In Their Own Terms : The Growing Transgender Presence in Pop Culture

The first time Rhys Ernst saw Zackary Drucker was in 2005 at a bar in the East Village.

At the time, both were aspiring artists. Rhys had recently graduated from Hampshire College and was working for MTV networks. Zackary had graduated from the School of Visual Arts and was appearing on a reality TV show called “Artstar,” hosted by Jeffrey Deitch.

But there was one clear impediment to romance: Rhys had never dated a man, and Zackary had never dated a woman.

“I remember thinking,” Rhys said, “if I ever dated a boy, that’s the type of boy I’d date.”

Today, that consideration is not an issue. Over the last five years, Zackary has transitioned from male to female, Rhys from female to male.

And in “Relationship,” a photo exhibition currently on view at the Whitney Biennial, the two have chronicled that process and the evolution of their own love affair. (In a recent preview of the Biennial, Holland Carter of The New York Times wrote that the Ernst/Drucker photographs “put queer consciousness on the front burner.”)

That a show by two transgender artists should be so prominently featured at the 2014 Biennial should come as a surprise to no one. It is just more evidence of the increasing presence of trans people at the center of popular culture.

In their spring advertising campaigns, the luxury retailer Barneys New York and the award-winning jewelry designer Alexis Bittar feature transgender models. In February, a memoir by Janet Mock, a former editor at People magazine, which drew heavily on her transition from male to female, made the New York Times best-seller list. Laverne Cox has become a breakout star on Netflix’s hit show “Orange Is the New Black,” playing a sympathetic character who winds up in prison after using stolen credit cards to pay for her gender reassignment surgery. And Carmen Carrera, a transgender showgirl who first achieved demi-fame as a contestant on the reality television program “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” has become an in-demand fashion model and muse for the photographer Steven Meisel.

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