Gender is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the state of being male or female (typically used concerning social and cultural differences rather than biological ones.)" Sex does not equal gender. While Facebook now has over sixty descriptions of gender variance, there are still only two options on most job applications and legal documents. Gender roles have changed, but there is still an underlying current that exists from which many of us suffer.
The belief surrounding the notion of real "women" and real "men" reduces us to mere stereotypes. Advertisements, social media, and religious doctrines define a narrow vision of gender norms to this day. Transgender-activist Leslie Feinberg said, "That pink-blue dogma assumes that biology steers our social destiny. We have been taught that being born female or male will determine how we dress and walk, whether we will prefer our hair shortly cropped or long and flowing, whether we will be emotionally nurturing or repressed. According to this way of thinking, masculine females are trying to look 'like men' and feminine males are trying to act 'like women.' Those of us who transgress those gender assumptions also shatter their inflexibility." Gender violations are the crux of the many who refuse to acknowledge the colorful presentations and dualities that enrich who we are today.
I came out in 2008 after many years of alcohol and drug addiction. According to the HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN, 41 percent of transgender individuals attempt suicide. Unfortunately, I am in that percentage. ("Trans" is an abbreviation of "transgender" and is often used when referring to someone who identifies as transgender.) While being trans is not a choice, being visible and therefore vulnerable is. I didn't know I was transgender when I was young. There was no word for it. There were words like transsexual and cross-dresser. There were drag performances. None of those seemed to categorize my existence. Transsexuals are people who transition from one sex to another. Transgender is a term for people whose gender identity, expression, or behavior does not align with or conform to their assigned gender at birth.
Trans-ness comes in all sorts of varieties. Some gender identities make it easier to exist in our society. Being a gender-nonconforming person can be exhausting. Contrary to popular belief, thick skin and being tough do not make it easier to be constantly asked "what" you are. Are you a boy or a girl?
Gender can be explored, played with, and deconstructed. We are masculine females, feminine males, beautiful and handsome individuals. We are a multitude of colors and presentations, and no doubt, you have met us, encountered us, and loved us. Androgyny is not a requirement of non-binary and gender fluidity.
Being on a platform as, kind of, the token transgender individual in the clay community takes its toll. When I lectured at NCECA in 2017 on the panel "Gendered Clay," I had no idea what would happen. I wanted people to hear about the ridiculousness of the bathroom bills. On March 23, 2016, North Carolina’s legislature passed House Bill 2, an act that reversed a Charlotte ordinance that extended rights to people who are transgender. The law, passed and signed by then Governor Pat McCrory, nullified the protection of transgender people to use the public restroom based on their gender identity. Other states followed. I wanted people to understand the actual harm these bills caused transgender people. I reacted by making the piece “We Just Need to Pee: Pissing on the NC Bathroom Bill.” I could only tell my own story. I was screamed at in public restrooms because I didn’t fit into the stereotypical model of what a female or male looked like. I thought the cause worthy of sacrificing my anonymity. But even our clay community can be cruel. Social media is definitely malicious. It took awhile to be able to navigate it. Today I am grateful for the multitudes of people who reached out in support, some who told similar stories of what it was like to be openly gay some time ago. I keep making this kind of work because of those voices and because of the dire need for education about gender identity.
I curated the exhibition "IT'S STILL POLITICAL: Gender, Sexuality, and Queerness in Contemporary Ceramics" with Kelly Connole for the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis. It promotes voices of those with similar stories. It is part two of the exhibition, "SEXUAL POLITICS," that took place at the Northern Clay Center in 2015. In that exhibition, Kelly Connole wrote, “Artists have the potential to freeze a moment in our collective cultural history, record it, interpret it, and help us breathe in the truth of our own time.” “It’s Still Political” focuses on gender fluidity, specifically, gender expression. It includes Maya Vivas, Marval A Rex, Shane Elliot-Bowers, Shannon Gross, GV Kelly, and Arthur Halvorson. We are all forced to participate in narrowly defined gender roles. Feminine men and masculine women have assumptions immediately made about their sexuality even though gender expression and gender identity have nothing to do with sexuality.
VIVAS is a multidisciplinary artist working in ceramic, performance, painting, social practice, and installation. They state, "Through sculptural gesture, absurdity, carnality, speculative fiction, and body horror, I navigate questions of diasporic body memory and space as filtered through the senses." They are also a co-founder of the ORI Gallery whose mission is to redefine "the white cube" through amplifying voices of queer and trans artists of color, community organizing, and mobilization through the arts.
REX is a queer artist, performer, and performance curator. Their work, Deliberations of a Cyborg-aeon, explores the complexities of language, physiology, and new technologies. Their work questions the notion of "realness." Rex says, "the paradigm of realness is characterized by patriarchal oppression, analytical hegemony, and a rejection of individualized spiritual ceremony." Their video "rips open holes within the fabric of accepted realness and its prescribed behaviors."
ELLIOT-BOWERS is a trans audio performer and sculptor, based in Chicago, Illinois. His piece in this exhibition deconstructs male stereotypes through VIDEO performance. What does it mean to be male, masculine? Shane puts on a clay mask, changing the way he is perceived. His work begs us to question the stigma of gendered roles and perception in public and private spaces.
GROSS combines ceramic sculpture, collected objects, fabric, and hand embroidery. Gross describes their Ragged Creatures series as an "experimentation in queer visuals and sensibility as they relate to gender and craft to achieve an uncanny sense of softness, familiarity, and queerness in all its definitions."
KELLY makes figurative ceramic work that explores ideas about non-binary gender combining human and animal forms. Kelly says that the "alien forms are gendered outside the social binary of male and female and are surfaced with otherworldly tones and textures, giving a sense of fantasy and pushing the work into the realm of other." Their work "explores how science-fiction and fantasy can be used as a platform to open a discussion about the taboo nuances of gender identity outside of the prescribed binary."
HALVORSON'S work is overflowing with personality. His combination of lively, bold lines and vivid color are equivalent to his character. Animated and anthropomorphic imagery interact in playful narratives. Halverson describes his work as "over the top" rich and lavish with excess. The majority of his work is decorated with flowers in repetition, embodying fun and joy, contrasting expectations of masculinity. In his life and pottery, Halvorson defies gender norms.
A friend of mine, who is a ceramic artist, began a conversation last year when someone on Instagram insisted that her page was too political. They suggested that her page should only display images of pots. My friend insisted that pottery is indeed political. Artists throughout history have used their work to communicate social and political ideas. The act of making work about the things in which we are passionate has the power to educate and inform. It is why I chose to become visible and OUT about being transgender. Artists can tell their own stories through making. Clay is shaped by its maker. Some ceramic artists use the pot as a canvas for social or political statements. Some use it as a canvas for other things. The act of choosing to be a ceramic artist can be a political statement.
I selected the artists in this exhibition because their work moved me. Gender identity is not as complicated as some make it out to be. Curating this exhibition has invigorated me. I know now that I am not alone in my struggles. There is strength in numbers. Seeing and meeting the many new young gender-variant people at NCECA last year in Minneapolis gave me hope that the number of queer, trans, and nonbinary artists is growing and that maybe, in the years to come, gender will no longer be political.