Lose The Beard: An Interview With New York Photographer Thomas Evans On His Project, "Femme The Man"

On an early Friday evening with the sun still out and the intense heat, I made arrangements to meet up with Thomas Evans, a photographer based in New York. Evans is the man behind a project that recently went viral, Feminizing the Masculine Man (or Femme the Man, for short). In this campaign, Evans takes photos of men who you would see walking the streets of Chelsea or Hell’s Kitchen: muscular, tatted, hairy chests, full-grown beards. The twist?  The photos of the men show them both as their regular presentations, and as a feminized version of themselves, donning wigs, makeup, and posing in a stereotypically feminine manner.

We met up at FIKA Café in Chelsea. This was actually my first time interviewing someone, so I was a bit nervous about the reaction I would get from some of the more pressing questions. Asking Evans, a white man, about racial representation in his project seemed like a daunting task, but in asking those questions, I feel as though he was extremely reflective. He cites that the project is very new and came about from this political climate of masculine dominance known as Donald Trump and his administration. “We have another white fucking masculine president, who’s a horrible person,” he says of Trump.

As of late July, he’s only photographed 12 models so far and has reached out to others. While he has only photographed 3 men of color, he has made it clear that it is “an all-inclusive campaign.” I think Evans’ intent is there, but he mentions that by next year, he might have a lot more to say and think about in his on-going project and pursuit in challenging the binary.

EFNIKS: What brought about the conception and launch of the Feminizing the Masculine Man project?

Thomas Evans (TE):
I guess we should probably start from me as a child, because art is life and life imitates art, so I can only sort of express or be interested in things that I have gone through as a child, and this will lead up to what has inspired me to create the campaign. As a child, I was very feminine as a kid and I had these attributes and I was teased horribly in school. School was very, very difficult for me.

EFNIKS: I know that feeling all too well.

TE:
I played with dolls, I had long, shaggy hair and I was mistaken for a girl once. They were like, “Aren’t you a pretty girl?” I was sort of taken aback by that. I was around 10 or 11. After that, kids at school would tease me. “Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or girl?”

I come from a very blue-collar family background. I have four uncles who were young and always talking about banging women and they were mechanics. You know, the typical masculine American man. I was not like that. I was artistic, listening to Madonna, dancing around in my room. Somewhere along the line, I started developing this shame of who I was and how I acted.

…and you know what’s really funny? Even on the way here, on the subway, sometimes when I sit on the train, I cross my legs.

EFNIKS: I do too.

TE:
…and sometimes, I look around and I uncross them because it’s like this underlined thing of, like, “Are people going to think that I’m gay or feminine?” you know what I mean? I’m unlearning those things that I told myself in order to fit into society.

So, now as an adult and after soul-searching and I went through addiction in my 20s. I was coming out and I was introduced to the gay lifestyle of clubs and drugs and I thought that’s what being gay meant. My recreation turned into addiction and then, getting clean at 26 and finding myself, I have unlearned those attributes where I can now feel more comfortable in my own skin.

So, [for] this project, I’ve always, as an artist, been interested in social issues. I did another campaign called HIV= which was around HIV and HIV testing and that went national and international. We went to Zimbabwe and did these amazing testing events. With this campaign, I sort of was really interested in fighting shame again. That’s sort of how I was inspired and, as an artist, I just love being around eccentric people: drag queens, the trans community. I love beauty and glamour, and so, the campaign is…it’s funny because some people don’t understand it and really, there are many different roads that lead to this campaign. Art is subjective. So, everyone has their own view. They can create their own story that goes along with it. Me, I want this to be ironic. I wanted the IDEA of masculinity in society. What society has programmed us to believe is masculine: muscles, hairy chest, tattoos is usually a sign of masculinity. So, in picking my models, I wanted that to fit that mold and then what’s considered feminine in society: hair, makeup, soft, feminine…and so I sort of threw those two in as a mix. That sort of I guess how it came along.

I know that was sort of a long story… (laughs) But I wanted to give you a little bit of background.

EFNIKS: No, I think that sort of leads into the next question: How did you yourself push the envelope in not just making this project a reality but to challenge your own thoughts on masculinity?

TE:
It’s constantly changing and evolving, my own thoughts. Especially in this political climate that we’re in. Again, we have another white fucking masculine president, who’s a horrible person.

EFNIKS: Don’t even get me started on Darth Cheeto. I really don’t wanna…

TE: Right? So, it’s like, we take 2, 3 steps forward and then…it’s like a pendulum. The pendulum swung back and now, hopefully, we’ll take a step back and then this will propel us to take 2 more steps forward. That’s how I always see things.

So, the political climate was definitely something that pushed me to create this campaign also. That inspired me to do this.

I’m constantly pushing myself. First of all, organizing a shoot? So fucking challenging. You have to organize the people, you have to get the makeup artists, you have to get the studio…so, it’s a lot, but I feel like it’s really important. The last set of images that I did caused this amazing dialogue. I’m an Instagram person. I’m really heavily on Instagram. One of the images got over 4,500 likes and tons of comments, and people were like fighting and arguing and I feel like that’s what I really want to happen.

EFNIKS: Was it a tough process to bring yourself to a mindset where you could make yourself comfortable with seeing muscular men donning wigs and makeup?

TE:
No, it was very comfortable for me, but I work in a dual process. One focus is always on the participant, which is the model, and then one focus is on the audience. So, what I try to do is create a safe space for my models to express this other side of them. So, there’s sort of two things going on at the same time in a shoot, or in my mind, of who I want to touch and be affected by it.

EFNIKS: Now, for you as a New Yorker like myself, you've explored the scene. You've seen the divides within our community by not just gender norms and body standards, but racial lines as well. Seeing that you've worked with some gay men of color, what have you noticed and seen from these particular men in the process of this project?

TE:
For this campaign, I think I photographed maybe 12 people altogether so far. It’s an ongoing campaign. 2 African-American men and then there was a Puerto Rican, but from the two [African American men], they were already on-board with it. They really wanted to sort of express that other side, so it wasn’t a challenge. I mean, I have reached out to other people via social media. One of the things [you have to do] in order to participate in the campaign, if you have a beard, you have shave the beard for the fem shot and a lot of guys didn’t wanna do that.

EFNIKS: That actually leads to another question that I had. Have you found it hard to find gay men of color who are interested in challenging themselves by contributing to this project? While this project is very much focused on the gay community as a whole, do you feel as though gay men of color are hesitant in wanting to humble themselves through femininity for just a moment?

TE:
You know, because it’s such a new campaign…maybe ask me that question next year, but so far, it’s been 60/40. 60% of people are like, “Yes!” They’re totally into it. But it’s also the people that I reach out to. I kind of get a feel of who I know would be okay in doing it. Of course I’ve been turned down by people who either doesn’t fit their schedule or they don’t want to shave their beard or whatever the case is.

EFNIKS: I guess I’ll ask this question, even though, as you mentioned, it’s only been a short time since you started this campaign. While you've worked with some gay men of color, there is a limited representation of Asian men in your project. Critics may say that Asian men also face these sort of stigmas as they're often seen as submissive or too feminine by the gay community. How far have you gone in terms of outreach to really expand on this project for an open casting to include all men of color?

TE: Wow. I never even thought about it. It’s definitely an all-inclusive campaign. I guess I just haven’t gotten there yet, because it is still so new, but I’m totally open to that.

I guess if I think about it now, I was talking about this with one of my models about African American men and masculinity and femininity in that community and he was telling me his experience of what it was like growing up . He had a brother who was [a] sports fan and he would play with dolls. There was one time where his dad came in and caught him and he felt this incredible shame. I’m like, “Let’s go deeper. Where does that come from, especially in the African American community? Where does that idea of ‘ultra-ultra masculine’ come from?”

It’s sort of like a value thing. A self-value thing. And what I’m really trying to do in this project is sort of break down those stereotypes. That does not equal value. Self-value.

EFNIKS: I have a lot of Asian friends myself who often express those sort of feelings about themselves. Especially in the gay community, I often feel like Asian men are pretty much on that same field as straight Asian women where they’re made into this stereotype of being the submissive, docile type.

TE:
That’s interesting. Yeah…that’s really interesting. That might push me…that might inspire me to go after more Asian men.

EFNIKS: Hypermasculinity runs quite rampant to the point that "no fags" or "no femmes" is almost commonplace on Black and Latinx profiles on Grindr or Jack'd. What do you hope to contribute to having a well-rounded conversation about internalized homophobia and heteronormativity that are inclusive to gay men of color who often find themselves having to be masculine in order to be taken seriously as dating material?

TE:
So, that’s why I want to sort of normalize the idea that you can be both things. You don’t have to be one or [the] other. You don’t have to pick a side. I do think that more feminine guys go all the way to one side of the spectrum. I think that it can be sort of an armor. I also think that when people all the way to the other side of masculinity. I think that’s sort of an armor as well. An armor as in a protection from the outside world, either being judged or whatever.

Like, the super-super gay guys, like, the bitchy queens. That’s not real. That’s a façade to keep a sort of protection around themselves. And I think that masculine men do the same thing as well. They go to the gym, they get bulky, or they get filled with tattoos in order to sort of cover themselves up as a protection.

That sort of bitchy, “fierce queen,” “I’m gonna cut you,” and “I’m gonna read you.” That’s not…I wanna come from a place of love and compassion and understanding and equality and that sort of does not equal that, but a lot of those people have been hurt.  We’ve been hurt. Even in this conversation when I told you about my childhood, you related to that. That’s a hurt. So when people are hurt, they have to create another sort of image of themselves to protect themselves. I know for my entire life, I’ve been sort of deconstructing that. I’ve been peeling off the layers, being more of my authentic self.

I think a lot of people can relate to that. Aren’t you happier now that you feel more free? More yourself? So hopefully people can do that and I believe we are in our own time.

EFNIKS: Drag queens are definite foils to heteronormativity, even amongst gay men. What have been their thoughts on your project?

TE: What are THEIR thoughts?

EFNIKS: Have they given you any thoughts on it?

TE:
That’s interesting. I know that they follow me and they like my work, but I haven’t had a real conversation. No one has actually come out and [said anything], so I haven’t had a conversation with the drag community. It’s funny, because actually, I feel Femme the Man is like a campaign that’s like over here and its own living thing and then my drag work is sort of another sort of thing that I do and its own living thing. They don’t necessarily mix and I really don’t want that because they are separate to me.

EFNIKS: What about trans folks (particularly trans women) who often find their femininity and womanhood being challenged by not just cishet men and women, but other folks in the queer spectrum?

TE:
Do you know Dina Marie?

EFNIKS: I don’t.

TE:
She’s fabulous. She’s a New York trans celebrity. She’s a good friend of mine and she’s like, “Bravo!” when she sees the pictures. She makes comments. So, I don’t think that anyone…I feel like everyone is very, very supportive about this because it’s also a feminist movement, you know what I mean? That’s like another layer of it, I think. It’s like saying that, “Men and women are equal. There’s no difference between them.”

EFNIKS: I think I had asked earlier what other queer people of color thought of your work as well. I heard that, but, just to clarify, do they have any thoughts?

TE:
It’s funny because I will read the comments occasionally sometimes then after a while, I just don’t. There’s been some hate. There’s been some hate and from people I don’t know or from don’t live in the city or outside of the areas.

EFNIKS: Have they been mostly from people of color or mostly from white men or women or…

TE:
There’s been a mix of…

EFNIKS: …or have you paid, like, no attention?

TE:
Yeah, I don’t really pay that much attention to it, but the comments are usually like, “What is this?” “Are you a man or a woman?” “What do you want?” It’s people who sort of don’t have an open mind or who will only see Black and white. Either a “yes or no,” “up or down”…it’s like, no, there’s a lot of gray area. What about maybe? (laugh)

EFNIKS: (laughs)

TE: Sideways?

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EFNIKS: Have many of these men after participating in the project and challenging their own meaning of the binary come to a sort of realization of their own stigmas towards femininity and non-binary men, or have you found your models to be more performative for the sake of being humorous?

TE:
When I first started the campaign, my first shoot ever, and that was another inspiration was a friend of mine and his name was Tayda, and he is an LGBT recording artist and he’s covered in tattoos. He even has a tattoo on his face and he was the first person I ever shot for the campaign. Well, guess what? She’s now trans because of [the campaign]. She goes by Shetay.

You know, during the process, I never really made the connection. But there during the shoot, I remember saying, “When you had the makeup on and you were being feminine, I could see and feel that you were more comfortable in this than pretending to be tough and masculine.”

When I shoot, we do the first shot as the masculine version and I’m like, “Be tough. Be aggressive.” Like… (makes a punching motion against his hand) …you know what I mean, like this. And for him, it was very uncomfortable and I could tell. I was trying to pull it out of him. Then when he got the makeup on, it was more easy for him to feel himself…and now…she’s trans.

And then the other people will send me messages and be like, “I want to participate in the campaign!” and blah-blah-blah. I don’t really follow it up.

First of all, it’s not free. So, when people contact me, and they’re like, “I want a photo shoot!” It’s like, “Girl, okay, you paying?” and a lot of people kind of drop off after that point.

EFNIKS: True.

TE:
The guys thus far definitely follow up afterwards. I don’t know how long they are in the moment, but they thank me a lot and it means a lot to them that they can sort of express that side of them and also have a conversation because we talk in a photoshoot. We talk like this. You relate to my story, I relate to yours, and we all relate.

Shame can’t live in the light. So, if you talk about it, you talk about your shame, it sort of disappears.

EFNIKS: What do you say to those who look at your photos and feel uncomfortable looking at it?

TE:
“Thank you for looking. For even looking. Just, like, thank you.” No need to write negative comments. No need for it. You’re just putting negativity out into the world. If I can stir something up in you to make you think of something different than your reality, then great for me, but I can just do what I do, put it out there, and leave the rest [behind]. I don’t wonder, “Oh God, this person doesn’t like me!” I don’t hold onto that. It’s like, “Whatever.” That’s what I would I say. “Thank you.”

 

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