Aspects of Gender

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #096, Winter 2001.

by Mariette Pathy Allen

June 22, 2001, a warm, humid Saturday, happened to be my birthday. I decided to celebrate by immersing myself in two aspects of life that have always fascinated me: art and gender, so I took the train to Albany. I taxied across the river to Troy, a beautiful, bleak old industrial city often used as a backdrop for historical movies. The artists? reception at Fulton Street Gallery, which lies on a quiet, tree-lined street, was in full swing, making history.

?Aspects of Gender,? the brainchild of Helen ?Montage? Farrell, was as far as I know, the first conference devoted to art made by people of transgender experience. Although some conventions, noteably those organized by transmen, have included art exhibitions and an occasional art-related workshop, art has never been the main subject of any transgender gathering.

The event was sponsored by the Transgender Independence Club (TGIC), the Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Council, and the Fulton Street Gallery, a non-profit gallery dedicated to providing support and exhibition venues to emerging artists and working. The 1500-square-foot gallery was bright and attractive, with a large front room, a sectioned-off second room with a conference table, and a small office upstairs which temporarily housed IFGE?s Synchronicity bookstore. Since there were but five artists in the exhibition, each was able to have a generous display.

The next morning, all of the exhibiting artists except Melodie were joined by Moonhawk River Stone, a therapist and writer; Colleen Skiff, the Fulton Street Gallery director, an art therapist, art teacher and artist; Denise Leclair, the manager of IFGE?s Synchronicity bookstore; and myself. We gathered around a conference table to discuss issues relating to art and gender. We wrote down questions and picked several topics to discuss. The resulting conversations deserved to have been taped. Lacking a recording, I am relying on my scratchy notes to re- create some of them.

Do transgendered folk have more or less credibility in dealing with sex and gender issues?

? Yes, in that we deal with both sides of ourselves. We speak from experience. We live it in such a rich way!

? No. We lose credibility because our situation is too central to who we are.

? Male-to-females are more sexually repressed than the average person; they lose credibility in sexual terms. Female-to-males, however, tend to be more comfortable dealing with sex and sexuality. Because we come out earlier, we have the youth factor going for us, plus we take testosterone.

Is transgenderism a form of art in itself?

? Yes. We perform our presentation. We?re self- palettes. My vision of myself is what I became. Am I work on display or work in progress? Art could be anyone redefining themselves. Is life, then, art?

? Our bodies are art. We can sculpt them. Even the way we dress in the morning is an artistic or at least self- expressive decision. Appearance is a form of communication. We can decide to conform to gender stereotypes or choose to be outrageous.

? I like to play with my self-image: I?m about to get a floral tattoo on my breast. I hate the fashion police! I?m a visual iconoclast! I believe in growing your own colors. I like to dress differently, depending on what I?m doing. No matter what mode I?m in, I like my wife to dress me. She?s an artist, too.

What?s more important to your creativity: being transgendered, or being an artist?

Montage: My main expression is being an artist. I get inspiration from my experiences as a transgendered person. If I had been born female, I would have been transgendered, too!

Moonhawk: If I think of myself as a clam, what names would I give to the sand that comes in to become pearls? I was always different: I was bright and inquisitive, I was interested in art, I was adopted, and I was transsexual. What stimulates art is difference and discomfort. Something pushes the creative force.

Peter/Padra: I disagree with that: I don?t think the artist has to suffer to make good art. I think it?s genetic?it?s a sense that I have to make art. I think good art is chosen and chanelled.

Moonhawk: There?s a place in me that needs to create. My question is, always, ?How do I use my ecstatic experiences to make art??

Colleen: I?m more comfortable putting myself in my artwork than in my physicality. I take more risk in my art. People lose too much of themselves if they?re too prominent, too out there.

Why did so few artists participate in this conference?

What an extraordinary amount of talent there is here in this space! I want to see more. We speculate that there were probably a number of artists of transgender experience who didn?t feel their art had anything to do with that aspect of themselves. Others may not have wanted to out themselves with the transgender label. Perhaps even attending the exhibition might have felt too risky to some people.

After the discussion, Moonhawk offered a writing workshop. Here are a few notes I took while absorbed in his moving and stimulating presentation.

Moonhawk asked how people of transgender experience could create less declarative and more inspirational writing. How could we write heroic stories? Could our vision come from seeing possibilities rather than seeing obstacles? See your life as a fairy tale. In ?The Little Mermaid,? the question is: what do you have to give up to get what you want? ?The Ugly Duckling,? with which we can identify, shows the universality of experience. As transgendered people, we have models or archetypes we can use such as shamans. Shamanism is part of every ethnic tradition. Fairy tales always include a transformative piece, a process or journey, which is also part of our lives.

Asked how writers bypass resistence, Moonhawk suggested that we go to where we live in our bodies, that the body is spiritually connected.

We ended with our group fairytale, created spontaneously as each person around the table added a line to the narration.

In Flew A Bird

Through the most magestic of windows

As if going from one dimension to another.

She alighted on the bedframe, singing allelujah!

Outstretching her wings to greet the present before her,

She stifled a yawn and reached for some champagne.

?Who left the window open?? the old lady cried.

?Not I, not I,? from the mirror came the reply.

The bird flew to the window, alighted, and began pecking furiously at the glass.

And the glass vanished!

The bird fell through space, chased by the old lady with the broom.

In flew another bird, prettier than the last, exclaiming, ?I am not pretty!? As she reached for the champagne.

?All creatures are beautiful!? came the reply from the mirror.

The mirror cracked, the champagne was sipped, the change began.

?Oh!?said the king, fingering his locks of golden hair,

?I am so glad to be rid of that old woman.?

The bird lifted his crown and flew further, as smoke bellowed from the cracks in the mirror to the king?s hair:

A compendium of developments transformed the king into a beautiful princess.

Thus the spell was finally broken!

My journey to historical Troy, to the land of shamans, sorcerers, and singing sirens, ended. Moonhawk?s smooth-gliding coach-and-four (automobile) whisked me back across the enchanted river to Albany, where I boarded a friendly whistling monster homeward, my birthday wishes for an adventure in the exploration of art and self-presentation granted. The painter, photographer, writer, and inner gender-explorer were all satisfied with being present at the birth of a new kind of gathering.

The transgender subject has long been a compelling one, and has been photographed by outsiders and rendered strange, monstrous, a distant other. No outsider has brought a more loving gaze to the enterprise than Mariette Pathy Allen. Her compassion draws trust and real emotion from her subjects, and her images are imbued with all the dignity, the longing for peace and justice, and the humor that transgendered people can express. In her eyes all people are multi-dimensional human beings, and gender informs and enriches her subjects rather than enclosing them in roles and responsibilities they can?t escape?Jamison Green