Everywhere from politics to pop culture, awareness of the transgender community swept the country this year. But beyond the most prominent examples, like Caitlin Jenner's on-screen transition and Hulu's Transparent, how are transgender issues and non-binary gender realities communicated to the masses in the media?
On Saturday December 5, the organizers of Art Basel Miami Beach assembled an impressive cast of panelists to examine this very question—including the New York-based DJ and artist Juliana Huxtable, and Black Contemporary Art founder/Instagram star Kimberly Drew (AKA @Museummammy). Tucked away in a black fabric-lined temporary room of Miami's Convention Center among hundreds of brilliantly curated gallery booths, the five panelists investigated whether a collision of the two things—transgender issues and mainstream culture—is even a conceivable reality, let alone a desirable objective.
There was an overwhelming sense that the title of the panel itself, "Transgender in the Mainstream," was incongruous to the active discourse on trans representation and perception — perhaps even counterproductive to the goals of the trans community. This problem is particularly endemic to the art world, where individuals are often expected to speak for an entire community. But the ill-fitting title opened up a thoughtful dialogue about erasure and voyeurism in trans history, activism and art through different modes of self expression, and having a body —any body— in the digital age.
Gordon Hall: Artist, New York — @pageantparade
Juliana Huxtable: Artist, Poet, and DJ, New York — @julianahuxtable
Kimberly Drew: Founder, Black Contemporary Art, New York — @museummammy
David J. Getsy: Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History and Interim Dean of Graduate Studies, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
William J. Simmons: Ph.D. Student, Art History and Women's Studies, CUNY Graduate Center, New York — @wjsimmons
William J. Simmons: Thank you for coming. I'd like to start off the discussion with an idea: progress often comes with exclusion, ever since the earliest days of the feminist movement. How can we, as people in the art world, move the conversation beyond the limited rhetoric that we often hear in mainstream media about gay rights, without forgetting that for many, gayness or gender fluidity are such foreign concepts as to be entirely imaginary? How do we keep our message inclusive to people who may not have the same intellectual background as us, or the same artistic vocabulary, while making sure that the conversation does not remain limited and exclusive?
Kimberly Drew: I think there needs to be a more proactive approach to understanding and celebrating difference. It's really about individuals [and] the communities that they represent, and all too often, unfortunately, we don't hear about individual people until it's too late.
Juliana Huxtable: I think the title of this panel is kind of ironic, "Transgender in the Mainstream." I think it's a bit corny in a lot of ways, but I also think it's inaccurate because it equates some sort of active participation or presence in the mainstream with an increase in visibility. On one hand, you have the idea of transgender or gender variance being more emergent, in the way that it's covered in the media, pop culture, or even in the context of the art world. But I don't think that necessarily goes hand-in-hand with what being in the mainstream signifies—which is power, financial resources, presence, institutional influence, dialogues, whatever.
I think the title of this panel is inaccurate because it equates some sort of active participation or presence in the mainstream with an increase in visibility.
If anything, what's actually creeping into popular culture are the sort of things that are kind of affecting everyone, but that transgender people are presumed to represent in some condensed form: the idea that there is some sort of eternal subject, or some modular even if questioned identity, and it's ability to manifest through technology, hormones and the medical industry. The idea that by dealing in androgyny and ideas of gender, you're now accessing a new wave related to sexuality.
I think those are questions that everyone is dealing with in really intimate ways, and that trans people have been visible because they're presumed to embody that more than others—even though ironically, they experience the least access to what that might manifest. I would also question linking the championing of gay rights with transgender liberation because I think those are separate, and often times oppositional questions—especially in terms of what visibility signifies in some sort of access to power and participation in the mainstream.
David J. Getsy: I think what's important to remember is that this isn't the first moment that there has been an upsurge of media interest in transgender subjects. There were front page stories in the New York Times in 1966 and Esquire, US News & World Report—everything was being debated. But then the politics turned against that, especially in the way that the gay rights movement co-opted [the trans movement.] There's a crucial moment in the story that Susan Stryker says, in 1973, when homosexuality is declassified from the list of psychiatric disorders, but gender nonconformity is not, it's at that moment when the gay rights movement actively turned against all kinds of gender variance as part of their politics. The same thing that happened in the feminist movement in the 1970s.
So it's important to remember that this moment of media attention is often a smoke screen that's sometimes an excuse for people not to be actively engaged in the politics or culture. Just because there's a gesture towards inclusion once doesn't mean there's structural change.
Gordon Hall: I was looking at the title and feeling grossed out and then musing to myself, "what would it mean for transgender to be in the mainstream?" I don't think any of us are particularly interested in being a part of a mainstream, but as a thought experiment, what would that mean? For me, that means gender self-determination as a reality for everybody, and that maybe the term "transgender" doesn't even exist anymore. So, when I was thinking about transgender in the mainstream, for me it's really a question of, "what kinds of structural changes or theoretical, logical, framework-level type changes would have to occur for gender self-determination to be a reality for everybody?"
KD: One thing that I think is kind of interesting is that this conversation isn't necessarily about the mainstream. What we're really talking about is gender determination within institutional structures more so than the mainstream.
GH: In addition to institutions, I'm thinking about perception. What genders are even possible—how gender becomes visible to each other but also within oneself. Institutions aren't outside of us, they're all in your heart, so what you can recognize yourself to be is very much a product from all of those structures that start the moment you're born.
WJS: On our email chain that we've been having for a few months, Gordon raised the question of representation. I think that connects to questions that David brought up of tokenism and inclusion. How do we move reframe the conversation towards actual structural change—without neglecting the fact that voices are constantly silenced? The point is not simply to provide a platform, but to change the platform, right?
DJG: There are two different concerns. The first is working for a more diverse, inclusive museum collection—who's on the pages of an art magazine, who's in everything? That needs to happen, but that's not just the only thing. It's important to also to be thinking more widely about how gender self-determination or gender non-conformity create the need for entirely different kinds of structures.
KD: We respectively center our own identities in relation to the world around us. In the way that history is recorded, of course there's erasure. But if we as individuals are able to center on our own respective cause, identity, agenda, then there's more possibility for interrogating what erasure means and stunting the rapidity of [it].
JH: Part of what I see to be the problem is that the people who identify as transgender are the only people who are placed in conversation with what that signifies. There's a pretty prominent sculptor named Mark Quinn, and he did a series of sculptures at White Cube with popular figures and pop culture trans people. He did two porn stars, Buck Angel—who is a female-to-male, trans male porn star—and Alana Star, who is a non-operative male-to-female transgender woman. In the sculptures, he has them holding hands, maybe to evoke Adam and Eve, and then he puts them in a position in which Alanna Star is penetrating Buck Angel.
No one involved in the curating was transgender, no one involved in the orchestrating of what that meant was transgender, outside of sort of agreeing to participate in that. He would not be considered a transgender artist or an artist that's dealing in issues of being transgender. The way his work is written about categorizes trans people as if they are an representation of like, extreme body modification, and it's the same thing as someone who's covered in tattoos or has 50,000 piercings. But when I do work that has nothing to do, as far as I'm concerned, with me being transgender, I'm a transgender artist.
DJG: I also think that that's a great example of how the problem of using people as signs for ideas. When the human figure is put into representation, it becomes allegorical, it becomes iconic. One of the things that's really interesting is to think about is how sometimes abstraction is a site for which to articulate more open accounts of embodiment and gender. It's a way of circumventing the lurid fascination with the trans body in popular culture.
When we talk about representation and visibility, it activates a really problematic history about the representation of the trans body. We have to remember that if we were to do a long history of the representation of trans, it's a history of medical photography. A really pathologising discourse was fueled off this idea of the fascination with, and inspection of, bodies. Any time there's a representation of a trans person in the media it still activates some of that same history. This is one of the real concerns when you think about visibility—visibility exposes you to surveillance.
GH: I sometimes wonder about this obsession with trans people's bodies and trans people's transitions, and one explanation would be something like, "Oh, this is weird and different so I'm interested in it," but another explanation that actually feels more right to me is that everybody transitioned. You went through puberty, you became a woman or a man, you were pregnant, you are getting old and dying, your body is in a constant state of transition and there are some people who embody that very human mode of transitionality in a sort of crystalized way or an accelerated way, and that often is transgender people. For me, one of ways of trying to maneuver around this historical problem of imaging the trans body is to think about abstraction as a way to think about having a body or being a body without necessarily showing a body. Like, how can my body speak in a language that doesn't exist yet?
How can my body speak in a language that doesn't exist yet?
KD: I asked Thomas J. Lax, who is a curator at MoMA, a question about visibility and virality in relationship to black bodies and black artists—and how to subvert that. He suggested abstraction as a solution. But I wonder too about the right to representation. The whole process is about representation, and that an artist or person could make claim to representing themselves. There needs to be more complicated way that we can center to people's needs of both abstraction and representation.
GH: Under conditions of total erasure, representation is incredibly important. I'm not at all anti-representation, it's just that anybody who's getting an MFA who's anything other than a straight white man, anything they make, your committee says, "How does this have to do with you being a blank?"
DJG: One of the things that I do in my historical work for instance is to try and infect the canon. I think of my own practices, going and re-reading the histories of artists who were not interested in gender but nevertheless finding ways to re-read them to find capacitating sites in their works. So I write about Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain who have no alignment with trans politics at all, but nevertheless try to mine [their work] for the resources of openness that they came to inadvertently propose through their own pursuit of abstraction as a way of making sure that no one can ever look at a John Chamberlain again without thinking about it in a way that were not his politics, but may be ours. I think that's one of the things that we found so limiting about the title, "Transgender in the Mainstream," it makes it sound as though there is a singular thing that has arrived at a singular place.
WJS: Maybe one reason why one might think this conversation is new is because of the emergence of social media as an outlet for self-definition. I wonder what role that abstract space might play in the continued effort to make the transitional nature of all of our lives more present.
JH: My relationship to gender theory for a long time was trying to define how we get from the most essentialist idea of vagina, womb, orifice, void, into the feminine void and the abstract. I found a sense of liberation in, less like Instagram social media, but especially Tumblr as a way of seeking out these alternate canons, having those conversations, and establishing alternate traditions, institutions, and a certain history through which I might be able to answer those questions for myself in a way that might not have been possible before.
KD: I think so much about how especially people in their formative years have access to the internet and tools for research in a way that is actually unprecedented. But I think, to talk a little bit about Juliana and my's relationship, we gained to know each other [originally connecting via Tumblr] in a very specific time within the chronology of social media. It was pre-Instagram, that sounds so ridiculous, but it's true. The ecosystem of Instagram versus the ecosystem of something like Tumblr, with respect to time, algorithms, and the ways that we navigate the web — those platforms have totally radicalized the way that we understand ourselves and to seek out others who are like us. And they are constantly changing themselves. It's just such an interesting, transitory process.
Gender is and always has been highly virtual and highly transient.
What is the body online? There are things that we can learn from those spaces that teach us what we should have always already known. Like, bodies are already highly imaginary and fantasmatic already. Often when we talk about this we fall back on this very traditional notion of selfhood, like "I am a thing. I arrive at it at whatever age, and that's the thing I am forever." Whereas trans life and online life, which are very interwoven, make it possible for us to say "I am actually many," or "what I am tomorrow is not necessarily what I am today, and this gender is the gender that's happening now." I think it's a really good moment to be thinking about gender, and these platforms are really helpful. Gender is and always has been highly virtual and highly transient.
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