The Swedish have a dedicated gender-neutral personal pronoun: 'hen'. Hen is also the title of 26-year-old artist Bex Day's exciting new exhibition, which tells the personal stories of members of transgender and non-binary communities.
Featuring 30 subjects over the age of 40, the exhibition will showcase striking portraits of the people Bex met over the three years that it took to put the project together. "There was not – and still isn’t – enough visibility of the older transgender community in the media," Bex tells Refinery29. "I could see that everyone involved had fascinating stories to tell, particularly educators such as Stephen Whittle (OBE) who cofounded the trans activist group Press For Change, who we have partnered with for Hen."
A short film accompanies her photography, which Bex says allowed her and co-director Luke Sullivan to delve a little deeper into the stories that are so rarely acknowledged outside their own communities, and create a greater sense of intimacy via interviews and simply being let inside some of the participants' homes. But wider awareness and understanding seems to be on the horizon. "When interviewing people throughout the project, it was clear that there is beginning to be far less focus on being gendered/transgendered, and rather more of a focus on the person’s identity. This is what we set out to show in the Hen film," Bex explains.
Hen opens on 1st April – one day after the International Transgender Day of Visibility – and runs for a week, with a portion of print sales from the exhibition donated to its partner charities, Stonewall Housing and Press For Change. Refinery29 spoke to Bex who, between crowdfunding the show and preparing to unveil her work, filled us in on the story behind Hen – the big picture, the important conversations and the wonderful people she gave voice to in the process.
You mentioned that you’ve been working on Hen for three years. What prompted you to get started in the first place?
I noticed there was a lack of older transgender people in the media and I wanted to give them a voice and a legacy. I focused on those identifying as transgender and non-binary who are all over 40.
I grew up with few gender stereotypes in my childhood, often people thought I was a boy and my brother a girl; I was never really interested in Barbies or the colour pink. I questioned why a woman should not have some masculine traits and vice versa. Of course, this is very different to identifying as transgender but it was the starting point for my interest in the transgender community. This black and white thinking that dominates so much of society as a whole forces narrow-mindedness upon many individuals and is something I really wanted to eliminate through this project.
Have you felt a tangible shift in the conversation around gender in recent years? There's a way to go but do you think the steps society is taking are enough?
I think there has been an improvement, yes, but it’s important to take further action which is also why I wanted to do the project. Laurie Penny has been a big influence to me in this respect. In her book Bitch Doctrine, she writes: "Perhaps the generation being born today will grow up with different assumptions, not just women should be equal to men but that gender might not be the most important part of your identity. That’s an uncomfortable idea for a great many people." What I am trying to understand, and what so much of my work is about, is why we really need labels like male and female when everyone should be treated equally. We all deserve respect and that’s the bottom line.
Why did you choose to focus on the 40+ community?
There is nowhere near enough recognition of their stories and past which, in turn, will help to benefit the younger transgender community and hopefully provide a safe space for them to interact. I’ve heard from a great deal of participants that they rarely interact with younger transgender people and it’s a real shame because I think that is important in terms of expansion of knowledge of the transgender community and enhancing education in terms of intergenerational feedback and support.
Was there a standout thing that you learned, or were told, on your journey with Hen that really resonated with you?
Some highlights were Irene, who was one of the first people I photographed for Hen in 2015, and a big inspiration to me as she conducts her own psychoanalysis and I am very interested in psychology. Steph taught me a lot as he transitioned to being female and then transitioned back due to complications with his daughter and ex-partner. He is truly inspirational as he nearly lost everything and then came back full circle.
There was definitely not enough gender support or open conversations about identity or mental health in most of their childhoods. Most people felt extremely alienated growing up so they turned to studying. Dan, who graduated from Oxford, for instance, describes himself as being a bit of "a brain in a vat" before he transitioned; he felt alienated from his body and focused on studying. He didn’t know how to name what was going on for him because there weren’t any online communities available to him.
Stephen Whittle used to go to the library while at school and read all the medical books available. He said: "When I was 15 I read the description of a butch lesbian and I remember thinking I don’t feel like that’s who I am… It was difficult to understand where I fit… We used to go to my grandmother’s every Sunday and she used to get newspapers like News of the World, which had all the stories about people who had sex changes. So I used to pick it up and hide it inside the Daily Express and try and read it so it didn’t look like I was reading these stories. My mother told me years later that she knew exactly what I was reading."
I would say due to working with the older community, it helped me to value where we are at in the world – we are so fortunate that we have access to such a wide range of mental health facilities, how we are able to use the internet to accompany or enhance our understanding of certain topics. I feel we are far freer to understand our identities and truly express this nowadays, there are safer spaces for people to communicate about their issues, which wasn’t the case for a lot of the people I photographed when they were growing up, sadly.
Hen is showing at Herrick Gallery, London from 1st-7th April, 11am-6.30pm, with workshops on intergeneration, safe spaces and wellbeing available to attend.