For our Sex Etc issue cover, Cape Town-based art duo Mr & Mrs Leal come together to create an artwork exploring the vastness of trans-identity.
I Am My Own Fantasy
Since starting his medical transition, Wes Leal (@mr_leal__) has given his friends and followers an invaluable opportunity to better understand and respect transgender people. His ever-changing relationship with gender is one that can only be expressed in lengthy ramblings on the couch with wife Boni (@sensitive_black_dyke). Here the art duo and activists – known as Mr and Mrs Leal – discuss the gender binary and their collaborative artistic practice.
Boni: This is our first time working together outside of our make-shift studio/apartment! So weird.
Wes: Yeah so so weird. You’re normally naked with nothing but a camera around your neck when we’re making work together! [Wes laughs].
B: [Laughing] That’s how I feel the most comfortable when I work! Anyway, let’s get into it. So we’re here shooting for Three Mag’s Sex, Etc. issue and so I have to ask: What is the first definition of ‘sex’ that comes to mind when you hear the word?
W: Unfortunately, the word brings me back to a lot of adolescent discomfort I experienced in Biology class where sexual education was all ‘penis in vagina’ and I was being taught to avoid pregnancy. It just wasn’t me. I wasn’t being spoken to or taught about myself and my body which sucked.
B: Yeah, I also felt incredibly disconnected from the sexual education I received at our old high school and especially at my primary school. I knew I wasn’t interested in having sex with cisgender men and so everything I was taught is completely irrelevant!
We’ve often discussed how mainstream language often excludes people like us because it neglects to understand that we exist at the intersections of multiple identities. I don’t know if you want to expand on that?
W: Drawing on my own experiences I’ve come to the conclusion that people have so much unlearning to do when it comes to gender and that trans and non-binary people are the ones suffering because of that volume of ignorance. I’m a transmasculine non-binary person and a lot of people say that they understand what that means but continue to use language that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable.
‘…you’ve taught me to throw out the idea that anything is inherently masculine or inherently feminine’
I think people’s increasing awareness of transgender people’s existence coupled with ‘woke’ culture – or whatever you wanna call performative allyship and consciousness- allows cisgender people to interact with us without ever having to actually understand us. Their proximity to us, in a society that has quickly commodified queerness for clout, gives them legitimacy but what do they give back to the trans people they have aestheticised?
“I felt the same pressure that a lot of trans people feel to over-perform or overcompensate so others will see them for who they are”
I think that people assume they’re being affirming by calling me ‘man’ or something like that but it makes me feel weird. Yes, I’m on masculinising hormones, yes I identify as a boy but that’s only because it’s unfortunately the closest word that describes me. But no, I don’t and will never aspire to be read as a cisgender man. I don’t want to pass as a cisgender man, I don’t want to lose my femininity because those are the things I love most about myself. People expected me to suddenly be into things I was never really into to begin with. Like soccer and beer and complicated handshakes [laughs]. It’s just not me.
B: Yeah you’ve expressed this often. I mean it’s kind of the idea behind this shoot we’re doing here today. From my side, I’ve watched you really come into your femininity in ways I wasn’t really expecting. But more than that, you’ve taught me to throw out the idea that anything is inherently masculine or inherently feminine and that bullshit binary is something I have to consciously work on unlearning and I think this shoot was a really good way to kind of make this conversation we’ve had so many times visible.
W: Yeah. When you approached me with the concept to have me interact with myself I immediately wanted to explore different personas, identities and roles that reflect my journey since transitioning.
“Not enough [cisgender people] are committed to understanding the vastness of gender-variance.”
In the beginning of my transition I felt the same pressure that a lot of trans people feel to over-perform or overcompensate so others will see them for who they are. This phase in my life is represented by the version of me in the leather vest who was inspired by Tom of Finland’s hypermasculinised erotic illustrations of gay men. That version of me was all about delivering a performance that everyone expected. I couldn’t like or do anything ‘feminine’ because according to everyone else’s understanding of transness, I should be ashamed of the body I was born in. It’s a common misconception.
Then the second character, in those absolutely sick thigh high boots, is a representation of when I started to embrace my femme, live my fantasy [laughs], and just how I stopped being afraid of things like makeup, lingerie and heels. And that’s a pretty amazing and powerful thing. Those things used to have so much power over me. They had the ability to make me feel so uncomfortable and numb when I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise myself and now they’re just clothes and makeup. They say nothing about me other than ‘I want to look like this today’. It’s such a good feeling.
“I’m really proud that we were able to turn one of many conversations into something.”
And for the third character in chaps (by Trotse Tert / @trotse_tert) , I guess that represents me looking back on those turning points in my life. Totally captivated, arrested [laughs]. Yeah, just looking on in admiration of the many versions of me that exist. It’s important to honour that as a trans person who has experienced being boxed and ultimately misunderstood.
B: I definitely can confirm that cisgender people’s understanding of trans identity is extremely limited. Not enough of us are committed to understanding the vastness of gender-variance. I was fortunate enough to have you openly share your experiences with me and make me see things in a way I hadn’t. And I think a lot of our work starts that way. A conversation about our lives, how and where they differ and how they’re the same.
We’ve had so many tough conversations because as much as we both know we love each other, we just can’t fully understand certain things about each other lives. We’ve often spoken about race and we’re talking more and more about gender and so I’m really proud that we were able to turn one of many conversations into something. I hope I get to make things with you forever!
W: Aw! Of course we will my angel. I enjoy the way you push me to look deeper into my subject matter and interrogate my intentions and positionality. I think that you’re my greatest reference point. In times when I can’t think of how to advance an idea or execute it, I come to you and turn it into something even bigger. We both wanted to be exhibiting artists and we got to do that together with our own work and with the work we’ve created together. I just feel like this was meant to be. You’re the perfect collaborator.
Concept: Boni Leal (@sensitive_black_dyke)
Art direction + styling : Mr and Mrs Leal featuring chaps by Trotse Tert
Photography: Alex Paterimos (@alxethelion)
Model: Wes Leal
Makeup: Wes Leal
Shot in studio with Mr George’s Studio
Styling: Mr and Mrs Leal