Zackary Drucker on April Dawn Alison and the transgender experience

In April Dawn Alison’s photography, her solitude manifests an interior space where art and sexuality coincide, where a singular body represents diver­gent selves—creator and object, dominator and subjugated. We witness a self-contained world where a deeply internalized identity is produced and seen, and an ordinary space of domesticity becomes a stage for fantasy and unrestrained possibility.

While April Dawn Alison was creating feminine personas in the privacy of her Oakland apartment, I was a young adolescent in Syracuse, New York, div­ing into a chest of dress-up clothes that my mother kept in the basement. While Alison was creating alternate selves for the audience of a camera alone, my father, per my instructions, was taking Polaroids of me. While April Dawn Alison was meticulously filing her encyclopedia of selves, which are masterfully assembled in this book, I was sticking photos in a dime-store photo album that encapsulated the sum total of my life as a girl.

April Dawn Alison and I are part of a long tradition of trans people using photography to construct identities outside the constraints of their physical and social realities. We are not unique. We just happened to break into more visible arenas, whether by choice or by post-mortem discovery. Despite how isolated we may have been, neither of us was ever truly alone.

Gender is far more diverse across cultures and over time than most people realize, and images of gender diverse people date back to the inception of photography. Trans and nonbinary people have made significant leaps in gaining cultural legitimacy in recent years, but our presence throughout photography’s history has been indelible and impossible to ignore. Images of cross-dressing proliferate in early photography. They originated in public theater and vaudeville, often for the purpose of slapstick humor, and in portrait studios to self-document clandestine LGBTQ circles. Photography expanded the visibility of stage performers known for female impersonation, such as Julian Eltinge, who began performing en femme at age ten in 1891 and broke into early Hollywood in 1917 to appear alongside silent-film star Marion Davies.

In Weimar Berlin, the eminent sexologist and human rights advocate Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld was an early medical ally of trans people, helping to arrange some of the first gender confirmation surgeries, including that of Danish painter Lili Elbe. Around the same time in nearby Paris, Marcel Duchamp was cheekily cross-dressing for conceptual art and Man Ray was photographing Barbette, a famous female impersonator. Brassaï and Weegee documented queer life in the first part of the 20th century, followed by Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark. Ex-GI-turned-woman Christine Jorgensen dominated the media as the most visible trans person in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

Trans people are a pluralized international community who have learned sur­vival ingeniously. We are victims of violence wherever we exist, exacerbatedby intersections of class, gender, and race, making femmes of color the most vulnerable members of our community. We arrive at our self-authored identities, our trans selves, blazing our own paths and by our own volition.

We may never know how April Dawn herself understood her propensity for wigs, high heels, and bondage; it is unknown whether she ever explained her­self to another human being. But from the outside, she seems to exemplify the category of “transvestite,” as that term was used in the middle decades of the 20th century.

When Virginia Prince published her first issue of Transvestia in 1960, self-identified transvestites were establishing themselves as far apart from the LGBTQ community as possible. Early materials from Tri-Ess (Society for the Secondary Self) reinforce that transvestites were family men whose heterosexuality and (mostly) white privilege allowed these early gender subverters to see themselves deserving of all the benefits that society provided straight white men in the 1950s. Many were able to get their wives tacitly on board with their self-expression. This community is perhaps best documented in the book Casa Susanna, the name of a retreat in the Catskills frequented by Virginia Prince, that features an archive of images found by happenstance at a flea market in Chelsea.

Why is our history so often resurrected only by serendipitous discovery? How many of our stories have been lost forever?

Tri-Ess chapters rejected members who were not heterosexual, and expelled and shunned members who sought medical intervention for their trans-gender identity. But this proved to be a sham; even Virginia Prince tran­sitioned late in life. Trans stigma receded in the 21st century, so this once separate and distinct group of cross-dressers has increasingly merged with the trans movement. Cross-dressers are beginning to represent an older generation of people who either did not feel so strongly about being women that they had to transition, or were not able to transition at younger ages. Because of decreased social stigma, people who may have been cross-dressers in the past are transitioning today, even in the context of their heterosexual partnerships and parenting.

As a transgender artist and advocate, I have made myself visible across creative mediums and media platforms, often revealing myself in very private moments. I understand the consequences and nuances of being visible. With great privilege comes great responsibility, and I know that I am strong enough to be seen while many others are not. Because of the struc­ture of support from my family of origin, as a gender-nonconforming youth growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, I have felt secure enough in my selfhood to put myself out there. This comes with scrutiny and criticism as often as it does with praise and appreciation. Being seen is simultaneously vulnerable and empowering.

Many trans people never find spaces to express or manifest their true selves, and they let their authentic interior worlds die with their bodies. So many bearded men have approached me to disclose their trans interiority. Did April Dawn Alison ever tell anyone? Did she ever hire someone to help tie her up? Did she have a drinking buddy? Did she ever quietly reveal herself to a casual acquaintance such as a grocery clerk? A litany of questions surface for me processing these images: What kind of media was she consuming? Was she buying trans magazines? Was she listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd or Linda Ronstadt or Chopin in the background? Was she going to museums or art bookstores? Was she aware of Pierre Molinier, Cindy Sherman, or Claude Cahun? Where did she buy her clothes, wigs, make-up, and what did she say to the salespeople who were helping her? Some of these answers will inevitably materialize through the existence of this book and exhibition, but most we are likely never to know.

Most importantly: How did April Dawn Alison feel about these images? Were they a source of shame or pride? She left an expansive and beautiful archive of some 9000 photographs. Who did she imagine would savor these portraits? It turns out many people. Us.

In a recurring scene, we only see the back of April Dawn’s head. I imagine that I am behind her witnessing her looking at the back of her head. Is she visualiz­ing what it might feel like to be seen? Did she pair this photograph with images of her displaying her body to close the loop of voyeur and spectacle?

In this self-contained world, Alison reveals that being a photographer was integral to her identity, documenting herself consistently with camera equip­ment in frame—yet another self-referential cycle of existing as both author and subject. Alison was clearly a fashion enthusiast, mimicking the tropes and poses of editorial photography, while inserting her own kinky bad-girl style. Alison is clearly having fun, and she loves her legs.

April Dawn’s self-imaging progresses steadily as she incorporates more bondage and BDSM symbols into her repertoire over time. A particularly arresting duo of images finds Alison hanging upside down and chained by a neck harness to the cabinets above a kitchen sink, yellow dishwashing gloves poised to guarantee her domestic goddess status. Alison concludes her archive illustrating forty years of aging, having pushed herself to the outer limits of self-domination.

I understand April Dawn Alison’s pull towards reclusion. After years of being visible as an artist and trans person, my deepest delight comes in taking long hiatuses from social media and closing the curtains to disappear from view. I am invariably propelled back out into the world by opportunities to collaborate, create, and engage, but I wonder if one day I will be subsumed by my desire to retreat to a space where few can see me.

When I find myself in community with other trans people, it is often chal­lenging navigating micro-community dynamics. However, it is also rewarding and fortifying. It reminds me that I am part of a historic struggle that is bigger than I am. Post-mortem, Alison has an opportunity to exhibit bravery with no consequences to her safety or livelihood. But what did April Dawn Alison lose by not being connected to the community? What did she lose by not being visible and existing in public space as her true self?

It is heartbreaking to see April Dawn Alison’s decorations for a party she is having only for herself. What was the occasion? What is the standard for a successful party when nobody is there? Is it the creation of a perfect photo­graph by which to remember the moment? What is a greater gift than a raw and totally unfiltered, unregulated expression of and for the self?

Text by Zackary Drucker from 'April Dawn Alison', Erin O'Toole (ed.), published June 2019.

More articles