Finding Sunny

This is a true story. And, a fairly long one.

One afternoon in the summer of 1983 I was invited to a little gathering of friends to meet Philip, a Nashville boy who had moved to the big city, and his “new friend,” Sunny. As I walked up the sidewalk to the house, I was very aware of a young and very beautiful Japanese person sitting on the steps. My first thought was that Sunny was a female with a very short haircut. He was wearing beautifully cut white linen Bermuda shorts and a crisp, white tee. I believe that a thin leather belt was around his waist. He was immaculate. It was pretty clear that he was more than a friend to Philip. They were quite a glamourous pair. I may have told them I was thinking of coming to New York to see if I could actually find a market for my jewelry. I just remember that after that meeting I was on the phone with Philip a lot for advise. Sunny had just started designing clothes and Philip was involved in the business as well. Philip had a few years of experience in that world, having been a major display director, both in California and New York. He had also done a bit of modeling, as he was quite the striking guy.

My memories of the early days when I frequently went to New York to sell my jewelry revolve around Philip and Sunny. I always spent a lot of time with them, hanging out at their apartment on the Upper West Side or in their studio, which I think was on 36th Street. I always loved their approval, especially Sunny’s. I thought that Sunny was the most stylish person I had ever known. I remember one winter day he came into the studio wearing a black overcoat and gloves. The way he took off his gloves was nothing but art. So many little detail memories about Sunny. He was so light-hearted, yet knife-edge serious. He had the most incredible taste. He selected the most splendid fabrics. He was designing luxury clothes for a luxury market. The clothes were, in a word, fabulous. Every season Sunny seemed to design for a special woman who lived in his mind. He always had a little story about “Her.” “She wears this out to lunch. She is quite a lady. She never leaves the house before noon.” They achieved a nice amount of success. They had a map in their office with red pins sticking in all the places they were selling. It was exciting to see the red dots.

I could never wait to get to the showroom and start trying things on. At that time, samples were a size 8, and so was I. Every season I placed an order (which I got to buy at wholesale.) My wardrobe was becoming pretty amazing. But, my favorite piece of all was a gift from Sunny and Philip. The first time I went to New York I didn’t take a proper coat. It was the end of October and had just started to be a bit chilly in Nashville. The weather was different in New York. It was quit chilly. Sunny and Philip gave me a coat. Not just a coat. The most fantastic coat I had ever seen. I still have it. I brought it to Mexico to wear on winter nights. It is taupe cut velvet. Just a long, straight coat. It looks very current today, even though it was made in 1983.

Time rolled along and so did our friendship. Fred started going to New York with me in 1987, and the threesome became a foursome. We were tight friends. So many times we’d go by the studio and Philip would say, “Let’s get some lunch.” And we would.

Things always have a way of changing. It became harder and harder to make it in the New York world of fashion without a big money backer. It finally got too hard for Philip and Sunny to stay in the game. The world was changing, too. The black specter of HIV had entered the scene, and many friends were dying. Philip and Sunny went to California. New York was never the same for me without them.

After some more time had passed I learned that Philip was HIV positive and ill. It was very hard to take that one. I had hoped that somehow Philip and Sunny had dodged that bullet. Even though by the time Philip passed I had almost grown numb to the shock of seeing young, vital friends go, it was very hard for me with Philip. I was so far away from him. It all seemed so far away, and so unreal.

More time passed. Sunny was back in New York. Fred and I got together with him. But, somehow things seemed to have drifted and we eventually lost touch altogether. I think he also went back to California around that time.

So some years passed. I thought of Sunny often. I didn’t know where he was, and I wondered. This was before the internet. No emails, no Google.

But, then we entered the computer age and one night I was fooling around and decided to Google Sunny. I found a lot of press from the old days of fashion, but then I found a strange mention in a website featuring the music of Antony and the Johnsons. It was a bit vague but I thought the person mentioned was “my” Sunny. What became clear to me later was that in the video of the song, “You are My Sister,” there were several trans women that were called The Great Beauties. Sunny was one of those women. There was a place for contact on the website and I sent a message asking them to please have this person email me. Three weeks later, he did. The email said, “I am enclosing a picture that will explain about me right now.” (Or something to that effect.) The picture was of a beautiful, 40’ish  Japanese woman in an evening gown. It was, without a doubt, Sunny. It seems I was right in my first impression. What I saw was the woman who lived inside Sunny, who he was now fully expressing.  I was doubly happy to have found her, and to have found that she was still alive.

We got together the next time Fred and I were in New York. She was living on West 4th Street. We had walked past her apartment dozens of times, because we always stayed in the West Village. Sunny and I continued to get together. Whenever I was in New York we would have a girl’s day. I found it quite an interesting experience to be with Sunny as a woman. She seemed like a different person, but also the same. I felt closer to her as a female than I did to Sunny as a male. It is beautiful for me to remember Sunny at both these times.

The last time I got together with Sunny was the day I took this photo. Since we had retired we hadn’t taken any trips to New York. In April, 2014, Fred and I took a little New York vacation with Andrew and Kyle. On the last day I was in town, Sunny and I got together for lunch. I was wearing a scarf that Sunny had designed in the 1980’s. Her reaction was, “That’s beautiful fabric. I wish I had kept one of those.” Last summer when I was cleaning things out I realized that I had somehow ended up with two of those scarves. I sent one of them to Sunny, my beautiful friend.

 

Walk a Mile in Someone’s Shoes

This is a photograph I had the pleasure of taking of the very beautiful Xena Wilson, a trans woman. I know that many people have never known (or never known that they actually know) a transgender person. I like to share things like this so that people can hopefully understand this situation and that good people can have an more educated viewpoint. My post today is actually something I just saw on Xena’s FaceBook post. So, I am sharing. I think it makes a whole lot of sense. Thanks, Xena.

“Ok so I just got a phone call from New Talk Radio at 98.7 in Knoxville to do a radio interview this Friday at 10.Last night I did an interview for a group of college students the subject “The Bathroom Ordeal”. I have kept pretty quiet about it because I don’t like to put my issues on this platform. I do however have my point of view and I am going to state it now. One major reason is a long time friend of mine made a post two days ago how they were fine with people living their life how they want and to each their own but they didn’t want a transgender woman in the bathroom with their girls. FIRST off I have used the restroom with this person. Second transgender does not just apply to trans women…there are transgender men too. Third we are all just trying to go PEE. If you say it is so your children will not be exposed to perverts and child molesters you are sadly wrong. WE are not out to get your children!!!!!!!!! If a child molester or pervert, who DOES want to get your children, wants to they are going to get to your children inside or outside of a public restroom. There is not one instance where a trans person has been arrested for miss conduct in a restroom. I am SICK of being compared to child molesters. My trans friends and I are not perverts who are out to hurt children. THIS REALLY PISSES ME OFF!!!! I AM NOT A PERVERT OR A CHILD MOLESTER!!!!! If you people think that putting these laws into place are going to stop child molesters you are SADLY mistaken. All you are doing is segregating a group of people, who honestly, would protect your child if they saw something wrong going on. I would beat a MAN that would be going after a child in the women’s room and I know my trans brothers would do the same in the men’s room. I have nieces and nephews that I would die for and I would protect your child too. Putting me in a men’s restroom does not protect you BUT it does hurt us. Please get your head out of the clouds in thinking that these disgraceful laws are going to protect your child. That is a weak excuse to allow bigotry to keep on going. If you want to keep you children away from child molesters and perverts then you might as well put them in a bubble at home because these laws are not going to do it. You are either going to keep being part of the problem or you can be part of the solution. That is something you have to live with. You are either a bigot or you are not. And yes honey, being part of the issue DOES make you bigot. Is that what you want your children to see you as while they are growing up?” Xena Wilson

Dylan. Lipstick, Powder, and Paint #8

This bathroom scene is one of my favorites. It is such an intimate thing, for two people who are in a relationship with each other to share a bathroom. During those routine moments, when you do what you do everyday…put on your makeup, shave…you are lost in your own thoughts. Yet you are aware that the one you love is right beside you. Fred and did these same things most every morning in this room. I think Dylan captured this moment beautifully. This photo makes me feel nostalgic.

Lipstick, Powder, and Paint #2

I thought this series was going to be in a particular order. I decided this morning that since it is about what is on my mind, plus showing you photos, I needed to just decide each day what photo to post and what story I want to tell.Today, I have Sara Andrews on my mind.

Sara is a woman who was born a male. I have only known her as a woman, as she transitioned genders at a young age. Sara is a very talented performer. She performs drag. The women she creates for the stage have very little to do with Sara in her everyday life. She is a polite, well-behaved, lovely woman in her everyday life. At least, that has been my impression. I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sara for a few days a summer ago, when we both visited West Hollywood to go to Sutan Amrull’s Big Birthday party. We ended up all staying with Arnold at the place he was sharing with his manager and friend, Diana Coney. So, I would hang out with the regular-girl-next-door Sara during the day and then I would see her transform into her drag persona and hit the stage. Or, the night of the big party, I saw her transform herself into a movie starlet, who behaved a bit like Audrey Hepburn. She was not in drag that night. She was Sara Andrews all dolled up and on her best behavior. People loved her. I felt very glamorous to be her sidekick.

There is some discussion right now, provoked by RuPaul not welcoming trans performers to Drag Race, as to whether or not a person who has changed their gender identity can actually be a drag queen, as we usually think of drag as men impersonating women. And, I admit, that’s how I basically define drag. But, I also realize, that drag is not about the person performing…drag is about the persona that person has created. (I got this idea from a young man who posted a comment on Sara’s FaceBook.) Sara Andrews creates amazing personas of females. She does this as an art form, and a means of creative self-expression. And, I believe she has a ball doing it. She does it for fun. The audiences at Hamburger Mary’s loved her. Especially the women. She gets on the stage and behaves like the bad girl all of us would like to be. But, she isn’t cheesy…she is funny and just provocative enough to make sure her audience has as much fun as she does.

I don’t get all this argument. I know that RuPaul is not really a contest as much as it is reality television. The whole beehive that has been created around that show might be good for the art of drag, or it could possibly also have some negative effects. But, drag is always and forever drag….creating the female persona. Sara Andrews chooses to live as a woman and perform as a drag queen. Even though this can be a little hard to understand, I finally get it. Trans women and drag queens aren’t the same thing at all. That is, unless the trans woman is performing great, great drag!!  There you have it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Day to be Free in Your Body

This week I am thinking of unusual holidays, and the definite winner is a day this past February. Fred and I were staying in a suburb of Oaxaca City, and we were enjoying not only exploring the city itself, but also the surrounding villages. There are no finer craftspeople in Mexico than the Oaxacans. They have so many ways to express their creativity…rugs, pottery, clothing, glass, and, of course, mezcal. On this particular day we went to the village of Tilcajete, about an hour’s drive from where we were staying. In this village we looked forward to seeing the work of the artists who make the painted wooden animals. Sebastian, our wonderful guide, took us to the workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles Ojeda who are perhaps the most renowned craftspeople for these animals in the entire country. (I have much more to say, both about the wood carvings and our guide, but that isn’t what this post is about.)

After we saw that workshop we became very aware that a festival was going on in that village. While we were in the workshop it had really cranked up. I have seen carnival twice in the Yucatan, and many festivals in San Miguel de Allende, but never had I ever seen anything that could begin to compare with the otherworldliness of this one. Since it took place in a very small village where everyone knows each other, there was a sense of intimacy involved between the participants. The light that day was so intense and the air so clear and the surroundings were so unfamiliar to me that it truly did seem like another world and another place in time. Some of the men and boys had dressed as demons or evil spirits. Since all the people in this village are woodcarvers, the masks were absolutely works of art. Most of them had some sort of noise makers attached to their bodies, so that whet they moved, they made a lot of noise. The noise was added to by random fireworks that sounded like bombs, which made Pinky and I a bit uneasy. But, we maintained. The men in the costumes were just flitting around without any seeming plan or purpose. They had all covered their bodies with some sort of thick, greasy paint. They were scary-looking, but amusing to watch. Their vibe wasn’t frightening, it was funny. I was happy that they took great delight in having their pictures made.

While this was going on, in another part of the square, something even more remarkable was happening. It seems that what ever else this particular festival is, it is known as the day to be free in your body. This means that it is totally cool for people to change their gender identity for this day. To top this off, they have a little play about a wedding, with an evil intruder who tries to steal the groom from the bride, and a full wedding party with a brass band. The thing is that all the women in this play are men in drag. And, on the street as well, people are free to express any gender identity they like. Sebastian told us that when all the festivities came to an end, the mayor of the town was throwing a party for everyone.

I have heard for a while that Southern Mexico is quite tolerant of people who are transgender. There certainly didn’t seem to be a problem that day in the state of Oaxaca. The whole day was almost too much to believe. I would have been satisfied with a visit to the woodcarvers, but I also got a trip into another world. DSCF9575web

Seeing Double

I first saw Dylan Stephens modeling in women’s clothing on a runway show that was part of Nashville Fashion Week. I have enjoyed getting to know him, and photographing him. We did a series of photos using Dylan in a make-believe relationship between two people. Both the male and the female were Dylan. Dylan is a beautiful person who can be drop dead gorgeous as either gender. He has modeled both as a male and as a female. He is also a very fine actor, mostly recently appearing in a short film by Bralyn Stokes, “Silas.”

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down

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I was intrigued when I received a request from Dee Dee Renner to do her portrait. Dee Dee is a transgender performer at Play Night Club who has recently been recovering from a diagnosis of leukemia, and the chemo that followed. Earlier this summer she started to feel more and more exhausted, and when she went in to find out why, she received the bad news. She has spent most of her time since then going through what has had to be the most intense experience of her life.
Her support system has been amazing. Her mom, Joy, has been here with her the whole time. Her dad has spent a great deal of time in Nashville with her as well. Her employers and co-workers at Play have rallied to encourage
her, and there has been a page on Facebook, Prayers for Dee Dee, to keep her friends and fans up to date on her progress. On July 15, a benefit was held for her at Play, and she made a special Skype appearance. The exciting news now is that she will be at Play for her first live performance since before her diagnosis on September 6.
I have had the opportunity to photograph several people in the drag and transgender community, and I was honored that I was the person Dee Dee chose to record this time of her life. She wanted a really artistic portrait, not a promo head shot, to show that she was still herself, even though her hair was missing and the trials of her battle were showing on her face. I knew what she had in mind, and our photo shoot was, by its nature, very intimate. At the end, I was satisfied I had captured what we had in mind.
I believe that Dee Dee is on her way to a complete recovery, and I was inspired by her positive energy and strong attitude. I am sharing this photo as a tribute to her will to survive, and because it shows that even in the hardest of times, we can rise above the trouble and see the light ahead.

Dee Dee and Joy

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Fluidity

I first met Dylan Stevens when he was modeling this year for Nashville Fashion Week.  Dylan is a beautiful person who is capable of appearing as a male or a female, and he moves fluidly between the two. He might meet you for dinner in stilettos and jeans. What he does isn’t “drag” at all.  It is just amazing.  I asked him to let me photograph him and I started a whole series of photos with him having interactions with himself-both genders in the same scenario. Yes, photoshop was involved.  In a sense, there are many sides to each of us.  This project is about those possibilities.  I am very curious as to how people will react to these images.