The mystery of gender through the eyes of a photographer who has crossed the divide
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?
Imagine a scenario in which you've been locked in a dark room with only a telephone. It rings constantly. You always answer it, longing to connect with something beyond the solitude of the space you inhabit. It's always a wrong number. You begin to talk with the people who call, for the simple reason that the conversation offers companionship, a link to something outside yourself. Over time you develop real relationships with the callers. Perhaps you even fall in love with a few of the voices. You want to tell everyone that you are not the person they think you are, but you are afraid they will hang up and leave you utterly alone if they realize after all this time that you are not the person they have been trying to call.
The body itself, transsexuals eventually discover, is the 'translation device' that codes our communication with others. Changing our bodies is how we get out of our Twilight Zone predicament. Transsexuality is thus about breaking out of psychological isolation, correcting a case of mistaken identity, and bringing a personal sense of self into meaningful interaction with others.
It's also, in Cameron's words, 'to set one's self in motion, and to survive an impossibly difficult space. It's an in-between space, outside duality. It's like standing in a neutral zone, where you can see and hear the opposing sides lobbing grenades of misunderstanding at each other. You can see the fictions of separation, this idea of distinct genders that everybody manufactures, just like we manufacture fictions of race and class. The transsexual space feels sacred, a space where many things that are hidden become clear.' Expressing the courage his transsexual subjects have shown in undertaking this project is what Cameron strives for in his work.
And courage is needed. As the fate of Brandon Teena shows, the act of transgressing gender norms can get you killed in this country. (Teena chose to live as a man in a small Nebraska town, and after being exposed as biologically female, he was brutally beaten, gang raped, and eventually murdered. His case is one of many.) Only a handful of cities and one state, Minnesota, now have laws to help protect the rights of transgendered people.
Despite all this, the thing that Cameron most wants people to understand about transsexuality when they look at his photographs is 'the joy of the experience. That's the bottom line. It's not about failing. I didn't fail to be a woman. I just decided to have another experience.'
Susan Stryker is co-author of Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (Chronicle, 1996).
She is currently working on Trans: Changing Sex and Other Ecstatic Passages Into Postmodernity, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.