When marriage equality became a main issue in the national LGBTQ conversation, gay men and lesbians started being integrated into the American cultural consciousness — while the other letters in the acronym were largely left behind. In 2014, however, while trans* identities aren't exactly mainstream, icons like Laverne Cox, Carmen Carrera, and Janet Mock are putting an extraordinarily eloquent public face on a community that remains a mystery to many. Still, as folks in the trans* and queer communities often point out, even with the inclusivity-minded "*" attached to it, the term "trans*" simply doesn't cover the full spectrum of gender experiences. The word itself implies a firm, clean transition from one gender to another.
While it's not an ideal source of knowledge on this topic, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has shifted its understanding of a trans* identity from "gender identity disorder" to the slightly more sensitive "gender dysphoria," which is defined as "the condition of feeling one's emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one's biological sex." But, for many people, gender identity is not fixed or limited to "male" vs. "female."
An ongoing project by photographer Chloe Aftel takes on the subject of gender identity with a series of portraits of individuals who fall somewhere in between the poles of the gender spectrum. Aftel began the series in response to a brutal hate crime against Sasha Fleischman, a high schooler from California who identifies as agender. The project was originally featured in San Francisco Magazine but has since taken on a life of its own online.
Some of Aftel's subjects identify as gender-fluid (with a fluctuating gender identity), some as gender-queer (a more general term for any gender identity other than "male" or "female"), and some as agender (those who do not identify with any gender). Aftel describes her subjects as "very sure of themselves, and with a certain level of contentment living in the way that really feels honest and best to them." She adds that "[The subjects] put a lot of time and thought into not only how to present themselves, but into what kind of person they want to be. People have such fluid and personal interpretations about clothing and makeup and their bodies; it's been very exciting and rewarding to get into this personal experience with them."