HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. This semester, students in our Inequality in America, Art for Social Change, and Making Media, Making Change programs are writing a series of blog posts on a topic of their choosing. We asked Inequality in America students to consider a theory or reading that intersects with their lived experience. Making Media, Making Change and Art for Social Change students will offer a window into their creative processes, and describe how what they are learning guides their art. Over the next few months we’ll publish a number of these powerful reflections from our students. Please share them widely! You can find all of the posts by searching the HECUA classrooms category on our blog.
Ask Me About My Genitals: An Experiment in Vulnerability, Openness, and Discomfort
By AJ Gerick
My first assignment in HECUA’s Art for Social Change program was to make a piece of public art. I wanted to explore my queer identity as it relates to others, but at first I couldn’t think of a way to do it. We were asked what parts of our history have been hidden from us, and why. I realized while I was trying to research for this project that there is very little documentation of terms of trans history. There is the surface level explanation that gender variance existed in ancient cultures and that it happened in multiple different cultures without contact between them. There is what survives of Magnus Hirschfeld’s library and his accomplishments in advancing trans medicine. But most of his books were burned, most of his research destroyed.
When people claim that there weren’t trans people until the 1930’s, when we became more visible, they deliberately ignore that our history was destroyed. There’s no doubt in my mind that this was calculated. If you don’t see yourself represented in the past, it’s hard to envision yourself in the future. The lack of direct links to and images of past generations of trans people sends a message that we won’t survive to an old age. This extends to the erasure of non-binary people. Only certain images of trans people that cis society can live with are shared. The knowledge that this erasure occurred and continues to occur keeps me awake at night.
I created a public space to speak about my experience as a trans person in society. I was interested in finding out what assumptions people make about my gender, so I asked people to draw what they think is between my legs. In return, I answered any questions that they had about my identity or experience with gender. I wanted to encourage people to ask really difficult and uncomfortable questions because I think we learn best while uncomfortable.
When I find myself in a situation that puts me on edge, I want to know why. I stop and I think about what unsettles me.
I discovered two things from doing this project; first, that I don’t mind being in a state of discomfort when I get to engineer the situation; second, that I really want to continue to make people uncomfortable. I want to make it ok to talk about the most uncomfortable parts of transitioning, because when younger trans people (like me) have been deliberately separated from previous generations it can be really difficult to know what to expect going into any transition process.
Someone asked me if being on testosterone has changed the way that I have sex. This was a challenging question for me initially. I was shocked on some level about being asked to describe the way I have sex, but I also completely understood the question. Our sexual education in this country –when it isn’t abstinence-only– is so heteronormative that it could make a straight wedding seem gay.
Genitals should be destigmatized. We all have them and we need to talk about them otherwise when something is wrong with yours, you may not know until it’s too late. The stigma around genitals is so powerful that I thought I was dying when I first started menstruating, and I have an extra difficult time navigating this secretive world as a trans person with genitals that no longer fit binary norms. We also need to normalize trans bodies. I want to see myself represented in art and media and entertainment and politics and medicine.
Someone asked me directly what my genitals look like. This was the question that I paused the longest before answering. I think that, like a lot of trans people, I had this idea that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a masculine-of-center person (using a spectrum of gender, I say that my own falls somewhat on the masculine side but remains close to the middle), acknowledging that my starting point was a female designation at birth felt dangerous.
This disclosure divulges a piece of identity that most trans people are told by other trans people to keep hidden. It made me wonder whether this is to our benefit or not. Without acknowledging the starting point you lose an integral part of that person’s lifelong journey of gender.
These are questions that, if I had been asked anywhere outside of the performance space, I would have been completely unable to answer. I would probably have been so uncomfortable with being asked that I would be sent into an anxiety attack.
This was one of the biggest surprises for me, having never done anything that could be considered performance art. The interactions I had were simultaneously incredibly genuine, but also, to a certain extent, were disconnected from reality. But within the space that I created for myself to be completely honest with people, I found that it wasn’t hard to answer, and to be honest.
When I had a chance over spring break to sit down and write longer and more well-articulated responses to the questions asked during the performance I found myself writing pages and pages. I poured in so much of my emotional energy that I could only write an answer to one question every couple of days. I still haven’t done this for all of the questions I received. I want to find a way to do this performance multiple times, and to write out enough of these responses that I could collect them in a book.
This piece could be a response to the common critique of contemporary queer politics: “The words and categories all change so fast, you can’t blame me for not keeping up. I didn’t major in gender studies!” To an extent, I can get behind a statement like this. Academia is super insular and doesn’t make attempts at being accessible to those who stand to benefit the most from the work that is being done in fields like queer politics and gender studies. The problem that I have with this critique, though, is that I think it attempts to erase cis-gendered, heterosexual people’s responsibility to learn. If they didn’t major in it, they don’t feel that they ever have to know it.
This rubs me the wrong way. You don’t need a degree in gender studies to be able to keep up with the ever-changing understanding of gender. All that is required to keep up with accepted terminology and etiquette is the belief that trans folks be given time and space in which to share their experiences. I think there are ways of explaining complex ideas about gender in simple ways, without resorting to binary logic and rhetoric, and I’m committed to finding out exactly what this looks like. This Art for Social Change class with HECUA excites me because it’s an opportunity to break down the barrier between theory and praxis, and to start thinking in terms of community accessibility and engagement. I did not consider myself an artist before taking this class, and would never have considered doing anything that could be called performance art. I’m incredibly grateful for this class–and this assignment in particular– for opening my eyes to my interest in public art and community engagement.
To learn more about HECUA’s Art for Social Change program, click here.