Presently, the popular American imaginary recognizes trans as singularly woman. Visibility is dangerous, no doubt, and what of never showing? Both Texas Isaiah and Dr. Kortney Ziegler’s work as photographer and documentarian, respectively, contribute to a growing body of visual representations of black trans men. Here, we discuss their work and the potential of an extensive visual archive.
L. G. Parker: In David Marriott’s On Black Men, he suggests that images of black men lynched were reproduced to sustain and prolong the event, enabling the image to travel throughout time to continue its psychic damage. What potential do you each think your work has to contrast these images, to create a new visual lexicon?
Dr. Kortney Ziegler: I think all black visual artists create work that is meant to travel geographically and temporally--to be intentional about telling the stories of our lives that have been suppressed and erased. I definitely place my work in this vein. I specifically chose the space of documentary because it can travel digitally with few needed resources and can easily transmit the oral stories of black trans men.
L.G.: With regard to traveling more geographically, what have been some of the major movements and outcomes so far of Trans*H4CK’s hackathons?
K.Z.: With Trans*H4CK, it’s been a really cool experience because a lot of amazing technology that didn't exist before has been developed at our events. For example, apps to find trans friendly retail spots to whole organizations that connect transgender folks with medical practitioners have been produced at trans hack events. Now we are primarily focused on the virtual space because I mention that STILL BLACK is able to travel digitally. I really want Trans*H4CK to be able to travel in the same ways and reach audiences that we can't do by remaining on-site. Being able to connect with transgender folks online and share their work with a global audience has been super interesting and amazing and has helped to push how we even conceptualize transgender in this moment--we're very concerned with how to identify and navigate the world as a transgender person outside of the United States and being virtual is allowing us to do that now.
Texas Isaiah: I agree with Kortney. In terms of traveling digitally and individuals who contain limited resources, I've been thinking about public art a lot and the importance of displaying narratives on the streets. In terms of creating work that provides visibility and positivity in comparison to images in the past, I believe in the collaboration between photographer and sitter. A space to share with others in order for them to have control over their own narrative.
L.G.: Do you consider the lack of images of black trans men in popular culture and media to be violence? Does your work attempt to combat that?
K.Z.: Marginalization always has its consequences. The limited images of black trans men in the mainstream carries the consequence of the unknown. Because we don’t see trans men of color, specifically black trans men in art and media spaces, which drive larger conversations on trans people, most are unaware of our lived experiences and I think that this is a dangerous type of exclusion. It allows folks to misrepresent trans men of color and in many ways, pathologize our transition as one that seeks to embrace harmful forms of masculinity.
T.I.: The lack of black trans men in popular culture and media is violent. The little that I have seen in popular culture and media has been problematic and violent in certain ways, because of the cis normative and diluted language that surrounds our bodies. Black trans men do not have the space to be expansive within our own identities. You don't know how many times people get weird about me talking about the way I navigated the world as a black woman. Yet, there is always an assumption that all black trans men do not want to speak about how it can and will reshape our personal relationship to masculinity and many other things. Also, masculinity isn't the only conversation that I would personally like to have. I want to talk about what it's like to be a black trans man and date and explore partnerships with others. I want to talk about how my desires have changed around what I and others would like to wear. Or, maybe a conversation around how some black trans men don't wish to acquire passing privilege. There are so many discussions! There are a lot of amazing black trans men doing fantastic work. But, why aren't they getting enough exposure? Why do I have to dig so deep to find their names? Along with wanting more images and narratives of us in the media, and we should all see more, I also want them to be expansive and full. I believe I am finding ways to combat the lack of images and erasure that black trans men face, outside of just creating work. I'm still discovering what that would look like. However, I am aiming to create an extensive visual archive of black trans men within my lifetime.
L.G.: Texas, in an interview you said, “The self-portraits of myself are from a new project called, DYSPHORIA. It is a way for me to document certain aspects of my transition that I am unable to verbally communicate. All my projects are based around my transition and my evolving perspective of myself and the world around me.” Can you speak more on where language fails in transitioning & your process with the series since giving that interview?
T.I.: That series failed to reach its full potential. Around that time, my exposure to the language surrounding gender identity was limited to solely the physicality of what transitioning was/can be. That can be significant, however, there is more to transitioning than that. I was beginning to become aware that I didn't have a limited set of options of what gender identity could look either. I read works by Kortney and later Kai M. Green, Mitch Kellaway, J Mase III, and more. The idea of interrupting the gender binary was presented to me in so many ways, but I wasn't aware of how I could re-create the language and ideas for myself. I was unsure of a lot during that time. I created that project six months into my medical transition and it was a very strange time for me. It was the beginning of my Saturn Return, so I had all these questions about myself and no concrete answers. That is where a lot of my work came in, but I had to ask myself why I was making the work I was making. It felt like I was trying to prove something to others and that didn't feel right. I also didn't feel like there was a solid infrastructure for the work to be extensive. So, I stopped. I'm grateful that I went through that particular time, because it provided me a better understanding of how I wanted to map out my ideas concerning the multi-faceted aspects of identity when it comes to art making. It also reminded me that I didn't have to heal and figure things out in public. So, as much as the series doesn't exist anymore, the framework does. I'm taking more self-portraits than ever before, but the approach I have towards the work is completely different and it feels good.
L.G.: Kortney, STILL BLACK remains, eight years later, the only documentary about black trans men. Did you anticipate this? What life has the documentary taken on in these past eight years?
K.Z.: When I conceptualized STILL BLACK, it was during a time when trans visibility was minimal in both queer art circles as well as the mainstream. Now we are living in a moment where, thanks to activists and advocates across mediums, transgender is part of the dominant lexicon. That excites me!
L.G.: Your documentary was released during the beginning of President Obama’s tenure as such. Some would argue that there’s been progress, though I’d say it’s more like dangerous hyper-visibility, has been given to “trans issues” since then. Has this impacted the life of the documentary at all? Do you think the public even acknowledges trans as anything that’s not white and woman? How does this impact your work?
K.Z.: The film continues to circulate throughout the world in film and academic settings, so it is truly fascinating to see its movement. Still, there isn’t a sweeping thirst of knowledge for different types of trans identities that are beyond “white and woman.”
L.G.: Could you say more about the movement?
K.Z.: For sure. One of the cool things that I think about this moment of transgender visibility is that people do have questions about different kinds of trans identities and so that has been really cool to see people kind of seek out STILL BLACK because they have a thirst for knowledge for other kinds of trans subjectivities. But another thing that's really interesting with the life of STILL BLACK is that it is very much alive in academic spaces. It is constantly sought out by film universities and colleges across the world even though it isn't part of the mainstream and by academics who are looking to deconstruct gender in a critical way and become more inclusive of different kinds of identities. So that's really fascinating to see how people are taking the film as a text and analyzing it in gender studies, women's studies, African American studies and other kinds of humanities-based programs.
L.G.: Can you talk about some of the major moments, in your own work with STILL BLACK, where you saw the lexicon shifting? How did the reception of STILL BLACK change/develop/grow during or after that shift?
K.Z.: Right, I think that STILL BLACK still remains or I would call it a cult classic as a friend of mine called it a “cult classic” recently. It's really kind of still an underground film, you got to search for it if you don't know it exists-maybe somebody will tell you kind of thing. I definitely think that one of the major moments of that has come with this mainstream moment of transgender visibility is like I said previously, this desire to know other kinds of transgender identities and I think that even though that desire isn't as strong as I would like it to be for supporting transgender men of color, it is definitely there and has persuaded and empowered people to seek out other kinds of stories about gender. But again STILL BLACK continues to remain this kind of hidden gem and in some ways I'm excited about it but it does disappoint me because I think it speaks to the what we discussed earlier regarding the marginalization and exclusion of trans men of color, particularly black transgender men. I really hope this changes; the film turns eight years old next month. Nonetheless, it has done a great job of providing a resource for other black trans men and I am super proud of that.