Beyond Male & Female

Beyond male and female: the experience of photography and the self-visualisation of transsexual people.

Principal Investigator: Dr Sara Davidmann
College: London College of Communication

Beyond Male and Female' was a practice-led photographic collaboration with transsexual participants which examined transsexual gender practices and the relationship between gender and photography in the broader context of the dynamic social world of visual communication in everyday life.

It explored how transsexual peoples' identifications link into the broader visual environment and aimed to produce a reflexive body of creative practice which establishes the extent to which photography influences not only self-visualisation, but also social visibility, social legibility and social legitimacy for transsexual people. These issues are brought into sharp analytical focus through the personal experiences of transsexual people who characterise themselves as neither female nor male.

Whilst transsexuality has been subject to medical and scientific research, the social/visual aspects of transsexual peoples' experiences have not been studied extensively, neither have they been given a 'voice' in this particular way.

Despite the increasing public face of transsexuality generated by the media, the lived experiences of individuals' self-identification beyond the female/male categories are almost invisible in the social domain, the general view being that transsexual people continually shift from one socially-sanctioned gender to the other. Further, transsexual people are often confused in the popular imagination with either queer/gay issues or cosmetic surgery, compounding the sense of invisibility.

'Social visibility' is central for transsexual peoples' social comprehensibility. In order to function as part of society it is necessary to be 'seen' as belonging. Failure to fit expected categories of appearance impedes social functioning. Everyday life reinforces the binary sex/gender model recognised in Western society, thus few images explore beyond these polarised categories. Consequently the visual articulation of these categories defines and perpetuates this binary model, controlling and reproducing gender 'norms' to the exclusion of non-binary definitions.

Research undertaken on gender identities has focused largely on binary female/male categories and has tended to 'de-visualise' the issues. 'Beyond Male and Female' employs a new approach through using visual research methods that reflect the centrality of the visual in the construction of gender identities. Transsexual self-visualisations are modelled on, and reproduce, images from the visual social environment, in particular from the mass media, and specifically photography. Thus the use of photography in this inquiry, as both a research method and key form of evidence, was highly appropriate, responding to and 'speaking the vernacular language' of transsexual identity formation.

Through a series of linked outputs: publications, exhibitions, conference papers and a public forum, the research intended to stimulate a broader debate of the key questions. It provided insights into the experience of transsexual people and specifically non-binary identified people and provided a much-needed visibility, which is acceptable on its own terms for a community that is currently hidden.

Outputs realised from the research project

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