‘Feminists, Freaks, and Fairies’ explores gender, society

BY MELEA ANDRYS | APRIL 09, 2009 7:30 AM

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There are no capital letters in stef shuster’s name (except in the UI online directory).

“I’m kind of a rule-breaker,” shuster said. “I don’t like being boxed in by things. Who decided that it was grammatically proper to capitalize some nouns and not others?”

As both a UI graduate student in sociology and a self-identified member of the queer-trans community, shuster has learned to question the normative aspects of a gendered culture, from sexuality to politics to syntax.

"I think of myself as transcending gender, so I don’t think of myself as a man and I don’t think of myself as a woman, I just think of myself as trans," shuster said.

Tonight, shuster will present an art exhibit showcasing the culmination of seven years of photography that both captures and critiques the gay/lesbian/transgender community. The opening reception of Feminists, Freaks, and Fairies will kick off at 6:30 p.m. today, and the artwork will be displayed though May 10 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center.

“[stef] really brings people to life and sees them [in photography] — often people who have been invisible and unseen,” said Elizabeth Krause, the center’s manger. “People should come out to see the exhibition for two reasons. One is to show support for queer artists in the community. This is a very relevant time to do that — people in the queer community and allies are very excited about the Iowa Supreme Court ruling … and one thing to do with that energy is to stay united as a community. And the other reason is to challenge yourself to think about and question gender — it’s a good idea for college students to think deeply about gender and sexuality.”

shuster’s work not only explores themes of societal constructs but extends more generally in an effort to capture the fundamental nature of humanity.

“In our society, we have very rigid understandings of beauty and how it manifests,” shuster said. “So my work is in dialogue with those conversations about beauty — kind of challenging that and really trying to bring out the essence of people in those moments.”

Although shuster refers to the exhibit as a coming-of-age project, featuring portraits, protests, and erotic images, its overall attitude is reflected in the collection’s lighthearted moniker.

“I think the title captures it pretty well,” shuster said. “The whole concept of Feminists, Freaks, and Fairies, is that all these issues — gender and queer issues and race and class — are all interconnected and wrapped into each other. So the title captures that, but it’s also kind of playful. We don’t always have to be serious, crazy, stomp-your-boot feminazi people. It’s OK to have fun sometimes.”

Krause said she hopes this cheerful spirit of exploration will bring together community members and allies in discussion of these issues at the relatively new resource center, which celebrated its grand opening in 2006.

“I’m really trying to make the presence of the center on campus more prominent,” she said. “One way I thought of doing that was to bring in queer artists and having a space for them to exhibit their work, both because they might not have that space elsewhere and also to educate the larger university community on issues surrounding sexuality and gender identity through the medium of art.”

shuster was similarly optimistic about the use of the center as an exhibition area.

“I’m really trying to work with the space of the center,” shuster said. “I think it’s a beautiful place, and it’s completely underappreciated on this campus … Because of the content of the photos and the space where it’s located, I really want it to be a bringing together of unlikely people in a community-building kind of way.”

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