The term T-girls celebrates a range of trans identities. Michael Langan talks to Darius Amini about his exhibition, Gender Outlaws, and how it celebrates the diversity of identity.
Photographs © Darius Amini (Click images to enlarge)
Gender Outlaws, a new exhibition by Darius Amini hosted at The Camera Club in South London, is a series of photographs of T-Girls in Manchester. It represents and celebrates a variety of identities and gender play, but in a way that isn’t just about nights on the town and the club scene.
Before speaking to Darius I hadn’t heard the term T-girls before. Darius himself first encountered it when he started photographing the T-Girls in 2013. “It’s a general term that includes cross-dressers or transvestites, transgender people and transsexuals, all as sub-divisions within it,” he explains. “These specific labels many T-Girls find a bit limiting and a bit stereotypical.” In this way, T-Girls seems to function in the same way as the umbrella term ‘queer’.
One of the T-Girls, Lisa, affirms this. “It means I am somewhere on the gender spectrum between male and female,” she says. “T-girls are not men, nor are they women, they are both, and embody the best and worst aspects of what it means to be both.” For Lisa, such gender ambiguity “holds a mirror up to social and sexual interpretations of gender.” Samantha, another of the T-Girls, says the term simply describes someone who cross-dresses, while it “allows the exploration and development of another identity.” For her, at least, it’s not life changing – this is her life.
When Darius was looking for more people to get interested in his project he joined the website, TV-Chicks, a social network for T-Girls. “There’s a drop-down menu on there including all the various categories that people put themselves under, and the website embraces a whole range of identities and people.” TV-Chicks is mainly a directory of bars and clubs and places for T-Girls to meet, as well as a forum that enables their admirers to contact them.
There’s a focus in the exhibition’s images on what Darius terms “everyday people”. At the same time the show’s title, Gender Outlaws, implies a notion of subversion. “Whilst many of the T-Girls come from quite traditional family backgrounds,” Darius says, “and many of them identify as straight, they’re also aware of the fluidity of sexuality and identity.” Darius tells me that most of his subjects are more interested in the day-to-day living as a T-girl. “They’re not actively subversive, it’s just how they live.” This is, of course, subversive in its own way. As a result, whilst the T-Girls themselves aren’t necessarily political, the exhibition certainly is, in the broadest sense. “I think it would hard for it not to be,” says Darius, “given the times we live in. At the same time, these are just people with everyday needs. We need to recognize the diversity of the people all around us and in that way I think I am making a political statement, whether I like it or not.”
The title, Gender Outlaws, came from a piece of text Lisa wrote for him, which is included in the exhibition. In it, Lisa poses a number of questions to the viewer – some of them rhetorical, some of them challenging – before asserting the power of self-creation and the right to exist between genders. For Samantha, the phrase “gender explorer” describes more how she feels about herself, but Lisa takes a much more directly political approach. “I wish to question the social straight jacket of a society that perceives gender as a duality,” she says. “I have felt imprisoned all my life by the expectations placed on my birth gender and have always wanted to break free of these. I do not want to conform and so I seek opportunities to express myself in ways that some people might find threatening – in that sense I am a gender outlaw.” Equality is also a important issue for Lisa: “an equal right for everybody to share society’s benefits and contribute to its achievements – to realise their own potential, expressing their personalities as they wish. It therefore goes without saying that I believe in female equality and trans equality too. Maybe T-girls embody those qualities that emerge from a sense of sensitivity towards what it means to be a woman in what is largely a man’s world. In that sense too, I am a gender outlaw.”
This all raises questions about recent discussion and outright argument in the media around the language that’s used to speak about transgender people. Darius would be the first to admit that his own outlook on this has changed. “Until recently I’d have used the word ‘Tranny’ without any sense of disrespect, like many others do, but the preferred term seems to be T-Girls. That’s something coming from that community and I think you have to take your lead from them.” He’s been upset by the quite vitriolic, bad-tempered discussions and particularly disturbed by intimidating comments coming from people who aren’t part of the T-Girl community, especially about people who are just trying to get on with their lives. “I’m a little bit more connected to the community because of the project, so I felt more sensitive about it.”
For Lisa, the tragic suicide of the teacher Lucy Meadows following her exposure and hounding by Richard Littlejohn in The Daily Mail, and the furore following Julie Burchill’s derisive language in The Guardian, are both indicative of the difficulties that T-Girls face in wider society. The 180,000 signatures gathered in just a few days calling for Littlejohn to be sacked restored Lisa’s faith in people, but she acknowledges that the Burchill situation was more complicated and she has a mixed reaction to it. “Julie’s difficult-to-forgive mistake was in using immoderate and vituperative language to castigate the trans lobby… In doing so she managed to insult all trans people.” She goes on to say, “My feelings about all this as a T-girl is that we should not be too precious about our difference and that we certainly should not be making enemies of people whose natural instinct is to defend us. We are on the same side as our feminist sisters – or we should be.”
Darius’ focus in the exhibition is on T-Girls who are more mature than those we regularly see in mainstream gay media outlets. This wasn’t something he initially strove for but he quickly realized that he didn’t want to produce a “club kids” kind of shoot, a la Nan Goldin or the Warhol Factory set. “These are people who are beautiful,” he says of his subjects, “but they are older, they are working harder to keep themselves looking good and to carve out their own identity. That creates an extra tension and a challenge. They want to be fabulous and glamorous and beautiful and to be taken seriously in their chosen identities, which adds to their fascination for me, maybe because I’m that little bit older as well. Someone described the T-girls I photographed as being ‘suburban’ and I was happy with that – I like their low-key style.”
There’s a tendency for people to cast an eye over T-Girls and, depending on how young, gorgeous and fabulous they look, this determines how accepted they are. For Darius this fact is very much part of his thinking when choosing his subjects because many of them don’t conform to certain stereotypes. “You only have to flick through the pages of any gay magazine,” he says, “to see the people they choose to photograph in clubs – they’re all of a certain age, with a certain look, which I can understand but which doesn’t really help anyone. I do loathe that weeding out of the unsuitable faces. I think we need to celebrate the diversity of who’s out there. In these increasingly right-wing times we need to broaden our outlook, not narrow it down.” With that in mind he sees this project running for some time, widening it to an international forum. He also plans to include more explicitly various and diverse ideologies around T-Girls’ identities and rights.
For Samantha, being photographed by Darius was fun and, crucially, “part of developing my other identity, pushing the boundaries.” Lisa’s curiosity in the project was aroused by Darius’ assertion that he wanted to portray both the vulnerability and bravery of people who had chosen to spend at least part of their lives in the social shadows that are created by society’s portrayal of sexuality and gender as a duality. She also respected Darius’ artistic instincts in creating what he feels are essentially documentary photographs. “I decided to bring in some of the T-girls interests, passions, hobbies into the images,” Darius tells me, “to give an idea of them as a person. I didn’t want to do so many photos in bars and clubs because that’s where people expect to see them, but that’s not only where they exist. They were really interested in that, though at least one of them lost their confidence when it came down to it. You can forget as a photographer that for the people on the other side of the lens it can be a really big deal.”
Darius addresses this issue by always having a meeting or two with any of his subjects before he photographs them, to get to know each other. It explains the sense of ease in his subjects and fits well with the photographs’ naturalistic style. He’s used Photoshop in the past but is clear that it wouldn’t be right for this project. “At the beginning, a few of the T-girls asked me to do a bit of airbrushing, but this isn’t a fashion shoot and that’s not what I wanted to do. I’ve been very upfront about that and have verbal agreements not to use a shot if the T-Girl really doesn’t like it, but no more than that. What you see is what you get.”
What Darius would really like people to take away from the exhibition is an increased awareness of the diversity within the T-Girl community, and to be surprised by that. Samantha’s hope is that “people will see that, though the T-Girls present their ‘alter ego’ seriously, this is also done with a huge sense of fun and humour.” Darius’ photographs manage to tread that line effectively and thoughtfully – confronting, challenging and celebrating in equal measure.
The Camera Club, 16 Bowden Street, London, SE11 4DS
31st March – 25th April 2014