Portrait of New Man

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?

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.

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