This came about in conversation between myself and photographer Nicky Guillon Woodward, who had been invited to create a photography project based on gender. I had been talking about gender and sexuality, and how strange it seems to define an absolute set of features to be ‘attracted’ to – I said let’s do a shoot where it is difficult for an observer to categorise the subject by gender binaries, and therefore to question the meaning of the body and how we superficially judge what attracts us to a person. We had a great pile of clothes and props, mostly my own collected over many years, and spent a day experimenting in the studio to result in this.
My history is that I was assigned female at birth, and felt very uncomfortable physically and socially with that role. On approaching the medical profession for advice, I was assessed as transgender and prescribed hormone therapy. I had mixed feelings, but I desperately needed to feel less unhappy, and to see if it helped. What I found interesting was that, for me, the physical changes were subtle, but the new hormone balance had a good levelling effect on me mentally. Hormones affect us a lot: many cisgender people agree; for example, those going through menopause, or teenagers, or anyone simply affected by different levels at different times. Every person with trans-wiring is different; some don’t need hormone therapy – they perhaps are not affected by hormonal levels as much. For me, it seemed the right ‘fix’ for my physiological makeup. I said to people that it was as if I was running on bad fuel before, and now I feel like my engine has suddenly gone quiet and smooth. I felt much better.
Aside from chemical biology, part of ‘transitioning’ is hoping that you are better able to portray a more accurate version of ‘you’ on the outside. When you’ve spent a long time feeling like people have been treating you in a way that isn’t ‘you’, it feels like a chance to take some control of certain aspects of your appearance. I liked growing the ‘fur’; I found it interesting to think it had lain waiting, that all it took was a chemical instruction to appear. It didn’t really feel ‘male’, or ‘female’, but it felt ‘me’. Maybe I was just a cat in a past life and missed my whiskers. One of the earliest fictional autobiographical characters I wrote was a ‘cyborg lion from space’ – I sort of felt a bit like that. But there were various things that happened that also made it feel sometimes as if I had swapped one mask for another. I recall a romantic rejection because I looked too much ‘like a boy’ for someone. I felt just as invisible as those times before, when I was acutely aware of the romantic approaches made primarily on the perception of me as ‘female’. It was a moment that told me that no face, or category, or pronoun ever tells the full story of who we are. It reminded me of a quote from V for Vendetta, that beneath his mask is a face but it’s not him, any more than the muscles and bones say who he is. Of course, you can’t compensate for someone unwilling to see you for who you are which was the real, though hurtful, problem.
The thing I was learning most of all, in every aspect, every choice, every action chosen with regard to my own identity, was to be as authentic as possible. Those small, physical changes gave me the choice of how to present myself. Several masks being better than just one, perhaps. And those masks could be adorned quite differently. I became aware that I had a very versatile appearance. I never had chest surgery, and yet it seemed that even my breasts could be masculine or feminine in the right cut or light. I could ‘own’ those gender categories; I could be what was male, female, or otherwise, on my own terms. I think these photos show a strength relating to that. The sword prop perhaps emphasises this: it was a gift, a long time ago, from a now departed actor friend who admired me for who I was, and for my embodiment, and he saw it all in synergy which really helped me in my mental journey. He would have loved these pictures.
How do I label myself? In the muggle world I use he/him/his, or they/them/theirs. A lot of systems and tick boxes don’t allow for non-binary, or even non-gender, so it’s often the former, as it’s (to me, influenced by a variety of factors) the lesser of the evils. Language seems to be a case of occasion and convenience, and I’m not overly bothered by it, as long as I know I am ultimately being seen as a person, without the conditions in fashion for a given label at a given time. I was once propositioned to be someone’s ‘girlfriend’ whilst they referred to me with masculine pronouns – and also thought I was someone else’s ‘boyfriend’. I didn’t take them up on it…but did find the implied flexibility of language/perception interesting. Love is one thing I see ultimately transcend so many bodily conditions…our bodies change and decay; but someone once said to me as they get older they ‘see more in people’. What does it take to look past appearance and actually ‘see’ a person to the point where age, gender, ability, scars or ‘otherness’ becomes irrelevant?
I am not sure what truths are revealed by these pictures but something perhaps more than not wanting to be judged as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’. They use the superficial to deconstruct the superficial, hopefully. I don’t know if they are totally me, but there is some aspect of me in them. Man; woman, beauty; beast (my favourite theme). What you see in things – pictures, art, words, and even a person – may be down to how open you are.
Photography ©Nicky Guillon Woodward 2015. Strictly no reproduction of photos, web page or any rendition bearing these images for profit. Media enquiries welcome.