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Aperture: Future Gender
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #112, 1982Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

How photography has progressed ideas of gender identity and expression

Featuring work by Cindy Sherman and Juliana Huxtable, and guest edited by artist, activist, and producer, Zackary Drucker, Aperture’s new issue celebrates the infinite possibilities of our identities

Newton’s third law, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” goes far beyond the scope of physics. We can see it in all areas of life, perhaps most clearly where oppression exists and takes root.

Last month, American Danica Roem was elected Virginia’s first trans state legislator – unseating Bob Marshall, the man who sponsored the state’s transgender bathroom bill banning trans students from using public facilities that corresponded to their gender identity and required administrators to out trans students to their parents.

Marshall’s efforts to deny fundamental human rights – life, liberty, and privacy – were the ultimate cause of his downfall, helping to bring forth a new era in the fight for trans rights and queer visibility as gender pioneers continue to push beyond the binary of the masculine-feminine divide.

As photography has shown throughout its 180-year history, representation has the power to influence ideas, beliefs, behaviours, and ultimately, laws and society around the world. This winter, Aperture magazine introduces “Future Gender,” a new issue dedicated to the representation of trans and gender-nonconforming lives, communities, and histories.

“Photography saved my life. As an adolescent, I discovered that by taking a Polaroid picture of myself dressed as a girl, I could escape the confines of boyhood. I have continued to use photography as a way to verify my existence and to see myself, my relationships, my evolution” – Zackary Drucker

Guest edited by Zackary Drucker, artist, activist, and the producer of the acclaimed Amazon TV series Transparent, “Future Gender” examines the ways in which photography has played a pivotal role in the expression of social and personal identity. “Future Gender” is as diverse, inclusive, and expansive as the nuances and complexities of gender allow, traversing far beyond the binary into new realms where representation offers possibility, actualisation and agency.

“Photography saved my life,” Drucker reveals. “As an adolescent, I discovered that by taking a Polaroid picture of myself dressed as a girl, I could escape the confines of boyhood. I have continued to use photography as a way to verify my existence and to see myself, my relationships, my evolution.”

Drucker’s intimate understanding of the medium allowed her to use “Future Gender” as a site of exploration and expansion in equal part, spotlighting stories that examine the intersections between image and identity in radical and compelling new ways. The issue features Marlow La Fantastique, the African-American star of the 1970s drag underground; Nick Sethi’s photographs of the Aravan, the 18-day Indian festival that embraces the trans community; Tobias Zielony’s photos of Kiev’s LGBT scene; a series of photographs of Juliana Huxtable taken by Amos Mac inside the ACLU offices, where she worked as a legal assistant with the racial justice program – yet was subject to racist and transphobic attitudes during her employment.

The issue kicks off with an interview between Drucker and trailblazing author Kate Borenstein, who observes, “When gender is a binary, it’s a battlefield. When you get rid of the binary, gender becomes a playground.”

Drucker shares her insights, experiences, and wisdom gleaned from a life that expands our understanding of gender in all its multi-faceted glory.

I would like to begin with the discovery of the language and the way it informs our thoughts and ideas about identity. I love your interview with Kate Bornstein, where you talk about discovering the word “transgender” after shoplifting a copy of her book Gender Outlaw from a store. Could take us back to that moment and what it was like to find this word, and how it impacted you.

Zackary Drucker: As a young person, I was extremely effeminate. I was conscious of the fact that most of the people around me assumed that I would grow up to be gay. This assumption was demonstrated in sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit ways, but I always felt like it was missing the mark.

I grew up in Syracuse, New York. There was little exposure to trans people and trans culture outside of cable television, video rentals, or what books I could find. I had no one to identify with. At 14, in 1997, this did not make me very popular in school. I felt like a pariah. I quickly learned the social rejection of subverting the gender binary. Which was not subtle. It was very direct.

I knew that transsexuals existed, but that felt like a leap to me at that point. Finding Kate’s book was monumental; it was speaking directly to me. I learned that transgender included different kinds of gender expression, and that I could identify as trans without proclaiming myself a woman. I’ve always felt very in-between and circumspect about the gender binary. It only serves less than half of the population, and even there it’s a failure.

How does naming something begin to change the way we think, identify, and relate to ourselves and to others?

Zackary Drucker: It gives us a sense that we’re not alone; that we’re a part of a tribe. Giving something a name helps facilitate a sense of community.

“I’ve always felt very in-between and circumspect about the gender binary. It only serves less than half of the population, and even there it’s a failure” – Zackary Drucker

We have entered a new frontier in public discourse, where the binary thinking around gender is being challenged. Why do you think going beyond the binary is so challenging for so many people, both gay and straight?

Zackary Drucker: The entirety of our social order is structured around the gender binary. Dismantling that is a feat, and we’re just getting started. 

My grandmother Flawless Sabrina once said: “Pioneers seldom live long enough to walk in the path that they cut. Somewhere, some day, a kid that you’ll never meet will see what you’re doing and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too.’”

Flawless and Auntie Kate set the example for how I can live my life, and I try to set the same example for others.

I’d like to talk about the power of representation. As the old refrain goes, “Seeing is believing” – but more than that, seeing has the added power to normalise or stigmatise. Some people are challenged by trans people, because they feel “deceived” by the accuracy – perhaps they feel not only gender is being challenged but also sexuality. Could you speak about this? 

Zackary Drucker: There has always been a tradition of trans bodies being sexualised and objectified. None of the words we use to describe our sexual orientation are adequate to describe an attraction to a trans or gender nonconforming person.

Even the word “bisexual” is predicated on a binary. I love bisexuals, but new words will emerge because language evolves quickly: pansexual, sapiosexual, trans-amorous, robo-sexual, virtual-sexual, cross-gender heterosexuals – you name it!

I would like to address the power of representation and the responsibility that artists and the media share, to create honest, authentic images that open and expand the conversation. With “Future Gender,” you’ve done an incredible job tapping into the many threads of trans and non-gender conforming lives, communities, and histories. How did you decide where to begin, what to focus on, and who to include? 

Zackary Drucker: We researched trans and gender expansive people around the world and throughout time. With limited space, we could only include so much from such a rich history. This issue of Aperture magazine is a place to start, but there are so many representations to discover and yet to be created.

I love that you included Juliana Huxtable in this issue. How did you come to connect with her?

Zackary Drucker: I met Juliana through a mutual friend, when she was a young person having just graduated from Bard. I was wowed then, as I am now! She is an incredible archetype and model for the future – an artist and thinker who works across mediums, and a human who transcends the borders of our physical reality.

I also love that you included A Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose, the landmark 1997 exhibition at the Guggenheim. The 90s really broke open a conversation about gender in a new way. How do you see this conversation continuing in the art world today?

Zackary Drucker: A Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose was another timely beginning. It’s incredible how relevant the photographic work in that exhibition remains today, how artists continue to experiment with gender throughout art history.

I love the ACT UP poster from that show which features three couples and says “Kissing doesn’t kill: greed and indifference do.” The image was made about 25 years ago but could have been made today.

We are much better off as a community than we were in the 90s. It’s a difficult time now, don’t get me wrong, but we have communication networks, media influence, cultural legitimacy, and trans leadership that we didn’t have back then. The more that we can point to in the past, the more prepared we are to move forward.