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14.09.2021 — Photography, Culture

ByGaïa Lamarre

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme
Photography and text:

Gaïa Lamarre


Bambi Brenusseau & Jelani Hill

Fashion Stylist:

Sullivan Gumb

Hair and makeup artist:

Oldie Mbani

Nail artist:

Inès Okaci


Ismaël Driouiche’s Mazda RX-7 FD3S

The idea behind this project was to establish a connection between the automotive world, filled with very gendered and objectifying norms and codes, and the life experiences of people whose identities are marginalized, just as subject to numerous injunctions and fetishization, and to create a metaphorical space for reflection, questioning and reappropriation of these popular imageries that have had the effect of stigmatizing these different communities and sticking them with dangerous, violent, and dehumanizing clichés.

Bambi My name is Bambi, I’m 20 years old, I grew up in Seine St-Denis, France, among a multicultural family, with a black mother and a white father, I have a sister and since I was a child my passion has always been fashion. Today I’m trying to find a place for myself in that field, mainly through projects in modeling or acting. I also work as an activist for various LGBTQI+ organizations.

Jelani My name is Jelani, I’m 26 years old and I’m an artist, I have a rap duo. I also compose music, sing and play guitar. That’s something I’ve been into since I was a child. When I was 5 years-old, we used to watch Michael Jackson’s concerts at my grandmother’s house, and the universe of the stage and the performance has always fascinated me. I also did a bit of activism, first in anti-racist and afro-feminist groups, then I later joined some queer BIPOC organizations. But I ended up moving away from it due to exhaustion and tiredness of seeing my identity only through the prisms of activism and struggle. So, I decided to do my part of the work through my art and music.

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme

Corset and skirt: Marvin M’Toumo X Jean-Paul Gaultier

Bambi I identify a lot to what Jelani is saying because I, too, have been in activist spheres that were very political: it’s very time consuming, it takes all your energy and is full of sacrifices. So, I took a similar direction and started to get into art projects where there’s room to express things that aren’t necessarily always related to my identity as a trans woman of color, allowing me to live, to feel and to focus on my desires as a whole person and the future that I idealize for myself first.

Jelani Oppressions make you see things in fatalistic ways, it narrows our ideas, and it makes us think that things are how they are and that there is no way out, we always talk about what’s wrong. I believe it’s important to talk about what’s going well too. That’s what I try to do through my music; we have political and committed texts, but we always try to keep a positive energy and especially hope. It’s exhausting to live our identities only through oppression and only through the struggle for rights or representation. The best possible activism is just to live one’s life and to be. Cis-passing has given me peace, but also the ability to be in spaces without getting clocked and to be able to react when something problematic is said. I also realized that my community are first and foremost the people around me, my family, my friends, the people I know, and I prefer to do this activist work on my own level, because that’s where it’s needed, and it’s necessary to show understanding. As an activist, we can often be judgmental, and have a hard time seeing rehabilitation and improvement, but deconstruction is a lifelong journey, even for the concerned people. I told myself that I was going to do things on my own scale, with the people around me, the people I will meet in the circles in which I am, and that’s pretty good already.

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme


Gaïa Do you remember the first time you saw a trans person represented? And was it negative or positive?

Jelani I think the first representation of trans people that I saw, I probably didn’t understand as such, because often in movies or popular culture content, trans identity is always shown under a rather violent prism. Also with an overexposure of trans women with dangerous clichés, portraying them in negative ways, and, on the other side, the representation of trans men is almost non existant. So the first time I saw a good and positive representation of trans people, I must have been 18 years old and it was in a documentary on Arte TV, where trans men and women where shown in several stages of their transitions and talking openly about it, that was the first time I discovered that trans men existed, and that it was possible. I always knew that I wasn’t cis, but I just couldn’t find a word to put on what I felt, so this was the first time that I was able to get information and to see this topic in a light that I could relate to.

Bambi I was around 15 years old when I saw a positive representation for the first time. It was a documentary about a trans woman who worked in Bois de Boulogne (a Parisian forest where many sex workers exercise their activity), and despite the social issues and problems that she encountered, I could see that she existed. Since I was a kid, I always knew that I was not a boy, and that I was not like the other girls as well, and before this documentary I always thought that I couldn’t be a girl because there was only one way to be one, but seeing this woman made me realize that trans people existed and that it was actually possible.

Jelani I think that the representations that truly helped me was seeing other black trans men on the internet, mostly on YouTube or Twitter, although there were few. It’s the huge privilege that we have today, the accessibility of so much content and so many testimonies, we really have the opportunity to see that it exists, and to to see how people are living those experiences, to prepare oneself and to feel a bit less lost with our identities, because on the other side of the screen, we can see people who look like us and evolve in the same spaces.

Bambi I also have an example of the first negative representation I saw: it was the movie Boys Don’t Cry, it’s a super violent movie spreading this dangerous idea of deception and pretending to be someone you’re not. So the movie was interpreted as such, and people understood it as such. That’s when I said to myself that I wasn’t a trans person at all because I’m a woman, and I don’t pretend to be one, but then if I’m trans, people are going to think I’m pretending and I’m going to find myself in an uncomfortable position that doesn’t fit me.

Jelani What’s terrible about these movies is that there’s such a negative representation where everything goes really wrong for the trans characters when they get clocked, and it creates a kind of fear thinking that this is what’s gonna to happen to us if we’re perceived the same way.

Bambi These movies don’t educate the people actually concerned by them, they mainly educates cis people, who learn to be cis through such content, cis people that are then repeating these patterns, because that’s how they were taught how to be, and how to treat trans people with the representations available to them as well. It’s the same for all kind of content directed by cis people with trans people as the subject, for example when interviewed, we are always asked to tell things and stories to make the audience shed tears, insisting on questions that show how difficult and challenging” our lives can be.

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme


Gaïa For you, what would be the correct way to make projects about trans people?

Jelani There is so much plurality in our identities that the best way would be to let us speak for ourselves, however our identities intersect. We need to let as many paths and narratives as possible express themselves, not only for representation’s sake, because knowing that trans people exist doesn’t really change anything in cis people’s mind, the representation only help other trans people. And if the representations follow the same patterns that we have always had, it will always be in a narrow and dangerous frame, we need more humanization and to stop the sensationalism around trans identity.

Bambi It’s through works made by relevant people first, and by not prioritizing the creative process before the well-being of the people involved in the project. I took part in a few projects where I was highly sexualized and my comfort as a person didn’t matter at all. It’s important to give people the respect they deserve and to make them feel comfortable.

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme

Pants: Vesqmojo

Corset and skirt by Marvin M’Toumo X Jean-Paul Gaultier

Gaïa What do you think about the representation of trans people in France today?

Bambi When you watch mainstream TV’s content about trans identity, they often choose people for the sake of entertaining the cis audience, so they can easily make fun of trans people. Recently there were a show on a well-known TV channel, and the majority of the trans people represented were minors, this goes to show that their intention was not to give a voice to people with a discourse that is perhaps more elaborate, conscious, and full of experiences. People don’t want to listen, people want to watch. The representation in France is about entertainment, not education.

Jelani I have the impression that in France, there is a lot of focus on children, teenagers, or minors who are starting their transition, but we lack of representation of adult trans people who have gone through a certain transition process, with a maturity and a distance on life and on these questions in order to present it with a bit more hope. In this kind of reportage, trans identity in young people is shown as something to be corrected or cured, as if it was only due to their youth. And the people who make these shows know very well what kind of conversation it will initiate, even with this so-called approach of opening up the debate on these issues, you always know how people will react because they always present it the same way it’s always been shown. I also feel like, yes, there’s a lot more representation on social networks or on the internet, but there’s still a form of dehumanization where cis people are going to have a sense of good conscience, being there to compliment you and encourage you but in a voyeuristic approach, I have the impression that the existence of trans people is only tolerated when it confirms cis people in their position, or that it allows them to feed their unhealthy curiosity without questioning their own position. I don’t believe in representation anymore, for me it’s not an end in itself. It’s not going to
humanize us to let people enter our intimacy. I would like to see trans representation, but not only from the point of view of trans identity, I would like to see trans actors playing the roles of cisgender people for example. I believe that true representation would be to show that trans people can do everything, and that they exist not only with the purpose of being trans or through the prism of transness.

Bambi Sometimes on Instagram I try to open up and tell more personal things, to not only show a manufactured image of a super-confident person, but when I try to do so, I find myself facing the fear of being categorized as the person who has nothing for herself, for whom life is difficult, a little bit like the character of Blanca in Pose, and to reinforce those stigmas. And that often leads to people feeling sorry for you, and I don’t want that—quite the opposite, I want people to feel good for me, because that pity just allows them to be at peace with themselves, because they’ll never do anything for you, but they know about it, it allows them to have a good conscience while not taking any action. There’s this tendency to bastardize our lives and our experiences, like with Marsha P. Johnson, we’ve totally made her existence and the fights she led and that we also lead today obsolete and secondary by just lumping everything together into ideas like Yas, she’s the pioneer… Work!” And today it’s quite scary to see that some people can look at me this way, for example at parties people come to me and say Wow, I love what you do on social networks!” Except that the only thing I do on social media is being myself and being trans.

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme

Body: Marvin M’Toumo X Jean-Paul Gaultier

Gaïa In a society like the one we live in, the need to compare yourself to others is inevitable, especially as a transgender person trying to construct and find yourself. How do you feel about this?

Bambi At the beginning of my transition, I had as models cis women or black trans women who pass, and who have pretty luxurious lifestyle, being financially supported for example. Now I’m just trying to refocus on what makes me happy, and not really through role models or preconceived ideas, I’m trying to explore different areas and question myself on what makes me feel good. I feel like right now there’s this tendency of avoiding the pressure to pass for trans women, and I think it’s related to representation, the tomboy aesthetic is growing among trans women, and I identify much more with that and much less with this idea of having a flawless passing and the life that goes with it. I just want the life I want to build for myself and much less the life that people would like trans women to have.

Jelani I’ve always been confortable with my masculinity and with cis men, because of the ones in my family and in the spaces I navigated. As a black trans man, at first I always had this concern of being too threatening, or too masculine, from my experience as a trans man, I am aware of the discomfort and fear that men can instill in women or people experiencing things from cis men, so I was careful. But I quickly realized that as a black trans man, I will never be perceived the same way white trans men are, that no matter what I did or how I presented myself, I would always be seen as more masculine or dangerous. Because as a black person, the Eurocentric gender standards and norms simply don’t apply to us, you just have to look at the treatment of black cis women, being constantly ascribed masculine attributes or even being compared to men for example. There’s this phenomenon of detaching oneself from one’s belonging and likeness to cis men but for me it’s just an attempt to escape one’s condition as a white man. I don’t feel the need to show that I’m not like other men anymore, by how I present myself or shouting everywhere I’m a trans man with a woman’s experience,” because that doesn’t stop you from doing shit, if even cis woman have internalized misogyny, then as a trans man you’re bound to have some too. The only way I can get away from cis men is by being careful about how I behave and how I treat the people around me.

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme

Jacket and pants: Philippe Périssé

Gaïa Do you have this feeling of belonging to a community, and how is it important for you or not?

Bambi It’s mostly in the beginning that I felt this need of sorority, I started my transition at the same time as several sisters of mine, but I also felt an uneasiness towards the community on ideals which one tried to impose to me at the beginning of this transition, mainly on the rhythm of it. For me, the community has always been trans women, I never considered gay, lesbian or bi people as part of my community because of the rejection they made me feel. I always had in mind the distinction between them and us. There was a huge release just after same-sex marriage was made legal in France and we realized that we were really alone. A little tired of the militant spheres not always as safe as they pretend to be, I decided with Idris (@soft.boi) to create a sharing circle for trans people of color, in order to fight against the isolation in a general way and more specifically the one that the Covid-19 and its measures had created. We wanted to find this sense of community, to be able to have times together of socialization, spaces to meet new people, etc. It’s a very gratifying project because there are some really beautiful things that come out of it, for the first time in my life I was able to see a 40 years old black trans woman, it gave me a lot of emotions because it was also one of my goals through this initiative, to be able to put things in perspective and to see that a future is possible and that we’re not alone.

Jelani I think that where I felt that sense of belonging the most was in the ballroom scene, that community that unites around joy, performance, empowerment, we’re there to celebrate each other. It allowed me to see our identities in a much more joyful light than I was used to in other spheres, where we always have to exist through our oppressions or when we have to make a choice between our black identity and our queer identity.

Bambi Community spaces are not something that I rejected, but more something that I had never personally felt were accessible. When you start navigating different spheres, you understand that there’s a choice to make between being black and being queer. As if these two identities were mutually exclusive. In white-dominated spheres I felt that my skin color was an issue, while in black-dominated spaces it was my trans identity that was an issue.

Jelani For me, what makes me go less often to these predominantly white spaces like techno parties for example is the fact that my identity as a black man comes out and the thugification process starts and I’m quickly being associated with this gangster or drug dealer image.

Bambi Coming out also made me discover a new perception of my skin color, and it’s quite a weird feeling to witness the change of perception on how other people see you. Before I came out I was considered as light-skinned, which, due to colorism, is more valued for a male-identifying person because you’re perceived as less threatening, and now I’m defined as brown-skinned and this new perception of my skin color is not at all in adequacy with the one I’ve always had. Add to this the fetishization, most of the people who approach me are 40 year old white men, always the same profile, with a racial and economic privilege, creating a strong feeling of predation.

Jelani Personally, it took me a while to realize the extent of the fetishization that trans men are facing. It is much more insidious because it’s coming from cis women most of the time, so it seems less violent than the fetishization coming from cis men, and it’s based on things that are supposed to be positive. We’ll be seen as less threatening, or even harmless, we represent some sort of an acceptable masculinity, trying to separate us from cis men. But the dictates of patriarchy come back when you talk about it, because if you denounce it right away you are seen as a violent guy, on top of that, a man cannot be a victim of this kind of things in people’s mind. And above all, people don’t take well the fact that you question points that they thought were positive, when it’s really violent. I know that I’m a trans man, I don’t want to be reminded of it all the time and to base these relationships on this very precise point.

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme

Jacket and pants: MARRKNULL

Gaïa The notion of temporality is a crucial aspect of the transition process. I would like to know how you experienced this evolution, and what were the significant social changes?

Jelani In terms of stages, I would start by talking about the moment of realization for yourself, the whole phase of questioning, doubt, and fear before daring to take the first step. Then you do it, and the second stage begins: it’s the period of euphoria where you feel that you are starting to live fully, that you feel free. And the third is the moment when you start to pass, you navigate the world differently, there are readjustments and some slaps to take. When it comes to changes, I notice that when I talk to a group of guys I am now listened to, I’m not mocked anymore, I won’t be tested on my knowledge when talking with them and my disagreement will be accepted. But on the other side I also discovered the way men relate to each other, with this constant need to test themselves and this rivalry and animosity. Another point that changed is the new form of racism that you can feel. Before my cis-passing the racism I felt in queer spaces was much more veiled, like ordinary
racism. Now I feel that attitudes towards me have changed, that I am seen as more threatening. But on a positive note I have the good side of the change too, I have a new safety potential for the women around me and, finally, to be able to walk around when I want as I want is priceless, the only thing I’m afraid of now is the police.

Bambi For me it’s different, I don’t take my passing for granted, so there are certain things that I don’t allow myself to do in the public space for safety sake. The people who are going to judge my passing are men, so I consider that I pass when I experience ordinary sexism, when people look at me in the street, when they look at my breasts, etc. When I experience a less violent violence, I consider that I pass. When someone calls you a slut, you are validated, and as long as it’s just sexism, it’s not transphobia. Also, my transition did not evolve in a linear way, but for me the most important moment socially and personally was when I understood that I had to take the time to know if what I did or planned to do still fit me. During a transition we often talk about the 2 year mark or the 5 year mark, and in the end these numbers become accessible to cis people who become like spectators of our transitions, watching every medical intervention or administrative decision just to satisfy their curiosity.

METAL AS SOFT AS YOUR SKIN by Gaïa Lamarre - © Garagisme

Jelani: necklace: D’Heygère, pants: Études Studio, shoes: Rombaut
Bambi: corset and skirt: Marvin M’Toumo for Jean-Paul Gaultier, shoes: Reyrey

Gaïa As mentioned before, there is a tendency to focus attention on trans people only in a negative and pessimistic way, pointing out what is wrong, or what can be hard in a trans person’s life. I’d like to change that discourse and hear from you about what makes being trans amazing and what it has positively changed in your life.

Jelani We all go through those moments when we say to ourselves I would have preferred to be cis,” because it would have been so much easier. But when I see the questions and conversations that it opens up just in my family, the things that it has brought and the way I see parenthood and transmission, I am very grateful, I feel that I have the power to break generational cycles on gender norms, and I have the satisfaction of telling myself that some things end with me and that the future can only be better. I also feel like I have full control over who I am, by administering my own hormones, I feel so much more free and in control of my being, a freedom in a giant cage for sure, but a huge satisfaction of breaking the mold that people try to put us in and to question absolutely everything around me. From the behavior of others, that is too often a reflection of their own insecurities and the way they have been conditioned, to new ways of looking at my relationships without ever feeling diminished as a person. I have a new outlook on who I am, what I am leaving behind, what I am gaining, what is around me, and the future I want to create for myself. And most importantly, embracing your transness is the greatest thing you can do for yourself as a trans person.

Bambi Before I came out, I was in a prison. As a child, just admitting to myself who I was in the bathroom mirror by myself was impossible. And today I am deconstructing things that are so huge every day. Each person has their own path, and today I have the one I have, and I’m proud of it, it has allowed me to meet great people and to be in places I dreamed of being when I was growing up. I got my identity and my body back when I separated myself from the system that was imposed on me. By taking charge of my self determination and hormonal self-medication, I made my trans identity commonplace, because it only concerns me.