Visible Bodies: Transgender Narratives Retold
Visible Bodies: Transgender Narratives Retold is a photography series that highlights transgender and genderqueer individuals. Through captions written by participants and close collaboration between the subject and photographer, the pieces in the exhibit allow transgender people to express what their gender means to them. Visible Bodies is part of a fledgling movement of transgender people telling their own stories, in contrast to the biased and overly simple stories often told about them in mainstream media.
The exhibit premiered at the San Diego LGBT Pride office on May 11, drawing more than 200 people. In addition to its 30-day gallery run, Visible Bodies hosted educational panels and partial showings at the Transgender Day of Empowerment, Women’s Fest, the University of California San Diego, and the San Diego Pride Festival.
“At every Visible Bodies event, I hear nuanced conversations about gender and trans issues,” producer Scott Duane said in a news release. “This is exactly what we wanted to accomplish with this project.”
“People with a wide variety of genders, abilities, cultural background, and ages are telling their stories,” added co-producer Liat Wexler. “That’s the real power of this project — the fact that there isn’t just one voice, but many.”
Photographer Wolfgang is an ally to the trans community. “I learned so much about this community and about myself during this project," he said. "I look forward to continuing to be involved with Visible Bodies and other work along these lines.”
Producers Duane and Wexler are currently working on a digitized version of the project, as well as exploring additional gallery venues throughout southern California. Plans are in the works for a Visible Bodies: Portland and Visible Bodies: Minneapolis within the next year.
For more information on Visible Bodies, visit the project’s Facebook page. See more from the exhibit on the following pages.
Like so many transgender people, I knew from a very early age that there was something very wrong with me. I began to realize that being born a girl would have suited me better. Growing up in the early '60s, well before the dawn of the Internet and the information age, there were few, if any, options for a young boy who believed he was not supposed to be born that way. So I made the best of it. I joined the Boy Scouts, played baseball, dated girls, got married, and had kids because that was what males were supposed to do. But I felt disenfranchised with myself and I continued to battle conflicts between orientation and identity. I sought psychological counseling and took anti-depressants for 35 years.
I looked in the mirror every day and wondered who that person staring back at me really was until a very dear friend asked me to do something special for her on her birthday. She saw in me what I was looking for — she purchased a dress, bra, panties, a pair of boots, and a wig. Much to my surprise, she asked me to put them on. She didn’t allow me to look at myself in the mirror until she finished putting on my make-up. I was extremely uncomfortable and felt awkward until she allowed me to turn around and face myself. For the first time in my life, I recognized the person in the reflection. I liked what I saw and suddenly realized that I could never be who I was before ever again. I was a woman, and from that day forward, I knew who I truly was. I began the slow and painful process of accepting the challenges and heartbreak that can accompany transition, but doing so has made me feel complete. I am happy.
Ali Renee, age 58
Assigned Sex: male
Gender Identity: transwoman
My goal is to reach my idealized self and not let anybody prevent me from achieving that. My own happiness is at stake and nothing is more valuable to me than my own life. Goofing around, not staying at jobs — that didn’t help me reach my goal. I wish I had been more mature, but I was too busy being punk rock. I had to learn how to set milestones and persevere. If I wasn’t trans, I would have had a much longer adolescence.
When I was young, I loved reading Conan the Barbarian. He was the man; he always got the girl. In my dreams, I was on the horse, saving the princess. What did the girls get to do? They got to be rescued. And that was just not me.
Growing up in a multi-racial household, it didn’t register that there was any real importance to my ethnicity. Kids at school let me know that I didn’t fit in. I was doused by the cold ice water of rejection. I became uncomfortably aware of my hair texture and skin color. I was penalized for being smaller than the others.
I felt eroded, frustrated, and angry. I was a bookworm and a nerd; I wanted to exist in the platonic realm of the mind. When I realized that the physical envelope that contained my mind needed to be changed, I began working toward that goal. I felt like one of Michaelangelo’s statues, chipping away the unnecessary marble to reveal myself beneath.
Shrimpy guys need to have mojo to make up for height. I’m compensating. I know this. How I dress, as a metalhead or goth, is linked with the holy grail of masculinity — the knight who saves the princess. It challenges the question, am I man enough? Presenting this way, I’m more comfortable and connected to myself than I was. However, people have some interesting perceptions of me. I’m never sure how much of the adversity I face is related to my presentation or my ethnicity.
BJ, age 47
Assigned Sex: female
Gender Identity: male
Being authentic is difficult when the mirror lies every time you look at it. I shatter that mirror with education about the transgender community and activism to break negative stereotypes.
Blue Montana, age 38
Gender Identity: FTM
My loving mother and supportive family is what kept me off the streets, in college, and emotionally stable.
Claire, age 24
Gender Identity: trans woman
Having a transgender child is like taking a plane to Alaska that suddenly diverts to Hawaii. Definitely not what you imagined but more beautiful than you could ever expect.
Shelly, Claire’s mom
Gender Identity: cisgender woman
I’m both a man and a woman and neither at the same time. Confused? Good, now you’ve got a sense of what it’s like in my shoes. I came out as genderqueer almost two years ago. It was the first important step was coming out to myself and accepting my incongruence with the gender binary. For most of my life in the closet, I thought I was a transwoman; it was the only option on the table that made sense to me. When I discovered that I wasn’t limited to the gender binary, I started to realize that I am a bit more complicated. My beard has been a big part of my identity since I started college. I don’t think it clashes with my femme persona and manner of dress; it’s simply who I am. The last two years of living out and proud have had its ups and downs, but I’m genuinely happier than I’ve ever been. It’s great to feel comfortable in your own skin. Honesty and openness have become very important to me. I don’t have anything to hide.
Even though the world doesn’t typically recognize me for who I am, that doesn’t change my resolve to live my life the way I want to. People see my beard and perceive me as male, no matter how much time I spent coordinating my outfit, or how well the shoes match the dress. I hope that being visibly queer will help bring courage to others and help more people feel comfortable in their own skin.
JP Stern, age 31
Gender Identity: gender non-conforming/genderfuck/genderqueer
Yep, it's true. I am a 49-year-old, polyamorous transsexual lesbian whose kids still call her "Dad."
In the old days, I used to fantasize about lesbian sex. I'd imagine something like a dozen beautiful women, no clothes, their skin glistening with coconut oil, their smooth bodies sliding across mine....
Wait, that's not a fantasy. That was my last birthday party.
My real life sex life is way better than anything I could have fantasized. It includes multiple partners, tantric rituals, sex parties, and true love. I've also had relationship problems, heartache, and killer scheduling issues.
When I began my transition, I assumed my sex life would be over. I asked myself, “What woman would want me when she could have a ‘real’ woman?”
For a while, each new encounter was validation, proving that some women do, in fact, want me. Only a few months ago, I realized that the question I asked myself was flawed. When a woman is with me, she is having a real woman.
Katie Anne Holton, age 49
Gender Identity: transsexual woman
The best advice I've ever gotten came to me when I first came out and began pursing transition. Somebody told me, "Don't worry about transitioning to become a man, or a woman; focus on transitioning to be yourself, or whoever you need to be."
As a queer, oversensitive, transsexual living with chronic pain, mental illness, and generally struggling to find balance, I think of this often. Navigating this world in a body that I have taken active steps to be more comfortable in, being viewed by the world and living as a man is really just “close enough.” I can't honestly say that my gender is male; it's close enough to male to make my life manageable. When I find that beautiful safe space where I can be myself, I don't have to think about this dissonance anymore.
In my day to day interactions, I can't hide the fact that I'm queer. From the way I walk, talk, move, and dress, it's obvious. I'm learning to love my fierce femme while working toward a career that stresses professional appearance. Right now, this balance is important to me. I still can't explain my gender, even to myself, but I am so happy with it.
Every day I get to play with my visibility, my boundaries, and my expression, while being able to challenge people's assumptions of what my gender and sexual orientations are.
I am living by the mantra of: Top in the streets, bottom in the sheets.
Liam, age 22
Assigned Sex: female
Gender Identity: gender non-conforming transman/femme male
She asked me just four questions.
Are you getting divorced?
What does genderqueer mean?
What pronouns should I use?
If you’re neither a man nor a woman, why do you dress like a man? Why not androgynously?
It seemed so obvious to me.
Liat, age 34, Visible Bodies co-producer
Assigned Sex: female
Gender Identity: glitterbutch/genderqueer
I find scars to be beautiful.
Whether surgical, accidental, self-inflicted or emotional:
They all have character.
They all tell a story.
Scars are born from trauma. And trauma is always at the heart of transitional periods of life.
I shave my head to show what was designed for my hair to hide.
I tattoo my skin to reveal internal scars.
I do this, not because I desire pity,
But because I have pride.
Because I have resilience.
Because I revel in the journey.
Because I need to heal.
I choose to show my scars.
I choose to show beauty.
Elizabeth Lain, age 30
Gender Identity: genderfluid/agender/femme
I am a 62-year-old trans male who also happens to blind. I am pictured with my seeing eye dog, Landon, who is a certified therapy dog. My photo shows us doing something that we both love: bringing joy to disabled and elderly people through pet-assisted therapy with the San Diego Humane Society.
Even as a child, I knew something was amiss with my gender. As early as 1960, I remember feeling male on the inside. When I played games with friends and siblings, I automatically took on the male role. For example, I was the father when we played house. My family gave me some opportunities to express my maleness, but there were limits; I wasn’t allowed the same crew cut as my brother, for instance. For my part, I tried to act like a girl, but it just never felt right. I thought I was weird, and my family knew being feminine didn’t work for me, but none of us had words to describe who I really was.
As an adult, I found lesbianism, a common route for many trans guys, but never fit in. Eventually, I discovered that I could transition to male. I am now early transition, pre-op and taking hormones. I am enjoying the journey, though it began rather late in life.
I have had an interesting, though at times difficult life. I have faced discrimination both within LGBT community and in society at large. In my situation, I have no way to know what I was being discriminated against for: my blindness, my gender identity or both. Nonetheless, I continue to enjoy life to the fullest. To everyone, I say be yourself no matter what. We are all created as unique human beings, a fact worth celebrating.
Lyn Edward Gwizdak, age 62
Assigned Sex: female
Gender Identity: trans male
I was born in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, the second of five children raised by a single mother. I was taught about the differences between men and women but not about trans people. It was not taboo to discuss, but it was not something families educated their children about, at least not in my childhood. I was told I was male; however, I have always felt female. Everyone thought I was a gay man. It surprised them that I never behaved like a gay man; instead, I acted like a woman.
As I got older, I started to wear more feminine clothing in “pin-up” girl style. I am blessed with a natural beauty inherited from my mother, which has helped me to pass as a woman. I never needed any cosmetic surgery other than my breast augmentation. Sometimes people meet me and say, “You are so pretty; I bet your life was so easy.” Believe me, sometimes life is hard regardless.
I am also grateful to have a husband and family who love me for who I am, and to have my pets and friends. Not all of society is educated about the transgender community, especially in Mexico. I have faced discrimination, harassment, and more, but life is too short to cry over spilt milk. I live every day to the utmost and give the best of myself.
I came to the U.S. in 2004 and I have met a lot of wonderful people and been amazing places. I am trying to educate society about the transgender community and I am happy to see that now families with a transgender child can educate themselves and help that child.
I believe in the saying, “Never judge a book by its cover; you never know what is really inside. Never regret what you did in life because it is your choice.” It is my choice to live as a woman.
Paola Coots, age 41
Assigned Sex: male
Gender Identity: female
I was not raised with strict gender roles. My parents were proud to have a rough-and-tumble daughter who refused to wear a dress even to a wedding or a funeral. And yet, in the three years that testosterone has been working its biological magic on my formerly female body, I have found myself wondering again and again: what does it mean to be a man? In the beginning, I tried my best to be as masculine as I could. It just didn’t take. I wasn’t that kind of guy. So what was I?
About two years into my transition, my (now ex) partner and I decided on a whim to dress me up as Tinkerbell for a party. As he was fixing my make-up and frilling up my skirt, he answered his phone: “I’ll have to call you back. I’m making my boyfriend into a fairy.” In that moment I saw myself reflected in his eyes: a gay man in a girly costume. He’d cracked the door to a kind of manhood I hadn’t even considered.
Since that relationship, I have gone in search of other men like me. I’ve ventured as far as the woods north of San Francisco for a weekend “faerie” gathering for queer, gay, and bisexual men. I’ve stayed as close to home as a little yoga studio in San Diego that holds nude classes only for men. On these adventures, I am almost always the only transsexual man. It can be scary; I’m a “naturalized citizen” to male culture and I don’t always know the customs. But even though my journey is a little different than that of the men I find in these places, they’ve usually found me a little spot in the circle.
Scott Duane, age 28, Visible Bodies creator and producer
Assigned Sex: female
Gender Identity: transsexual man
I love leather. I love wearing it, smelling it, touching it, and caring for it. The weight of it, the feeling of every crease, makes it wear more like armor than clothing. Leather separates a person from the rest of society; there’s something unique about a someone in leather.
Bootblacking, the art of caring for other people’s armor, is how I began to realize that there were other people who had the same doubts and questions that I had. Was I doing this whole “being an adult” thing right? Was I butch enough to be a top? Was I open enough to be polyamorous? Was I passing enough to be called whatever gender or non-gender I am? What if I change so much that my friends and family don’t like me anymore?
The leather community is where I found connection to people like me. It’s where I found more people concerned with connection based on personality, energy (for you “woo woo” folks), brains, and integrity rather than the bits and parts that are attached. It’s where I found people who wanted me exactly as I am — a genderqueer butch-fag.
Spike, age 29
Assigned Sex: female
Gender Identity: genderqueer/butch/boy
Since surviving the mean streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District in the 1970s as a young transgender street kid, Tracie Jada O’Brien (left) has become one of the most respected and elegant role models of our community — a testament to beauty, survival and perseverance. O’Brien is a certified addictions treatment counselor and spent six years as a counselor and coordinator of extend services at Stepping Stone of San Diego, a nationally renowned alcohol and drug treatment facility specifically serving the GLBT community.
O’Brien is active with the San Francisco Transgender Law Center, the California Transgender Leadership Summit, The California Office of AIDS, Transgender HIV Equality, and Party Conferences, and the Center of Excellence for Transgender HIV Prevention. She was also the coordinator of the Family Health Center’s Project S.T.A.R., which provides services for the transgender community. It was through this program that the idea of an annual day to acknowledge the Transgender community was brought to fruition, she is now a HOPWA Housing Manager with Stepping Stone of San Diego.
Tracie Jada O’Brien, age 61 (left)
Assigned Sex: male
Gender Identity: woman
Cassandra-Marie Stahl was born on November 3rd, 1966 on the beautiful island of Barbados. She knew at an early age that the way she felt inside didn’t match the physical body on the outside. She endured taunts from her family and bullying throughout her school years, but it only made her more determined to be the person she envisioned.
When she was of age, she used every penny she had saved and fled to find a place of solace where she could become herself and live her life. Eventually she settled in San Diego. For many years she withdrew from any contact with her family, for they still had a long way to go in their acceptance of her. When the time was right, she reached out to her family to reestablish contact and gain a sense of peace with them. Today, she has a great relationship with her mom and several of her cousins.
Extended family supports us and sometimes fills a part of our life we missed or were never granted. In this city, she has found her extended family in three outstanding Nubian goddesses, who she is proud to call sisters: Tracie Jada O’Brien, Jelecia King, and Jackie Davis.
She is a proud member of the LGBT community of San Diego, having served as a former Empress of the Imperial Court. She believes that we are all in the struggle together — no stone left unturned and no one left behind. Transgender women were at the beginning of this struggle for equal rights for the LGBT community and these women will continue to fight. As long as she has her health and her strength, her voice will be heard.
Cassandra-Marie Stahl (right)
Gender Identity: transgender woman