Twenty photos now on exhibit at Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research show people who have weighed these questions from both sides.
The portraits, by Santa Cruz photographer Jana Marcus, are of transgender people from various backgrounds and ethnic groups. There are glamorous women with arched eyebrows; a goateed man carrying his young son on his shoulders; a San Francisco police sergeant in uniform.
All the photos are paired with statements by their subjects, including thoughts about what "masculinity" and "femininity" mean today.
"The desire for perfection destroys our sense of self," reads one statement, by 47-year-old Jennifer. "There's a pressure we put on ourselves to 'pass' and be accepted as women, plus the overwhelming societal expectation of what women should look like. The male perception of women greatly shaped how I eventually wanted to be seen as a woman."
On the other hand, Jack, 26, wrote: "If I can keep those wonderful qualities I had as a female, such as the ability to be patient and nurturing, thoughtful and compassionate, and combine them with the persona of my father, then the two intertwine to make for one incredible man." Jack hailed his father as "my hero," saying he "loves and protects his family the best way he knows how."
When Marcus began work on the project as a San Jose State graduate-school thesis in 2003, she thought it might focus more on her subjects' life stories. The interviewing process changed her mind.
"After a while I realized that everyone's story of transition was the same. What was more interesting was the idea of what kind of men and women they wanted to be," she said. "They kind of know some secret after seeing both sides."
She became intrigued by the topic after a male roommate told her he'd previously been a woman. Marcus was speechless; while she'd certainly heard of men becoming women, she'd had no idea that the reverse could happen.
"The men who become women, we've seen horrible caricatures of them in the media. They kind of have a stigma to them, but we're aware that that's out there," she said.
As a longtime documentary photographer, Marcus has often been drawn "things I don't understand." She began photographing and interviewing transgender men (women-to-men). It wasn't easy to find people willing to take part, Marcus said. The first was a "friend of a friend of a friend," and after that experience went well, she began finding new people through word-of-mouth.
Marcus' thesis exhibit, "Transfigurations: The Making of a Man," was a success, and after her 2005 graduation she began photographing transgender women as well. She found the experience strikingly different.
"The women becoming men are so amazing, so self-actualized. They had thought so much about what it meant to be a man. They wanted to change stereotypes, be a feminist man," she said. "They wanted to be better than the men they had known."
But Marcus said the men becoming women were much more caught up in what they would look like. She attributes much of that to a "male-dominated society" in which women's appearances are so valued and men are not encouraged to show emotion or look too deeply within themselves.
"They're having to break down all those years of conditioning," she said.
Ultimately, Marcus' project grew into a 60-piece exhibit that has traveled widely in various incarnations and won numerous awards, including being honored by the Santa Cruz weekly Good Times as the best photo exhibit of 2006.
The complete exhibit includes many photos not in the small Stanford show, including transitional images of a woman becoming a man over a three-year period, and nudes photographed after gender-reassignment surgery. Marcus will show these in a slide show and talk at Stanford on Jan. 24.
At Stanford, the portraits — all of people who have already had surgery — are displayed with soft lighting, against pale-beige walls. The setting is apropos for the photos, which were shot in black and white with a formalist approach and a plain background. At first glance, the people may seem to be anyone you meet on the street.
"Some people said they look like public-service announcements or Gap ads," Marcus said. "'Good,' I said. 'I want them to look normal, just like you and me.'"
Lyle, who was photographed at 43 and often is a speaker at exhibits, praises Marcus' work as "so well-done and so classy."
"Even though I was uncomfortable about being photographed, there was something about her passion, commitment and personality that made the experience very enjoyable," he said.
At exhibits, Lyle's written statement often sparks conversation; it begins with the words "I have a long history of hating black men and now I am one." He said he has had trouble learning to be a black man in a world filled with "caricatures and stereotypes."
As Lyle wrote, he strives to be "a person of integrity" and "a 'white oxford shirt' kind of man: kind of bland, kind of comfortable." He wants to be seen as just another guy — and as a black man who fits in everywhere, who doesn't make people afraid on the street or clutch their purses, he said. These occurrences were unpleasant surprises after his transition.
"Our culture has made such an intense business of selling fear, and the standard demonization of people of color," he said.
Visitors to the exhibit are sometimes surprised, sometimes moved. Parents of transgender people come up to Marcus crying and thanking her, she said.
In addition, Lyle said that visitors who are still grappling with their gender transition often confide in him and thank him for being so open.
"People say, 'You're so brave and courageous.' I haven't been able to understand why they would say that," he said. "For some people it's a life-and-death decision: 'I can't live another day not my authentic self.'"
What: "Transfigurations," a photo-documentary on transgender people by Jana Marcus
Where: Serra House, 589 Capistrano Way, Stanford University
When: Through March 21, open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Marcus and some of the exhibit subjects are scheduled to attend a lecture and reception on Thursday, Jan. 24, at 4:30 p.m. at Tresidder Memorial Union.
Info: Go to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research's Web site at http://www.stanford.edu/group/gender . Marcus' site is at http://www.janamarcus.com .