Under my belly button
Both from far
I have a penis
The stomach curves
My boy thumb
Soft and rolling
Mi concha es
I always knew—from the live event Genital Call
In California, where I live, an affirmative consent law was recently passed: often referred to as the “yes means yes” standard for sexual assault, it is now required of all colleges receiving state funds. Supporters of the law argue that campus rapists can no longer be exonerated because their victims did not resist or were incapacitated by fear, shame, or intoxication. On the other side of the country, a student at Columbia University became an icon in this ongoing legal struggle by carrying her mattress around with her everywhere, including to her graduation, as a sign of protest against the university’s refusal to expel the male student who raped her.
In the broader public debate concerning consent and sex, a perverse mirroring of this long overdue criminalization of campus sex crimes has manifest itself in a wave of unjust prosecutions against young transgender individuals for sexual assault and supposed “fraud.” By characterizing nondisclosure of gender history as an act of fraud, these convictions violate the human rights and the right to privacy of transgender individuals. Furthermore, these prosecutions willfully neglect contradictions in the very laws they set in motion to bring about guilty verdicts. While the first recorded prosecution of this kind occurred in 1991, the number of these cases and the severity of their verdicts continue to escalate, most recently (at the time of this writing) in the harshly punitive, immediate custodial sentencing in England of Gayle Newland to eight years in prison for six counts of sexual assault.
Alex Giegold and Tomka Weiß’s two-part project—Genital Call and Genitals on Trial1—is an audiovisual installation and performance that confronts the transphobia of the courts and the resulting discriminatory practices of the legal system on their own terms, appropriating the judiciary’s official mechanisms for recording and prosecuting cases.
Staged during the summer of 2014 at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (the New Society for Visual Arts), or nGbK, in Berlin as part of the group exhibition What Is Queer Today Is Not Queer Tomorrow, Genital Call enlisted volunteers to collaborate with courtroom sketch artists and stenographers to produce an alternative dossier of “evidence.” They were asked to describe their genitals in short texts, which were then illustrated by the professional courtroom sketch artists, who were asked as much as possible to “forget their prior knowledge about genitalia while drawing.” Eleven speakers narrated the submitted texts, and their narration was made available during the exhibit via headphones. At the same time, visitors could watch the texts translated into sign language by an interpreter whose image was projected on an adjacent monitor alongside the written script. As the artists explain, the “call” was primarily directed to cisgendered individuals “in order to place genitalia socially and legally classified as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ in a context that exposes them to distortion through a shift in media.” The combination of the wide range of resulting images and the unique nature of each self-representation necessarily disrupts the notion that genital identification unambiguously divides human beings into two distinct gender categories, an “assumption buttressed by German legislation.”
The second part of the project was the live event Genitals on Trial that took place within the context of the larger exhibition. Visitors to the nGbK were invited to become part of the performance by entering a private recording booth where they could describe their genitals. The booth was a converted bathroom made gemütlich with comfortable furnishings, faux pink fur, a handheld mirror participants could use for direct observation, a microphone, and the offer of a chocolate and a shot of vodka with which to settle in. As each guest proceeded to examine and describe their genitals, a courtroom sketch artist received their audio feed from the booth via headphones, and with a palette of watercolors, transformed the participant’s description into a unique image. The drawings were hung sequentially on a gallery wall, each labeled officiously with the date and number. A stenographer simultaneously typed a written record of the participant’s description. Both the drawings and the typed script were projected in real time onto adjacent screens, which the crowd watched attentively while sipping beers and milling around the darkened gallery space. A third screen displayed a running collage of photographs and sketches from actual courtroom cases, interspersed with quotations lifted from media reports concerning specific lawsuits against young transgender individuals for not revealing the “looks of their genitalia” and the gender assigned to them at birth when meeting new or potential partners. This collage is the medium through which Giegold & Weiß allow for a more directed editorial voice. Arguments against the criminalization of transpeople for not revealing their gender history are juxtaposed with over-determined descriptions of recent criminal charges of committing or provoking “a form of mental rape,” “sexual intimacy by fraud,” and “forced homosexuality on the victims.” A final quote in the collage asks, “will straight men be charged with fraud for telling lies about their financial status or relationship status?”
The social atmosphere created by the artists for the live event served to highlight the bias inherent in this question regarding the nature of fraudulence. Conflating the mechanics of the courtroom with the trappings of a bar, party, or other social encounter made the legal requirement of revealing one’s genital assignment seem that much more absurd and discriminatory. Within the exhibit’s environment of chatter, dimmed lights, and beer for sale, we could imagine a cisgender couple meeting for the first time and being required to reveal details about their genitals. Tucké Royale, another artist included in What Is Queer Today Is Not Queer Tomorrow, riffs on this hypothetical cis-scenario: “‘Listen … my right testicle hangs a bit …’—‘ya … my inner labia stick out’—(silence)—‘OK, let’s go!’” Despite its farcical tone, Royale’s imagined dialogue nevertheless points to the myriad differences inherent in genitals as well as in expressions of sexuality, thereby undermining the artificiality and limitations of an imposed gendered binary for the purposes of identification, legal or otherwise. The texts and images describing the participants’ genitalia make visible this critical point, revealing the unlimited range through which people perceive and perform their identities in private and public spheres. While erotic, the resulting imagery differed greatly from normative or mass media expectations of what it means to “screen” bodies, genitals, or sexuality. Amassed together, the sketches, recordings, prose, and screened projections create an alternative and much more nuanced archive that more accurately represents our multiplicity—a colorful and fluid collection of abstract shapes, squiggles, fruits, landscapes, ridges, clefts, holes, magical creatures, flowers, rosettes, and so on, accompanied by a range of texts: fragments and narratives, clinical descriptions and evocative metaphors, personal explorations and sensual recollections. The participatory performance, more festive than officious, mocks the authority of the court’s supposed objective representations of due process and instead offers a different logic of gender mutability.
Unfortunately, as law professor Alex Sharpe notes, recent cases brought against transgender people continue to rely on the inappropriate application of criminal law skewed by political morality, intolerance, and discrimination (Sharpe 2014). He cites the example of a young transgender individual who was convicted in Edinburgh in 2013 for two counts of obtaining “sexual intimacy through fraud,” an offence not actually included or specifically articulated by Scottish law. In London that same year, a young transgender individual was similarly convicted of six counts of sexual assault by penetration against a cisgender girl and placed on the sex offenders’ register for life, despite being thirteen years old at the time of the first encounter.
Oddly, the tabloids that sensationalized these court cases followed a strange practice. They not only employed the language used by the court to denigrate the defendants’ supposed fraud, but also usurped critical terms employed by gender theorists such as Judith Butler and José Esteban Muñoz to assert that the defendants were “posing” or “masquerading” as boys when committing their alleged crimes. The problematic collapse of “nondisclosure” and “active deception” reiterates common misrepresentations of transgender identity, yet has formed the core of the legal interpretations that upheld the charges brought by the defendants’ former cisgender partners. Requiring active disclosure of gender history when evaluating consent represents a discriminatory adherence to heteronormative values, one that delegitimizes the authenticity of transgender subjectivity. It also assumes that the “potential or actual harm suffered by cisgender people is (a) significant; and (b) outweighs the harm to transgender people associated with disclosure” (Sharpe 2014: 221). It is clear that in the twenty-plus years since the first sentencing of a transgender man to six years in prison, little legal progress has been made. In that case the judge told the defendant, “I suspect both those girls would rather have been actually raped by some young man than have happened to them what you did” (quoted in Sharpe 2014: 222).
Giegold & Weiß interrogate the associations attached to such ideas as posing, masquerading, and nondisclosing by actively shifting the visual and audio registers of representation from one mode to another. Visibility for the transgender subject can become in many circumstances equated with unwanted exposure or potential danger—the same goes for the voice. In Genital Call, the visual identity and voice of each participant remains inaccessible to the observing audience. The initial texts written by participants are narrated through the voices of others and are literally translated into other semiotic registers via a sign language interpreter and a sketch artist. Similarly, at the live event Genitals on Trial, the genital descriptions uttered by each sequestered participant in the recording booth travel only from their microphone to the headphones worn by the sketch artist and stenographer. The spectators have to wait and watch in silence as the words and drawings gradually unfold as screen projections. The installation thus successfully eschews the exposure of the voice as a powerful and overdetermined marker for gender and for “passing.” Visitors are also unable to pair a drawing with a particular individual. The privacy of each participant—trans and cis alike—remains respected and preserved, while the binary of gender signification is literally pulled apart by the representational transferences and displacements.
Within postmodern discourse, the transgender body has often been referred to as a fitting representation of our current state of continuous flux and dislocation, what living has become after the death of the subject. Jack Halberstam seeks to claim this space for an “aesthetic of turbulence” where the transgender gaze can be located. The dismantling of the gendered body leaves open the possibility for critical reinvention, yet at the same time evokes “the loss and longing that tinges all transgender attempts to ‘come home’ to the body” (Halberstam 2005: 107). Genital Call and Genitals on Trial summon images of resistant gendering in order to expose the contradictions in the heteronormative limitations of transsubjectivity inscribed within and by our legal structures. However, what is compelling about the work is that it does so without necessarily condemning the body to a state of permanent alienation. The drawings, as images of genitals detached from their homes on bodies, display their fair share of in-betweenness, fragmentation, and the “abject.” Yet they resist the drama of what is often framed as an inevitable slide into postmodern disintegration, dislocation, and decay of flesh in space. These drawings are portraits, vividly and lovingly described, recorded with a sense of playful fidelity. The rainbow spectrum of gender and sensuality comes through when scanning the images, and the symbolic weight carried by the transgender body within a certain critical and dystopian discourse gives way to the observable fact that we are all somewhere in-between, always.
SharpeAlex. 2014. “Criminalising Sexual Intimacy: Transgender Defendants and the Legal Construction of Non-Consent.” Criminal Law Review 3: 207–223.