Illustrations by Emma Roulette
An art gallery featuring local women’s vulvas sparks backlash from Gainesville’s trans community.
In a sunny room in the back of a clean, well-kept house, a woman named Angela lies on a bed with her knees wide apart and her hand placed at an artistic angle beside her vulva. Her other hand rests in a tightened fist at her solar plexus, and she has decided to close her eyes. She breathes slowly and with focused meditation.
Above her a 22-year-old photographer, Alex, stands on the bed and points the business end of a camera at her crotch. Alex is not unkind; empathetic to Angela’s nerves, she gently coaches her through specific leg and arm positions while asking breezy, uncomplicated questions about work as a Zumba instructor.
The camera makes a series of tiny mechanical noises.
“This feels so crazy all of a sudden,” Angela says and opens her eyes. She peers down her stomach into the camera’s unblinking lens, which has been recording her vulva in hyper-focused detail for the past quarter of an hour. Alex laughs and tests a new angle.
Alex’s life, at this point, had organized itself around a continual cycle of nether-regions. She and Nina Plocek, a 22-year-old women studies major at the University of Florida with whom she has partnered to document in vivid detail local vulvas, had issued an open call for models in February and received a pleasantly strong response.
Angela was Alex’s 31st model. Over the course of three months, she asked 31 locals, with increasing efficiency, to disrobe to their comfort level, climb onto a surface and open their legs. Not unlike a gynecological exam, Angela notes early in their session.
Alex and Nina compiled the pictures into a public art gallery, which opened in mid-April at the local feminist bookstore Wild Iris. Though it was made in an effort to create an open, inclusive and progressive space, it took a heated online debate — peppered with drop-outs, accusations of trans-misogyny and hurt feelings — that pit two parts of the local activist community against each other to actually happen.
But now, in this sunny room nestled among the tree-dense cottages of Gainesville’s downtown, Alex and Nina could only put the dispute, which was still active on the Facebook event page, on the backburner. The three women, deep in the couches of Nina’s living room, floated through cursory interview topics with comfortable chattiness, which they record to be played during the gallery showing. After a few introductory questions, Nina shepherded the conversation into choppier waters.
“So, OK,” she began, her gentle, trembly voice in glaring contrast to the gravity of her next question. “When did you first learn about masturbation?”
Despite the interview’s sensitive questions, Nina and Alex coaxed frank, unguarded responses from their subjects with sororal gentleness, touching on topics from body image to sexual history to abuse. They switched from pointed, scavenging questions to lighthearted smalltalk in easy turns, sharing their own personal experiences and remaining constantly aware of their interviewee’s comfort.
Though it was made in an effort to create an open, inclusive and progressive space, it took a heated online debate … to actually happen.
It’s this level of sensitivity, which they maintain consistently through each session, that has brought many of the subjects to thank them before leaving. Alex has found herself receiving parting hugs by any number of models who stripped down with apprehension and spread their legs jumpy with nervous energy.
Back in the sunny room, Alex takes shot after shot of Angela’s vulva. She has migrated from the bed and into a patch of afternoon light that has pooled under one of the windows. They finish here, with Angela pinning the edge of her skirt to her stomach, looking out into the backyard and quiet street. After, they mill in Nina’s kitchen, taking their time saying goodbye, basking in the warmth of having become so suddenly and consensually intimate. A flurry of hugs follows, and Angela waves goodbye.
The door shuts. Alex and Nina turn to each other. The giddy, bright afterglow fades into worried distraction. They furrow their brows and lower their voices, an uncanny imitation of the final scene in The Graduate. For what seems like the thousandth time, they start to talk about the Facebook conversation.
It happened the morning after the event page went up. First one commenter, then two, then a stream of likes that, because of Facebook’s activity-favoring algorithm, shoved it all into the public eye. Over the course of the day, members of Gainesville’s trans community ripped into the event, calling it out as exclusionary and trans-misogynistic. Music groups who had agreed to play dropped out; people threatened to protest; a few people suggested creating rival events that would be done on their terms. Two models asked that they not be included in the gallery anymore. By the end, the conversation tallied 37 comments with 355 likes among them, with even more people following everything in digital silence, afraid to be sucked into the flame spiral.
The event page, where all of this happened, went up a month after Nina initially came up with the project in late January. She spent an hour crafting the first draft of the description. She and Erica Merrell, co-owner of Wild Iris, wanted to be careful; they deeply respected the importance of this tiny corner of the Internet that they were staking out.
And at this point, Nina was mostly concerned about provoking the conservative and squeamish. The office manager of the women’s studies department had already complained about the posters calling for models she had put up, which was a sketch of a vulva. She asked for them to be taken down.
“Do you realize,” the manager had asked Nina when she called her into the office, “that there are…” she lowered her voice, “vaginas on your poster?”
Yes, Nina said. She was aware.
But she and Erica also wanted their language to be painstakingly inclusive. They had spoken privately with a few members of the trans community, asking how they could describe the event in a way that would not exclude them. All of this was nail-bitingly important. They would send this description through the Wild Iris and UF women’s studies listservs. The National Women’s Liberation website would use it to promote the event.
As Facebook events always do, it took awhile to gather momentum. The first comment came two hours later, after people had already begun to show that they were going. It read like most responses to upcoming events: anticipatory and — literally — breathless.
“YO,” it read. “I’m so excited for this I can’t breathe.”
It was awarded seven likes.
In the wee hours of the next morning — 1:22 a.m. — the second response came in. It was from a local trans woman, Scout Ashtyn. It was lengthier than the first and extremely provocative. It called out the event for not being trans affirmative and inclusive, despite the event description saying it was.
“maybe if u wanted to make a TRULY ‘trans* affirmative and inclusive’ [event] u would do more to insure the safety of transwomen who are the ones being MURDERED because of their genitalia,” the message read. “Are there gonna be representations of transwomen who haven’t had SRS [sex realignment surgery]? is there gonna be any representation of transwomen at all?”
Meanwhile, the number of people going hit the 80s.
Scout posted a follow-up six minutes later, writing that a member of one of the bands was a TERF, which has a long history of meaning both “Trans Eradicatory Radical Feminist” and “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.”
“That’s just a slap in the face,” the message said.
“fuck this event” a trans woman added underneath.
“Tell ‘em,” another trans local replied. “Fuck terfs.”
TERFS are a remnant of second-wave feminism, which is notorious for focusing on those who were born a woman with internal genitalia. Ironically, this is the kind of feminism that Erica, upon taking up co-ownership of Wild Iris, has been working for the past four years to root out, phasing out events like the women-only dance parties for more trans-inclusive, and focused, programming.
At the same time, Radical Feminism has a documented — though lesser known — history of including trans women, said Yocheved Zenaida-Cohen, trans affairs coordinator at Wild Iris, with intentional womanhood being viewed an empowered identity.
“Contrary to popular belief within young activist circles, second-wave feminism is no more transmisogynist as a movement than any faction in which womanhood is assigned,” she said. “Many of Gainesville’s own trans women are radical feminists. Ours is the issue of biological essentialism.”
It’s important to note that sex– not just gender — is socially constructed, Zenaida-Cohen said. Biological maleness is no more an objective category than manness. Rather, she said, trans women use the term “Male Assigned at Birth” to evoke how trans women are assigned maleness rather than having an innate (albeit disagreeable) maleness.
The trans community wanted to know where women who had external genitalia fit into the equation–their genitals, they argued, were as much vulva as anything else, if a person identifies them that way.
The concept has been analyzed extensively by academics like Gayle Salamon, a queer theorist at Princeton University, in her work, “Assuming the Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materialist.” In it, Salamon explains that the body can, and does, “exceed the confines of its own skin.” Those who identify as trans have to come to terms with this phenomenon from an early age. But no matter your identity, she says, sometimes the way we perceive our body does not match the way others perceive it, but a person’s personal perception is still valid.
Many of Gainesville’s own trans women are radical feminists. Ours is the issue of biological essentialism.
Gainesville’s trans community was calling out Nina, Alex and Erica for challenging the personal certainty trans folks have that their genitals are the gender they have assigned them. They were arguing, Scout later said, that the oversight infringed on many women’s sense of personal identity.
These are concerns that have preoccupied feminist thought for over a decade, but have only recently been addressed outside the academic realm. Nina, even as a women’s studies major, said that this kind of conversation felt like uncharted territory within her field of study. Combining transgender and feminist issues in a practical and efficient way has been hardly addressed or studied in its application, she said, meaning that she and Erica had walked into something they could only realize, as the comments publicly shamed them, that they didn’t fully understand.
Transfeminism, the cross-section of trans rights and feminism, was born in the late ‘90s and has only really been unpacked extensively in the past 15 years. Transfeminist academics and activists argue that trans women face specific problems that must be addressed in their own way. Their mantra is simple and adds to a common assertion among women of color and other female minorities: Women are oppressed, but not all women are oppressed equally.
But most significantly, trans women have had to argue for their inclusion and recognition as women at all. They face a resistant patriarchy and exclusionary second-wave feminists. Supposedly enlightened third-wave feminists’ ignorance of a trans woman’s struggle to socially reify her identity seemed par for the course, Scout explained. For this reason, many members of the trans community are wary of feminists, no matter their wave.
But Nina and Erica felt bewildered and misunderstood; at the end of the day, they agreed with the trans community.
“From the beginning, we were all in agreement that woman does not equal vulva,” Nina said, “and vulva does not equal woman.”
Scout, who was one of the trans women Erica and Nina spoke to, had been disappointed by the application of all that they had talked about. It had seemed like her community had spoken but were not really heard. Their voices had just been a nominal step toward being inclusive. Where were the bodies to prove that they had really been understood?
“It’s especially hard because my sisters are dying on the street every day,” she said. “So when you insist that over and over and it doesn’t seem to be heard, it’s really hard.
“We were criticized for being too harsh and using inflammatory language, yeah, but when in every other way you’ve been told that you are ineffectual, sometimes language is the only defense that you have.”
“It’s especially hard because my sisters are dying on the street every day,” she said.
After the comment thread, Erica and Nina debated calling the whole event off. They were emotionally and intellectually exhausted, having spent two days formulating an apology post to set the record straight.
“But I just kept thinking about how the patriarchy does everything it can to keep us silent about our bodies,” Nina said. “And I realized…we can’t erase ourselves. We have a much bigger responsibility.’”
Viva La Vulva took place on a rainy April evening at Wild Iris, which was cleared of its bookshelves and familiar clutter to allow for maximum browsing room. Only 15 people could come into the gallery at a time for the span of the audio portion: a 17-minute long mashup of all 31 interviews. The setup was meant to keep the gallery intimate, which matched the moody, black-and-white photos of the gallery.
The models were able to title their own photos. Some were funny (“The Chosen One,” “Bajingo,” “Yep, That’s Mine”) others serious, (“Power,” “Consent,” “Comfort”) and many poetic (“Milk and Honey,” “The Wild,” “Not a Vagina”).
The way the interview was edited gave it the impression of an audio documentary, with all of the emotional qualities of a movie. There were 31 characters; the plot dipped and twisted. One moment the interviewees spoke about their terminology for vagina and vulva, the next they recounted the first time they felt empowered enough to ask what they wanted out of sex.
“The first time I told my partner exactly what I wanted, he called me ‘picky.’” One interviewee said. “And I just got up and walked out.”
A few people gave a small cheer.
“I never really had the language to feel good about my body,” another said. “Tumblr helped me a lot.”
This produced a large, collective laugh.
Then, one after the other, a string of interviewees revealed that they had been raped or abused. The atmosphere dipped considerably. A few people, all women, gently touched their hands to their chests in sympathy. Someone let out a small sigh. When it was over, the room filled with the sound of applause.
“I never really had the language to feel good about my body,” another said.
For three hours, 15 people at a time came to listen to the audio and look at the photos. About 200 people came out in total, Nina said, with some experiencing the gallery more than once. People cried, she said. They gave and accepted hugs. She was on the receiving end of a number of them.
The tension between the trans and feminist community in Gainesville has mostly healed. It took a barbecue, which Erica had scheduled long before Viva La Vulva was an idea, to work out the final kinks. Over barbecued tempeh and ribs, members of the trans community vented their frustration in person to those in the feminist community who decided to come.
“It became a space for people to get all that crap out,” Erica said. “I think it was good to have that, to be back together again and make ribs for everyone, and eat up, and send them all home with happy hearts and full stomachs. Those are real things that I can do to actually change day-to-day lives.”
And then, as though to finalize the truce, the barbecue and conversation turned into a dance party.
“Once the first big bottle of wine is done,” Erica said, “it’s usually time for Beyoncé.”
Unbeknownst to anyone, one of the owners of Charis Books, Atlanta’s own feminist bookstore — one that has been historically integrated with its local trans community — had been in Gainesville at the same time by chance, visiting a friend. She went to the gallery, and afterward approached Nina to suggest that they bring Viva La Vulva to Charis in the fall.
The morning after the event, Nina and Erica unlatched the box where they had told everyone to submit their comments. They removed from it a ream of paper, which included responses that ranged from a few sentences to whole paragraphs squashed on the front and back sides.
On the rainbow-colored lawn chairs outside Wild Iris’ doors, Nina and Erica split the stack and read through them. At one point, they both looked up to see the other crying. Neither really knew when the tears had hit. Somewhere between seeing for the fifth time the phrase “I’m not alone!!” or maybe when a woman wrote that she felt like she had made 30 new friends.
They set the comments aside. They might compile them into a book at a later time, but not now. They have work to do.