In 2013, photographer Lois Bielefeld decided to respond to the repeated mis-gendering of her partner in public spaces.
“We’d joke about it,” she told The Huffington Post in an interview.
Bielefeld had a similar experience as a teen, when she dressed androgynously, and was sometimes misidentified as “sir.” So she sought to take portraits of people she knew across the gender spectrum.
“The people I photographed are regularly mis-gendered, which means that they often have bizarre interactions in public, especially bathrooms, that can be anywhere from amusing to downright unsafe and hostile,” Bielefeld said.
As her project grew, she decided to also include transgender subjects, her initial hesitation being that these subjects typically identified as one gender.
“It wasn’t until talking with transgender friends that I learned how the transition process creates an incredible social and physical uprooting where gender ambiguity is highlighted and at the forefront until they start to pass,” Bielefeld said.
Gender identification and policing begins at a young age, and children who reject the binary gender system are more susceptible to bullying and feeling out of place.
In addition to taking pictures of transgender, genderqueer and androgynous adults, Bielefeld took portraits of children who favored a genderless appearance.
“Gender identification and policing begins at a young age, and children who reject the binary gender system are more susceptible to bullying and feeling out of place,” she said.
While taking portraits of her subjects, Bielefeld asked them questions about their experiences to help them relax. She realized, while listening to their stories, that she wanted to record them and incorporate them in the installation somehow. The resulting project — now in the permanent collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in NYC —was a non-functioning, two-stall public bathroom, where museum attendees could sit in a stall and listen to interviews with Bielefeld’s subjects.
“The photographs invite the viewers to look, stare, and question, which unfortunately is what happens to the subjects on a regular basis in public,” Bielefeld said. “It is in ‘The Bathroom’ that the viewer encounters the reverse where they can sit and listen to the subjects’ experiences, thoughts, and feelings.”
Allowing these individuals to share their unique stories emphasizes that gender isn’t as rigid as so many of us are raised to believe. Even the word “androgyny,” Bielefeld pointed out, comes from the Greek word andros, meaning “man,” and gyne, meaning “woman.”
“The irony is that it still hails from the antiquated binary gender system. This system is deeply ingrained in our culture and allows for no variation. You must check either a female or male box,” Bielefeld said. “Our bodies are so much more complex and varied than this, down to the chromosomal level. I wanted viewers to recognize the diversity of bodies and become aware of the social ramifications individuals suffer when others try to box them into the binary system.”
View her portraits below:
Lois Bielefeld is represented by Portrait Society Gallery.