We are our own Keepers:
Being Transgender in the age of Individual Truths
By Matthew Herzog
Part I: Conversation with Visual Artist, Author, Mentor, Armani a.k.a. Armani Dae
Part II: Email thread with Assistant Professor of U.S. History, Gender, and Sexuality at Texas Tech University and Author of True Sex, Emily Skidmore
We often choose to circumnavigate Truths difficult to change. In some cases, Truth is the one-way street opposing our demand. In another, it’s having a bully for a boss. And in other cases, Truth is the cultural rejection of a person’s fundamental identity.
Often using arguments as knotty as they are backwards, Culture attempts to bracket gender identity. In its most familiar, the logic of discrimination exhibits as erratic, oversimplified, and worse - ingrained. A Majority Belief becomes a cognitive barrier; Bigotry emerges as a Truth too big to change.
At the recent Trans Health Conference in Philadelphia,, thematically titled: Perseverance, Strength, Power, discussions and gadgets ranged from health positive to sex positive to culturally celebratory. There were penis inserts, youth organizations, workshops on Advocating for Transgender Rights in Schools and a discussion on Trans Hysterectomy. Amongst the events were two pieces of work that rose particular interest. One, a print by New York based photographer Armani Dae. The second, a book by Emily Skidmore titled True Sex - a look into the lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century.
Acting as temporal book ends, Skidmore and Dae parallel a sentiment heard in the safe spaces of Philadelphia’s queer community: We are our own keepers. In these cases, Skidmore is the keeper of Trans History and Armani Dae of contemporary Trans experience.
After looking at their work, it is hard not to consider the question: Amidst the increasingly divisive shifts in American culture, what is the state of the urban transgender artist? Luckily for me, Armani Dae and Emily Skidmore were more than willing to talk it over.
Part I: Armani Dae
‘I am the Armani.’ Armani said while laughing over the phone. ‘I am a shy, creative artist… It seems now to be my career… I’m shy and introverted but also I’m not. I guess it depends on where I’m at.’
MH: Was photography a way to enact both of those parts of your personality?
AD: ‘It’s a therapeutic thing for me. It allows me to take my time… It allows me to show the world what I was thinking… If something stimulates my mind and captures my eyes, I’m going to capture it… The same goes for people… the majority of the people that are featured on my website are Trans and gender nonconforming people. A lot of my more recent work… has been catering toward the Trans, GNC [Gender Non Conforming], GC [Gender Conforming], community. Many of us who are told we are not normal or beautiful or do not fit within society norms, we need to do away with stigmas or negative notions like that. So a lot of people featured on my website are people [who are] trans, gender nonconforming... to show them that you are just as normal and as beautiful and as valid and as important as anyone else. So you deserve to be captured and celebrated like anyone else. You’re a model too in your own right, just like anyone else. Overall, everything is beautiful because these people stimulate my mind or capture my eye.’
MH: It seems like such an important mission, especially now, to start engaging with that particular subject matter [and] also in the greater narrative of what beauty is. Culture is kinda fucked up in that way. They create these whole ideas of what beauty is and cuts out a lot of people and a lot of images and a lot of emotions and histories [from] the greater public discourse.
AD: ‘There is no prototype of person. There’s no one way to be…’
MH: How did you carve this kind of space for yourself?
AD: ‘I believe that I’m carving it for myself… I’m still learning things about photography… I feel like I’m creating my own type of art, my own viewpoint… I’m creating my own path to greatness. Or, at least, I hope so… Thinking of all of my work paying off, not just monetarily, but the recognition, people understanding my work, people appreciating my work, I know it can help cause change within the community, within the cisgender community as well as our community. It can help bridge those gaps. It can help appreciate our beauty. We’re not freaks. We change our outsides, sometimes, to match our insides, how we feel within our minds and in our hearts… All those help me to keep on going.’
MH: I think that the transgender community has been the power behind those positive conversations. It’s really sitting there on the forefront. How do you see this going in the future?
AD: I definitely see it causing a change. I met a lot of, I’ll say non-trans people [who] view some of my work... They would have never understood certain things about our bodies or understood why… Or how people can identify as being trans without there being an ending to the word. And they can have their body however they please, however they see fit and it also helps them build bridges into all bodies... Feeling good is key to survival… I’ve had a many a conversations pertaining to beauty and what our bodies are supposed to look like... and again there’s no prototype of person… Having these types of conversations, talking about my art, it has changed people’s views on, oh, well a man’s body is supposed to look like this, a woman’s body is supposed to look like that or you’re supposed to identity as this or you’re supposed to identify… You’re supposed to identify with what you feel is perfect for you. Your body is supposed to look like what you want it to look like. Regardless of surgery, regardless of hormones, regardless if you change anything or don’t, all of these things are by choice and they are up to you, not anyone else.
Living in a cultural battle, those that identify as Transgender are in the intersection of change, choice and concretized Truths; an experience as challenging as it is daily. And because of this in the past few years, the Transgender community has held the torch for LGBTQ rights. They aim for what’s authentic not by simply growing thick to those that oppose but uncompromising with that which means the most to them.
Though we are our own keepers is a sentiment recontextualized from the same book as the conservatives that disagree with Armani, its effect is simple. When choice appears limited, it’s often being offered by your opponent; one unfamiliar with what is possible and less flexible than their imagination. In this change of perspective, liberation emerges and becomes individualized.
No less difficult, of course. But the power over us is returned.
Be sure to check out Part II coming next Issue. Author, Emily Skidmore adds to the conversation using the context of her studies, her history, and her opinion.
*Special thanks to Armani Dae for his candor, his art, and his unquestioning hope for change.
Armani Dae Website: http://armani-dae.wixsite.com/photography
To purchase Armani's Photobook, Exposed Truth: http://hopeafter20.com/bookstore/exposed%truth