The struggle to redefine gender classifications goes beyond individual expression and sexual preference. It requires mapping the domain of the ultimate fulfillment of identity and the affects of this internal struggle on the individual. To traverse these potentially turbulent social and personal waters, art offers valuable and varied insight that is worth exploring.
Recently, the National Portrait Gallery mounted a groundbreaking and controversial exhibition: “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” This was the first major museum exhibition to focus on the fluidity of gender “and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.”[i] Artists with a variety of backgrounds were brought together to explore this fluid nature of gender and how defining gender affects society and individuals.
One exceptional artist featured in this exhibition was Nan Goldin. Goldin is known for photographing her family and friends in their own intensely personal environments as a means of exploring complex issues around identity and gender. According to the Guggenheim
website, “Between 1972 and 1974, Nan Goldin shot black-and-white photographs of her friends at The Other Side, a drag bar in Boston, in her words ‘to pay homage’ to those whose ‘third gender . . . made more sense than either of the other two.’”[ii] One photograph from this body of work, “Roommate with teacup, Boston, 1973,” was featured in the Hide/Seek exhibition.[iii]This photograph is a beautiful gelatin silver print of a woman who is hunched over and staring distantly into the bottom right corner of the photographic frame. She is holding a teacup that seems to
be empty. Her hair is tied back, away from the dainty feminine features of her face. As the viewer’s eyes move down, a strong almost masculine upper body becomes apparent. She is wearing a dirty, loose fitting dress with a strap that falls down on one side to reveal a masculine lack of breasts. This mixture of masculine and feminine features leaves the viewer in a state of ambiguity as to the ultimate gender of the subject.
The photograph conveys more than the simple fact, however, that gender ambiguity is possible. It forces viewers to confront their feelings about such ambiguity. The soft, dark, background holds the subject in an embrace, isolating her from all hints of the outside world. This framing gives the photograph a soft, inviting, and personal feel. Desperation, sadness, and hopelessness fill the subject’s body language and facial expressions. The viewer waits for the subject to inhale, exhale, or look up and in this way, feels caught in a deeply personal encounter. The issue of gender identification fades into the background as viewers find that they are connected to the emotion of the subject. Goldin humanizes and thereby complicates the social discussion of gender ambiguity and rigid classification. This humanizing of the issue of gender can go far in helping to start a community dialogue to redefine gender classification and to better aid in individuals’ struggle to find fulfillment through their personal gender identity.