On Four Transgender Women’s Portraits and Historical Transformation

Portraits, much like stories, are unique and filled with individual perspectives, expressions, and positions. It is hard to begin to tie together the multitude of experiences and differences that characterize Jimmy Fishbein’s Transgender Portraits series, but here, I am going to try. Four of the transgender women that were photographed and interviewed for the project have many shared experiences, not only because of some similar aspects of gender identity, but also because the four subjects I am choosing to discuss in this post also are over the age of 50. This age cohort grew up and discovered themselves in a time where being transgender was not only much more socially stigmatized, but also not discussed in media, a part of public discourse, and information was just not available generally for those who were discovering this facet of themselves early in life. 

This post looks at 4 portrait subjects: Katie (age 77), Susan (age 60), Rachel (age 53), and Audry, Age 65. It attempts to unpack the issues surrounding historical transformation and change for transgender individuals over the course of a few generations—it also looks at themes surrounding coming to terms with identity, and how that itself is related to time and space. 

 Katie, Age 77

Katie, Age 77

 Susan, Age 60

Susan, Age 60

 Rachel, Age 53

Rachel, Age 53

 Audry, Age 65

Audry, Age 65

I think it is also important to note upfront that all four of these individuals either have life-long partners of the opposite sex (i.e, female wives that identify as female), or were previously married for an extensive length of time. This is important to mention because their gender identities do not necessarily correlate in any particular way with their sexual preferences. Many of the participants in this project have expressed being fortunate to have a partner who has stuck by them through all of their changes and expressions of their identity over the life course. Of course, this is not always the case, but it is important to conceptualize that many born in this era who have come out as trans have had support in their home and through closer personal networks, when it did not exist for them in the world at large. In discussion of Katie’s transition, her wife was asked about her feelings and her desire to continue being with her after she came out as trans,  all she replied was: “Why not? I loved him very very much”. This speaks volumes to the love and admiration of an individual, regardless of identity expression. So while the transgender community did not have the external support that it does today, many had support that was invaluable in their personal lives—these individuals deserve immense recognition. 

Further, various organizations came up in the interviews as networks of support for the transgender community in Chicago over the years—notably, The Chicago Gender Society, The Human Rights Campaign, P-FLAG, and other Chicagoland LGBTQ service centers. It is unfortunate to note that in the first 8 months of 2016 19-transgender deaths have been reported. Last year, 21 trans-women were killed—with 7 killed in the first 7 weeks of the year.  The four interviewees also brought up the high rates of suicide in the community today as well. Thus, while many of the struggles that the four interviewees discussed in this post highlight the positive changes for today’s transgender youth, there is still great concern for the safety of LGBTQ community members—and it is a concern that all of us should take as incredibly important and relevant. 

 

I’m getting older and I’m going to die at some point—and I’m going to have an obituary, and somewhere in that obituary I want it to say “trans-activist” because that is who I want to be.
— Audry

 

Discovering One’s Identity

Identity formation begins to happen early-on in an individual’s life. All four of these interviewees told stories of identity and coming to be the person they are today—and all four expressed a desire to explore their own gender identity at an early point of childhood. In discussion with Katie about discovering herself at a young age, in the early 1940’s, she claimed that at 4-5 years old,“I knew it. I knew I wanted to be a girl. I didn’t know why, I didn’t even know the plumbing was any different at that point because I don’t have any sisters. I’d see little girls and think, that’s what I want to be—Not to be dramatic but I remember blowing out my birthday candles around five and thinking, I wish I was a girl—then I remember my mom asking me, ‘oh what did you wish for?’ and I said a bike…” 

As Katie aged, she began to come to terms with her gender fluidity, and began to dress as a woman from time to time,“My mom caught me a couple times, but being good Catholics I just made a novena and it all went away…[laughter]…no—really it just made me go deeper in the closet.” All four individuals expressed that they knew quite early-on that they identified, in-part, as female. Susan explained, “I’ve probably always been like this since I can remember, we’re talking all the way back in grammar school…I’ve always had this feeling. I got to do a little here, a little there, but it sure wasn’t accepted way back when.” Audry similarly expressed the early expression of curiosity and gender exploration, “With rare opportunities living in my parents home, I had a sister, and I would borrow her clothes and, do just really quick dress-up things. Of course there was a lot of shame and confusion, because I was like the only person in the world who had this problem. Right now, people have the internet, back then I just had me—and I’m certainly not going to go to my parents and tell them I have this!” Discovery really began for these individuals with the opportunity to dress a certain way—even if it was in secret. This act of dressing in a feminine way began as early as the opportunity presented itself for these individuals, and even if it was a confusing action at the time, it played a central role in discovering their identity and personhood. 

Generational Differences for Transgender Individuals

One of the reoccurring themes of these four interviews was differences for young people in the community now, compared to when they were growing up and constructing their own identities as trans-women. Susan discussed this at length, and it is worth highlighting her specific thoughts and opinions here: 

“I’m so jealous of these young people, not in a bad way, but—they don’t realize how easy they got it. They don’t realize how difficult things were. There was no information and if you tried to get information, you were deemed weird—a pervert—you were sick. Work, I mean, they would have crucified you. They would have just fired you. They would have found a reason to fire and get rid of you! You really had to do a lot of burying. There might have been an opportunity where you could steal some of your wife’s stuff because she was gone…but I wouldn't have been able to shave my legs. You can’t understand what a difference it is—I never could do that” 

“Some of these people get upset at older people, they shouldn't get upset! It was a different era they came up in. Just as I came up in a different era and you've gotta cut me some slack—because, now you young people. It’s a totally different ballgame for you. Every once in a while we get a couple of young girls that come for a meeting and —its like, oh you're too old, too boring, you're too conservative, you don’t go out, you don’t do this. They've got so many places, they are so accepted. They’ve probably got girls that accept them. Do you know how many of us would kill to have the right woman to accept us?” 

“The young people, you've got a choice now. You got a choice before you make commitments to somebody else. You've got a choice in finding yourself in the world. You've got a choice where you can actually go to work, and you can be either/or and nobody is going to say anything”—Susan

It is clear that there are some generational differences in being transgender in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and being transgender in 2016, yet, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, transgender deaths are still a reality and safety is an ongoing concern. While there may be heightened awareness, many more resources, acceptance, and advocacy for the transgender community, we also don't want to over glorify the “easiness” for the transgender youth of today—it is still an incredibly difficult and brave transformation to make in one’s life and I am certain all four of the transgender women in this article would agree. 

People put animals to death more humanely than what happens to our people—Caitlyn Jenner, like her or don’t like her, she did such a service by bringing it out there” —Katie 

Katie has been involved in bringing awareness to the transgender community for a long time, speaking at top universities as a guest lecturer and even being featured in the Chicago Reader. While Katie’s wife and children know about her being transgender, many of her lifelong friends do not know, "My kids know about me, but my grandkids don’t need to—at our age. It works fine.” Similarly, Susan’s grandchildren also do not know about her transgender identity “grandpa as grandma, can you imagine?”. These four transgender women only dress up for certain occasions going out, and spend part of the time with their family or old friends as men. Katie, Susan, Rachel, and Audry all lead lives in-part as men, especially around family and longterm friends. This was something that they all linked to the era that they grew up in, linking it to “acceptance” of identity and gender fluidity now compared to when they were discovering their own individuality during formative years.

Audry commented, “There is no possibility that people are going to throw me a party for telling them…People aren't going to be happy, people are going to have to get educated, and—yes, it’s going to hurt—there is going to be loss, there is always loss when this happens, some people just won’t be able to deal with it. The important thing for me is that, I’ve stopped hiding it, this is who I am.”

Historical Transformation

These interviews highlight that change has certainly taken place over the past 50+ years for the transgender community. There are many more organizations, online resources, social agents, and public representations than there were a short time ago. While this community exposure and advocacy has done wonderful things for transgender individuals, we are no where near close to the end of the fight for equality and safety for these community members. Acceptance and comfort with identity starts first in the home with one’s self and the closest people around—but it is important that safe spaces exist outside of that. The transformation that these four individuals have endured over their lifetime has contributed to their own desire for advocacy and involvement in the city of Chicago. Jimmy is thrilled to have photographed their portraits, and consequently, we are excited to make a small contribution for the advocacy of this community through the Transgender Portrait Blog series. 


 

By: Megan Melissa Machamer
MA Social Science, University of Chicago
BA Sociocultural Anthropology, UC San Diego

Megan Machamer is a sociocultural anthropologist who develops creative commentary for the Jimmy Fishbein photography blog. Her perspective as a social scientist contributes additional dialogue to stand-along photography and serves as one perspective to evoke thought and conversation upon viewing these photos.