Jimmy Fishbein’s personal photography projects capture individuality in a larger social context—especially by documenting Chicago’s population in space and time. One of his favorite personal projects has been the Transgender Portrait series, in which he has shared the lives of eleven individuals to-date through photos and videos. Interviews have accompanied these artistic media and this blog serves to share the stories, interviews, and “thick description” intended to accompany the stand-alone visual works of the artist. This first post in the series looks at Tyler, a 16-year-old transgender male in high-school who was interviewed alongside his mother for the purpose of this project. Moreover, this post intends to comment on struggles associated with transitions, present difficulties with school board gendered politics, and Tyler’s discussion of “normalcy” (if there is even such a thing we can begin to unpack). Lastly, this story is one of many in the forthcoming series to look at coming-out, happiness, and finding individuality in the comfort of one’s own skin—it is one dedicated to the LGBTQ community.
If you need a little background on the difference between gender and sexuality click here.
It is never easy to make transitions in life—to find a sense of belonging and purpose in who we are as individuals and construct a trajectory based on our own desires. Transitions can be particularly challenging when individuals have a unique spark that draws attention, popularly, and recognition. Tyler has always been in the spotlight—it is no wonder that as an athlete, achieving notable accomplishments in soccer from a young age, people paid attention to him. Having a rich, soothing, and deep voice as a singer, Tyler’s many talents have placed him in a position of mention from early-on in his life.
Formerly known as Samantha—Tyler’s transition really started when he began to question his sexuality in junior high-school, but Tyler’s mom, Karen, notes that there have been true indicators and personal characteristics that she observed from a much younger age. Karen, commented that Tyler was never very feminine and that there have been moments his entire life that have lead him to be the individual he is today.
Karen: “Samantha was never very feminine, loved sports, even when little she would throw barbie aside and start playing in the mud. I mean, that was just who she was. I didn’t care—I loved her. Baseball hats backwards, long baggy shorts, very athletic. I though—maybe she’ll be gay. I thought that; I didn’t care, and then, she came to me when she was 11 and said, ‘mom I need to talk to you, I wrote something in my journal, and I’m kind of freaked out.’ She told me that she was starting to have feelings for another girl. I said—‘don’t worry, about it, it’s normal, it’s a normal part of growing up’ I just didn’t make a big deal about it.”
Shortly after Samantha came-out as bisexual, depression began to hit in high school—truly struggling with gender identity and her own lived experience as a young teenager. Karen commented that it was a “total 360 of sadness and confusion”—freshman year, Samantha started cutting.
Karen: “I said, ‘what is going on? Let’s go talk to someone.’ So, right away I pulled her out of school. We’ve always had a good relationship, she’s always come to me about stuff. The first counselor prescribed 3 different medications—anti depressants and and anti-anxiety, and before we knew it she was on three different pills. I thought, ‘oh my god, I hate this’ I wasn’t seeing anything get better. So finally, she wanted to cut her hair off—her hair was really long, I fought it—I didn’t want her to. I was worrying about what people would think”.
As a supportive mother, Karen could tell that Samantha was struggling with her identity, and that she needed help in transitioning to the person she wanted to be. Aside from her hangups and concerns as a mother. She let Samantha cut her hair, and then took another step forward:
Karen: So then I came out and asked—‘Samantha, do you want to be a boy?’ That day she freaked out and was like, ‘no, I hate dicks!’”
Tyler: “I was really ignorant”
Karen: “The very next day she came and said, ‘mom, I need to talk to you…’ and then the tears came, just realizing it was out in the open. I was fine with it, I love my child. I see a happier child now then I have for 16 years before. As a parent you worry about how people are going to react, I worry about his safety. I just worry…every day I worry. Every parent worries, but I think this is an added worry that other people don’t have. But it’s getting better now—he’s getting stronger, he’s on testosterone. But, the school is making me have a lot of anxiety—not treating him fairly.”
Like many parents of transgender individuals or really anyone in the LGBTQ community, one of the biggest challenges that Tyler and his mother have had to deal with during this transition is gender politics and school board issues surrounding Tyler’s new male gender identity. Not treating Tyler fairly as he has undertaken this process has made certain adjustments a lot more difficult than they would be otherwise.
Karen: “We’ve consulted a surgeon about top surgery”
Tyler: (whispers) “Thank God”
Karen: “People say, ‘he’s only 16! Why are you doing this?’ they think he’s going to change his mind—he’s not going to change his mind! If your child had a deformity, wouldn’t you want to go and fix it for them? That everyone stared at everyday…wouldn’t you want to do something about it?—Me and my ex-husband are both in agreement, and as long as we are both in agreement since he is under 18, they will still proceed with the surgery. So we have it planned for summer so he has time tor recuperate, and then he really wants to try out for boys soccer—and we hope that the school doesn’t give us a hard time. I just hope that everything we do isn’t going to be a battle.”
It is incredibly frustrating to be dealing school board politics, difficult parents, and unreasonable rules (more on this in the coming section), as Tyler makes his progression into the body he desires. Such a transition already takes a lot of emotional and mental strength, so dealing with taxing problems with various social institutions, rather than being in a supportive, safe, space is making things more difficult than they need to be. Tyler spoke about this fight, and about how things might not change for him during his time in high school—but maybe by being an advocate, he can help future teenagers and others who identify as apart of the LGBTQ community, in Chicago and elsewhere.
School Board Gender Politics
With all of the recent debates regarding gendered bathrooms (among other topics), it is no surprise that these politics are making their way into high schools. At the time of his interview, Tyler was required to change for his P.E. class in the nurse’s office, with the only other option being to change behind a private curtain, separated from his peers, in the bathroom of his choosing. Tyler claims that he does not want to support this kind of segregation or policy, so every time he had gym, he took a longer walk to the nurse’s office—by himself—and changed.
Tyler: “The school board knew me before—and they are saying it makes everyone else uncomfortable. All the boys still look at me and see the person I was before, which is weird because I don’t even look like a girl. I don’t look at all feminine, but, I don’t know—everyone is just really dumb right now, to be honest.”
“I am mad about not being able to use the locker room—it is mandatory that I stand behind a privacy curtain, if I change in the locker room…and I think it is ridiculous, I’m not going to do that—that is just bringing segregation into the locker room, why would I agree to that?”
Tyler: “If you're like actually trans, because sometimes I feel like an issue would be like faking it, so they can change in the opposite sex restroom and get a peep at like, whatever, but if you are like ACTUALLY trans, and this is how you identify, this is who you are, you should be allowed to change wherever you feel comfortable and it shouldn’t be an issue. Allowing things like the privacy stalls—that’s just allowing segregation to continue, because it scares everybody—like oh they are changing behind a stall there must be something wrong with them. If people are allowed to just change with everyone else, people would see that it’s not something to be afraid of. I think it would just—not end the segregation, but, it wouldn’t be as scary for people, and it would end ignorance, in a way.”
Karen: “He feels like he is doing the walk of shame everyday. He has to walk to the nurse’s office in his street clothes, to change into gym clothes, and now he is making this walk of shame through the hallways…”
Tyler: “Everyone looks at me, everyone.”
Karen: “And he is just going to P.E.! And then he has to make the walk of shame back to change, it’s just ridiculous—It’s the parents not the kids”
Tyler: “Kids…as long as your happy they are fine. Older people say things like ’it’s a phase, it’s definitely a phase’”
Karen: “I’ve said (to Tyler)—your life is going to start in college.”
Upon development of this post, I spoke with Tyler’s mother Karen, and she informed me that the school has since allowed Tyler to change in the male locker room/bathroom. However, this policy will still be evaluated for future students on a case-by-case basis. Karen also informed me that Tyler’s surgery was successful and that he has fully recovered.
Tyler has been through a lot more than most 16-year olds, and he continues to interface with politics, parents, and institution resistance on a daily basis—as does Karen. What LGBTQ students really need is a supportive, safe environment to grow into the person they want to be. It shouldn't be that a young adult’s life needs to wait until college for a fresh start. Over and over again in the interview a theme that Tyler and Karen discussed was the issue of safety. While transgender individuals are often placed in the presumed “aggressor” position (for example, certain voices in the gender bathroom debates), they are actually the most vulnerable. What LGBTQ individuals, especially young students, really deserve more than anything is safety.
Thinking About “Normalcy”
The LGBTQ community is often juxtaposed next to some kind of standard for “normalcy”. This positions transgender individuals in relation to heteronormativity and some kind of gender binary—these are socially constructed and do not actually exist in any “real” sense. LGBTQ individuals should not have to feel like they are fighting to be considered “normal” by some kind of arbitrary standard. Tyler spoke of this, frustrated:
“I’m so sick of fighting to be normal. I’ve never been normal in my life….Now finally knowing who I am, and being on testosterone and getting top surgery soon—I’m trying to now be me, and still, like, not being accepted and not fitting in—it sucks, I’m so sick of fighting to be normal. I am normal—what is normal anyway? There is no such thing”
When we think about what an artistic project intends to do as an act of advocacy, curiosity, and exposure, we think about creating awareness. This piece intends to bring-to-light some of the struggles that transgender individuals deal with, aside form all of the progress that society has achieved to-date. Individuals young and old deal with discrimination, segregation, and ridicule for not meeting the definition of “normal”. The truth is, as Tyler points out, “normalcy” is a difficult thing to define—but moreover, it is problematic. By measuring individuals against a standard, we breed hate, biases, and ignorance. Looking at the beauty in each one of the transgender portraits in Jimmy Fishbein’s series, we see uniqueness, individuality, and character, which is what we see in each person on this planet. “Normal” should be thrown out, and appreciation for individuality should be amplified.
**Please note that all names used in this piece are pseudonyms chosen by the subjects themselves to preserve anonymity.
We hope you enjoyed this first of several posts to go with the Transgender Portrait Series. Let us know what you think in the comments section below! We would love to hear from you.
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.