Who and what do you see when you see a trans person? What aspects stand out? (Can you tell just by looking?) If you’re trans, like me, what do you think cisgender people see? If you’re cis (I’ve been told most people are) how do you think we want to see and be seen? Where can trans people find, and share, our ways of seeing one another, of seeing the world?
There are at least as many answers to those questions as there are trans people in the world—and more of us seem to become visible every year. Some of those answers emerge from verbal media: novels and memoirs and essays and poems and comic books and TV and feature film. Others—since they are questions about how to see, and frame, and admire (or not) real people—are questions well answered in photography.
Some of that photography has flourished and bloomed in the glossy pages of Candy. The Spanish independent publisher Luis Venegas started the journal in 2009, after the success of his “art, image, fashion and people” magazine Fanzine137. Named for the Factory icon Candy Darling, and acknowledging inspiration from Andy Warhol’s Interview, Candy (or C*NDY, with a five-pointed star for the A) proclaimed its commitment to “transversal” style: transgender people, drag queens, genderqueer and genderfluid artists and models from several generations would find a home, or a spotlight, here. Venegas’s publication was not quite the first trans-themed fashion magazine—he tapped creators and models, such as Scout Rose, from the transmasculine journal Original Plumbing, founded at almost the same time (2009)—but it seems to have been the first, and surely the most serious, attempt to create something like a trans Vogue.
And—as documented here—it worked. Old school drag stars like Lypsinka and Divine; trans models with mainstream success, such as Andreja Pejić and Hari Nef; and representatives of street style all turn up frequently in its pages. So, less frequently, do sketches and works of graphic design representing trans existence. Trans elders appear, looking elderly, and proud. Every so often we find a flattering portrait of a trans person, such as the lawyer and activist Chase Strangio, who’s famous for something else. Louche slice-of-life pictures modeled on Nan Goldin’s show up along with photographs actually taken by Nan Goldin: early 1970s black-and-whites of a long-haired and coy David Armstrong (himself now a photographer); Nef, posed, sublime, flirtatious, in cat’s-eye makeup, staring right back at Goldin, one pierced nipple flirtatiously bare.
Of course everybody looks stylish; almost everybody except Divine looks thin. It’s a book whose norms come from fashion, and it aspires to represent, most of the time, the shiniest, most fabulous, most camera-ready, or else the most exciting, quarters of trans existence. That’s not a problem or a failure but a condition of C*NDY’s success. Venegas, the photographers he has hired, and the older images that he and his colleagues have found—among them Candy Darling’s own sultry, disturbing 1974 “deathbed” shoot, by Peter Hujar—honor a range of mostly urban, entirely (so far as I can see) Western European and East Coast American, non-cishet ways of looking and living.
That range corresponds to a range of fashion, celebrity, and makeup-oriented photography—some closeups on faces, some very formal outfits, some lovely folks in deshabille. It permits a recap of gender-nonconforming style in history: vaguely Iberian cavalier dandy poses as in Armstrong’s model Joey; furs and feathers and cabaret; 1970s Ziggy Stardust glam; disco chic. Together all these pictures are not just a history lesson, or a celebration, though they are both; they’re also a set of locations along imaginary axes, ways to define the multidimensional space in which trans—or transversal—bodies and images exist.
One axis: how fabulous or fantastic or unrealistic? How close, on the other hand, to daily life? Drag queens covered in feathers, next to other drag queens also covered in feathers, aren’t the same kind of “transversal” as a binary trans girl who just wants to look pretty, or a binary trans dude who just wants to look hot, or a gender-unreadable figure in sweat pants.
In between the feathers and the sweat pants are the ultra-willowy models, the ultra-butch transmascs, and other people who show in good Judith-Butlerian terms how to break gender by dialing it up to 11, people who let us wonder if we, or they, could live that way. Images towards the fantastic, or unrealistic, or larger-than-life, end of that axis acquire one valence (arch, defiant, cold) in the white-dominated Factory world, another (earnest, energy-giving, life-saving) in the uptown, mostly Black and Latinx ball scene, and another still (trying; sometimes trying too hard) in the older, self-identified cross-dresser set of Provincetown’s Fantasia Fair.
Butler famously proposed, back in the 1980s, that we see all gender as impersonation, a postmodern copy without an original (she has since made clear that she thinks trans people are real). The repertoire of images in C*ndy sometimes seems to poke back at Butler, as if to say “You want impersonation? We’ll show you how to do impersonation!” We get not only, predictably, Princess Di and Marilyn Monroe, but Candy Fleming as Michelle Obama (a C*ndy cover) and Venegas himself dressed and posed as Anna Wintour.
Venegas resembles Wintour not thanks to his physique or his gender but thanks to his magazine-helming, trend-watching job. And for some of the trans* figures here, the transversal image is itself a job. “I consider myself Lady Chablis and that is who I am,” says The Lady Chablis, in a floral off-the-shoulder dress, martini glass in hand, in a photo by Sánchez and Mongiello. “With the term drag queen,” The Lady Chablis adds, “it irks me because I am not a drag queen unless I am getting paid.” For Darling, writes Jefferson Hack in the afterword, “the performance never stopped…. Everyone was acting all the time.” Other figures at least project, or simulate, the idea that we’re seeing them at their most casual, doing exactly what they want to do: Ser Serpas, shot by Inez and Vinoodh in faux-photobooth black and white, displays a bratty, tongue-out scowl for the ages. “On” versus “off,” professional versus leisure, consciously acting for strangers, for an audience, as feeling at home, among friends: another axis for how we appear, for how we present our gendered faces to the world.
Serpas looks like a (somewhat butch punk rock) woman: Scout Rose, entirely like a man. Bjork, in Herb Ritts’s 1991 headshot, could be a girl or a boy. Images, in our still-patriarchal culture—any images, even those without people (and all these pictures show people)—arrange themselves almost without our noticing on some continuum of masc to femme: lace is feminine, camouflage defaults to masc or butch, crisp white linen is in between; bangs like Bjork’s are androgynous, buzz cuts butch. Costumers, models, celebrities and photographers, like the rest of us, can fight against that continuum or play along, sending scrambled signals or clear ones (I’m not the only trans woman who assiduously avoided “androgynous” clothing in the first year after social transition, so as to send the unambiguous message “you are looking at a girl”). You could arrange the images in C*ndy along a fairly obvious axis of how much they violate, as against how much they follow or reinforce, those gender-binary norms.
You can find another, perhaps more interesting, axis if you look only at people who challenge those norms. Some of those challengers—their bodies, attire, and poses– seek a look that’s smooth, flat-chested, clean-lined, notably young. We normally call that look androgyny: its beauty ideals, which can look back to classical Greece, favor healthy, often slim-looking people who downplay any secondary sexual characteristics, as if their shapes had not developed since childhood. Take the pale, nearly-nude, very blond Valentijn de Hingh, shown from the waist up in Bettina Rheims’ washed-out framing, or Marcelo Krasilcic’s headshots of Dani Shay as a beautiful, wide-eyed, baby-butch denim James Dean.
Other people have obviously . . . developed: they have breasts, hips and a beard, muscles and curves, or breasts and a bulge for a cock, with clothing and makeup and poses that highlight their both/and, rather than neither/nor, status. The charismastic Afrofuturist look on the writer Juliana Huxtable comes to mind here, shown from mid-torso up to make Huxtable even taller. So do the short-haired, mustachio’d, breast-baring, partially crotch-baring Lady Gaga, shot by Steven Klein in 2013, and the forbiddingly charismatic Richie Shazam, with chest and leg hair, parted gossamer skirt and heels, shot by Thomas McCarty. We need a name for that kind of look; “androgyny” will not cut it. The novelist Rachel Gold calls it koriandry, and C*ndy, happily, celebrates it on occasion, alongside the more predictable sleek supermodels and twinky club kids.
At best, big books like this one celebrate the variety of trans (or trans* or transversal) lives and appearances, old and young, fabulously effortful and apparently low-key, if not all over the world (a tall order not remotely given here) then across demographics in the urban West. At worst, they propagate something like the dual command that (as D. A. Miller once quipped) Jane Austen gives aspiring writers: you must write like this—but you can’t, or, in visual terms, you must look like me, but you can’t.
It’s a problem endemic to Vogue and its cousins, whose raison d’être involves inimitable standards of beauty (applied first of all to cisgender women). But it’s also a problem endemic to trans identity, which in its simplest, most binary forms, the forms found in older trans memoirs (like Jan Morris’s or Jenny Boylan’s), the forms still found on TV, suggests that to succeed in coming out as a binary trans person is to blend in, to pass, to stop being visible as trans. And indeed that’s part of binary trans identity (genderqueer, genderfluid, enby, and drag-based identities are other matters). You’re not really a woman, we’re told, if you don’t look just like a cis woman (but you can’t). And the same for men.
To get more personal: I want to be seen as a woman. One way to achieve that goal—easy for some, harder for me, and impossible for many others—is to become indistinguishable from cis women: to become, as a trans person, invisible. Another is to show the world that trans women are women, and trans men are men, and as long as you, dear observer, keep those facts in mind, you can try to see us for all we are.
In that project C*ndy, and magazines like it (Original Plumbing, for instance) have a part. So do non-photographic trans representations: poetry like TC Tolbert’s, for example, and cartoons like Sophie LaBelle’s. And—as C*ndy demonstrates over and over—you can highlight the beauty in binary trans lives, in trans women and trans men, while also celebrating the many varieties of gender-forkery, glamorous quidnuncery, varieties of drag and drag-adjacent experience, androgyny and koriandry by which some of us live, in front of the lens or behind.