What Is Your Transgender Architecture?!

When I was a kid, I used to generate endless floor plans of my future dream home; there were usually several geometric-shaped decks and courtyards to promote outdoor living (and to celebrate right triangles and trapezoids, apparently). Most of my floor plans also featured a big open space—meaning very few interior walls, but definitely exterior walls and a roof--with lots of windows and skylights for the business of waking hours, and more traditional, walled bedrooms in a separate wing or around the periphery of the big open living space. As radical as I thought my dream homes would be, my techniques as well as my imagination were fairly rote and mostly gleaned from my Dad, an architect by training who developed small, inexpensive homes, though he did subscribe to more creative and luxurious inspirations like Architectural Digest.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about design and planning and how to do it in a transgender way. Prompted by Chris Vargas' Facebook post last month, “Does anyone know any transgender architects (actual or aspiring)? I need a museum designed, ASAP,” my significant other continues to ask me what a transgender architecture (NOT architect) would look like. I have no idea if a similar question underlies this call for a transgender architect. I do know that Chris Vargas intends to open SFMUTHA: the San Francisco Museum of Transgender History and Art, and I have a feeling that the design of this museum may be rather non-traditional. I mean, come on--a transgender-themed museum?! There could possibly be some outlandish design scheme for such a venue. But what does that mean and what would it look like? And why does my significant other keep asking me for the answers!? I’m definitely not an architect, rarely feel very creative, and mostly feel constrained by the rules of society whether formalized into laws, codes, protocols, curriculum requirements, or just plain old custom.

My immediate reaction is to imagine a fluid, open, and very organic space that somehow violates our ingrained sense of what it means to be in a museum. I picture hierarchies and codes broken, the “natural” world (i.e. trees and plants) trying to envelop and intersect with the space, and roles reversed or blurred between subjects and objects. But, not unlike the Harry Benjamin Standards of yore, how much will regulatory factors like funding and building codes limit or override that non-traditional, transgender design?

Plus, to be or have been transgender is not necessarily to be non-normative and a proponent of fluidity and creative gender expressions. Many trans persons are quite normative and identify with the binary model. Some are living the “dream” and have married, pay a mortgage, and live in the suburbs with straight identities and gender conformity intact. Will there be a wing at SFMUTHA that is more distinctly normative and bounded by walls and dress codes and maybe a white picket fence? Will those walls occasionally come tumbling down, similar to when one who is living stealth is outed, or when one decides to live in queer communities or as explicitly trans-identified? And will a wall occasionally be rebuilt (i.e. an installation of sorts?) as when someone in queer community feels forced to go under the radar as stealth when moving to a new place that is less urban and less tolerant? Is it even possible to live stealth anymore with all the numerous ways in which data is collected and aggregated about our various browsing habits, mouse clicks, and credit card purchases? Will SFMUTHA have a room under heavy, constant surveillance to symbolize the heightened awareness that most trans persons have had to have around their privacy and identity.

Some of these architectural questions have invariably crossed over to my more immediate concerns with producing an event, a trans* event. How do we design and plan for it? What will the format be? Who will be represented and by whom? Will there be a skill-share? What kind of limitations does the auditorium we’ll be using impose upon our format? If we have a panel, how can we engage the audience and minimize the hierarchical distance between panel and audience? How do we generate an organic and comprehensible dialogue among various trans communities, stakeholders, students and faculty, while also maintaining a safe space?

I’ve (re)realized that as much as I think of myself as a challenger of normative regimes in school, friendship, family, and romance, I continue to oscillate between practical considerations and more liberating, riskier ones. And maybe that’s what my transgender architecture looks like: a weaving and bobbing between codes and vivid imagination, where barriers and walls are overcome in multiple ways and sometimes not at all, but more often than not highlighting how design elements shape the ways we know ourselves and each other. If nothing goes too awry, collaborations like these—whether a more simple event or an entire museum--enable creations of the unexpected and lay more solid foundations for future ones; ones that will continue to engage and maybe even challenge the structures that both enable and limit our expression.

Speaking of Chris Vargas and SFMUTHA , check out the first survey of  Vargas' film work this Tuesday, February 26th at 9 PM at Anthology Film Archives in NYC at this special Dirty Looks screening! Advanced tickets recommended.

Hale T.

Hale moved (back) to Chicago in 2011; he rides his bike around town looking for peculiar intersections of public health, art, politics, and community-building.

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