During the pandemic, legendary photographer Nan Goldin has done what she does best— turning to her personal life to make timeless, intimate portraits. As she did for over three decades, from 1972 to 2010, to pay homage to her transgender friends—photographing them daily to celebrate their courage, “gender euphoria,” and possibilities of transcendence.
I first saw them—Ivy and Naomi and Colette—crossing the bridge near Morgan Memorial Thriftshop in downtown Boston. They were the most gorgeous creatures I’d ever seen. I was immediately infatuated. I followed them and shot some super-8 film. That was in 1972. It was the beginning of an obsession that has lasted twenty years. Soon after, I met them again through David, my closest friend, who had started to do drag. From my first night at The Other Side—the drag queen bar of Boston in the ’70s—I came to life. I fell in love with one of the queens and within a few months moved in with Ivy and another friend. I was eighteen and felt like I was a queen too. Completely devoted to my friends, they became my whole world. Part of my worship of them involved photographing them. I wanted to pay homage, to show them how beautiful they were. I never saw them as men dressing as women, but as something entirely different—a third gender that made more sense than either of the other two. I accepted them as they saw themselves; I had no desire to unmask them with my camera. Since my early teens, I’d lived by an Oscar Wilde saying, that you are who you pretend to be. I had enormous respect for the courage my friends had in recreating themselves according to their fantasies. There was a wide range of gender identity among my friends. Several were pre-op transsexuals; others, like Ivy, never wanted to be women but were into the art of glamor, into fashion. For Naomi, gender was completely malleable: some days she was Naomi, other days he was Frankie. There were several other girls who hung around the queens in those days: Pamela and Naomi were lovers, off and on, and from what I’ve heard they are still together now, twenty years later; another girl, Susan, was once arrested for female impersonation! During that time I looked in the library for anything written about women who fall in love with drag queens. I found one chapter in an abnormal psychology book from the 1950s which said that we were so perverse as to be unclassifiable.
During the two years we lived together I took pictures of my friends almost daily. When we picked up the 3 x 5 snapshots at the corner drugstore there was always a competition to see who had the most pictures of themselves in the pile. We went to The Other Side every night except Tuesday, even on Thursday for the bologna buffet. On Monday nights the queens got into full drag for the Beauty Parade where Boston’s legendary M.C., Sylvia Sydney, dished the audience while the queens modeled and a jury awarded trophies to the most glamorous contestants. Those were the days of qualludes and the nights of White Russians and Golden Cadillacs. To survive, some of the queens collected welfare, some turned tricks, others sewed costumes for each other or sold antique clothes they found at thriftshops. There were no job opportunities in those days for people who lived in drag; they were even ostracized by most of the gay male community. I supported myself in a Beacon Bill pharmacy serving pills to blue-blooded ex-debutantes. My aspiration was to be a fashion photographer: my goal was to put the queens on the cover of Vogue. I started taking a photo course at night and had my first show in a basement gallery in Cambridge, Mass. in 1973. All my models came to the opening in full drag.
In 1974 I moved out and started going to art school full time. After learning more about technique and equipment, I went back to photograph my old world. But it didn’t work: I was an outsider, it was no longer my home. In the 1980s two of my closest friends were transsexual. Both were completely absorbed into their gender choices as women and each married her boyfriend. One was a top model in Paris in the mid-’80s and won Girl of the Year. They had my deepest admiration for going to the point of surgical recreation. One of these friends once described to me from her own experience the difference between a male and a female orgasm. That seems to me an enviable wealth of experience to have in one lifetime—to have been in the world in two different skins. But that same friend who changed sex from male to female in her early twenties told me she sometimes regretted the surgery because she felt it was, in part, a way to try to fit into normal society’s version of gender, and it takes more courage to remain a queen.
I met a whole new crowd of queens in N.Y. in 1990, again through my friend David and our friend Bruce. My old obsession was reawakened. I developed one fixation after another. I photographed my new friends constantly—at Wigstock, the bars, the balls, and the weekly dinner parties at Bruce’s where I gave slide shows for everyone in the pictures. My relationship to these queens is different; now I am the older one. The social setting has also changed—they are not as marginalized as they were in the ’70s but are more incorporated into and appreciated by the gay community. Many have jobs—in bars and clubs, as make-up artists and hairdressers; some are models in Vogue. An old friend saw my new photos and said she felt my "shock of recognition" in the pictures. I was home again. After years of experiencing and photographing the struggle of the two genders with their codes and definitions and their difficulties in relating to each other, it was liberating to meet people who had crossed these gender boundaries. Most people get scared when they can’t categorize others—by race, by age, and, most of all, by gender. It takes nerve to walk down the street when you fall between the cracks. Some of my friends shift genders daily—from boy to girl and back again. Some are transsexual before or after surgery, and among them some live entirely as women while others openly identify themselves as transsexuals. Others dress up only for stage performances and live as gay boys by day. And still others make no attempt at all to fit in anywhere, but live in a gender-free zone, flaunting their third sex status.
The plague of AIDS has affected this community. One of my closest friends in the pictures from the ’70s died a few years ago and one of the beauties in the recent pictures, a few weeks ago. Due in large part to the AIDS crisis, the attitudes of my friends in the ’90s have shifted. The previous glorification of the glamor of self-destruction and substance abuse has been replaced with a will to survive. Some of the queens in these pictures are in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. In the last few years I’ve learned more about the varieties of desire that can’t be compartmentalized, that can’t be defined as either gay or straight. I’ve met other women who are infatuated with queens and transsexuals but I still haven’t found a definition. There is a sense of freedom in having a desire that has never been labeled. As a bisexual person, for me the third gender seems to be the ideal. I’ve met Kai Kai queens who fall in love with each other. Some of my friends now have boyfriends. These are not the kind of affairs built upon desperate feeding like those with most of the johns who hang around transvestites. These are real relationships based on mutual desire and respect.
While living in Berlin in 1992 I had the opportunity to travel to Asia with a German filmmaker to work on a documentary about male prostitution and gay culture in Southeast Asia. We spent one month in Manila and three weeks in Bangkok. I made new friends among the many young queens I met. I spent my nights in the bars where they worked, modeling, singing, dancing, sometimes stripping, sometimes entertaining customers. In Manila I met a queen who ate fire, contortionists, and saw a long skit that involved two men beating up queens for comic relief. One friend took me home to meet her family where she and her boyfriend live with her parents and brother and nieces and nephews. Another teenage queen supports her parents and five siblings in the provinces with the money she makes from her shows. These queens haven’t been alienated from their families in the way most of the queens I know in the western world have been. In Bangkok the bar workers I met were aware of AIDS and practiced safe sex, but in Manila, due to the influence of the Catholic church, I encountered widespread denial about the realities of AIDS. The bar Second Tip in Bangkok reminded me of The Other Side. The queens were beautiful, the shows were lavish productions with numerous costumes. The older queens didn’t retire: they managed the bar and performed comedy routines on stage. In Manila they called me “mother,” in Bangkok “sexy grandma.” The pictures in this series are not of people suffering gender dysphoria but rather expressing gender euphoria. This book is about new possibilities and transcendence. The people in these pictures are truly revolutionary; they are the real winners of the battle of the sexes because they have stepped out of the ring.