Witnessing Love Between Two Transgender People

Artists Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst privately photographed their six-year-long relationship, during which both of them transitioned in opposite directions.

by Diana Tourjée
Jun 13 2016, 6:15pm

Photos by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Courtesy of Prestel

Last Thursday evening the rare books room on the third floor of the Strand bookstore in Union Square was filled by transgender people and their loved ones. Two young artists had come together to talk about their new book with a curator named Stuart Comer and one of history's most important gender scholars: the artists' transgender "auntie," Kate Bornstein. A collaboration between Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Relationship documents their six-year love affair, during which both of them changed their sex.

Drucker and Ernst met in 2008, before their mutual (and opposite) gender transitions. They were aspiring artists, wrestling with adulthood as all young people do, growing together as people and as art makers. Their relationship eventually ended, but they are still part of each other's lives. For one thing, they work together: In addition to their collaborative projects, Drucker and Ernst are both producers on the Emmy award–winning series Transparent. Although their relationship is over, in its absence is a private photo diary that they kept throughout their years together.

Photos by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Courtesy of Prestel

"It was incredible witnessing our shared evolution," Drucker said in an interview with Broadly. "When we met we saw the direction each of us were moving toward." Since then they've grown up, but the world around them has also changed, and they've been part of that.

Characters in works of fiction may be used to having their love immortalized in art—but real people rarely condense those beautiful, joyous, and painful chapters of life into something tangible and shareable. "These images outlast what they depict," Ernst writes. "They are a closed loop—an amorous gaze reciprocated, a finite time left behind." Left behind—but still preserved. It would be an impressive accomplishment for anyone, but for Drucker and Ernst it's just one small part of their greatness; their love story is so transcendent that it seems almost futuristic, like it was passed backward in time.

Read more: The Trans Artists Highlighting the People No One Else Wants to See

"This is historic," Bornstein, who contributed a passage to the book, said that night at the Strand. She was invited to write a piece for Relationship because of Drucker and Ernst's commitment to intergenerational discourse. "Kate Bornstein is my hero and she has been since I was fourteen years old," Drucker said. She and Ernst charted their histories, literally: Ernst has just produced We've Been Around, a series of short documentaries that delve into forgotten chapters in transgender history, and Drucker's 2012 film At Least You Know You Exist is a window into her friendship with the legendary drag queen and elderly trans icon Flawless Sabrina. "There has never—ever—been a book like this," Bornstein said. While literature and film are full of love stories between men and women, there are very few that tell of lovers who transitioned. For transgender people, traditional love stories can seem like fantasies, happening to other people in another world. Transgender people are beautiful. They can be loved, and love each other.

Drucker and Ernst's story is an important contribution to transgender culture, but it is also an example of the way that life itself can be art. "If our greatest artwork is the way that we live our lives," Drucker writes, "then a relationship is the ultimate collaboration." In 2014, the photo series was featured in the prestigious Whitney Biennial show. As they write in their book, these pictures were never intended as professional work. They were just something the artists had created together: passive, daily photographic diary entries. But when Comer came to their Los Angeles home in April 2013 to view a film they'd created together—called She Gone Rogue—they wanted to provide context for their work, so they shared these pictures with him.

In the foreword to Relationship, Comer writes, "The photographs are exquisite, surprising, and efficient in dissolving so many of the structures of fear that still allow gender to be policed so stringently." The images are printed alongside the ephemera of their relationship: ticket stubs to a Le Tigre concert they both attended before they met, notes that read, "Welcome home" and, "I love you soooo much." In this context, the pictures break down those barriers, but they also insert an uncommon gender experience into the most personal of human interactions—making Relationship a startlingly intimate and important document.

"We made these photographs to record that love was possible between two trans people who feared that they would never be loved again after transition," Drucker writes. "We made these photographs to imagine a world beyond the binary, to record a type of love that hadn't yet been visualized. We made these photographs to know that those pieces of us will always exist."

Relationship is forthcoming from Prestel Publishing, it is scheduled for public release on June 25th.