The boy in the San Francisco Mission district coffee shop, bent over his laptop with the baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, looks more like one of the neighborhoodâs many Latino teenagers than a hot shot 25-year-old Paris-based photographer. Tattoos snake up both arms and peek out from the collar of his buttoned down shirt. The curved horns of a nose ring peer from his nostrils.
He tells me that when bio guys find out about his past they claim, âYeah, I can see itâin your eyes. I could totally tell.â
I doubt it. I ask what the transgender community is like in France.
âThere are, like, five of us,â Kael T. Block laughs.
One of the few things I know about the French is that we owe queer theory to French intellectuals. Block says he thinks the French obsession with âdismantling genderâ is a response to the cultureâs romantic language. Unlike English, French is a gendered language in which everything genderedâobjects like chairs and lamps, verbs and their tenses, adjectives, everything. While this allows for a greater ability to do what Block calls âplay with genderâ by, say, using feminine pronouns for masculine objects, it also presents the world in a very gendered light.
In contrast to some French feminists, Block doesnât want to do away with gender.
âI like gender,â he insists with a smile. âItâs like a color. You can chose to use it or not.â
The artist also likes being upfront about his transgender status.
âIâm a âtransmanâ and proud of it,â he says, not being one to chose assimilation. Block points out that the term âmanâ doesnât do justice to his complexity. ââMan,â is not my identity; itâs taking away all my revolution and my transgression, all my decisions, all my identity. Itâs not saying everything.â
The photographer initiated his project xxboys (xxboys.20six.fr) as a way to connect with and give representation to other 18-to 30-year-old FTMs. He says he responded to the rebellious sexiness of the xxboys monikerâa label he first spied on a T-shirt. âIt sounded like a gangâs name. It was telling everything in a sexy way.â
Block likes to photograph his stark black and white portraits of transmen pressed against chainlink fences or in public restrooms.
âBathrooms,â Block explains, âare so graphic.â He loves their block and concrete walls, the angles, and especially the graffiti, which Block says make the walls look hacked. âBathrooms give you privacy to plot revolution or to make out, and they give instant proximityâproximity I need in my pictures.â
Blockâs photographs reveal the diversity of the trans boy experience, capturing punks and queers, street youth, hip hop stars and creative artists. His images provide positive and erotic imagery that contrasts sharply with the clinical pre- and post-surgery documentary photos that adorn so many FTM websites.
âI think we lacked the word âsexyâ in our identity,â Block reflects about the lack of erotic imagery of transmen. Calling his work political,â Block argues his photography empowers his subjects. Not only do a lot of boys meet each other and make connections during his photo shoots, Block says, âThe experience of having your picture taken in this context gives you a lot of confidence. Pictures are empowering.â