Gender, as we now know, isn't a dichotomy — it's a spectrum, with people falling on a wide scale of binary and non-binary gender identities.
Photographer Lois Bielefeld wanted to represent as much of that spectrum as possible with her photo series Androgyny. I spoke with Bielefeld about her inspiration for the series (comprised of 57 portraits, three short films, and a non-functioning public restroom installation that plays interviews with the subjects), and what capturing the individuals she featured has taught her about gender — however one chooses to define it.
"Androgyny," Bielefeld said, is mostly based off of her own personal experience. "I have a history in my youth of embracing androgyny," she said, including being misidentified by other people.
While it doesn't happen so much anymore, her partner, Jackie, has many "bathroom stories" in which she's still mis-gendered.
"Personally, I love gender fluidity," Bielefeld said, "and when people are thrown off-kilter from their need categorize and navigate within our binary system."
"We perform our gender each day as it is completely socially constructed. ... I wanted a neutral [studio] space that was only about the person and how they choose to present themselves."
Despite the title of the series, not every individual Bielefeld spoke to and photographed identified as androgynous.
"The people that participated identify all over the gender spectrum from transgender to genderqueer to androgynous."
Ian (Jillian), 2014.
(The latter's roots, she notes, ironically stems from the binary system — from 'andro' [man] and 'gyn' [woman].)
Kids, in particular, were excited to participate in the series. "The children often, I think, felt like they suddenly were a part of something after so often feeling unaccepted, bullied, or like they didn't necessarily fit in."
The audio component, which takes place in a non-functioning restroom, was important to the series because it highlighted the need for safe, unisex bathrooms.
"Everyone [I spoke to] had a bathroom story," Bielefeld said, and sometimes, they're scary — like being chastised for being in the "wrong" bathroom, or having their presence questioned and bullied.
As one participant said, "Just trying to simply go to the bathroom was a big adventure, because other women would freak out when they'd see me."
"I definitely know that I'm female," said another, "but I also know that I have some self-concept as male, as well... but I feel very much that it's something that other people decide for me."
"On the flip side," Bielefeld noted, "my subjects spoke about the empowerment that comes with gender fluidity ... [and] regularly spoke about just being themselves."
"The Bathroom" exhibit is a part of the permanent collection the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City.
You can see the rest of the photos in Bielefeld's series on her website, along with the audio interviews with her subjects.
Bielefeld is represented by Portrait Society Gallery.