A Body Project: Andre St. Clair On Her Penis
With award-winning photographer Substantia Jones of The Adipositivity Project, Bustle is launching A Body Project. A Body Project aims to shed light on the reality that "body positivity" is not a button that, once pressed, will free an individual from being influenced or judged by toxic societal beauty standards. Even the most confident of humans has at least one body part that they struggle with. By bringing together self-identified body positive advocates, all of whom have experienced marginalization for their weight, race, gender identity, ability, sexuality, or otherwise, we hope to remind folks that it's OK to not feel confident 100 percent of the time, about 100 percent of your body. But that's no reason to stop trying.
When writer, actor, dancer, and advocate André St. Clair was very young, she and the neighbor next door, along with their siblings and cousins, liked to play house. Although assigned male at birth and raised as a boy, St. Clair would always end up playing the mom in the group. "To become mom, I did my hair. I tied it in a pretty knot," she laughs.
Born in Jamaica and raised in a conservative household, she had never heard of being transgender. "In a very hyper-masculine society, I just knew that certain ways I acted were not OK," she tells me in an interview. "A girl acts in a certain way and a boy acts in a certain way. It’s very ingrained in our culture; it’s very pervasive."
Being effeminate certainly wasn't what boys did. "All I knew was that if I was born a girl, I could be attracted to who I’m attracted to and it wouldn’t be a problem."
It wasn't just her attraction to boys that St. Clair grappled with at such a young age, though. "There was this thing I had with my penis," she says. At about six or seven and already living in the States, she grew more and more uncomfortable with the look of things down there, initially because she was uncircumcised. Finding it "very, very painful" to roll the penis back for cleaning, there were times when she'd have to let her mom hold her down and clean it herself. "And it was like, 'LEAVE ME ALONE,'" she tells me, half-jokingly screaming at the memory.
After having a nervous breakdown in front of her mother a few years later, they figured out insurance regulations so that St. Clair could be circumcised. "It made me feel a lot more confident," she muses. "But that was the appearance of it. Even its presence was something that always reminded me of my boyhood [...] Deep down, it was always this wish of, 'I just want to be who I am. And if I didn’t have this penis, I would be OK.”
Femininity and St. Clair always seemed to go hand in hand — something that's evident circa 2016, her regal choker necklace perfectly adorning her purple bikini-clad body as she moves gracefully in front of Substantia Jones' camera. But even so, it wasn't until she was an undergrad at Brown University that she started to live out the intricacies of both her gender identity and sexuality.
At Brown, St. Clair was surrounded by more gay and lesbian people than she'd ever known, most seemingly living their lives as happy as could be. But "a lot of them also came with additional privileges: Being wealthy, white, so young," she tells me. "At Brown, people tend to come from liberal families and have that support. For me, none of that was really the case. I wasn’t white. I didn’t have the liberal parents. I was a first generation college student. Going to college for me was a way of uplifting myself from working class, poverty background."
St. Clair's upbringing was definitely not a liberal one. The popular 2001 song "Chi Chi Man" by Jamaican group T.O.K feels, to her, like a good metaphor for the pervasively homophobic cultural climate in Jamaica that was definitely maintained by her father. Its lyrics were a call to arms to burn gay men and once served as the campaign song for one of the nation's presidential candidates.
While at Brown, St. Clair felt free to wear makeup, to rock tight clothes, to first come out as bisexual, and then gay (before she came out as transgender years later). She even came out as gay to her mother, who was supportive, but clear: “Let’s not tell your father.” At home, her gayness was something to be deconstructed and hidden.
On one trip back, however, her father discovered a copy of One More River To Cross: Black And Gay In America by Keith Boykin. When St. Clair revealed that she was gay a week later, from the safety of school, he made it clear that he would've had her killed if they were still in Jamaica.
Such a moment might deflect many individuals from living out their most genuine truths. For St. Clair, however, the exploration of her gender identity only grew more crucial thereafter. Her discomfort with her penis hadn't gone away fully, nor had the wish to have been born a girl. But more and more, she started to question whether her womanhood should require taking hormones and getting rid of her penis — something that many transgender women she'd met had said would make her life much easier.
"I had met transsexual women, who some of them, no matter how many hormones or surgeries they did, they just looked like transsexual women," she says. [Editor's Note: André uses the older term "transsexual" to describe transgender individuals who have undergone gender confirmation surgery.] For others, passing seemed to come easy. "Unless they disclosed their being transgender, you wouldn’t know," St. Clair explains. "But it didn’t sit well with me that I could be part of this privileged class of transgender people who would be able to take hormones, do surgery, pass, and go about my life. I thought that was nonsense." Although, to this day, she can't help but feel that transitioning might help her nail down more acting roles, St. Clair simply doesn't want to make "passing" her priority.
Rather than live in a world where gender identity and genitalia are historically perceived as correlated, she wants to "live in a world where I can live in my body and it’s fine to be feminine. It’s OK for somebody born with a vagina to walk through the world being as masculine and as manly as that person wants to be, too."
Ideas like "you can't wear a dress and have a bulge down there" still seep into her psyche from time to time thanks to the same social conditioning so many of us have been subjected to, but St. Clair reiterates that "what became my whole thing was that I didn’t need to transition."
Contrary to what many of the mainstream media depictions of transness arguably suggest, being transgender does not have to look like "somebody who’s done hormones; who is for the most part post-op," St. Clair feels. "One of the problems I see within this 'transgender revolution' [in media] is that there is still over-emphasis on transexuals, specifically transsexual women. Like, 'Oh my god! Somebody is giving up the privilege of being a man and becoming a woman! But not just putting on a dress. She cut off her penis!' So the transgender experience is conflated with the transsexual woman’s experience. And I think that’s a serious disservice. It creates more visibility for the transgender community while at the same time limiting what people think the transgender community is."
It is a community that can include gender nonconforming people, androgynous people, and those whose gender expressions do not conform to male/female binaries in other ways, rather than only those who identify with the opposite sex they were assigned at birth specifically.
Still, St. Clair is immensely grateful that we live in a time during which representation is improving and many transgender people who will feel like their most authentic selves through gender confirmation surgery have the option. "When I see people who transition, I never get upset because that’s not my body and it has nothing to do with me," she says. "Whatever is going into your decision, that’s your body. One of the resources that we do have now is that science and technology are on our side to help us be in the bodies that reaffirm who we are."
For her, however, identifying as a gender nonconforming trans woman has simply become the most authentic course of action: Meaning she can be a woman with a penis, and encourage the notion that others can be, too. It's why shooting in a bikini with Substantia Jones was so important to St. Clair: She wants to "show that I can be in a bikini top and bottom, with a flat chest, and a bulge down there, and still be gorgeous and slaying."
When it comes to further de-stigmatizing cultural messaging that places people with penises into some boxes and those with vaginas into others, St. Clair believes that education — self-education included — is our most useful tool.
"Reading the stories of other people who’ve had to deal with the same issues I’ve had to deal with, or even speaking with other transgender people who know what this life is about, is very cathartic for me," she says. "That’s therapy, because then I know that I’m not alone."
Education is also about better understanding the way our social climates and culture frame our interpretations of acceptability. St. Clair believes that "America, more than any other country out there, has more of a hang-up about the body and about wanting to police the body." But "when people are more armed and educated about how society constructs these things, the more we’re armed to deconstruct them."
As for her gender and sexuality, deconstructing genitalia remains of utmost value. Her slogan? "A penis does not a man make, and a vagina a woman does not make," she tells me. "Having a penis does not dictate how you are going to act, and how you relate to the world gender-wise. I just find it to be the most mind-boggling thing in the world to say 'all women with a vagina, this is your path. And all people with a penis, this is your path.'"
André St. Clair is on her own path. And she wants everyone to be on their own path, too. "I do think we are worthy of our bodies, and whatever choices we decide to make with our bodies [...] My penis is worthy of my body; I’m worthy of my penis. My penis is worthy to be here."
Editor's Note: This post has been updated from its original version.