January 15, 2020
From the pages of Issue 5: Black + White
How one photographer explores the relationship between the landscape and trans bodies.
By Lou Bank | @lou.bank
Celebrating Trans Bodies Outdoors
Taking my shirt off in public for the first time was terrifying, much more than expected. I tried so hard to look normal. I’d spent so much time practicing at home, trying on my swimsuit and modeling in the mirror with a towel around my waist, but it was still strange not to have to cover my chest. My hands instinctively moved to hide breasts that no longer existed. Alone, this chosen body looks like me. It’s a dream come true. Yet it still takes time to get used to how it feels to be seen.
I underwent gender-affirming top surgery on September 20, 2019. For weeks I was stuck at home and could barely move my arms. I usually climbed at least three times a week and wanted desperately to move freely. I needed something to look forward to after all this stillness, so I decided to plan a trip across the country to visit friends and celebrate trans bodies outdoors.
Strawberry Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs
Rae and I met in college and they have been one of my closest friends for the past seven years. They were my first non-binary friend and they have helped me through many life changes, including my transition.
Soaking in the hot springs with Rae loosened muscles wound tight from years of binding and bad posture. Water embraces all bodies equally holding us steadily afloat. Its warmth massaged my healing scars and helped numbed nerves reawaken. I felt cleansed after allowing my body to rest and simply exist as it is.
Happy Boulders in Bishop
I met Syd a couple of years ago at my local climbing gym, Brooklyn Boulders. They were my first friend who had taken steps to medically transition. They had top surgery a few years before I met them and I saw in them a potential future for myself where I could feel comfortable in my body. Going outdoors for the first time without tits was going to be an emotional journey, but I couldn’t map out my future feelings like a road trip. It was a long six months waiting for my scars to heal, and I was anxious to take my chosen body outdoors for the first time.
Climbing with Syd and their matching top surgery scars helped me feel less alone. Each time my chest brushed against rock I was forced to acknowledge my tenderness and strength. It was startling to feel the cool roughness of rock on such fresh skin, my scars still sensitive from the trauma of surgery. I could feel skin pulling to accommodate a reach, but other movements felt smooth, fluid, and strong.
Top surgery has helped my dysphoria subside, but the scars left traversing my torso make my transness impossible to hide. As we ventured outdoors, away from our homes in liberal cities like New York, Oakland, and Boulder, I began to realize that my transition has made me less in control of how I am perceived and more vulnerable to transphobia. I was hyper-aware of how we were looked at and kept tabs as people came and went from the hot springs and as groups passed us at the crag. I had anticipated internal tension while getting to know my new body, but had underestimated the weight of the risks that exposing it brings. I tried to relax and enjoy being in my chosen body outdoors, but I knew I could not let my guard down completely.
Being seen can be scary, but it can also be euphoric. Both Rae and Syd have always made me feel seen, especially when I couldn’t see myself. It was comforting to be with people who knew me so well and could relate to my experience in a trans body. They have known me and this body through its evolutions. As I got used to being shirtless and exposing my scars, I began to feel more authentically me.
Becoming Part of the Landscape
This trip was a big step in normalizing my non-normative body. It helped me come to terms with how I am perceived and what it feels like to be seen. When I first started photographing, I could barely look at the pictures. I wasn’t used to seeing this body reflected back at me. I began to wonder if my trans body was as wrong and grotesque as I had been told it was. However, as I spent more time photographing, I began to see connections between the landscape and our trans bodies. These bodies that I had been told were wrong began to feel perfectly natural. The scars across our chests mimicked cracks in the rock. These cracks showed strength and told histories. Our bodies have proven themselves steady and strong; they grow and change through seasons, much like the trees. I found beauty, grace, and stillness in taking my trans body outdoors. I began to see that our trans bodies deserve the same tenderness and respect that we show toward the outdoors. As we swam and climbed, we became part of the landscape and the natural world.