Being Seen

On Photography
Femme en habit d’homme, ferrotype, États-Unis, circa 1880.

I feel as though there should be a word for the sensation of still being continually surprised in the face of something that happens every day, one that makes sense of the disconcerting combination of outrage and expectation. ‘Mate’, ‘sir’, ‘bruv’ or ‘dude’ to my back, my silhouette; after a quick glance on a train, in a bar.  

And then I reply – the words don’t matter, the voice does – and a more careful consideration of my face follows. Then: ‘sorry miss’, ‘sis’, ‘darling’. It’s a correction for them, not for me.

To be gender non-conforming is to combine the hyper visible and the unseen.  “Unseen” marking a presumption, a lack of context, but also an action, a process of unseeing. To be stared at, studied, separated into parts, then added and subtracted against the whole to make some kind of normative sense. Most people do it. Most people are not subtle in doing it. Outline, form, shoulders, hips, hands, feet, hair, face, voice. Crucially missing is my perspective.   

Sometimes it can feel like the heart of being trans is in resisting description and reformatting it to fit correctly. When we look for other trans people, we look for those sites of resistance but – more than that – we look further for the reformation, the correct interpretation. I want my resistance to the categories assigned to me at birth to be acknowledged but, doubly important, I need my own self-knowledge, the truth of my life, to be known. 

I’ve looked at this particular image entitled femme en habit d’homme, for a long time, contemplating the gap between refusal and recreation, wondering what it means in terms of this exhibition, for this collection of archival photographs. What tipped the scales, so that the collector decided or surmised, ‘this is a woman in the clothes of a man’ (and not just for this picture, but for all the anonymous pictures appropriated here)? What was considered to be the essential “proof” or “give away” of manhood, of womanhood? A smooth face, incongruous with a body clothed in a waistcoat and jacket? Generous sideburns twinned with a long braid? The same hunt for clues, for evidence, that strangers undertake when they split me apart and try to reform me to better fit their own conclusion. An understanding of gender non-conformity that begins and ends with imposing a gendered standard.

If I want this to change, I have to understand why it happens. Ignorance, obviously – but where does it begin and how does it continue?

To investigate the erasure of gender variance is to grapple with the history of gender, of gendered oppression, in its totality. It’s hard not to sound flippant when trying for brevity. The continuation of gendered oppression – a binary of opposites in which one is forcibly constructed as better, as best – requires the removal of contradictory evidence to survive. The removal is done consciously for some who uphold this system, and unconsciously for the many more who fall back on habit, laziness, fear of change, fear of the other; a particular fear of what change the “other” might wreak, not only in the world outside but in the internal world of the self. What might we be tempted to become if the boundaries surrounding us are shaken? Are any of our systems safe, if a central structure is pulled down?

As to how it continues? I would attest through deliberate destruction, and the reproduction of ignorance.

The success of the persecution and erasure of gender variant people is shown by the widespread lack of any knowledge of that persecution. In the destruction of records, of communities, of individual lives, a further destruction was intended – that of the chance of cumulative cultural change. For generations to build upon each others’ work, the work must be available. For communities to wield social influence, they must have a presence, however small. 

For those with the resources and the inclination, we can still find traces. We find just enough to know that those who have challenged a simplistic division of gender, of sex, have existed for a very long time. Those traces are too often in the official reports of persecution: arrest warrants, asylum reports, orders of torture and execution. The Nazis took photos of the bonfire they built with Magnus Hirschfeld’s research, the most detailed and wide-ranging material in support of gendered and sexual difference in the world. Police officers in 1950s America took photos of queens and queers on their way to the cells.

When we look even further, we find traces of something else: a continual fight that was sometimes won. in 1882, Hermann Karl successfully challenged the Prussian State to recognise him as legally male, following the pioneering medical treatment he fought for. Support networks of “transvestites” (a different meaning then from now) who, through the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, organised everything from dance parties to legal cases, body modifications to new forms of artistic expression. Wherever there was official crackdown, there was also subcultural resistance.

But niche study will never sell like shock and titillation, and what we “know”, as a culture, about gender variance doesn’t come from a library but from movies, television, radio, newspapers – and from the conversations and tropes that feed backwards and forwards to/from the media machine. Ongoing situations and gradual change won’t shift copy or grab headlines like the new, and so we have an insistence on “firsts”. Who was the “first transsexual”? Who was the first trans person to get married, to join the army, to carry a child? A new “first” pops up more than once a year. More than an annoyance, this way of thinking about gender non-conforming people defines our broader place in the world: as anomalies, forever understood by the system that we ourselves find lacking. The conversation never moves forward. All that is documented is our initial resistance to the status quo, but in terms that reify that structure: man into woman, female “living as” male. The shared cultures we are creating are not the story. This is about individual difference, which can be picked out and put back into its proper place.

Which brings me back to femme en habit d’homme, and what I know I’ll experience the next time I step outside. Even now, I know it will surprise me. I look in the mirror before I open the door, and begin to portion myself up, to try to avoid the same treatment from others: how should I show my face, my hair, my shoulders, my self? I look again at this photograph, and wonder if that person may have done the same: have resisted what they were told they were, only to have to keep on resisting the interpretation of others? I wonder if they were strong enough in the recreation of who they were so that those interpretations didn’t matter?  More specifically I wonder if they would look at the title given to their picture and agree with it, or disagree, or disregard it as irrelevant.  What would they tell us if they were here?

When you look at these photographs, in this publication, or at the exhibition, I want you to want to know the truth of the person pictured. How they restructured their own world, far beyond the ways they were, and were marked as different, as variant. 

When you look at me, I want you to do the same: to see me as I am, not as you want to. 

— CN Lester

CN Lester is a British classical and alternative singer-songwriter, as well as an LGBT and transgender rights activist.