Euphoric Genders

by Persimmon Blackbridge

Essay about SD Holman’s GID: Gender Identity Disorder or…Girls in Drag

Let’s get one thing straight, I’m not a photographer. Or an art historian. Or an academic of any description. I’m not going to write about Holman’s technical blah blah or how she’s influenced by the early works of blahblah and blahblah, or how she articulates the marginalizing disengenderment underlying the contestation of textual hegemonies of blah blah. Someone else will have to do that. Shaira’s not a photographer either (may I call you Shaira?) or at least that’s what she said to me last week. She’s a bit of a moving target, not the easiest specimen to pin and dissect in a critical essay. If I was an academic, she’d drive me nuts.

I think she was in art school when I first met her. She was making photographs of her bad dyke friends (plus ça change…). Her work was kind of almost lovely. But not quite. There was an awkwardness that I put down to lack of technique, assumed she was aiming for that Perfect Moment thing (wasn’t everyone?) and tripping over her inexperience.

I kept watching. She got more technique under her belt, and the awkwardness remained. But there was something about those pix that wouldn’t leave me alone. The way they refused to behave themselves, refused to fill my expectations. They wouldn’t slide down smooth as Jell-O, they caught in my throat with sudden edges like a razor blade apple. No, I’m not talking shock — come on — shock art is Jell-O now, expected, easy to swallow. I’m talking something more elusive, more… damn, where are my pins?

“I know what you mean,” Shaira told me. “Sometimes I just have to wreck things. Sometimes if my negs are too perfect I have to scratch them up, put myself into the image. I have a love/hate relationship with photography. Environmentally it sucks. Why am I doing this polluting shit? And the way it’s taught is so precious. I don’t have the patience, expertise or respect for perfection to be a photographer like that.”

Why do it then? Why not move over to some more congenial medium? Maybe she likes a good fight. Maybe when she and the darkroom have finished roughing each other up, there’s something worth looking at.

And ok, I don’t know how to say this nicely, but she doesn’t paint like a photographer. She doesn’t apply the Liquid Light™ like brushstrokes were a look-what-I just-bought techno-novelty with instructions on the back. That same restless irritation that makes photography a fight for her, frees up her brush, gives gestural power to each stroke.

I expect the same expressionistic force when she scratches on her negatives, and as usual, she fucks with expectations. There’s no painful slashing; the marks are light, deliberate, repetitive — looking more like rainfall than knife wounds.

“Oh yeah, I tried that other thing,” she told me. “It didn’t look right.” Instead she flips from bravura to restraint, from academic to personal, from outrageousness to subtlety, as if no either/or can encompass her.

Which is my handy segue to talking about genderfuck.

“There’s many ways of dealing with not fitting your ‘proper’ gender.” Shaira said. “I’ve chosen to focus on a particular segment, women who use drag to resist, mock, transcend hetero-centric gender stereotypes.” Actually, she didn’t say hetero-centric. I put that in.

There’s no one like me in this show: a femme who genderfucks femininity onstage and off. There’s no one who id’s as fulltime male without any self-definition as a dyke. Let’s tell the truth here: there’s no peace arch at these borderlines. In some places the line between dyke and trans is fenced with razorwire, patrolled by people taking potshots at anyone who crosses. But Shaira’s not drawing lines in the sand, embracing some and shutting others out. She’s documenting a place, a moment, a particular piece of community.

If you blow up a photo enough, lines become vast fuzzy fields. When you get up close, this small slice of the gender continuum turns out to be a large and rowdy collection of people with diverse gender strategies. A few do femme-dyke in some of their lives, but are boys on the side, or on the stage. Most are butches, boys, kings. Some think of it as drag, others think of it as who they are. This show is a meeting of friends in the borderland where performance and identity are continually sliding into each other.

DJ. Boychick is a guy with great tits. In Shaira’s portrait, he’s looking down the bulge in his jockey shorts with astonishment. But what is astonishing — his breasts, his dick, the complete masculinity of his body language? Or the whole damn world?

Some of the models wrote text for their own portraits. Where they didn’t provide words, Shaira looked to her magpie collection of quotes from academics, activists, drag kings and queens, medical textbooks. “Some of the quotes I agree with, others I can’t stand, but I just throw it all together and let the viewer sort it out for themselves.”

The quote on DJ.’s portrait is by sociologist Erving Goffman, from the 1979 book Gender Advertisements. It ends: “One might just as well say there is no gender identity. There is only a schedule for the portrayal of gender.” And a bunch of rebels who jump the tracks and run by their own schedules.

Jody is a woman who is also Junior, a man. Or something like that. Anyway, Junior is the one in this show. In his statement, he writes, “…I am a PERFORMER…. Is HE really a SHE? Does it matter?” As in most of the pix, Shaira uses multiple images — there’s no singular authoritative version of Junior to be captured. Here he wears a tie, there a necklace. Does it matter? And I am most utterly genderfucked when he is (the artist formerly known as) Prince — a butch in femme drag as a man. Maybe it’s just me, but what ends up coming across strongest in this mixed-message bag of gender cues, is gesture. It outshouts outfits, mustaches, even body parts. When Junior tilts his head down and looks up soooo coyly, the goatee just disappears as a gender sign. When he tilts his head to the side and checks out his audience soooo suavely, the femmey outfit doesn’t compute. I could go on — Mr. Bec who performs class and subculture as well as gender, Tamara’s mugshot snaps under her cop drag, the double identity double portraits of Mr. Joe (Mad Elaine) and Cynthia (Joey) — but I’m already over my word count — time for the wrap up.

Turn on the TV, talk show hosts subjugate their subjects from network to network. Out-of-control-teens, compulsive-shoplifting-mothers, husbands-who-cheat-and-tell, women-who-dress-as-men — our identities are bought and sold as entertainment. I would like to say that Shaira’s work is too intimate to ever be interpreted as a sideshow for mainstream eyes. I would like to say that these portraits refuse to be reduced to a-bunch-of-weird-freaks oh gasp. But I can’t say that. Shaira is documenting her own community, making pictures from a position of identification and respect, yes. But in the end, none of us can control how our audience sees our work. Some people are going to see the incomparable Mr. Bec as a sick pervert, and there’s nothing Shaira can do to prevent that. There’s no artistry so strong, no technique so sure that bigotry can’t shut it out. But it still can’t shut us up.