Just months after Caitlyn Jenner made her Vanity Fair debut and shattered Twitter records by reaching one million followers in just four hours, the world is adapting to a new normal, one where people are finding the courage to be who they are – authentically and unapologetically.
As support for the transgender community gains momentum thanks in part to an increasingly vocal community of supporters that includes celebrities like Laverne Cox and transgender models Geena Rocero and Carmen Carrera, we can’t say we were surprised to see a panel called “Transgender in the Mainstream” on this year’s list of topics for Art Basel’s Conversations and Salon series, a panel that explores new ideas with today’s most influential artists, academics, and cultural players. We were, however, excited to be part of a conversation that wasn't just important for the art world, but for all of us.
After opening the panel with a moment of silence to honor those whose lives have been lost to transphobic violence, moderator William Simmons, a Ph.D. student at CUNY Graduate Center in New York, said that he hoped the evening’s conversation would make respect and acceptance for the transgender community, “less of an exception and more of the norm.”
Fellow panelist Kimberly Drew, Founder of Black Contemporary Art, New York, shared her concerns on the issues of inequality, as well. “One of the things that I find to be deeply troubling in our cultural climate is that we don’t pay attention to people who have experienced violence . . . until some great action happens,” she said.
“There needs to be a more proactive approach to understanding and celebrating difference before people have to become a hashtag.”
Artists Juliana Huxtable and Gordon Hall (also on the panel) both gave credit to social media for allowing people the opportunity to access more honest information about gender identity, noting that platforms like Tumblr allow users to easily find and communicate with others going through similar experiences. “Digital life allows us to say, ‘I am many things’ or ‘I am not the same as I was yesterday,’” explained Hall.
The panelists also discussed Art Basel’s decision to accept their request to include gender neutral restrooms at this year’s fair. “A single gesture towards inclusion once doesn’t mean cultural change,” said David Getsy, an art history professor at The Art Institute of Chicago. “There needs to be more space for thinking about cultural change . . . in art fairs, the museums, the universities . . . that needs to happen.”
“The real question,” he said, “is whether or not [the new restrooms] will still be there next year.”