About a year ago, photographer Jane Lavender sat at her dining room table, carefully pairing the words of her subjects with their black-and-white images. As the hours passed, Lavender laid scraps of sentences across the film, giving voice to a group of people who have spent much of their lives in the shadows.
“I live in survival mode — one day at a time.”
“Invisibility is killing me.”
“I am the space between the box for Boy or Girl.”
Lavender worked for almost 16 hours straight to finish “Meta-Genesis,” her collection of photos of transgender people and their writings. Transgenders are people who feel that their genders do not match their bodies — they are men in female bodies or vice versa. “Meta-Genesis” means “coming into existence,” and is a reference to transitioning, the process of living life as a member of the opposite sex.
Lavender’s photographs, coupled with the words of her subjects, reflect an experience that is life-changing at the most basic level. The images show Lavender’s subjects in individual portraits. One photo shows a man revealing scars hidden beneath his collared shirt from where his breasts were removed. In another, a poem describes how the subject avoids public bathrooms “like they carry the plague.”
Julius Agers, who lives in Chicago, said that even when he was known as “Julia,” he knew he was not a woman.
“I’ve always been trans,” Agers said. “I’ve never identified myself as female even though the rest of the world has. You have to mold into society and what it expects of you. It’s been painful in a lot of ways.”
Agers is one of the 15 people Lavender photographed for “Meta-Genesis.” Her subjects included close friends and total strangers, men and women in various stages of transitioning, who contributed poems and other personal writings that Lavender set within the images.
Lavender, who is a lesbian, makes her living as a dental hygienist in Columbia. She began taking pictures about five years ago. The exhibit, she said, is her contribution to the queer community.
“When I came out, it was me honoring who I was,” she said. “But I’ve seen that for them it’s so much more. Imagine saying, ‘I’m going to change my sex.’ They can lose everything.
“I wanted to convey who the people in the photos were, to make people stop and think,” she said.
“Meta-Genesis” has been shown at Ragtag Cinemacafe and Main Squeeze Natural Foods Cafe. Lee Lockhart, the owner of Main Squeeze, said her patrons’ reactions to the exhibit were supportive, although she noted that her customers “tend to be very open-minded.” Even so, Lockhart said Lavender’s photographs provoked more conversation than most of the exhibits she has hosted.
“This is a topic most people are unfamiliar with, even frightened of,” Lockhart said. “These are wonderful people, and we could all stand to learn more.”
The experience of sitting for Lavender’s camera was both unnerving and empowering for her subjects. Sam Bullington, a professor who teaches Transgender Studies at MU, was initially apprehensive about having his photo taken. But, he said, Lavender was caring and trustworthy, and the exhibit has become part of the healing process for everyone involved.
“Transgender people feel they’re taking a big risk when they reveal themselves to strangers,” Bullington said. “But the exhibit was healing because people were expressing themselves. It brings bodies and words together. It gives these individuals a face.”
“I hope people don’t have to go through what I went through,” he said. “This exhibit will hopefully educate people, help others understand us and find a way to relate. It was empowering.”
While Lavender found willing partners for the exhibit in the Ragtag and Main Squeeze, other galleries and exhibit spaces in Columbia were worried about how their customers would react to her photographs and the stories they told. Agers said he isn’t surprised that some people would hesitate to put the images on display; people unwilling to accept transgenders are nothing new to him.
“Some people think it’s a choice to be trans, but it’s not,” he said. “God made us, too.”
Transgenders are classified as having “gender identity disorder,” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard diagnostic text in American psychiatry, though the classification “disorder” has been criticized by groups such as GID Reform Advocates. Transgender individuals are required to get consent from a therapist before beginning hormone treatments or having operations. Not all transgenders take hormones and go through the process of changing their physical bodies; it’s expensive and can take many years.
It’s also not always easy to find the necessary medical care. David Klachko of University Hospital has administered hormone treatments in Columbia for 10 years. He said when transgenders first started coming to University Hospital, “no one else wanted to see them.”
Since the advent of the Internet, knowledge about transgenders has become more widespread, but most of Lavender’s subjects originally identified with the gay community and came out as homosexuals or lesbians. They eventually realized that wasn’t who they were either, and it’s not uncommon for transgenders to encounter animosity from their gay and lesbian friends when they come out as transgender. Even Lavender described feeling “betrayed” when a friend she thought was a lesbian told her she was really a man in a woman’s body.
Lavender said her subjects who have fully transitioned to their new gender often feel detached from what their old lives represented.
“It’s a good thing, really,” she said. “They’re living as who they really are now.”
Lavender hopes to turn “Meta-Genesis” into a book. Selections from the exhibit can be seen at janelavender.com.