"Trying to come to acceptance of your body is huge as a person in general. As a trans person, you fight your body because it feels wrong. And then coming to the idea where now I have a body that I like, but I'm still constantly getting messages that trans people's bodies are horrible or disfigured or mutilated, that we should be ashamed of ourselves, of our bodies, of our being, of our existence."
That's Elizabeth Lain, a 30-year-old transgender woman with a kaleidoscope of bright colors running through the hair on the half of her head that isn't shaved. Hers is a sentiment echoed by many in the transgender community. However, human experience is complicated—no two people's stories are exactly alike.
A photography project called Visible Bodies aims to tell the diverse stories of transgender San Diegans in order to empower those in the community and educate those who aren't on the misconceptions surrounding trans people.
The project brings together portraits of 31 trans people taken by photographer Wolfgang. Each subject decided how to be presented; accompanying each photo is the correct pronoun to use to identify the person, along with a short personal narrative by the subject.
The results are compelling, funny and heartbreaking. They'll be on view at the San Diego Pride office (3620 30th St. in North Park) throughout May in the exhibition, Visible Bodies: Transgender Stories Retold . There'll be a reception for the show from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, May 11; otherwise, folks can check it out during regular business hours.
"We're telling all kinds of different stories with these photos," says creator Scott Duane, a transgender man and doctoral candidate in mathematics at UCSD who started Visible Bodies as a student project.
"I think we're seeing as a culture a kind of shift in the way that we see transgender people," he says. "There are a lot more positive stories out there, even in mainstream media. I think people are seeing that and finally feeling safe enough to come forward and say, 'Well, it's great that there's this positive thing out there, but let me tell you my story, using my words.'"
Among the stories is Lain's. She began her transition in 2008 after moving to San Diego from Hawaii. She's fully transitioned, but that was only part of a long process of reclaiming her body. The software engineer and artist suffered multiple sexual assaults. She chose to appear nude in her portrait as a "fuck-you to society."
"Right as I was starting to reclaim my own body, it was sort of taken in a violent way. It kind of really fucks with your head," Lain says. "There's a lot of these negative messages about what you're supposed to do or supposed to be. But this is me. You don't own this. This is my choice to present myself the way I want to. It's sort of like my body is a political statement. The sexual assault plays into that as well. My naked body can be my own."
Another participant, Lyn Gwizdak, was born with limited eyesight.
"So much of how we gender people, we decide based on what we see," Duane says. "And for [Gwizdak] to know that he's trans without looking in the mirror is just fascinating to me. To me, it says there's something about being trans that goes way deeper than what you look like. It's not superficial at all; it's something very deep down."
Gwizdak never felt right in a female body. For years, he wasn't sure if his issues stemmed from his visual impairment or something more. It took him 58 years to realize who he is. Now 62, Gwizdak's found himself and is happy doing volunteer work for the Humane Society, joined by his guide dog, Landon.
"I have to be who I am," he says. "I tell you what, it's nice to relax and be who I am."
The same goes for JP Stern, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCSD who identifies as gender queer. That means Stern's neither male nor female exclusively. Stern's skirt, full breasts and wild beard display that outwardly.
"'Gender queer' means different things to different people," Stern explains. "It's generally people who don't fit into either male or female binaries. For me, a lot of it was finding my own space. I'm primarily femme but have aspects that are still masculine, like my beard. My beard has remained part of my personality. It's something I don't want to give up."
Stern's story, like those of other participants, helps dispel the notion that trans people want to be very masculine or very feminine. Like with all people, there's the mix of both sides.
For Stern, Lain, Gwizdak and Duane, Visible Bodies: Transgender Stories Retold is also an opportunity to teach people how to address a trans person. The word "tranny," for instance, elicits the same reaction from a trans person that the n-word or "faggot" would from an African-American or homosexual.
"I'm hoping that it gives people the right words to use," Duane says. "I think a lot of times, people want to be supportive and talk about trans people in a respectful way, but they don't have the vocabulary for it."
There's also the hope that the project can bridge a gap that seems to exist within the trans community, as well as with the gay and lesbian community.
"The transgender community is a little fractured," Duane explains. "For instance, the trans women's community doesn't really tend to interact that much with the trans men's community. I'm hoping that this can be kind of a unifying project for the trans community as a whole. And, also, outside of the trans community I'm hoping that this really brings awareness."