experience and sensationalizing it.
Society tends to equate being transgender with flamboyant cross-dressing and spectacle, rather than understanding issues of how identity intersects with perception.
Barney’s Spring 2014 campaign, Brothers, Sisters, Sons, and Daughters, shot by Bruce Weber using transgender models, struck a balance, avoiding before/after portraits or overdone dress and instead photographing beautiful people, with their families, telling their stories. However, identity is more than social policy, cultural expression, and gender issues. Identity is personal and public and much more than photographs. The struggle to find it is universal, but that struggle may look much different, from both the inside and the outside.