Last night I felt like I was watching a champion: my child. He is taking part in the beginning stages of a movement much bigger than him, a timely expression of art by the amazingly brilliant artist, Libby O’Daniel. It is set for release to the public in January of 2018. I believe it will be ground-breaking. Gender creative people are suddenly owning their wings and taking flight, and it’s time for the world to see.
O’Daniel’s artist statement is that her work is a visual journal of her experiences as one who exists somewhere between feminine and masculine. I just realized after having connected with her that she, like me, is a fellow Meredith College alumna. (From that alone, I knew her education was solid!) She finished up a studio residency at Golden Belt in Durham last spring, and was subsequently awarded one of the two Regional Emerging Artist Residencies at Artspace in Raleigh. In May, she was named the “artist to watch” by ArtsNow, the digital home for the Triangle arts community.
I encourage everyone to check out her work. Here is yet another medium in which the expectations of societal gender roles can be looked at, analyzed, shattered, and ultimately understood – another way to further the gender conversation that we so desperately need right now. Her website reads, “by revealing the hidden and exposing social-norm projections, the viewer is invited to consider a more creative definition of gender. Through the process of art-making, I explore my own duality, seeking authenticity and self-acceptance, hoping to fashion a sense of belonging for myself and others like me.”
O’Daniel reached out to me after having read about Charlie in the Raleigh Agenda. She briefly described her project concept to me, and said it would be an honor to interview and take photos of Charlie so that she could paint his portrait. When I mentioned it to Charlie, he responded by covering his face with a couch throw pillow and screaming into it before falling flat out on the floor. Translation = YES. SIGN ME UP.
After the initial contact last month, yesterday was the day we were going to meet with Libby O’Daniel. Charlie has been having a rough few weeks in school between the constant, repetitive questioning (i.e., “Are you a boy or a girl?” “Why do you wear girl’s shoes?” and the mockery of both his voice and delicate mannerisms by a special select few children). I’ve quietly watched from the wings as he has chosen which days he could and could not fight the battle, which days he felt strong enough to wear his Justice “girly” shirts, and which days he felt war-torn and ended up compromising his spirit by wearing more masculine t-shirts. He has admittedly stated he’s not as comfortable with or happy wearing the “boy”shirts, or even the more “androgynous” shirts like the Minecraft ones. He really just wants to sparkle, all the time.
Yesterday afternoon, I reminded Charlie of our upcoming meeting. “Oh yeah!” he shouted suddenly, as his down disposition shifted to refreshing hope. We came home from school, he took a shower, brushed and flossed his teeth, put on a favorite “sparkly” outfit from Justice (a pink & black sequined skirt, rhinestone-studded “Dare to be You” t-shirt, and sparkly heart ‘best friends’ necklace – and of course, his pink & purple sparkly Twinkle Toe sneakers). He also requested permission to use my hairdryer, hair products, and lipstick. I have to say he did a great job of self-styling. To finish off the look, I suggested a bobby pin to hold back the hair that normally hangs over his eyes. He loved the idea.
“Turn around and face me so I can see better,” I said. While I was working the bobby pin into his thick pile of still-damp hair, Charlie looked up at me, reflected for a few seconds, and asked, “Mom?” “Yes?” I replied, expecting next, “Can we go to McDonald’s?” But instead he said, “Thank you.” I paused. Charlie continued, “Thank you for loving me, thank you for writing about me, thank you for letting me do all this, just…thank you for everything.” His eyes were full of love and his words were soft and earnest. Holding back tears I immediately embraced him, knowing full well how difficult it is to have a 10-year-old child say “thank you,” ever, let alone for something so deep, so personal, and all completely of his own will. We hugged for a long time and I said, “Buddy, you are so welcome. But you don’t have to thank me for these things. I just want you to be happy.” He smiled back at me and said, “I am.”
As we made our way to the car, Charlie stopped and offered to pose while I took a few photographs in the front yard. He felt like unleashing his inner supermodel. Without direction, he began throwing a variety of poses and expressions, so I just started snapping pictures. I am really happy with these photos, because they allow the viewer to see the undeniable, unbridled joy that I see every time he dresses in “girls” clothing. Not everyone gets to see this contagious bliss. I mean, his whole demeanor at school is 180 degrees different than this.
By coincidence, (or maybe serendipity?) on the same day that Charlie had his photograph taken to have his portrait painted, CoverGirl made history by introducing its first ever CoverBoy, James Charles, who stands beside Katy Perry in a photograph, sporting an androgynous look with full-on femme makeup. And he looks FIERCE.
I sense the tides turning in a big way. Thank heavens for that. I’ve been saying for a long time that this conversation is way overdue, but it feels like until this past summer, the message has been falling on a lot of deaf ears. But I still dream of a world where one day, shattered gender roles are the norm instead of neat little binary boxes.
The evening with our new artist friend was wonderful. She talked with Charlie and helped him feel comfortable before taking pictures or doing the recorded interview. She asked him what kind of music he liked so she could put some on in the background while she photographed him. His answer? “Mostly game theme songs like Undertale or Stephen Universe, but also Hamilton, Amy Winehouse, you know…” (Okay, I will own the Hamilton and Amy Winehouse influence). He finally settled on Katy Perry or Lady Gaga (two of his obsessions since kindergarten.)
As the photographs were taken, Charlie at first had some trouble relaxing. But once he was relaxed, he had trouble sitting still. He kept having to hold himself back from busting out some hot dance floor moves. It was a joy to watch. I took a few photos of him being photographed. I love these three, but especially the middle one where he’s sitting up straight, staring into the camera, looking fierce with a hint of subtlety. As a friend pointed out, it looks like Charlie is saying, “Look at me and see me for who I am.”
Everything else went just as well. When asked what he wanted to be when he grows up, Charlie stated, “A supermodel, and a person who designs new characters for video games.” I don’t know what or who he’ll end up being, but I have no doubt he will leave his mark on this world, and leave it a better place than he found it. I believe this about all three of my kids for different, equally admirable reasons.
At the end of our evening, it was especially touching that Libby gave Charlie two gifts of appreciation for his participation. The first was a teeny-tiny artist’s canvas, which of course Charlie LOVED, because he loves any and everything replicated in miniature fashion. And also, she gave him a cute flower on a long ribbon that could be used as either as a belt or a head band. This, she said, was something that had once belonged to her. Which made it all the more special. I then got this picture of Libby and Charlie, right after he put the belt on. (Notice he’s holding the little canvas, of which she autographed the plastic wrap).
Since we’ve sort of gone “public,” I have to say that the best part of this whole journey has been the amazingly extraordinary people we’ve met – whether in person, over the phone, over e-mail, or via video chats. These are human beings who we never, ever would have even crossed paths with otherwise. And every one of them has touched our lives in uniquely meaningful ways – which is the greatest gift of all.