Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On that photography

Last November I sat for this portrait by Merja Hannikainen in Berlin. It was the artwork to the single, "A Woman's Right to Choose", released last year by my male-alter ego, Alexander Geist, and dedicated to Chelsea Manning. In the picture, Alexander Geist, is seen lounging on a leather therapist's couch, dressing gown open exposing scars on his chest. The image generated a certain amount of discussion, it provoked some very strong responses, both negative and positive, as I had expected. I have never before given an account of the image, wanting to let it speak for itself and be interpreted by whoever saw it, however they saw it. Now however I feel compelled to discuss it, not to explain it or justify it, but rather to talk about where the image came from and what it means to me.

Primarily it is a very intimate picture, of my own personal gender identity. I have never felt comfortable identifying as a man, and have spent significant periods of my life living with an identity much closer to female, and at one point I very seriously considered a physical transition. (I imagined that I would most likely have top surgery ie breast implants though I had also decided against have genital surgery). A combination of finances, relocations and personal misadventures postponed the process for me; in the interim period my feelings about my body had changed, so I in fact retain my male body. I began to feel that for me personally, my identity was better reflected in walking the line between the two apparent gender options, developing my own language of presentation, and I think that has been the right choice - though often a hard one to carry. Now I'm not trying to be all boo-hoo-hoo-poor-misunderstood-me, about this but it's no easy thing to find yourself the object of semi-permanent scrutiny, with people on the tube sizing you up, nudging their friends to collectively figure you out; are you a boy or are you a girl? On one hand I'm glad when they ask, at least there's some hope of dialogue or expanded consciousness there, but jeeeez it gets boring, having to explain that, yes and no, I'm both and neither. Likewise romantically and sexually, it's a minefield. I have in fact had the distinct pleasure of being told by one lover that I "didn't smell enough like a man", and by another that he was only interested in getting serious with "real" girls" - both in the same week! Good grief.

I could not in good faith "become" a woman anymore than I could "remain" a man, as I felt I would in fact be copping out of my truth. Lord knows how jealous I have felt, watching beautiful transwomen friends blossom, get breasts, become the superbabes they always were, and how stupidly I have have thought to myself, "Oh if I just bit the bullet and went through with it, things would be so much easier for me." AS IF those women didn't have a whole other mountain range of obstacles to deal with! At those moments, I remember sitting on the beach with my dear pal Brittany, both of us in floral swimsuits, she smoking and me telling her that if I had have been born a "real" woman I would have found love and happiness and acceptance. She brilliantly replied, "Yeah JJ, a vagina and your life would be perfect."

The major relationship of my life, I felt eroded to a large extent my feminine expressions. It became a source of frequent conflict if I wanted to wear lipstick off-stage, or high heels to a dinner, or grow my hair. A little eyeliner was acceptable, at parties, but to overstep those conventions allowed to a fey gay boy, to which I was sectioned, was not. The image Alexander Geist is in one way, mourning the loss of his femininity, as demarcated by his mastectomy scars, the removal of those breasts he never actually had. It is a deeply gendered image, yes, but it has other sources of inspiration.

A dear friend of my Mother's, who in fact became a friend of mine, survived breast cancer but lost both of her breasts. As much as the physical sickness of her illness, she suffered from what she felt as the loss of her womanhood, having always been a very beautiful, sexual woman, and something of a noted beauty. This was sadly compounded by her husband's very insensitive comments about her post-illness body, some of which were frankly unforgivable. If breasts are the mark of a woman could either she or I claim to have a stake on femaleness? So the portrait is for me, also a defiant tribute to her, though it is most often read (and this is where conflict has arisen) as being an image of a transman showing his top surgery scars.

Being biologically, if not ideologically, male I wanted to use my body to resist categories that other people constantly want to impose on it. I wanted in a single, simple image to express the very complex nexus that is my gender identity. If I was being read as a man, if at times I was presenting as a man, I wanted to make it clear that I was not a cis-man; I did not identify as a man who was born as a man and had always lived as a man without complications. If I was any kind of man, I was a man who had been a woman, and that is what I wanted most of all to say. (That is not to say transmen are "men who have been women" but rather a statement exclusively regarding my own gender)

Transbodies are so obviously fetishised and objectified. The original set up for the shot, was a straight-on long shot of Alexander Geist, sitting in a chair with a bookcase behind him, with the scars as a more subtle detail, something that would not be immediately noticeable upon a casual glance. The concept was to create a picture in which this Tom Ford/Hugh Hefner playboy invited you into his library (shorthand for the status quo of power and wealth and masculinity) which became complicated with a more considered viewing, when the viewer perhaps noticed the scars and thus had to re-evaluate the scene. It was a question of playing with prejudices, and doubly destabilizing the gendered image. However after shooting this set-up for a while, Merja felt the image was too cold, too "confessional", and I had to agree that of the majority of the images of trans people showing their "real" bodies to documentary photographers do feel like apologies. So, Merja suggested the set-up you see above, this more sexualized, pin-up shot. It took some persuading. We spoke about going to extremes of ambiguity and of knowingly sexualizing a irrevocably contradictory body (ie my male body, returning to maleness via gender realignment surgery which obviously would not be a physical necessity for a biologically male body).

Yves Saint Laurent fragrance ads

I think the image succeeds in both ironizing and complicating that constant objectification and exoticization of othered bodies. It is such a ridiculous pose, it's so over the top it looks almost like an ad for aftershave! I was very self-conscious doing it, I felt very exposed, but of all the shots and set ups we tried this was the one which was closest to saying what we wanted to say. I thought it was the perfect response, to every drunk fool who staggered up to me at a party, and gave me a line like, "Punish me with your womanish beauty." I thought it was the correct retort to self-assured straight dudes, who like to say, "I'd have sex with a man like you, because you're not really a man - I think of you as more of a girl." I thought it's a ripe riposte to every stranger who decided to share with me such treasures as, "My mate thought you were a real woman, but I knew you were a man because you had too much hair on your arms, but I still reckon you'd be well hot if you waxed." If you live with a variant gender identity, it seems then surely you must do this solely for public recognition and to attract insistent, and a often deeply inappropriate, borderline offensive, running commentary on your personal appearance, how it fails and succeeds to excite passers-by. This image is satirizes that, and complicates it, as if by stripping down to almost nude the "truth" of the body beneath the clothes becomes ever more elusive.

It was not a flippant image, made to be sensational or to suggest a transidentity is a "costume", but rather a portrait Merja and I talked about for a long, long time, one I spoke to other artists about, one I felt incredibly nervous about making, one I showed to people I trust before I shared. The initial response to the photograph was positive, with a lot of excited, intrigued feedback from my immediate circle and from people who follow my work. Even further a field, from people who came to the image in ways unknown to me, the echo I heard back was heartening. I had a message from France, from someone who wrote, "I know you're like me, even though I know you are maybe not." What he meant, he later explained was, that he was trans and the image had suggested a connection and kinship to him, even though he realised my transness and his were not identical, I really felt the image has worked.

However as the image found its way into the wider world, was reprocessed, reblogged, recontextualized and eventually made its way back it started to generate less positive responses. One concern raised was that I had made an image that suggested a sort of X-marks-the-spot, where my breast implants would go, which was apparently making fun of transwomen who were crowd-funding for top surgery. One person wanted to know what I was trying to say about breast cancer. I was happy to discuss all of this with those who wanted to know my motivations. The main discontent however arose specifically around issues of transmaleness. Was I appropriating narratives that didn't belong to me? Was I pretending to be trans in order to get some cultural cache? Was I trans-enough to even be allowed into the forum? I can't say I didn't expect this, but what I certainly didn't expect was the manner in which they were delivered. People gave me their judgements on the image (entirely their right of course) in such a aggressive way, never asking, "Excuse me! But WHAT exactly are you trying to say?" Rather presuming they knew what I was saying in its entirety and finding it woefully misguided (again their right). I sought out some of the men of trans experience I am close to, friends and lovers, and asked them if I had in fact committed a horrible faux pas. But, again, the responses were most definitely positive. People liked the picture, they thought it was funny or sexy, refreshing and even that I had something potentially interesting to say on what it is to live outside of fixed frequencies of gender.

Still I felt I ought to try and offer a more general insight into what I was doing when I collaborated with Merja on this portrait, not to explain it but rather to make it clear what I was not trying to do.

Fundamentally, what I wanted to express with the track "A Woman's Right to Choose", is that it is any person's right to choose their identity, and to have that identity respected, socially, legally and interpersonally. I wrote the song in response to writing from people like Julie Birchill, who had decided amongst themselves that transwomen were not women but just "big blokes who'd cut their cocks off." I was horrified by that sort of transphobia, as well as the situation in which Chelsea Manning found herself in a men's prison without access to the medical treatment she needed for her transition. I felt that personally I had actually received a lot of unfair flack from bio-women who thought it was inappropriate of me to present as a woman when I had "no experience" of living as a woman. I didn't however want to disavow feminism just because Birchillitus was giving it such a bad name. Instead I was hoping to work towards a transfeminist manifesto, a political statement that strove towards an equality of all people's gender identities, whilst recognizing that that would never be possible until patriarchal oppression was made redundant. So, yes it was more than a little painful to be told I was transphobic and appropriationist. I suppose I'm in good company as I know both Penny Arcade and World Famous BOB have been accused of transphobia, though they have both been resolute sources of encouragement to anyone and everyone, going exploring their gender and their sexuality, both person-to-person and in their work. Likewise I can't help feel that (like with the word "queer" before it was reappropriated) the more messy identities are the ones which are wilfully eradicated as an oppressed community wins its struggle for social acceptance, tolerance and respect.

The major issue that unsettles me, is the appearance of a sort of trans-hierarchy, in which you are only "really" trans if you are living as the "other" gender in your daily life, with (at least) the aim to physically transition from A) to B). Everyone else, be they gender queer or androgynous, bigendered, or just themselves, are apparently just joshing around with dresses or breast bindings, as if their transexperience was not a valid thing. But it is. The obvious comparison is with bisexuality, how bisexuals are not "really" queer, how they're either seeking attention, confused or just have yet to prove themselves. I have bisexual friends, and lovers, and even family members and have always empathised with their frustrations, how they were told they weren't really queer; how they felt excluded from queer spaces, for not being gay enough, and also (obviously) from straight spaces. What's really ironic and most horrible about being either bisexual or non-op trans (amongst all of the really terrific stuff obvz) is the futile nature of the infighting. Not to suggest that everyone's story is the same, we are however inescapably more similar than we are different.

It was pointed out to me a few months ago that I actually wasn't trans, rather I was gender fluid. But you know who doesn't give a shit if you're transgender, a transvestite, a drag queen, transdrogynous, post-op, pre-op or an androgyne? The people who insult you in the street, and the people who try to stick their hand up your skirt on the bus, an the people who tell you you're using the wrong bathroom. If someone is about to throw something at you, they are really and totally not going to give a fuck if you to tell them, "Oh it's okay, I'm not trans, I'm just genderqueer!" They will not apologise and tootle off quietly if you say, "No, silly, I may be kissing this girl but I'm actually not a lesbian, just bisexual, so you don't have to chuck that beer bottle at me."

The picture, the video, the single were all made with love, compassion, intellectual curiosity, respect, experimentation and a genuine desire to circulate a beautiful, unusual, challenging image which spoke to a multitude of experiences, in order to resist absolutely any essentialization, to revel in queerness and gender queerness, and to gently mock the excessive fetishization of othered bodies. I can't say if I failed or succeeded or to what extent, but that was my intent, and I hope I have made it clear with this text, as best as I can with such a complicated and personal image.

"A Woman's Right to Choose" music video, directed by Imogen Heath for NowMomentNow