Trans*cending Gender

Local artists Rhys Harper and Gavin Rouille explore the changing transgender conversation through artwork at the Syracuse Trans*cending Gender exhibit.

There are places in Kaleb Lynch’s North Carolina hometown where he will not go, ever, even with people.

These are places where residents like to sit on their porches in rocking chairs with shotguns, and where good ol’ boys come to hang out at night. Though Lynch’s home is a college town, and the only real “blue” part of the county, these are places he, as a transgender man, isn’t safe or welcome.

“I wouldn't go up there because I just wouldn't do it,” he says.

Harassment. Violence. Rape. Death. These are fears many transgender people in the United States have to carry with them.

But being transgender isn’t the defining characteristic in Lynch’s life. He’s a 27-year-old with an infectious smile, a taste for flannel shirts and an abiding love for animals. He works most days in a 3,500-square-foot house built as a cat shelter, which can hold more than 100 cats and is funded exclusively by donation.

Lynch's transgender identity is an afterthought in his daily life, he says, though people latch onto that part of his character.

This duality — that gender identity can be both negligible and defining for transgender people in America — is a cornerstone of the art exhibition Trans*cending Gender that will run at Syracuse’s ArtRage gallery until Jan. 17.  


Trans*cending Gender

A portrait of Lynch hangs in the gallery as part of a photography series by Syracuse artist Rhys Harper. In the photo, Lynch has his arms spread wide and giggles as the cats jump around him. Puffs of catnip hang in the air.

“Everybody’s got something they’re passionate about, and it’s nice to have that on the table instead of what’s in my pants,” Lynch says.

This sentiment speaks to the goal of Harper’s ongoing project photographing transgender and gender non-conforming people around America, celebrating their lives instead of dwelling on their bodies. According to Harper’s mission statement, he wants to show we are all more than just our gender.

But the work of Gavin Rouille, the other artist featured in the Trans*cending Gender exhibition, reminds the viewer that gender identity can become the center of struggle, sometimes between life and death, for transgender Americans.

Rouille refers to “the walkway” as the most emotionally draining piece he’s ever created. It’s a wooden plank that sits in the middle of the ArtRage exhibit, displaying the information of all the transgender people murdered in the United States. It invites the viewer to walk over it, symbolizing the amount of respect the people received.

“After researching these people for months on end and being able to know their faces and how they died, it brought up a lot of really negative emotions,” Rouille says.

The most recent annual report on hate violence by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, for 2013, shows 72 percent of anti-LGBTQH homicide victims were transgender women, and 67 percent were transgender women of color.

Even though Rouille says he began to recognize his privilege as a white transgender man through this piece, he still fell into a pattern of being fearful for his own safety. He couldn't forget those faces.

Rouille believes this overtly political work is meaningful, but has recently moved away from it.

“I really want to be uplifting people,” he says. “I think if we keep reiterating bad things about other people, or about this world, or about ourselves, then we keep recreating those patterns. I want to start encouraging people to create patterns in their life that are supporting them.”

Rouille’s shift in artistic vision mirrors what could be a watershed moment in transgender life in America, a point where transgender people can begin to be defined in popular culture by positives instead of negatives.

Rouille and Harper display their Trans*cending Gender exhibit through Jan. 17. Photo: Nathan McAlone.

Aiden Warrior, a Cherokee tribal artist from Boise, Idaho, who appears in Harper’s photography series in native regalia, says what moves him most about the exhibit is that it shows what transgender people can do instead of what they can’t do. It creates a picture of transgender success.

“We are not always these negative people,” he says. “People want to be loved and accepted. It’s kind of like that Dr. Seuss quote, ‘A person’s a person, no matter how tall.’”



A shift in conversation

This past June, Laverne Cox, the actress who stars in Orange Is the New Black, became the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time. Her fame has sparked a conversation about transgender acceptance in society at large, says Derek Villnave of Syracuse’s Q Center, an LGBTQ support organization.

“When she spoke at [Syracuse University], we didn’t have anything to do with it, but we were still fielding two to three phone calls a week about transgender issues, and from parents who had heard about it.”

Villnave says transgender rights are definitely moving into the mainstream, and the general population hears about transgender issues more. In the past few years, the Q Center has started a support group for children ages 8-12, as people begin to explore their gender identities earlier in life.  

But as much as awareness has increased, the representation of transgender people in the media at large doesn't necessarily reach the sincerity of the portraits in Harper’s photography.

Alice Blank, a Syracuse University student who has written about transgender issues for the student publication The OutCrowd, says “normal” narratives of transgender people aren’t as marketable. People don't want to see a transgender doctor, she says. They want to know about transitioning, passing and other more “exotic” topics.

And the stereotypes about transwomen haven’t gone away either, even in shows like Orange Is the New Black.

“[Laverne Cox’s] plotlines still revolve around hormones, and she’s a criminal,” says Blank. “She’s narcissistic and vain. These are the tropes associated with transwomen. She gave up being a firefighter to be a hairdresser in prison."

Blank admits she doesn't know how to make less “other”-filled transgender narratives more palatable to the public, but she believes it’s crucial to the next step in transgender rights. Now that transgender people are being seen, they can begin to talk about how they are being seen, she says.

For Andrea Zekis, a cartographer and transgender activist in Arkansas, standing out as a transgender person, as with any person, hinges on finding an authentic voice and passions. Zekis says people sometimes pay more attention to her stilt walking than to her activism, and it’s fine that they’ve found something they can identify with.

“I feel most authentic when I’m on my stilts,” Zekis says. “I used to have a terrible fear of heights pre-transition, and when I transitioned my fear of heights went away.”

When Harper photographed Zekis stilt walking, passersby would take photos. Zekis chuckles as she describes the candid moment Harper captured for the exhibit. She had been trying to twerk on stilts and Harper caught her in a position where she was laughing at herself, trying to have fun.

“I just felt so free,” Zekis says. “And to feel free in a trans body is a lot. [Harper] wanted to capture my pure joy. In that way it transcends gender.”

Following the 'teachers'

Aiden Warrior believes people living “out” — though he prefers the term “teachers” — create that space for others.

“People who are ‘out’ are teachers,” he says. “We have something to share and something to talk about.”

Warrior acknowledges the privilege he gains by working from home and selling native crafts. “I don’t have to worry about someone firing me. I’m extremely fortunate. There are people who can’t be ‘out’ and unless people like me take the initiative and try, we won’t get any change.”

When Blank was growing up, she didn't consider that being transgender, talented and successful could be possible.

“I thought they were mutually exclusive,” she says.

The narratives the exhibit shares are those she believes need to be out in the media.

“Until we can be shown as functional human beings, and not just trans people who are trans people,” she says. “People who are transitioning, and care about their hormones, and are obsessed with looks — these sorts of people. Until we can avoid that, we are always going to be perceived as these novelties of sexual deviance."

This can be a problem with transgender narratives in general, Blank says.

“Being transgender is a really frightening mode of life to be in. It’s a precarious, violent path to walk.”

In survey by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, 19 percent of respondents said they had experienced domestic violence at the hands of a family member because of their transgender identity or gender non-conformity — and 41 percent had attempted suicide.   

“And even if your experience hasn't been life threatening, there is a lot of anger at having to go through this process just to be recognized as who you are,” Blank says.

Blank thinks there is often too much yelling, even though transgender people certainly have cause. Blank’s own parents hardly speak to her because of her gender identity, and she is not alone. 40 percent of respondents in the same survey said their parents or other family members “chose not to speak or spend time with [them]” because of their gender identity.

Read the stories of Alice Blank, Desiree Rivas and Lavi Payne-Grauch by clicking here.

But Desiree Rivas and Lavi Payne-Grauch, two transgender freshmen at Syracuse University, say the response from their peers has been overwhelmingly positive.

“You might expect females to be more accepting and males to be less so,” Rivas says. “But in my experience, they are equal.”

Even as a transgender woman of color, a group that experiences a disproportionate amount of hate violence, she says she hasn't ever feared for her safety.

But for Rouille, who just started a job as a counselor at a homeless youth shelter, they jump out every day.

According to the National LGBTQ Task Force/NCTE survey, 19 percent of transgender respondents had at one time been homeless because of their gender identity. And of these, 29 percent were turned away from shelters, while shelter staff or residents reportedly harassed 55 percent of them and sexually assaulted 22 percent.

There is a jarring duality in being transgender in America today. People are beginning to look past their prejudices to see transgender people as more than just odd statistics.

Payne-Grauch, though, is hopeful for the future.

“I blame the old generation,” says Payne-Grauch about the continued stigma of transgender people in American society. “They are the ones that have been raised to believe that there are two genders.”

Payne-Grauch’s long-distance girlfriend, who he left in Colorado to come to Syracuse, is “gender fluid.” She sometimes identifies as a man and sometimes as a woman. When he talks about her, he can’t help smiling.

He has plans to write a novel and travel in his future.

"I have this gigantic map in my room with everything in this world. Different species and languages.”

When Payne-Grauch talks excitedly about his big dreams, his seemingly boundless hopes for the future, it’s easy to forget the other side of the transgender statistics.

“Being transgender isn’t the biggest thing in my life,” he asserts. “I’m doing so much other stuff. I think that right now people think it’s the biggest part of my life. But give it a couple of years.”


Terms: What We Talk About When We Talk About Gender

If you want to discuss gender identity issues, it’s helpful to know the terminology. Poor phrasing can make even the most well-meaning person unconsciously reinforce negative stereotypes. Here are a few basics to help you become an informed participant in a crucial national conversation.


Aggressive/AG: Describes a woman who identifies as masculine, but not necessarily as a man. This term is primarily used by, and to identify, women of color.
Butch: A term most commonly used by masculine lesbian women, but which can also be used more generally to denote a masculine appearance.
Cross-Dresser/Transvestite: This term is not synonymous with transgender, and simply refers to people who enjoy dressing in clothing not usually worn by those of their sex.
Drag King/Queen: Similar to cross-dresser, but usually referring to those who perform for others. Most do not dress in the manner of the opposite sex in their daily lives.
Gender Non-Conforming: This is a more general term used for those whose expression of their own gender is different from that of society.
Genderqueer: Normally used to describe people who don't identify as either male or female, or indentify as some combination of the two.
Third Gender: Someone who identifies as neither male nor female.
Transgender Man/Female-to-Male Transgender Person/FTM: A person who was assigned female at birth, but identifies as a man. It does not matter if he has had any hormonal treatments or surgeries.
Transgender Woman/Male-to-Female Transgender Person/MTF: Same as above, except reversed.
Transsexual: Similar to transgender, but often used in particular to describe those who wish to have either hormone treatments or surgery so their bodies align more with their desired gender.
Two-Spirit: Refers to a cross-gender identity in certain Native American cultures.
Primary source: The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

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