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‘Beautiful Boy’ Challenges Notions of Gender

Beatiful Boy "Motel" [photo: Lissa Rivera]

The pictures that make up the exhibit “ Beautiful Boy” began with a confession.

“I started wearing women’s clothing when I went to a small liberal arts college in Connecticut, where it was a very comfortable environment, very accepting.  I started wearing women’s clothing all the time. I was experimenting with my identity, trying to understand where I fit in. Am I transgender? Am I queer? Am I just normal? And I just want to do this once and awhile?” BJ Lillis said.

"Male Impersonator" Lissa Rivera

New York resident Lillis is the subject of the exhibit on view at Cleveland Print Room.

After graduation from college, Lillis moved back home to live with his parents. He landed a job at a New York City museum.  It was at that point, Lillis said he began “to feel a huge pressure in my mind to figure this out. ”

Lillis didn’t feel comfortable wearing women’s clothing in public, so he only dressed in them at home.

While working at the museum, he became close friends with his fellow employee, Lissa Rivera.  Lillis decided to share his secret with his friend, telling her that he liked to dress in women’s clothing.

Rivera, who is a photographer, offered to take Lillis’ picture while he was dressed in women’s clothing. 

“It didn’t start out as the big art project.  In the beginning it was all about me. It was an opportunity to see myself in a different way and to try different things.  It provided a space that didn’t have the pressure of your daily life,” Lillis said.

Rivera began taking carefully composed shots often modelled on early 20 th century fashion photos as well as recreating classic film scenes with a specific purpose in mind.

"Eggleston Hair" Lissa Rivera

“We’re looking to explore identity and how it is related to images. The early fashion photos is really the archetype to how printed photographs depicting femininity were created that still affect culture so much.  They are really embedded into the DNA of how we perceive gender.  We are looking to find this fluid state and to experience the way that looking at a beautiful depiction of femininity in a classic film or old photo makes us feel a great amount of desire coming from both genders.  I look at that language and use it to get people to consider what we are trying to say,” Rivera said.

For Lillis, the process was incredibly liberating.

"Poolside" Lissa Rivera

“There’s something about composing an image of a person, capturing something about it and being able to look at it that’s just incredibly powerful for communicating with other people and also powerful for yourself. It’s hard to get outside of yourself, and photography can be an amazing way to step back and look at something in a different way,” Lillis said.

The exhibit “Beautiful Boy” in on view at the Cleveland Print Room through November 10.