Mariette Pathy Allen never deliberately took a photo of me.
Mariette may have been the ubiquitous photographer at the trans events where I often played a big part, but I was never the object of her interest.
Nancy Nangeroni once wanted a picture of me to accompany an article in Tapestry — the one I wrote after she asked me to call Dallas an asshole — but I didn’t have one.
“No problem,” Nancy said. “I’ll call Mariette.”
I soon got a return call.
“We are going to go with an illustration,” Nancy told me.
Mariette knew what caught her eye. I was sitting next to her during Charlie Brown’s show at Backstreet Atlanta when a lithe queen named Raven did an exuberant dance number.
“With a body that flexible, she must have a very flexible mind,” Mariette commented, though I don’t think it was her mind that was compelling.
I never had a lithe, slim, slight body. I have hockey player calves, for example, the descendent of strong immigrants wanted to cut wood and haul water.
That doesn’t meant I am unfeminine. My mother was bigger than my father, and with the same look I have, down to the jowls. When my sister worked at a costumer, my mother’s old dresses even went onto the “men in a dress” rack.
No, it just meant that I wasn’t cute or pretty. I was big and imposing, with a presence that was more challenging than inviting. That’s one of the things that instantly drew TBB and I together; neither of us were sweet little things.
Today, the transpeople who are media darlings mostly share one thing: they are slim and pretty. Even the transmen meet that expectation, 2often with a kind of honed androgyny that meets the Hollywood aesthetic which saturates the media.
People who strive to keep themselves photo ready know that the camera adds ten pounds, so they have to be skeletal to photograph well. When I heard queens describe each other as flawless, I knew they were talking about polished masks, not human expression.
When I saw video of TransParent creator Jill Soloway at TransPride LA 2016, taking about how the trans community had become a character in the series, beyond her initial expectation, I was pleased to see the commitment.
They were encouraging people to sign up as extras, taking shots and numbers.
“Just looking at me, what would you cast me as?” I wanted to ask her, even though I knew I would probably not get a straight answer. The harsh truth always comes out in review sessions after the talent has left the room.
Growing up trans is growing up with Broken Mirrors (a piece the Drama Queens performed at IFGE 1998 in Toronto, where Mariette didn’t take our photos), without the kind of feedback that helps us develop healthy expression. We feel our audience slide around a bit, being surprised, feeling queasy and not knowing what to make of us.
What isn’t pretty, well, it must be ugly, right? And if we don’t easily shorthand into the visible construction of already existing desire, how do we ever move into a place of pride?
Lots of women of size face these challenges, of course, but they do it in a social context with female bodies, curvy and soft. I just don’t have the frame to even try and pull that off unless I gain a great deal of weight, using the Divine pattern.
To be visible requires the confidence that someone will see you as beautiful. That has always been a hard one for me, and for many transwomen of my acquaintance.
The song Raven danced to that night, so long ago. . . .