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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Artists keep pushing beyond the gender binary

Golden's "I'm human, after all," 2021.
Golden's "I'm human, after all," 2021.Golden

In the US, 1.2 million LGBTQ people identify as nonbinary, and 76 percent of them are between ages 18 and 29, according to a study released last week by the Williams Institute, a research center on gender identity and sexuality in law and public policy. Increasingly, people are opting to use the plural pronoun.

They’re here. They’re queer. Get used to it.

“Queer is resistant to dominant narratives,” said Vick Quezada, a self-described “Indigenous-Latinx artist” who lives in Northampton and makes art that plumbs power structures and finds ties between Aztec and queer cosmologies. “And in those dominant narratives, we have the gender binary.”

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Queer art is slippery. It’s about the nooks and crannies of the subjective experiences of people who have been stereotyped, erased, and oppressed.

Vick Quezada's "Cloud 13," 2021.
Vick Quezada's "Cloud 13," 2021.Dean Brown/Courtesy of Pulp Holyoke

For Golden, a Black gender-nonconforming trans-femme photographer and poet in Boston, queerness is inextricable with Blackness.

“Black people have always been the antithesis of a norm. That’s why we have so many layers of oppression,” they said.

“My queerness is always a Black image and a Black symbol,” Golden added. “And my Blackness is always a queering of what is the norm.”

Artists have played with gender for a long time. A century ago, Marcel Duchamp dressed as a female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. But Duchamp didn’t identify as queer. Neither did Vito Acconci, who in his 1971 performance art piece “Conversions” tucked his penis to form a vulva.

Stamatina Gregory co-curated “Bring Your Own Body: Transgender Between Archives and Aesthetics” at Cooper Union in 2015. The show featured contemporary artworks responding to records from the Kinsey Archives and the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in British Columbia — documents that evince the often violent medicalized history of trans people.

“The history of trans and nonbinary art and artists is one we continue to excavate,” said Gregory, now the chief curator and director of programs at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, which is dedicated to LGBTQ+ art. “Because so much of that work has not been seen, or has not been recorded, or has not been preserved.”

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When a queer artist expresses the queer experience in their work, it’s not a conceptual gambit. It’s messier and more vulnerable. Their art goes places beyond where many people are fixed and comfortable. Photographer Catherine Opie, a butch woman, has portrayed herself breast-feeding her baby, and for decades has chronicled the gender-bending Pig Pen, a.k.a. artist and actor Stosh Fila. In one of those images, the words “ambiguous” and “anomalous” are tattooed on Pig Pen’s chest.

Genesis Breyer P. Orridge, a British artist and musician who died last year, undertook the “Pandrogyne Project” in the 1990s with spouse Lady Jaye. The two surgically modified their bodies to unite, conceptually, as a single entity — s/he.

“Gen talked about … going through notebooks from like 1986. They had written something like, ‘androgyny is inevitable,’” said Gregory.

Inevitable, and perhaps, not anything new.

“There has been gender nonconformity for all of human history,” said Gregory.

The classifications we use today about sexuality arose in the late 19th century when the taxonomic way we order knowledge took hold. It has been a boon to science and a bludgeon in the hands of the powerful, leading to eugenics and genocide.

Ria Brodell's "Agatha Dietschi aka Hans Kaiser c. 1547 Germany," from 2018.
Ria Brodell's "Agatha Dietschi aka Hans Kaiser c. 1547 Germany," from 2018.Ria Brodell

Ria Brodell’s painting series, “Butch Heroes,” also published as a book (with a second volume to come), identifies gender nonconforming people through history. The artist is currently working with case studies from “Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns,” published in 1941.

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“It covers male homosexuals, male bisexuals, and male narcissists. And the same for females,” said Brodell, a Boston artist who identifies as nonbinary and trans.

“There are illustrations and descriptions of them physically, because [the book suggests] the size of things like nipples and the amount of hair could lead to indications of homosexuality,” they said. “Or, evidently, narcissism.”

Before gender fluidity was considered deviant, Brodell observed, responses to gender nonconformity varied.

“One of the first people I painted was from 1477 in Germany,” they said. “They were punished by drowning. … Ten years later and 10 or 20 miles from that town, another person was given a slap on the wrist and let go.”

Quezada, a fellow at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, identifies as two-spirit, a term Indigenous people use. “The way that I understand my two-spirit identity is I am both masculine and feminine, but then sometimes I’m neither of those two,” they said.

Their work repurposes found objects, an aesthetic bound up in poverty, resilience, and survival called Rascuache. Hybridity runs through their art — highbrow/lowbrow, male/female, Indigenous/colonizer, mysticism/science.

They call “Anthropocene Teen” a figurative sculpture with a dinosaur head, “a hybrid queer indigenous Aztec dinosaur.”

Vick Quezada's "Anthropocene Teen," 2021.
Vick Quezada's "Anthropocene Teen," 2021.Dean Brown/Courtesy of Pulp Holyoke

The piece references geologic epochs in which mass extinctions occurred due to natural disasters or genocide.

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“I’m thinking about the age of the Anthropocene, about colonialism and imperialism and this agenda for death and the way that it places value on people,” Quezada said.

Golden’s self-portrait project, shot at home with friends and family, is at once intimate, striking, and ordinary.

“I hope it broadens people’s idea around what transness is, and what transition is,” they said. “People have this mind-set that transition is only a physical manifestation. Actually, transition is about getting closer and deeper into who you are as a person.”

Golden's "Twin," 2021.
Golden's "Twin," 2021.Golden

People embracing plural pronouns open to the nuances of ambiguity at a time when Americans are frightened, divided, and prone to taking sides. Gregory, who has witnessed plenty of misgendering working in art schools, sees some acceptance.

“I feel like this widespread adoption really seems to be leading cis people toward paying greater attention to how they gender people,” she said.

Misgendering is like calling someone by the wrong name. It can be flagrant and hurtful.

“I dress a certain way and I act a certain way, and I have my name and my pronouns because that’s who I feel I am,” said Brodell. “But people still misgender me and still perceive me as a gender they think I am.”

The vulnerability of self-expression puts trans and nonbinary people — especially people of color — at risk of violence and death. In May, Golden wrapped an artist residency with the city of Boston, which has spurred a mural project, still in its early stages of community input, in the city’s Transformative Public Art Program that will depict Rita Hester, a Black trans whose murder in Allston in 1998 prompted the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.

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“I think a lot of people are reconciling with the fact that people remember their history. And that is a scary situation for power to be in,” said Golden.

The artist is cautious about being hopeful.

“I don’t think that power necessarily is shifting. But I do think there is a consciousness within Black people, within queer people, to say I know what my voice can do,” they said. “That’s why you see so many people who are nonbinary, so many people who are queer, so many people who are questioning.”

Questioning, in the end, is what queerness and making art have in common.

“You can unlearn things through art, like misconceptions and biases and stereotypes,” said Quezada. “Having art and being queer has basically saved my life.”


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.