Friday 22 April 2022

Interview with Hanne Carrington Reay

Monika: Today I have the pleasure and honor of interviewing Hanne Carrington Reay, a British artist living in Mexico, poet, writer, transactivist, witch, and transgender woman that shares her transition story on social media. Hello Hanne!
Hanne: Hello Monika! Thank you for asking me to take part in your excellent series of interviews. I am from England, I was born in Cambridge but I grew up in the North-East, near Newcastle upon Tyne. I moved to Scotland in 1992 to attend Glasgow School of Art and after I graduated from the University of Glasgow, moved to the US where I lived for 13 years, before moving to Mexico in 2009.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Hanne: Yes, of course. I am an artist and I use my work to talk about my experiences living outside of my culture. I have made installations, sound pieces, and video art, exhibited my paintings in both solo shows and in group exhibitions, plus I have curated exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York City.
On discovering my trans identity in 2013, I made abstract work in wool using a technique called Rya, in the past two years or so I returned to painting as a way to communicate my transition in a more direct way. I use my work as a starting point to discuss trans issues with a wider audience and as a form of activism. I am proud to be trans and I try to lend my voice in any way I can to improve the understanding of trans issues and fight prejudice and misunderstanding by correcting misinformation about my community spread by those who would destroy us.
Monika: I have just read your interesting article about witchcraft. It is quite intriguing how you regard witchcraft as a belief system that affords transgender women more freedom and a deep spiritual life without the dogma or patriarchy of religion...
Hanne: Yes, I grew up without religion in a country that has a 'take it or leave it' attitude to organized belief. While I was a student I spent time visiting ancient monuments in the North of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and this left me with a profound appreciation for our pagan past.
In Mexico, I have visited many of the important historical sites and have been fortunate to have experienced pre-hispanic rituals and celebrations. Pagan belief puts women in a more powerful position than most religions of today and so I found in witchcraft a way to explore my developing sense of my female essence and ritual has helped unite the various parts of myself into a fully realised trans identity.
Hanne's portrait by Gemelxs VS.
Many queer people find contemporary society hostile to our basic humanity and many of us have difficulty making space in life to be ourselves. Finding safe spaces, particularly as a trans lesbian feminist has become a preoccupation for me. As a third-wave feminist, I believe it is the job of trans women now to speak up, speak our truth, and ultimately speak truth to power. For too long we have had our stories told for us, we have had our lives explained away by medical science or twisted beyond belief by social commentators who don't believe in our fundamental existence.
In magic, I found a way to connect to a power larger than myself, a way to express my transness and discover a healing light that has helped me through some of the darker moments of transition.
Monika: Many years ago witches were intimidated, banished, attacked, or killed. This could just as well refer to what the trans community has been going through ...
Hanne: It's women in general. The subjugation of women and their natural attributes prevents us from freedom to express our femininity and live our lives without fear. Here in Mexico women are murdered on an alarming scale and have been for decades. This is no secret yet the government does nothing to stop the femicide. We are treated as 'disposable' sex objects, third-class citizens whose only function is to pander to men's needs and procreate.
As a trans woman, I am subject to transphobia and misogyny and this is a result of mis-education and hate. The violence reserved for trans women takes many forms and we need to identify them and take them on. Too many people use our existence to benefit from our suffering politically, intellectually, and financially. Our bodies are a battlefield and too many of us end up dead because of lazy thinking and the fight over our own identities.
There is a subtle parallel with the so-called 'witch trials' as we are often damned if we do and damned if we don't, with gender presentation being the most visible aspect. I view those particular historic events as a barbaric and systematic demonisation of femininity in law by men and the rise of feminism as a way to redress the balance.
Progress has been slow but the inclusion of queer theory combined with intersectional dialogue in third-wave feminism gives trans voices a way to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality into new areas and increase our understanding of the spectra of human behavior and existence. I am out and proud as trans and I won't be silenced by threats of violence.
We find ourselves at a time in history to change the narrative surrounding our basic humanity by being visible and sharing our ideas and we have the opportunity to make improvements in terms of equality and inclusivity for everyone, not just for the trans community.
Monika: Why did you decide to settle down in Mexico? This is not said to be the safest country for transgender women.
Hanne: I haven't settled down but yes, Mexico is the second most dangerous country in the world after Brazil for trans people. I came here from Brooklyn, New York because it's dangerous, "a place of bad death". In fact, the second night in Mexico a guy beat me pretty badly and threatened to shoot me dead.
After living in New York I felt as though there was nowhere in the states I wanted to live and after 13 years of living there, I was looking for something else. Mexico is a place of history and culture that is very different from Europe and the US. At the time I was looking for a challenge and a place to spend my forties.

Digital photograph by Matt Willis Jones.
From the series of portraits of Hanne,
"I Am Not Your Victim", 2021.

Monika: Are transgender women visible in Mexican society? Is the transgender community strong enough to promote transgender rights?
Hanne: In terms of the law in Mexico we have rights but the question is how well enforced are they. Of course, any trans community is going to be in a minority and it is often difficult for us to find each other. I came to Mexico City from Merida, Yucatan because I didn't feel it would be safe to transition there or even possible.
The healthcare for our community in Mexico City is very good in my experience and I was able to access HRT and an endocrinologist within six months. At the time being transgender was still seen as a mental disorder so I was subjected to a rather humiliating psychological assessment to prove I had dysphoria. Once through the 'gatekeeping' however it has been pretty straightforward.
We have to fight for our rights of course but that's true everywhere. Britain, for example, is going backwards in this regard and I am appalled by the actions taken by the Tory government and the rubbish that is published in the media. I feel safer here in Mexico City than I would feel in London but of course, things can always be better.
I cannot speak to the experience of trans people outside of Mexico City but I won't travel to many of the states because I would not feel safe. Though I must say that it's trans women of colour who are the most at risk and this is a very macho, sexist, and racist country and I am well aware of my white and passing privilege. In answer to your question, yes the community is strong, resilient, and active. "¡Aquí está la resistencia trans!"
Monika: Did the transition change your perception of the world as an artist?
Hanne: I would like to think that I have become a better artist. What transition has done is very interesting. I was broken into bits and everything I thought I knew about myself was taken apart. The persona that I had used to navigate the world became useless and I had to start from scratch putting everything back together.
The first year was a rollercoaster of emotion and yet I continued to make art throughout. I had realised a long time ago that men had an easier ride in the art world and women are often misunderstood and their work is written off. Women are regularly edited out of art history, giving the impression that the only artists in any given era were male. This, of course, is nonsense and there has been some effort to redress this distortion of history but still there is a long way to go.
I found it easier to truly see the greatness of female artists after transition and I felt that I finally belonged to the tradition of artmaking that I had previously felt somewhat estranged from. Along with dysphoria I also suffered from imposter syndrome and all this made much more sense once I discovered who I am and why there was a bifurcation in my life and as a result in my art.
Hanne in a painting about birth,
rebirth and trans bodies by
Gemelxs VS.
Monika: When I started my HRT, estrogen was a magic way of liberating my body from the destructive force of testosterone and I thought that this will be enough for me to feel complete but the more feminine I became the more questions I faced about my spiritual path to womanhood. Did you feel the same?
Hanne: In short, yes. Ritual was an important part of my understanding of the changes that were happening inside myself. I looked to goddesses for help, guidance, and answers to my questions. At the same time as I was finding a community of women who would accept me I had spiritual guides as well. I was not prepared for the fundamental changes I felt emotionally once the estrogen took over my body.
I had known I was a girl since I was about five years of age but years of male training left me with few female skills and negative imaging left me with an internalised transphobia. Magic was a way to connect to the divine feminine, to mother nature, and this came as a great relief and a source of great strength. I had to heal my fractured past and reconcile all those years I had spent as 'male identified' in the culture. Most of my questions were about my sexuality. As a Scorpio, I found it alarming to be robbed of my sex drive leaving me practically asexual for almost a year. I used rituals to learn about my new sexuality and how to regain pleasure.
Being a woman who only loves women meant defining lesbianism for myself but also learning to appreciate the body I have thanks to biology and male puberty. I refuse to be subject to 'male gaze' and so therefore a lot of the routes to femininity feel inauthentic and plain fucking wrong. I had to work out for myself how to be sexual without becoming sexualised or fetishised and how to present myself to the world as a desirable woman with agency who takes no shit from anyone without compromising my identity as a woman. I am a punk after all and I have no time for conformity and stupid arbitrary rules. As a freethinking antiestablishmentarian, I found magic to be the perfect place to look for answers.
Monika: Does it mean that you are not concerned about passing? We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly.
Hanne: No, but I feel I owe no one a performance of gender. Having said that I have been told on multiple occasions that I pass. The important thing for me is that I look the way I want to, that when I see myself in the mirror or in photographs, I am satisfied that I see something that matches my self image.
I lived many years being very unhappy in this regard as my personal image bore no resemblance to the way I felt inside. Being mis-gendered or 'clocked' as trans makes me feel like a failure and often ruins my day, so I suppose passing is important to me. I didn't think that surgeries would ever interest me but I would consider facial feminisation surgery but only as a way to improve those features that make me feel dysphoric.
In general, the effects of HRT have feminised my facial features to the point that most people gender me correctly. It is a complicated issue because we have to interact with a world obsessed with the binary and we are often our own worst critics but as time passes I have become a lot less preoccupied with passing and more concerned with building my own confidence as a woman.

"I feel I owe no one a performance
of gender."

Monika: Your paintings are one big manifesto of the magic of trans and feminine beauty.
Hanne: Thank you for saying so. I am very pleased you see them that way because that's exactly what I am trying to say with the work. I want them to have a depth of emotion and express the beauty of trans women as a way to empower us to overcome the daily issues of being trans. They are for me a self-affirmation, a way to explore my own queerness and I hope a representation of transness in art. The work is like alchemy and I work towards a finished piece with no preconceived idea or plan.


All photos: courtesy of Hanne Carrington Reay.
© 2022 - Monika Kowalska

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