Portrait of New Man

The mystery of gender through the eyes of a photographer who has crossed the divide

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The desire to change sex is not an illness, although it is classified as such by the psychotherapeutic professions. Neither is it a perversion, a form of mutilation, or the wrong answer to a poorly framed question of personal identity. It is a form of communication, a way to manifest to others a deeply felt sense of identity that is otherwise unintelligible. It is about becoming real.

I met Loren Cameron, whose self-portraits you see here, outside the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco in the spring of 1993, during a protest rally at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. I was a member of Transgender Nation, a militant transsexual rights group. I had begun the transition from male to female about two years earlier, just about the time I finished up my Ph.D. in American history at the University of California, Berkeley. I was determined to use the privilege of my education to help change the way that transsexual people are treated.

Loren had made the transition from female to male in the late '80s, a decade after moving to San Francisco from rural Arkansas and was at the protest looking for other transsexuals to photograph. After a series of low-paying jobs, he'd finally found his niche, taking portraits of people who had made or were making the journey he had made. 'It struck me forcibly that [beginning as a photographer] was quite a bit like the experience of transitioning from female to male,' he has written. 'I felt like people would recognize immediately that I wasn't `really' a man, and it took a while to build up my confidence that, yes, I really was. I became a photographer the same way I became a man--by just taking my act to the streets and doing it and learning to pass in the process.' Now he splits his time between the art world--where his reputation is growing rapidly--and working just enough at other jobs to make ends meet. (The first book-length collection of his work, Body Alchemy, is due out from Cleis Press in November.)

Of course, transsexuals looking for a camera to stand in front of can usually find one; we're popular sideshow attractions in the fin de si?cle cultural circus. Photographers as famous as Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin launched their careers by shooting us. But most nontranssexual photographers don't seem to really see us--rather, they use us to investigate their own discomfort with what they make us represent. Cameron is the first imagemaker to bring a sophisticated insider's eye to the subject. What he sees is truly 'something else'--not the stereotypical view of dejected social outcasts lurking in the dim hallways of derelict hotels, but a redemptive vision of transsexual people leading remarkable (though often quite commonplace) lives.

The missing ingredient in most representations of transsexuals, Cameron contends, is 'the sense of satisfaction we feel about ourselves and our body changes. I want to show that we're not ashamed, that we're expressing pride in being who we are.' If anybody wonders what pride there is to find in being transsexual, Cameron has a ready answer: 'It takes a lot of guts to acknowledge how uncomfortable you are before transition, and to willfully accept the challenge of re-creating yourself.'

That's a level of responsibility for one's own life most people never have to confront, he says. And given the stigma that surrounds the entire process, it's a wonder anyone even attempts--let alone ever accomplishes--the arduous journey from one gender to another.

Why, then, do we go through with it?

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