Transparency: The Gender Identity Project: In Conversation With Daphne Chan – Andrea Zeffiro

Daphne Chan’s current project “Transparency: The Gender Identity Project” is, according to the photographer, “a powerful statement in visibility and diversity.” The project centers on visually depicting individuals who challenge socially prescribed constructions of gender identity and gender expression. Still in its infancy, the work has received widespread attention. The project was listed on Buzzfeed’s “Transgender Art & Culture In 2014” list and Chan successfully completed an Indiegogo campaign for the project. The funds raised will enable Chan to travel to New York for a three-month residency to complete the project. NMP had an opportunity to talk to Chan about the project.

Andrea Zeffiro: How did you first conceive of Transparency: The Gender Identity Project?

Daphne Chan: When I was 13 years old, my mother took me to see a lip-synching transexual in a seedy bar in downtown Bangkok. The songbird strutted in the spotlight wearing high heels and a skin-tight, low-cut sequined gown. After the performance, members of the audience were invited backstage to squeeze her breasts as they posed for photos. I was shocked, confused and mesmerized. It was the first time I witnessed the outright subversion of social conventions.

That fateful night was an auspicious beginning in my lifelong fascination with issues of identity, gender and sexuality. For many years, I was unable to comprehend what I had experienced and I continue to question my presumptions. Is a man who assumes the dress and manner of a woman defined as male or female? Does a person who cross dresses identify as having a gender different from that assigned at birth? What effect does that have on their body image? I have often wondered if drag queens, who subvert their gender roles by their cross-dressing behaviour, promote harmful stereotypes of women or is it just misplaced misogyny? Do they regard their performance as a satire of femininity or as a form of social criticism?

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The proposed project, entitled Transparency: The Gender Identity Project, will explore communal taboos and investigate populations that challenge social precepts such as the gender identity of genderqueer and the notion of gender expression. A genderqueer or transgender person is someone who identifies as a gender other than “male” or “female”, or someone who identifies as neither, both, or some combination thereof. The commonality is that all genderqueer and intersex people reject the notion that there are only two genders in the world. Genderqueer people may transition physically with surgery, hormones, electrolysis, and other practices, or they may not choose to alter their bodies by these means. They may also transition socially, or they may continue to dress and go by the pronouns of their assigned gender but reject any gender system as a valid method of classifying individuals.

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Currently I’m based in Vancouver. I was recently awarded an arts residency with the New York Art Residency and Studios Foundation so I’m moving back to New York to work on Transparency: The Gender Identity Project. It’s a visual depiction of the LGBT and genderqueer community of New York that is unique and much needed. There is still a lack of visibility of specific identities and uncovering these identities will challenge the common stereotypes for what certain identities are expected to look like. It’s a powerful statement in visibility and diversity. The goal of the project is to celebrate and encourage the expansion and public awareness of queer fluid expression. The transgender community has historically faced systemic discrimination and I believe this project provides a platform for visibility, recognition and eventual acceptance.

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AZ: What drew you to the LGBT and genderqueer community of New York? How does the Transparency: The Gender Identity Project intersect with your other projects? Are there common themes or communities that resonate in your work?

DC: My curiosity about gender and identity led me to obtaining a degree in psychology at Concordia University in Montreal in 1993. I wrote a thesis on gender dysphoria, studying individuals who experience significant dysphoria (dissatisfaction) with the sex they were assigned at birth and/or the gender roles associated with that sex. While a counselor at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), I conceived and implemented workshops for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) young adults support group. Angered by witnessing the systemic discrimination, barriers and violence faced by the LGBT community, I applied to and graduated from McGill University law school in 1999. My goal was to advocate equal rights for all individuals, regardless of their identity.

Throughout these academic years, I was simultaneously studying photography. What started as a love of the darkroom as a teenager morphed into a desire to pursue art full-time. In 2001, I left my position at The Montreal Legal Clinic and started a formal art practice.

As a student at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2007, I started a project about a legendary drag impresario and gender activist The Flawless Sabrina (aka Jack Doroshow) an influential entrepreneur who established queer public performance in a pre Stonewall era. As a trailblazer, she appropriated the art form of the beauty pageant to cross gender boundaries and award visibility of the transgressing and beholding of beauty. For over 40 years she has challenged societal heteronormative norms at a time when the term cross dresser was not only pathologized but illegal. Arrested and detained over 100 times, Flawless Sabrina refused to be kept in the closet as an oddity or a secret but continued to celebrate and encourage the expansion and public awareness of queer fluid expression and representation without shame or apology.

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AZ: What kinds of spaces/places will you be documenting? How do you envision the project materializing?

DC: The individuals I will be photographing are those who, whether conventionally sexed or intersex, do not feel comfortable with being streamlined into the binary sex categories. Currently we have this binary sex gender belief system but many academics and experts posit it’s a social construct and that gender identity is much more complicated and nuanced. Today, as our society continues to evolve into a less sex-determinist one, thanks in part to LGBT activism and the decline of homophobia, some pioneers are campaigning for individuals to have rights and protections not only with respect to how they identify their gender but also how they express their gender. In fact, the government of British Columbia has recognized that “attacks on individuals based on their ‘sexual orientation or ‘gender identity’ are the result not of their sexuality or gender identity, per se, but rather, of the particular ways they express their sexuality, gender, or affections; that is to say, in a way that contradicts society’s expectations of how that individual is supposed to look, speak, act, dress, based on their perception of their target’s sex or gender.”
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The process I envision is a formal portrait session following the influences of classical commissioned portrait painting. I will meet each subject one on one and ask them about what they want to share about their experience and perception about their identity and gender expression. Each subject will choose the location of their session, what they wear, how they pose, and in doing so, have agency as how they wish to be represented.

I have put out model calls and have already received over 30 requests to be photographed from the LGBT and genderqueer community. Everyone interested in participating in the project will fill out a short survey and I will email them a form on how to prepare, how the photo session works and ask them about what they expect or most want from the session.
 I’m committed to reflect the beautiful tapestry and diversity of the LGBT community and I’m actively seeking participants who are trans, genderqueer, and otherwise identify outside of the mainstream heteronormative culture.

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Daphne Chan’s work explores identity and how it reveals itself through gender, culture, sexuality and body image. With “The Flawless Sabrina” (2006) the fluidity of gender and sexuality were explored by documenting a drag queen named Jack Doroshow. The project delved into communal taboos of populations that rankle social precepts such as the gender identity of genderqueer: a person who identifies as a gender other than “man” or “woman”. The commonality is that all genderqueer people reject the notion that there are only two genders in the world as they believe binary gender is a social construct. Next, “Her Interior” (2007) examines the conceptual conflation between women’s bodies and domestic interiors, how the identification between self and interior is linked with women. Each woman interacts with features of her environment in order to explore how she occupies that particular physical and psychological space. The fragmentation of the bodies emphasizes the compartmentalization that is inherent in women’s identities. “Transparency: The Gender Identity Project” is a visual depiction of the LGBT and genderqueer community of New York that is unique and much needed. There is still a lack of visibility of specific identities and uncovering these identities will challenge the common stereotypes for what certain identities are expected to look like. It’s a powerful statement in visibility and diversity. The goal is to celebrate and encourage the expansion and public awareness of queer fluid expression. The transgender community has historically faced systemic discrimination and this project provides a platform for visibility, recognition and eventual acceptance. With each project, Chan attempts to reveal one more aspect of our identity and to distinguish the physical corporeal grounding in our bodies and the amorphous, socio-cultural precepts layered upon us. 

For more see:
Transparency: The Gender Identity Project: igg.me/at/daphnechan
Boudoir: daphnechan.com
Fine Art: daphnechanphoto.com
Blog: daphnechanblog.com/

 

Andrea Zeffiro is a co-curator for NMP.
For more see: andreazeffiro.com