Note: Part of the following piece (previously published on The Huffington Post) is aired this week on the international radio syndicate This Way Out. To hear the entire podcast on the This Way Out website, click below.
Gender has always been on my mind — or in my face — whether I like it or not. As a budding feminist and then a young lesbian with short hair, I was called “Sir” on more than one occasion. I didn’t like it, but was happy to have the privileges that being perceived as male brought. I am over six feet tall and trained as a martial artist. Usually, no one bothers me on the street. In my forties, I grew my hair long and went through a femme phase. In the past few years, I lost weight and cut my hair short again. Again, I hear someone say “excuse me sir” and turn around to find the comment is directed at me.
But this time I am over fifty, and I really don’t care what other people think. Recently, I found myself back in a college classroom and since it was a course on anthropology, I decided to use my powers of observation. Of the twelve or so students, I counted nine different genders. This wasn’t a queer studies class — and no one was openly transgendered. But almost everyone, including myself, was on a different point of the gender spectrum.
Feminism helped to open up gender roles. We redefined what it meant to be female. Feminism converged with gay liberation. Men could be different, too. We redefined who could be male or female and what that meant. When I read The New York Times article about the group of five ten to eleven year old girls who want to join the Boy Scouts, I thought “Good for them.” They are my heroes. We’ve come a long way. It’s okay to be the gender that you are. It’s okay to cross the gender line to become the gender that you already are inside. And it’s okay to express your gender the way you want to.
Recently, I came across three excellent photography books from Daylight Books that address various forms of gender expression. In Every Breath We Drew, queer photographer Jess T. Dugan doesn’t put her subjects in a category. Rather, the subjects are united, in her words, “by my attraction to them — and not a romantic attraction, particularly, but a more complicated attraction of recognizing something in them I also perceive or desire in myself.”
The result is an intriguing collection of stellar color photographs — inclusive of soft butch lesbians, straight men, trans men and gay men. In “Devotions” a naked woman kneels on the bed tying the boot of a person who is off camera. The peak of her short hair comes to the front of her head and she leans over the boot and ties the lace as if she is praying. In my mind, the boot is on the foot of her lesbian lover. But the beauty of the photograph — one of them — is that be interpreted by the viewer.
Gays In The Military Photographs and Interviews by Vincent Cianni (also published by Daylight Books) is a starker collection of black and white photographs, which is more suitable than color to life lived in the shadows until the relatively recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The first photo shows a person in camouflage uniform (I assume he’s male –given the shaved head and the hat) looking away from the camera toward the tree and horizon line of the hill behind him. It’s a good photograph and an apt metaphor given that gays and lesbians in the military had to live clandestine lives. In the rest of the photos in this collection, the people show their faces. There’s a haunted quality to many, if not most, of the photographs.
Decades ago, I knew a few lesbians who had been in the military and none talked about violence or war or killing as a reason they enlisted. This sentiment was echoed in an interview with a lesbian who said:
“The people who join the military go into the military not because they want to make war. Most of them go to keep the peace…. It is a shame that you have a perfectly willing gay man or woman very qualified, well educated, well behaved and they can’t serve, while the military is cutting their standards in order to fill the ranks. It’s not justice for us and it’s not justice for the military.”
TransCuba (also from Daylight Books) is a beautiful book of color photographs by Mariette Pathy Allen. In reading the introduction by the photographer, I gained new insight into the life of sexual minorities in Cuba:
“I see transgender Cubans as a metaphor for Cuba itself: people living between genders in a country moving between doctrines. As restrictions decrease, discrimination against people who are gender nonconformists is becoming less prevalent. A lot of credit for making their lives easier belongs to Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela…”
There are many beautiful images in the book. One in particular seemed to say it all. A trans woman is sitting her bed holding her one week old piglet, feeding the newborn with a bottle. The composition is perfect. Charito’s brown shorts match the headboard of the bed and the side table. The wall behind is the pale aqua that is so prevalent in Cuba and a single chiffon scarf hanging from the wall has pink flowers on it that match the pink of the newborn pig. And the pig is loving Charito, not judging her.
The trans women represented in this book are bravely living their lives — and creating a more open world (without rigid gender roles) that we all can live in — including heterosexuals.
That’s why it is called liberation.
To listen to the entire podcast, click here.