December 3, 2017 at 6:00 am EDT | by Katlego K Kol-Kes
Transgender, gender non-conforming photo shoot ‘disrupts’ Oxford

Photographer Karan Katoch is behind an exhibit that highlights transgender and gender non-conforming people challenging gender norms and stereotypes in Oxford, England. (Photo courtesy of Karan Katoch)

OXFORD, England — The issue of solidarity among trans identifying and gender non-conforming people of color was brought to the fore and queried when four activists from around the world teamed up with photographer Karan Katoch to disrupt the city of Oxford in England. The shoot, which I styled and modeled for, was more than just an opportunity to get dressed up and serve fierceness, but an act of resistance and self definition — which is why we unofficially titled it “Welcome to Your Funeral.”

The featured activists are an impressive gang, connected initially by various vocational overlaps and, later, united by their strong belief in the necessity for representation of trans diverse people of color while confronting normalized trans-misogyny, colonialism, ableism and the erasure of bodies of color from positive trans and gender non-conforming narratives. The entire affair was to mark the death of these forces within our relative life journeys.

It all started when my friend, Eddie Ndopu, a disability rights activist spotted an opportunity to synchronize with their friend, New York-based writer and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon’s European tour with “Watching U/Watch Me” this past summer. Ndopu, who is South African and made history by becoming the first African with disability to be admitted as a student at Oxford University in 2016 — pursuing a Masters in Public Policy — had been faced with multiple traumas of existing in a system which has for the longest time sheltered itself away from people like them. Oxford University is self-admittedly “institutionally racist” and had become an active antagonist to Eddie’s livelihood. So after receiving a random email and some schedule juggling, plans were set in motion to take Oxford to task and mark Eddie, and trans diverse people like us, present in the city streets.

We were joined by another outspoken force, London-based performer Travis Alabanza — who recently made waves nationwide by calling out TOPSHOP Manchester for not abiding by the retail franchise’s dressing room anti-discrimination policy — and Oxford-based photographer Karan Katoch took on the task of chronicling the event. To add to the pomp of the affair, Katoch opted to shoot on a single reel of film — their preferred medium — which gave another level of intimacy and impressed the need to be attentive yet uninhibited when constructing the images.

In conversation about why this shoot felt necessary, my collaborators gave some potent points.

Eddie, whose slogan is “Disabled AND Fabulous #NoContradiction” said, “There is something special about being able to affirm my gender. Often I negotiate ableism, which means that so much of my existence is predicated on other people. My life is made possible by people I have in my life — whether they are care givers, friends or family. For me this was an opportunity to really express my gender in a way that I’d like to but don’t get to.”

In response to the state of affairs among vividly out trans diverse people of color, Alok added, “We are pitted against each other through various processes of colonialism, patriarchy, and misogyny; we’re taught to compete and hate one another because we think of validation and our genders as a scarce resource. It’s something we have to put in a lot of time and energy to realize.”

For their context, Travis stated that “in the U.K. you get one version of gender non-conformity and you can feel isolated by that. It’s quite nice to be in images with other trans and gender non-conforming bodies which are black and brown because in the U.K. the experience can be quite isolating.”

As a trans identifying person from a landlocked African country and something of a historic figure, I have grown up with isolation being part and parcel of my self-realization journey. But as I waltz into my third decade of life I am humbled to be able to celebrate it amongst people as powerful as the activists featured in the series. We came together to articulate our concerned with the limited representations of collective trans diverse and gender non-conforming people globally, as well as highlight how these also impact the self-realization journeys of generations of people like us.

Photographer Karan Katoch is behind an exhibit that highlights transgender and gender non-conforming people challenging gender norms and stereotypes in Oxford, England. (Photo courtesy of Karan Katoch)

While the series has begun to enjoy a life of its own — having recently been featured in an exhibition for U.K. Black History Month — we continue to lean on each other and lend strength to one another across the globe. Perhaps the most important image in the shoot is the only one in which we are laughing; this was captured by chance at the end of the day as we headed to dinner before parting ways. It reminds the viewer that we are not mandated to exist in stoic states of melancholy and oppression; we too have the capacity and the right to enjoy life.

This Trans Awareness Week, we simply want to celebrate the efforts of trans diverse people of color who are living their lives to the fullest, not because they are uncertain of when their journeys might get cut short but because they see the value in themselves. We are more than what happens to us. We can shine with and in each other. Our strength multiplies through solidarity.

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