The Visible Queer: Portraiture and the Reconstruction of Gender Identity1
By Germaine de Larch
Questions facing the Queer artist
“[T]he demand that everything must make a spectacular political statement […] has forced us to gloss over the nooks and crannies [….] By rediscovering the ordinary […] the daily lives of people should be the direct focus of political interest [….] If it is a new society we seek to bring about in South Africa then that newness will be based on a direct concern with the way people actually live.” 2
As a Queer person, and as an artist, I have to ask myself three questions in the context of the issue of the role of art-activism in the global south:
- How do I respond as a queer person living in a society that polices the gender binary and enacts violence, both physical and legislative, upon the LGBTIA community?
- How do I as an artist who happens to be Queer respond?
- In a society in which the issues of gender are not just philosophical, but very practical and real, what about the lived experience of the queer?
In answering these questions, I will look at a number of issues, including, the role of homonormativity in the LGBTIA community; the question of ‘victimhood’ versus agency or activism – documenting the celebratory lived experience of the Queer; and, the changing face of art-activism in a post-gallery or post- exhibition space world.
The ‘Q’ in LGBTIAQ
When I speak about ‘Queer’ I am referring to the ‘Q’ in LGBTIAQ, not the portmanteau phrase meant to refer to the entire LGBTIA community. The sexual orientation aspect of the LGBTIA community is prevalent in the public sphere and in art-activism. It is the gender aspect of LGBTIAQ politics that interests me, because I believe it is a largely unexplored frontier in the art-activism of the global south, and something that is overlooked in human rights abuses perpetrated against the LGBTIA community. So I will focus on the ‘Q’, as that is my personal, lived experience and therefore one of the themes in my art-activism.
The public, theoretical Queer space is one of many languages, celebrating diversity and the multitude of Queer being and potential. But what about the private, lived experience of the Queer? In my experience it is a space where potential experience and lived experience is claustrophobically defined and policed by the gender binary. There is a massive disparity between the public, theoretical Queer space and the private, lived Queer space.
What about the lived experience of the Queer?
As an art-activist, it is the private, lived Queer space that my work focuses on, because I have found more freedom from the binary within lived experience and within making the private public than in the public, political and theoretical space, and I am interested in documenting the private space of self-made gender fluidity I have and am excavating for myself from within a binaried and gendered public space.
As an ex-academic from a deconstructionist background, it is very tempting to engage with the issue of the gender binary from a theoretical stance, but my self and my art centres around speaking from a place of practice, of lived experience, of sharing my private experience so that the practical space of the Queer becomes as diverse and multitudinous as the theoretical, public space. So I will instead speak as a storyteller about my relationship with art and gender.
To create context for my art-activism, and to explain why I say that there is a huge disparity between Queer Theory and Queer practice, the lived experience of Queers, a bit of background.
The genderedness of Queer experience
I’ve had to come out of two closets: the first closet is the one that public discourse is very familiar with – the old, I’m not like everyone else and I, as a gender, am attracted to people of the same gender. So I came out of that particular closet. What I did not realise at the time, and not fully until 15 years later, was that I had stepped out of that restrictive closet into another, even more restrictive.
When I ‘came out’ in respect of my sexual orientation, I had no lesbian role-models in my immediate circle of influence. So, according to the visual representations of ‘lesbian’ I’d seen, I did the whole ‘butch’ thing. It was almost inevitable that identifying as ‘lesbian’ meant that I also identified as ‘butch’ and more ‘masculine’ of centre. As someone who has never been comfortable with femininity and the word, not to mention the reality of, ‘woman’, the masculine option was what I was left with.
I’ve never been good with belonging to clubs and the confusion I was feeling made me think about this ‘club’ I had chosen to belong to. And I found the politics hugely problematic. As someone who chose from a limited vocabulary the label ‘homosexual’ to describe my desire, I found that the roles within the lesbian community and the politics of sexual orientation were very gendered and policed along the gender binary. Gay couples I encountered mimicked the relationships of their parents, re-applying husband:wife stereotypes, using the ready-made examples of domesticity, inseparability, co-dependence. Did I leave the restrictiveness of straighthood to become a stereotype along with a mass of other stereotyped people; stereotyped not by society at large but by themselves and other homosexuals? Had I left heteronormativity3 for homonormativity4?
This did not make sense to me at all. I saw being gay as a huge freedom: a freedom from the oppressive rules and structures of patriarchal society and other people’s enforced ideas; a freedom to create and design my own morals, norms, beliefs, behaviours and identity. Why would I exchange all of that for another set of equally oppressive norms and ideologies, exchange one cookie-cutter self for another? The homonormative world did not answer these questions for me. This world confused me, made me feel like a pervert and a freak and uncomfortable in my own skin. I found myself repressing so many of my thoughts, behaviours and visual expressions of self.
Not once, throughout the discomfort of having to mould myself strictly to a masculine persona did I question the relationship between sexual orientation and gender. Not once did I question my gender. Because there were no tools, no language to do so. During the period of my university education in the late 90s and early 2000s, while the theoretical politics of sexual orientation was very much influenced by the gender-questioning Queer Theory of Judith Butler, my lived experience was a very, very different prospect. Despite focusing heavily on continental philosophy at both RAU (UJ) and Wits during my Honours and Masters, I managed to avoid ever studying gender theory or more than basic feminism, so I’d heard of Judith Butler but had no idea about the content of her work. Thankfully, my main obsession was Derrida, so his work on the binary has been very influential, but I only ‘discovered’ Queer Theory a decade after leaving university, in a completely non-theoretical context, from people who lived queer, who practised it. So the reality for anyone not studying at university or not focusing on feminism while at university was that the lived experience of the Queer was almost non-existent, and the private experience of the politics of sexual orientation was, and still is, overwhelmingly homonormative.
Queer Theory was a revelation to me. For the first time in my experience I was exposed to the idea that sexual orientation is a completely separate issue from gender identity and gender expression. And these very subtle, yet life-changing differences were not part of the gendered lived experience I was used to.
I cannot completely express in words how this affected my sense of self, except to say that it laid the foundation for a journey with my gender and my self that has resulted in me more closely resembling my self, rather than being an amalgamation of what society, my parents and my world-view told me I was supposed to be. This journey with Queer, with gender and identity reconstruction through art has literally saved my life. I finally understood who I was, who I could be; which was any thing and any one I wanted to be! And that is freedom!
Queer has allowed me to redefine myself in a much broader sense. Instead of constricting and labeling me, Queer has given me a freedom to explore the endless possibilities of human experience outside of the gender binary, heteronormative societal stereotypes and the largely homonormative LGBTIA community. The more I get to know myself, the more I realise that I am more comfortable physically when my physicality reflects my masculine and feminine personality characteristics. Queer has enabled me to incorporate the disparate and contradictory aspects of myself and I have come to the realisation that this acceptance and the enactment of the apparently conflicting parts of me make me the best embodiment of myself.
Queer, for me, means that I am not in transition from one thing to another, transitioning between one state of being and another, between one gender and another. The thing, the being, the gender and its opposite do not exist for me. They never have. I am in a process of exploring the Queer, carnivalesque space I am excavating for myself that exists beyond the constructs of reality, identity and gender as binaries, dualities and stereotypes. I am adventuring through my fluid complexities, contradictions – allowing them to exist side by side, giving myself limitless and boundariless space to adventure through the infinite possibilities of being and experience.
Art as a vehicle for self-exploration: Self-portraiture as art-activism
The beginnings of my exploration of gender outside of the binaries were inextricably bound with art, specifically photography and portraiture. The beginnings of the reconstruction of my gender identity were documented through portraiture. My breast reduction in 2010 was documented by a photographer, and after my introduction to Queer in 2011, my experiments with gender expression and gender identity were documented in numerous portraits by another photographer.
If it were not for the vehicle of art, I don’t think I would have made the connection between reconstructing my gender identity and the aspect of play and performance. But because each step of my transformation was memorialised on film, I realised the hugely celebratory and empowering act of performing and playing with my gender identity in the process of de- and reconstructing it. When I picked up a camera for the first time with the intention of making art in April 2012, it was to document my performance of de- and reconstructing my gender identity, and my identity as a whole.
Coming from a space of being completely passive in my own identity, through the process of portraiture I moved from a photographic subject, to a collaborator, to an artist constructing my own self. I saw the transformative power of self-portraiture and actively grabbed my identity by the throat, allowing me to play with other identities in a space of play and performance.
The physical experience of self-portraiture has been both empowering and liberating, and frightening. Liberating in that the freedom of self-portraiture as a performative space has enabled me to more quickly reconstruct my gender identity. Being more secure in my identity in relation to gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation allows me the freedom to explore my boundaries in terms of what I am comfortable with and how far I can push myself outside of my comfort zone. Through this play I have discovered that I feel like a drag queen in dresses, that my gay male aspect loves wearing nail polish and pink shirts, that my androgyne feels most powerful with a shaved head, and that my masculine of centre self craves the body modification that exercise enables.
The permissive and safe space of performance saw me photographing myself in make-up and dresses, exploring the more feminine aspects of myself. (I hadn’t worn a dress in over a decade and had to borrow one for the shoot). And it has not been an easy process, but I have faced it nonetheless. Because I have to. Because I am no longer satisfied with unexplored aspects of myself. Because therein lies existing rather than living, and death rather than creating.
And the physical experience of self-portraiture has been frightening in that I’ve been able to perform the feminine to the extent of playing with costume, props and make-up, but have been unable to perform feminine characteristics, behaviours, mannerisms and poses. Along with the wigs, dresses and shoes, I am still visited by those old feelings of intense discomfort, a sense of not being me, of having an otherness enforced on me. Even in the privacy of my own home with only me to witness my transformation, I am unable to express a femininity that stems from me rather than the costume.
Through self-portraiture I approach other spaces through fearlessly exploring inner space. Sometimes the exploration is more brave than fearless. A lot of the time my performances touch a nerve, pointing to something I still need to investigate further, approaching it more carefully in my next encounter with it. Because sometimes when staring into the looking glass, it’s not only unexplored selves that stare back. Sometimes there are demons.
My self-portraiture has thus, before it even entered the public space, been an art-activism. Because before I even shared it, it has changed my life. My self-portraiture has been a very private journey of reconstructing my self, my identity and my gender identity that I have made very public. I have never made photographs with the intent of hanging them on a gallery wall. I have always made them with the intent of sharing them as widely as possible on social media, because I long ago learned that the ability to express one’s journey goes hand in hand with the responsibility of the writer and artist to share that journey, because we live in a relatedness to others. Always. And relating truthfully is the only relation I know.
And so my making public of the very private is also an integral part of my art-activism: at the heart of documenting a journey that has enabled me to be more authentically me outside of binary structures, something that has saved my life and continues to keep me sane on a daily basis, is the hope that my work will resonate with someone and make a difference in their life.
The visible Queer: Portraiture as art-activism
Making myself as a Queer and my lived experience as a Queer visible is the root of my art-activism. Because it creates, through the description of it, other options for a lived Queer existence outside of the gender binary.
‘The visible Queer’ is something I’ve carried through into my portraiture as art-activism. Because if my story is powerful, then collecting and helping to tell the stories of other people living outside of the binary is even more powerful, and the language of the private, lived Queer experience becomes more multivocal and more nuanced, and less removed from the multilingual and varied public space of Queer theory.
In my practice as a portrait photographer I have found it immeasurably valuable to have started off being photographed and taking my own self-portraits. Because it has given me a great respect for the difficulty of being visible. Very few people like having their portrait taken. And that, I believe, is because it is a very disempowering thing to be looked at and yet unseen, invisible. On the other hand, it is a very powerful thing to be looked at and seen.
One of the most powerful things you can give to a person is a portrait in which they feel that they have been seen; truly seen for who they are. A portrait taken with the intention of collaboratively telling that person’s story is the most self-affirming use of art. When I created the portraits I made with the boys which you will see, they could not express enough how grateful they were that I was telling their story, that I was seeing them for who they are and sharing who they are with the world. The art-activism in this kind of portraiture therefore lies not only in sharing their lived Queer experience with the world, but in collaboratively affirming their lived experience, their identities. And to be part of this kind of powerful art-activism is something I am truly humbled by and grateful for.
But outside of this aspect of art-activism within portraiture, there is again more power in making this private experience public. The response to the images I have made with other people on a journey of who they are and how they express themselves has been overwhelmingly positive. And sharing it in the very public forum of social media has multiplied that power, because in these portraits people see a mirroring of a lived experience that they either know so well but never see in public, or which they were too afraid to experiment with and now feel able to because they are not alone in their gender questioning. The art act of collaboratively making a portrait with someone exploring their gender identity and then making that private experience public creates a discourse which impacts directly on the options available to the private, lived experience of the Queer, narrowing the gap between the private Queer space and the public one.
The role of art-activism in the global south: My responsibility as a Queer artist
In conclusion, to return to the three questions I have to ask myself in the context of the issue of the role of art-activism in the global south:
1. How do I respond as a queer person living in a society that polices the gender binary and enacts violence, both physical and legislative, upon the LGBTIQA community? As a queer person, especially one who occupies the white queer space of privilege where my body and life are not threatened on a daily basis, I cannot stand aside and be silent about the issues that Zanele Muholi and Inkanyiso raise. I can’t just view their work, cry the ugly cry, post about it on Facebook and invite my friends to see it. That is not enough. Because there but for the colour of my skin go I. I have a responsibility because of my privilege to respond.
2. How do I as an artist who happens to be Queer respond? My privileged status is further privileged by the fact that I can write and make art. My responsibility as a Queer artist is thus to be a Queer art-activist. Anything less seems frivolous to me.
3. In a society in which the issues of gender are not just philosophical, but very practical and real, what about the lived experience of the queer? The answer to this is entwined with my answer to questions 1 and 2: I cannot, as a Queer person and as an artist do anything other than tell my story and collaboratively tell the stories of the Queer. I cannot not make the private public. Because without making the private public, the stories of the Queer in the global south are faceless stories. They are not stories, but statistics. And statistics are invisible. I need to make the Queer visible. I need to contribute to enlarging the playground that is the lived, private experience of the Queer. I need to contribute to a collaborative process enabling Queers to be able to explore an identity and a lived experience that is so much larger than the gender binary that restricts us and the policed gender binary that legislates, imprisons, rapes and kills us. I need to share the beauty and transformative power of the lived experience of Queer outside of the gender binary, outside of homonormativity. I need to celebrate ‘the freak’. And I do this through my self-portraits and portraits.
- Presentation of my gender art activism delivered at the Wits Colloquium, Collaborative Art-Activism: A Tool for Decolonizing Genders and Sexualities in the Global South, 6-7 March 2014.
- Ndebele, N. 1994. South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Heteronormativity is “the body of lifestylenorms that hold that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It also holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman. Consequently, a ‘heteronormative’ view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender roles” (Wikipedia).
- Homonormativity is “the assimilation of heteronormative ideals and constructs into LGBTQ culture and individual identity. LGBTQ people that come the closest to mimicking heternormative standards of gender identity are deemed most worthy of receiving rights. LGBTQ individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy (transsexuals, transvestites, intersex, bisexuals, non-gender identified) are seen as an impediment to this elite class of homonormative individuals receiving their rights” (Wikipedia). Homonormativity is also the transference of gendered heterosexual stereotypes onto homosexual and queer identities, with strict gendered roles being preferred to gender fluidity.
Germaine de Larch is a writer, an artist using photography as a medium, and an art-activist. De Larch’s work, in the form of writing, self-portraiture and portraiture, explores and documents the private as political space and the lived experience of people living outside of binaries and stereotypes. De Larch is currently working on #AgainstStigma, an art-activism project focused on countering the stigma associated with addiction and mental illness.
De Larch lives, works and plays in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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Images and text © Germaine de Larch