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The Arts
01.09.08

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Photograph by Jana Marcus
Both Sides Now: Lyle, who transitioned to male in his late 30s, appears with photographer Jana Marcus at Stanford on Jan. 24 at a reception for the photo exhibit Transfigurations.

Breaking Out

Santa Cruz photographer Jana Marcus' groundbreaking exhibit on transgendered folk heads to Stanford.

By Traci Hukill


I have a long history of hating black men and now I am one.

The caricatures and stereotypes in the media are a large part of my internalized racism and self-hatred. I dont know how to be a black man. I find myself without the coping skills to survive in the world that you learn when growing up with other black men. It is a process discovering who I am going to be. A lot concerns how comfortable I am with myself, getting rid of the defensiveness I had as a woman, and finding balance in terms of male privilege and still being a feminist man.

More than anything, I want to be a person of integrity, no matter the gender or color. I want to be a white oxford shirt kind of man: kind of bland, kind of comfortable. Even bland men are visible and part of being visible as a man is that lack of attention, being just another guy.

 Lyle at 43

In the spring of 2003 Jana Marcus was studying photography at San Jose State University and commuting to classes from the Chestnut Street house she shared in Santa Cruz with a 28-year-old UCSC doctoral candidate. One day the housemate, a rare male student of feminist studies, took Marcus aside and told her a secret: until five years ago he had been a woman.

 Blew my mind, says Marcus. I knew about transgendered womenmen who became womenbut I didnt know women could become men. It just wasnt something in my scope of understanding.

The desire to learn about and document a little-understood segment of society drove Transfigurations: The Making of a Man. Besides doubling as Marcus masters thesis, the project provided the seed for an emotionally affecting exhibit that has expanded to include studies of male-to-female transgendereds and made its way all over the country, picking up awards along the way and serving as a rallying point for the transgendered community wherever it goes. T

Transfigurations is now at Stanfords Clayman Institute for Gender Research through March 21; Marcus and several of her subjects will give a talk on Thursday, Jan. 24, on campus at Tresidder Union.T

Transfigurations has been, Marcus says, the gift that keeps on giving. When The Making of a Man opened in May 2005 at San Jose State, with 20 large-format black-and-white photographs accompanied by text from interviews with the subjects, the response was emotionally overwhelming. Hundreds of people attended, Marcus recalls. People were there with their kids, saying they were so happy because now their 12-year-old, who had been thinking of transitioning, could see that people had successfully done it. After an hour and a half I had to go outside and I broke down in tears, because I had no idea how powerful it would be.

For a group as severely marginalized as the transgendered community, whose members occupy a low rung within the already-marginalized gay community, Marcus lens had a legitimizing effect that led to a rush of eager exhibitionism. It took four months just to get a single transgendered man to agree to be photographed; within six months, volunteers all over the Bay Area were clamoring to be photographed (and continue to be; at a September 2006 show in Seattle Marcus did a 24-hour photography marathon of both men and women, post-transition). The project had helped give face and voice to transgendered people.

Part of the shows popularity is no doubt due to its contemporary look. Male and female subjects, running the gamut from a buffed LAPD beat cop to a 52-year-old woman who hid the truth about her birth gender from her first husband, are photographed in black-and-white in a studio, usually looking directly at the cameraempowered and returning the dominant gaze, Marcus saysin the straightforward but powerful style of portraiture immortalized by Richard Avedon. A fellow student even complained that the photographs looked like Gap ads.

The judges of the Photo District News prestigious Best Pictures of the Year contest didnt agree or else werent bothered. They included the show in both the 2004 and 2005 annuals. The show has won other awards as well and earned Marcus a nomination for the Santa Cruz Community Foundations $20,000 Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship.

The show deliberately avoids sensationalism. Most of the subjects are fully clothed, and except for the fascinating Aidan serieswhich documents a transitioning womans progress from hormone therapy to breast removal to scarred but flat and hairy chestdwells little upon painful procedures. But pain of another sort is plenty evident in the carefully distilled text accompanying each photograph. For Cecilia, 40, the road to self-discovery included drugs, a leap from a four-story building and learning upon recovery that she was HIV-positive. Other women, like Nori, 32, strive to attain the feminine ideal as seen on TV. Many newly minted men, on the other hand, struggle to figure out how macho to be.

Marcus says she was struck by the difference in challenges faced by transgendered men and women. The transgendered men, so many were so self-actualized by the time they came to the end of their treatments. They had thought so much about What kind of man do I want to be in the world?Marcus says. It was very different with men becoming women. When I asked them what kind of woman they wanted to be, most hadnt thought about it.

 It all comes back to our male-dominated society. The men had often had 25, 30, 40 years of learning how not to show emotions. And now they had to let that go and find out what it means to them to be a woman.

TRANSFIGURATIONS, photographs by Jana Marcus, shows at Stanford University's Serra House, 589 Capistrano Way, Palo Alto, through March 21. Admission is free. On Jan. 24 Marcus and three of her subjects will give a 4:30pm talk at Tressider Memorial Union, 459 Lagunita Drive, followed by a 6pm reception at Serra House. For more info see www.janamarcus.com or call 650.906.2375.


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