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South African Artist Brings Her Collaborative Portraits Of Trans People To The Americas For The First Time

"We change each other['s] lives with our stories. ... If you offer to draw somebody, they feel very honored and they interpret as a mark of respect."

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South African Gabrielle Le Roux was in the Ugandan capital, Kamapla, for an exhibition in 2002 when she read about a police raid of a lesbian bar in the local tabloids.

Le Roux had run a nonprofit in South Africa called the Women's Media Watch before becoming an artist, and she went looking to help the bar's owner fight against the anti-LGBT media storm following the raid. She connected with Victor Mukasa, a transman who went on to bring the first LGBT rights lawsuit against the Ugandan government, which he won in 2008. The meeting led to the work for which Le Roux has become best known: a series of hand-drawn portraits done in collaboration with trans and intersex people from around the world.


Le Roux and Mukasa will reunite in New York City on Wednesday, Sept. 10, for a discussion of the two collections of trans and intersex portraits she's now completed as part of the Baruch Performing Arts Center's GenderFluid festival. One, which includes a portrait of Mukasa and was organized with his help in 2008, represents several African countries. The second was completed in Turkey in 2011 in collaboration with the LGBTI rights groups LGBTT Istanbul and Ankara's Pembe Hayat. This is the first time Le Roux is bringing this work to the Americas, and she is now seeking funding to complete a new set of portraits in Mexico.

Le Roux draws all of her portraits from live sittings with the subject that can last as long as three days. The works are completed by the subjects themselves, who write personal statements directly on the portraits. The Turkish portraits are also accompanied by video interviews, a component of the work she hopes to expand in the Mexico collection.

"If you offer to draw somebody, they feel very honored and they interpret as a mark of respect," Le Roux said in an interview in her house outside Cape Town last year. Including their own marks on the finished work, she said, allows these portraits "something that a person has asserted about themselves."

Here are some of her works from the African and Turkish series, along with excerpts of the "self-portraits in words" by the subjects of the drawings.

Ruzgar, Istanbul, Turkey

Gabrielle Le Roux

“I sometimes define myself as a feminist as a reaction against this male-dominated system. I should also add that my criticisms about feminism arise from its insistence on the equality of two genders. If there will be an equality, I think it should not be between two genders, we should have equality between all the different genders. But feminism is at least a step in this direction.”

Silva Skinny Dux Eiseb, Nambia

Gabrielle Le Roux

“I am Silva Skinny Dux Eiseb as I am known these days. I love my name that I am using and I am known everywhere I go…. Being a Trans person in Namibia is not an easy thing. You need to have a brave heart to go out there in the streets and just being yourself as you are.”

Sema, Istanbul, Turkey

Gabrielle Le Roux

"I can’t describe my gender identity definitively. I have a gender identity that changes and transforms every day. I believe that I experience being transgender. I like human beings and to me there are two types of people: those who attract me and those who don't. So I'm attracted to those who attract me and I'm not attracted to those who don't. And this is how I define my sexual orientation."


Amanda Goto, Zimbabwe

Gabrielle Le Roux

“i can describe myself as a peaceful and loving soul and most people don’t realise that i’m so down to earth and i really love dogs because that is the only thing that can understand how one is feeling, apart from human beings.”

Belgin, Ankara, Turkey

Gabrielle Le Roux

“I was a candidate for the head of the district during the last local elections…. This is an example showing that we have no problems with the public. What create distance between us are the press and the law. We get along very well with people we live next door to and the neighborhood shopkeepers.”

Julius Kaggwa, Uganda

Gabrielle Le Roux

“Yes so much has been happening lately but it is now becoming rather too much for me to deal with and I find I cannot hold up my diplomatic and calm take on stuff. I am going through a very difficult time right now.”

Deniz, Izmir, Turkey

Gabrielle Le Roux

“While my sister was playing football outside, I preferred to spend my time with my mother. I’d help her with the house work, host the guests and serve tea. ‘Your daughter is playing football outside, and your son is serving coffee here,’ our guests said on every visit, ‘were you confused when giving birth to them?’”

Destina, Ankara, Turkey

Gabrielle Le Roux

“I was brought up in the way that a daughter would be, beaten and punished. My dear late father worked for the police force, he was a strict, authoritarian man. As I grew older, the trans in me started to arise, even my classmates gave me the nickname ‘girl’.”

Demet, Istanbul, Turkey

Gabrielle Le Roux

"In 1984 or 85, many trans individuals were deported out of cities. They were loaded on trains and transported to Eskişehir. Many of them jumped out of the trains and escaped. The next time forces of the military junta tried to transport trans individuals by bus but many managed to escape again. They also tried to deport trans individuals to forests in İstanbul. They used to strip you and leave you all alone in forests even in winter, with no money."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Victor Mukasa owned the lesbian bar raided in Uganda in 2002. Mukasa was a patron of the bar, not the owner.

J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. His secure PGP fingerprint is 2353 DB68 8AA6 92BD 67B8 94DF 37D8 0A6F D70B 7211

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