University of Cape Town
Cape Town, South Africa
The world he built for me to live in traces a seemingly ordinary nuclear family living in an outlying suburb of Cape Town. This family, my family, is at first glance unremarkable, but if one scratches the surface there is tension that lies beneath. Society and politics, their norms and prejudices, are made up of seemingly ordinary families like this one. At the centre of my family is my older brother. I am devoted to my brother, much like any younger sibling is of their older sibling. He has been a source of information to me while growing up, teaching me about equality, compassion and storytelling. He has taught me about gender, and how to perform it. He has shaped me, but I also shape him – it feels like in a much less profound way. I feel I must protect him and take care of him. I want to do it, because sometimes he seems so vulnerable. I am also under pressure to play the part of the responsible, protective older sibling, applied to me by my mother. She sees him as even more sensitive to the world than I do. She shelters him too much – and she expects me to do the same, sometimes to my own detriment. I am not my brother’s parent, and I resent him for the burden he sometimes feels like to me and for this resentment I have heavy guilt. This guilt keeps my mouth shut when I must sacrifice small things in my life for my brother. My brother was diagnosed as autistic when we were very young, but only began to understand what it meant for him around late adolescence. For this he has been given less independence and a lot more slack when it comes to responsibility from our family. At that point he could pick out differences between himself and other people his age. When my brother started to inwardly question his gender identity, he became very difficult to be around – anger and depression linked to gender dysphoria. Somewhere in the discomfort of my family life that ensued, I became the ‘good daughter’ (trapped to always saying the right thing, if I was required to say anything at all). This came from my need to not only please, but damper any displeasure that I was not even involved in creating. My father did not understand my brother’s seemingly theoretical concepts of ‘gender identity’ at first. Tension and emotion were high, and they would fight endlessly. My family is a quiet one, very introverted, and the shock of raised voices and hot anger shook me to my core. My mother was working a lot at that time, and I was left the only bystander and witness to these arguments – trapped in the car on the way home from school, around the dinner table once it was dark and I couldn’t get out the house. The heat of those arguments is all burned up now. But for many months the only language my father could use to describe his son was “Gemma’s brother”. Now my father uses the right he/him pronouns and they can connect over their similar stubbornness. He had to mourn the loss of a daughter and then learn to love a son. He needed that process, but not all do. He seems a lot older now compared to then, only a few years ago. I do not know what it is he thinks he lost. Despite the family tension, my brother coming out as transgender (FtM) and starting to physically transition has incited us to shelter him even more. We must and do love him and are constantly reminded that being transgender makes the world more dangerous to him – harsher. The majority of my photographs are taken in my family home. The space holds so much memory. There might be an ornament on a bookcase that has never once in my life been moved. Dust settles fast. The only difference is that to the framed photos on the bookshelves, where I have removed the ones of my brother as a little girl so as not to make him uncomfortable. He did not ask me to do this, but on occasion I have seen him frown at those photos, and then he won’t come out of his room for the rest of the day. Many of these portraits were of both of us as children in pink. I look back in time to try to mark the moment things began to change – I will never be able to pinpoint it, only my brother will know. The past lives with us in the present. The oak trees in the garden stay solid and rooted. Family is so hard to change, but when change strikes, it is frightening. In March 2020 my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a lumpectomy. She now shares chest scars with my brother and the complicated feelings around femininity that follow. This bonds them. I am not a part of that bond. My brother’s top surgery, which removed his breasts, while more brutal, did not involve the weeks of radiation that followed. The same week of my mother’s surgery, South Africa went into lockdown to combat the spread of Covid-19, the coronavirus. The nation went into stasis – a mandatory liminal space. The sea-side village community we live in went quiet: the streets, the gossiping old people, the barking dogs, all quiet. My brother and I returned home from our university digs, falling sheepishly back into the habits of our childhood home. My parents love nature and my brother usually is an indoors body. This little thing, no more than a difference in likes and dislikes, has led to many an argument about ‘hours on the computer’ and ‘not getting enough fresh air’. My brother hasn’t always been so inclined to stay indoors: as he started to explore gender and become more dysphoric towards his body, he became more aware of the dangers of being transgender. Being outside, in public domain, was a threat to him. It was interesting to move the photographing of him and my parents from inside to outside. My brother exists in his own little bubble of habits – placing him outside reminded me that he does in fact live in context to the rest of us. My brother is much more happy to relax in our garden nowadays, but it is not a space of comfort and play for him. A large part of my brother’s gender experience was influenced by media – books, films, the internet. Thus, media is a repeating theme in my work, linking with the concept of theatre and performance – and the performance of gender and family and online presence. All these forms of media are liminal. These are resources of great worth to most introverts. The internet acted as a gateway to queer and trans discourse, knowledge and community that my brother could not experience in real life. However, it also exposed him to those who are homophobic and transphobic from across the globe. That is not too say my brother has not seen transphobia in the real world – sometimes it walks into our house and has tea with our mother, thinking it is most progressive just for not being disgusted. My brother was tested by society. He had to prove his commitment to his gender and blur lines of gender. And he did, again and again: when he found the courage to ask us to call him by a different name and pronouns; when he cut his hair; when he stopped wearing feminine clothes and asked us to help him buy new clothes; when he had gender-affirming surgery; when he legally changed his name and pronouns. When my brother started to transition, our family was flung into a liminal space – an ambiguous space of constant change. Liminal space is that of great transition: suspension of what was before, without yet having reached what will be: It is a threshold (Thomas, 2018). It is both a space of time and potentially physical location wherein you experience uncertainty, discomfort and exploration, solidifying your identity bit by bit (Thomas, 2018). My brother’s experience of liminal space is very clear, including the realisation that his birth-assigned sex does not correlate with his gender, as well as his physical transition process. Similar to my brother, I experienced my own liminality: trapped between playing a parent to my brother and a daughter to my parents. I found I was not taken seriously as an adult and was not given the luxury of dependence like a child. This liminal space just before adulthood is not uncommon, but my experience is dependent on my brother’s liminal space. I can only move on and be myself as an adult once my brother can be that for himself. My coming-of-age exploration is intertwined with his. When my brother began to visually present as more male, the people around us began to feminise me. My immediate family is not exempt from this. For the first time since kindergarten I was receiving pink gifts and could feel the expectation to perform stereotyped womanly duties – cooking, cleaning and caring. A lot of these actions come naturally to me – or perhaps I have been constructed by society to think that it is natural to me. Just as, perhaps, society misguidedly curated my brother as female. It is worth mentioning here that my intensified discomfort with femininity was caused by other people’s expectations of how women should exist. It was not caused by my brother’s trans-ness. We all have our own stories in mind – of which we are the centre. My project has in some ways been about finding some kind of closure. After many years of feeling defined by my place in my family, especially in relation to my brother, I am hoping that this project marks a change. I want a specific ending to my story – an ‘ideal ending’. The difficulty with aiming for an ideal ending, is surprisingly not that the ‘ideal’ is a fiction, but rather that things do not always end. Things, such as time, ideas and identities progress. My photographs chart a story of my family dynamic – and how my brother becoming my brother influenced each member of my family, including himself. As I begin to sense my parents’ mortality, as I care for them and my brother, as I am in the nest but preparing to leave it, I look at my ordinary complex family with new eyes. To most of the people in our life who know us, I am the more ‘worldly’ of the two siblings, but he has built that world for me. In a sense this is my coming of age story, a story that extends back into my childhood and forward into my future as I look back at the people who have taught me everything I know.