Transgenderism under the lens: MCC’s photography exhibit depicts the flexibility of gender

No one wants to admit to holding prejudices, but in some fundamental ways, they are unavoidable. When meeting a new person, we immediately make a series of judgments based on first impressions alone – including whether they are male or female. Allison Golinkoff’s photography exhibitions “Man-Made” and “Supreme Diva,” the newest installments in the Multicultural Center’s Canvas Project series, work to visually explore this concept and that of the elasticity of gender identity.

While the two exhibitions have similar goals of raising awareness and promoting discussion, their subject matter differs. “Man-Made,” which is on display at Hardy House, features Golinkoff’s photos of Joey Josephs, a drag queen from Philadelphia. The series of photographs depict various stages of Joseph’s transition from male to female as he alters his appearance for performances. At Jenness House, Golinkoff’s second exhibition, “Supreme Diva,” is a series of photos of Philadelphia male-to-female transsexual Tina, depicting and contrasting her daily and night lives.

In “Man-Made,” Golinkoff’s photos achieve a sense of intimacy, focusing on Josephs’s preparations for a drag performance. She captures his rough, masculine hands as they carefully hold a compact and apply makeup with precision, and other minute details such as stretching on a pair of pantyhose. Other photos display Josephs performing in full drag for eager audiences, clutching a fistful of dollar bills in a red flapper gown, sequin dress or feathery white boa.

One of my favorite photos from the exhibition was a profile in close up showing Josephs applying his makeup where his actual eyebrow and the one he has drawn on in makeup can both be seen. This clear contrast between the real and created embodies the purpose of the collection – that gender can be as convincingly created as it is natural.

The possibility for gender to be permanently created or modified is explored by Golinkoff’s other exhibition, “Supreme Diva.” Much like “Man-Made,” the exhibit chronicles one individual: Tina, a transsexual also from Philadelphia. My favorite pieces from this exhibition are similarly not those of her fully dressed up, but those from her private life – Tina at the supermarket or in her home, looking at childhood photos. At first glance of these portraits, one would never even guess that Tina’s femininity is created, whether she is depicted in a night club or in her casual daily life.

According to Assistant Director of the Multicultural Center (MCC) and Queer Life Coordinator Kareem Khubchandani, the Canvas Project is designed to generate new interest in the MCC and draw attention to its resources through exploration of identity in art. “The MCC started the Canvas Project as a way to get new folks into the Multicultural Center and I think it’s definitely doing that,” Khubchandani said. “A number of folks who came to the exhibit, including non-Williams affiliated persons, would most likely have never had any other reason to come by the MCC and know what it is we do.”

To Khubchandani, calling attention to the reality of gender identity especially through altering one’s appearance is particularly applicable to the College in light of campus traditions. “At Queer Bash, just for a night, folks will dress in drag,” Khunchandani said. “These exhibits document the repeated, daily experiences of transgender persons. I also like the contrast between a drag queen and a transsexual, revealing multiple ways of being transgender in the world.”

What is fascinating about the exhibits is not as much the style of the photographs themselves, but what can be learned from their subject matter. Reminding viewers of the “flexibility of gender” was one of the goals of the photographer in making these collections. “I wanted to show how much of gender is created, not biological – you can fake it basically,” Golinkoff said. Undoubtedly, these exhibits provide a different perspective to the definition of gender and transgenderism that community members should strive to see.