Callan Williams © 2002
(This was written after attending the first New York Trans Gender Coalition Leadership meeting in Albany, April 12-14, 2002. Details of the meeting are available at http://www.nytgcoalition.org/)
As we sat in the stackable chairs on the polished wood floor of the gallery, I looked at the people around the circle.
Maybe, instead of the collages of bark and tulle, these people should be the exhibits.
Hung on the plain walls, frozen in time, I walk into the silent gallery. The eyes look down on me but I can take a moment to look closely.
From a distance, these people, displayed as they are look a bit ragtag, a bit shabby. It’s when you get close to them, though, that your view begins to change. Because they have no need to defend themselves, they open to your gaze, not shirking or confronting, rather just being themselves. You sense that this is not something they did easily in life – these are people who are full of fire, even now.
Up close, though, it is the details that speak to you. The richly textured pattern of lines and scars writes history for you to sense. These are people whose lives are written on every inch of them, lives of unspeakable triumph and sadness. They have claimed themselves, created themselves, carved themselves out of living flesh.
A few of them are still wiggling, not in any conscious fight, but in some kind of struggle. Go close to these and you see that they are young, not yet fully emerged. They are not fully formed, and somehow they are less powerful, less sharp than the others. They carry a faint aura of rage and eros, some lust still unresolved, some fury still raging inside.
But the others. They take your breath away. They are all so different, as unique as a kiss. Thin as a rail or carrying lots of weight, dressed in paint spattered mufti or the worn garments of a city woman who starts with style and moves to work, hair full or thinning or replaced, the faces and bodies are rich with information.
Some would fit on a medieval stone wall, others in a chic gallery. Some should hang in an egalitarian storefront, others on the wall of a tech company. None of them, though would belong where they have often been found, trapped on the walls of a medical center, studied as biological errors, poor creatures who need to be helped. These are not study skins to be stuffed into drawers and pulled out during pathology class, these are the vessels of lives, rich and full, full of struggle and full of joy.
It’s that richness which almost overpowers as you come close. Every wrinkle tells a story of a laugh or a fixed face. Every scar tells the story of a hard choice, a choice to face pressure act on some inner knowledge, a choice to take the blow to be true.
It’s that determination that you see first, but the more you look, the more you see the tenderness. As you let them speak to you without words, their hearts begin to reveal themselves, open, tender hearts full of love. These are children of their creator, so in love with their universal parent that they dared to follow her callings rather than society’s expectations.
For all their scarred and shabby shells, these are people who lived as close to their hearts as they could possibly do. These shells are just vessels, worn and armored, buffed and squalid, ignored and reshaped, vessels to hold and defend a heart that needs what it needs, that demanded honesty over appropriateness.
As you take a breath, you can imagine all of them come to life in this space. The walls bounce with energy, the air is full of shouts and laughter. Bodies clank even as souls touch, well worn sword tongues clank against well crumpled amour. This is a familiar joust for them, the way of walking in a world where undefended hearts are too often broken as bad examples. Against the cry of “Don’t be yourself, be who makes us comfortable,” these hearts have found their own defenses.
But now, as they hang silent and beautiful, alive with heart and energy, you see not the shells but the exquisite work of a creator and a human working together to make a truth. These are the handiwork of creation, so fertile and full of life, so historical and story-full that they tell the story of a generation. They were there, on the bleeding edge, at the epicenter, in the doorway, working to expose true, working to be true themselves.
Take a moment to wonder how many people walked past these figures on the street and never saw what you see here, the glowing hearts and gallant history so visible in a moment of empathic silence under bright lights. In the shadows so many walk in, these figures must have looked like gorgons and demons to them, creatures from the underworld on the other side of the gate of normativity.
The beast with a heart of gold, a cliché still, still you wonder how the golden light you see within was seen in a fast, fast world.
Step back again, to look at all the figures around you. You know you have to leave, but there is still so much here, so much you can’t get to with them frozen like this. The sadness sweeps though you as you walk down the steep gallery stairs and out the door and into the hustle of the street.
At the coffee counter you look across, and there, emanating from someone you wouldn’t have noticed this morning, you see the same golden light. You take your cardboard cup and move in their direction.
“Excuse me,” you say. “Is anyone sitting here?”