Risk, subversion and/or death in queer portraiture
- Published: 12 June 2010
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There is a danger in glorifying gender ambiguity in art without consideration for the real-life threats that gender-ambiguous people live with, writes Max Attitude.
Vision is always a question of the power to see — and perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualizing practices. With whose blood were my eyes crafted? - Donna Haraway
What I’m interested in is the hostility with which gender ambiguous bodies are stared at, the actuality of violence against those bodies, and the ways visual – and performative – arts subvert, reinforce or simply avoid these real life threats that trans and gender ambiguous people live with.
To transgender studies, the photographic portrait provides a crucial argument for visibility and the centrality of corporeality [the body] to that discipline and ontology. As trans theorist Susan Stryker proclaims: ‘[Transgender studies] helps correct an all-too-common critical failure to recognize “the body” not as one (already constituted) object of knowledge among others, but rather as the contingent ground of all our knowledge, and of all our knowing.’ That is, that our bodies tell (our) stories.
Transgender bodies disrupt expectations of sex and gender, and their photographic (re)presentations can be seen as damaging to, and damaged by, the ‘proper’ order of gender. Explicit gender ambiguity in queer portraiture troubles dominant concepts of sex and gender as stable and biologically determined, challenging the reader to (re)consider the immutability and safety of their own gender. Or at least that’s the idea.
The figuration of the transgender as powerfully subversive was asserted by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble, where she used transgender subjectivities to show how gender is performatively (re)produced, thus rendering queer a gay and lesbian overlap through cross-gendered identifications.
Butler went on in Bodies That Matter to suggest that while transgenderism was queering, it was in transsexuality that queer found its limit: bodily alterations that seek to (re)establish sexed stability or coherence reinforce gender normativity. That is, Butler argues that sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is not queer.
Trans theorist Jay Prosser critiques this theorisation of transsexual bodies – and I agree with him – arguing that Butler undermines the queer potential of SRS and marks out as transgressive that which makes the subject’s real life most unsafe [gender ambiguity]. And it’s this risk that I think we need to take note of.
While portraits of gender ambiguous bodies confront us with the mutability of that which is supposedly stable [gender], there is a danger in idolising images of transgender bodies which place subversive power on instability and fragmentation.
Transsexual portraits of bodies (re)made whole can emphasise integrity and cohesion while maintaining subversively queer force in their relation to technologies and the subject’s defiance of expectations of gender and sex as biologically determined. That is, I’m arguing for the consideration, rather than exclusion, of transsexual – transitioned – bodies in queer art.
Photographs are always and only fragments – moments past (dead) – and this is particularly salient to trans portraiture, where figurative violence is decidedly more likely to be(come) literal. In order to create sustainable images of queer ontologies, there needs to be value and pride re-established on images of queer bodies which emphasise unity and solidity, and recognition and appreciation of the queer power of transsexed bodies, as well as transgender bodies.
The common tendency for trans theorists and writers to include photographic portraits in their work highlights the centrality of the body in trans story-telling, redressing histories of invisibility and concealment, as well as the potential violence of ‘revelation’.
The text is, by definition, disembodied and the inclusion of photographs attempts to reify this disjuncture. Portraiture serves to unify this ambivalent subject and ‘insist[s] on continuity in spite of change.’
Transsexuality, afterall, both relies on and defies calls to visibility. Pictures of passing transsexuals that call attention to their transsexual history (in title or series context), draw attention to the need for visibility even for those who are invisible (who “pass”).
Coming out is a strategic move, yet by announcing one’s transsexuality (or trans history) the person ‘undoes the realness’ that is the ‘aim of transition’. The tension between ‘revelation and concealment,’ between in/visibility, is complex: ‘[the portrait's] primary function is to expose the transsexual body; yet how to achieve this when transsexuality on the body is that which by definition is to be concealed?’
Photographer Sara Davidmann argues that trans portraiture, particularly of naked bodies, provides a safe visibility for trans people, and that photographs of private atypical visualisations of gender taken into the public realm [exhibited] constitute an intervention that facilitates a questioning of pre-conceptions of gender and of the body, contesting the boundaries of these binaries, and presents a challenge to the gender system.
Trans theorist Jay Prosser asserts that trans portraits always force us to question our own gendered state of being, as he asks:
How is our reading of the transsexual invested in and produced by our own gendered and sexual subject positioning, our own identifications and desires? Photographs of the transsexual, particularly of the transsexual in transition, push us up against the limits of gendered representation: the limits of what gender we can consign to representation, of what we can process as identity in the visual.
For Prosser ‘we can only look at the transsexual, then, if we look at how we look.’ While the trans portrait forces us to consider the nuances of gender, I am arguing that it does not necessarily follow that the reader will focus this attention on themselves.
What guarantees that the image will provoke such a self-reflection? It is painfully possible that it will in fact have the opposite effect: the reader re-establishing the stability of their own gender and their own body in its appropriateness up against the inappropriate freakishness of the portrait they stare at.
Catherine Opie’s 1991 series Being and Having contests the centrality of the power of the viewer to gaze unscrupulated at the portrait. Jake stares down at us, head tilted back as if to say ‘who the fuck do you think you are to look at me?’ confronting us with our own ability to slip out of the ordered and ‘proper’ categories of ‘man’ or ‘woman.’
Queer theorist Jack Halberstam argues that:
The power of the gaze in an Opie portrait always and literally rests with the image: the perpetual stare challenges the spectator’s own sense of gender congruity, and even self, and it does indeed replicate with a difference the hostile stares that the model probably faces everyday in the street.
Visibility for trans people is desperately important, but the fetishisation of our bodies is just as concerning. Just as the objectification of women’s bodies in photography has been analysed as double (by the male gaze and the camera), so too is the transgender body objectified and othered in dominant discourse.
In seeking out the curve of the jawline, the broadness of the shoulders, the thickness of the neck, trans portraits expose our investments in these distinctions (and their stability). To Opie’s photographs, Halberstam argues that the royal colouring of the backgrounds forces the stare of the spectator to be ‘admiring and appreciative rather than simply objectifying and voyeuristic.’ But really, we can only hope.
In Butler’s formulation of the transgender, and in Prosser and Halberstam’s readings of it: the image of the transsexual is set up in opposition to both nontransgender gender normativity [the normative male or female] and transgender gender ambiguity [the genderqueer]. This serves to create a clear hierarchy which values transgender identities more highly and ‘locates transgressive value in that which makes the subject’s real life most unsafe.’
In this way the nontranssexed body is privileged eroding the queer potential of sex reassignment surgery. SRS becomes a tool of gender conformity and normativity: a not so queer moment. And it is this marking out of subversion to exclude transsexual bodies that I’m arguing against.
This idealisation of ‘gender incongruence assumes one has the luxury to take on the gender order.’ The ability to exist in a ambiguously gendered state in a tenuous one at best, more often it is simply an impossibility.
We are all taught that those of us who are most visibly different will encounter discrimination, hostility and violence.19 Violence against transgender people is not only frequent but underreported and anti-trans sentiment is institutionalised within the system of law enforcement.
Social sanctioning acts to preserve the boundaries of gender and cultural pressures are often at the forefront of our internalized anxieties about gender ambiguity; individuals are punished or rewarded according to our adhesion to social expectations of gender.
And ‘[w]e’re taught to pay attention to humiliation, because it can be enforced by violence.’ The GenderPAC Survey of Transgender Violence reinforces this statistically, finding that over 60% of respondents had experienced assault, and that harassment and violence were often manifested in schools, churches, police and health care professionals.
The threat of violence is a devastating and constant consideration in trans lives. By placing subversive value on that which puts us at the highest risk of violence, we – artists – risk overwriting the reality of violence to such an existence.
The relationship of queer embodiment to physical violence and death creates queer and trans portraits as powerfully defiant. In this way, the presentation of the trans body in photography – or other visual or performance arts – lays bare the strength of trans subjects as we face death in violating the social order of gender and sex.
To photographic theorist Roland Barthes, every photograph contains this ‘catastrophe‘ of Time; a tension between preservation and the coming of death. While the subject of a photograph may or may not be dead, the moment in which the picture was captured is past – dead – and draws attention to the passage of Time as the nearing of death.
This notion of the photograph’s ‘that-has-been,’ interrupts any contemplation of the picture’s narrative with the catastrophe ‘that is dead and that is going to die’, and this seizes us to rethink the text.
This interruption Barthes names the photograph’s punctum, that which breaks or punctuates its narrative content. Barthes infers that punctum is necessarily that which leads to the contemplation of something else, that cannot be named and makes him linger on the photograph: ‘the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion. This power is very often metonymic.’
Here, Time is an ever present punctum.
The notion of the image as referencing death renders the photograph as both damaged and damaging thing, confronting the reader with hir own impending death. What I am arguing is that this reference to death takes on a new and poignant meaning in queer portraiture, where the subject’s real life is threatened with the knowledge of anti-trans violence.
Integrity and subversion: a queer conundrum?
The queer fixation with transgender ambiguity and disorder has eroded the appreciation and consideration of transsexual bodies as unified subjectivities and still powerfully subversive.
Kael T. Block’s series xx boys resists this postulation by focusing instead on pride forged through integrity. As its description declares: ‘[an xx boy is] F2M, [a] Gender Pirate, [o]ne whose genre capsizes the binary, one who creates his own beauty and body, one who created his identity without paying conventions from a sovereign gender system.’
Although the gender system cannot be thrown aside, Block’s intentions to capture images of transmen without stringent, or preconceived, borders of who that might include indulges this consideration of queer subversion as potentially transsexual or gender ambiguous.
In this self-portrait, Block exhibits (his) maleness not as invisibility but as alterity. His body is resolutely masculine and male. It is only in/on the site of his top surgery scars, and in the reader’s ability to recognise them as such, that his transsexual ontology (and history) is made apparent; that is, a queer punctum.
Halberstam suggests that it is this relationship to technology which is (subversively) significant: ‘[the] body situated in an immediate and visceral relation to the technologies – guns, scalpels, cars, paintbrushes – that have marked, hurt, changed, imprinted, and brutally reconstructed it.’
Though his maleness and masculinity is not in question or dislocation, rather his relationship to technology marks/makes his body transgressive. In blending his body into the background through the matching designs of his tattoos and the wallpaper, Block presents a resolute image of wholeness, strength and integrity.
Block represents (his) transsexual ontology as precisely not fragmented, yet the presentation of his surgery scars mark him explicitly as queer in his refusal to be bound by the limitations of his assigned (at birth) sex and the feminist and queer discourses which dismiss the transgressive potential of SRS.
The series as a whole serves to redress the delineation of transsexual from transgendered, as to Block xx boys are who they say they are, sometimes with surgery scars and sometimes without. Block’s emphasis on beauty through pride demands a strength and self-esteem of a subject intact.
By idolising images of ruptured and dislocated bodies we risk idealising our own fragmentation and disintegration. Rather, we need images which point to our potential to stick together, that reaffirm our desires for our bodies as mutable and whole.
The potential of a project like Block’s shows us that queer subversion on the body can be transsexed or transgender. While images of ‘gender incongruous’ transgender bodies present queer punctum as the nuances of gender-crossing, images of transsexed bodies are able to interrupt understandings of sex-determined gender through the relationships to technology which mark the body.
So I have said two things:
- that there is a danger in glorifying gender ambiguity (in art) without consideration for the real-life threats that gender ambiguous people live with.
- And that by limiting what we consider to be transgressive to the exclusion of transsexual bodies and lives, we invalidate the suffering and subversive force of those lives.
While transsexual and transgender bodies have the potential to queer understandings of seeing and being seen, as well as concepts of gender and the body, we need to remember that ‘[t]hese are claims on people’s lives.’
These are things which we – as young artists, and especially as artists of “the body” – need to be thinking about.
Max Attitude is a social commentator, queer tranny boi hero. He writes the monthly column What's Queer Here? What’s Queer Here? seeks out a what rather than a who: some or other thing, phenomenon, inclination, tendency, or potential. It binds that what to a here, suggesting that what’s queer here may not necessarily be queer there, and vice versa. Max also contributes to the female flagging guide flagging opinicus rampant: there is no such thing as overflagging.