The Trans Teen Artist Fighting Discrimination With Wearable Works Of Art

  • Hunter Schafer
Words: Priscilla Frank, Above Image: Jillian Clark
Original Article for Huffington Post here
“Adulthood is bullshit,” multi-hyphenate creative Hunter Schafer told Dazed when she was selected as one of the Dazed 100, a list that highlights the next generation of youth culture. “And I think some of the most successful and radiant people are those who have been able to get back to that instinctive and child-like part of their selves again.”
It’s an amusing comment coming from someone who, at 18 years old, has accomplished more than many twice her age. Schafer, who has been drawing since she can remember, is a gifted illustrator and comic artist, tweaking the styles of influences like Tim Burton and Skottie Young to create aqueous ink and watercolor images that combine moody fantasy with teen angst. “My parents were really good about not sitting me down in front of a TV,” Schafer told The Huffington Post. “They really nurtured the creative part of me.”
When Schafer got an Instagram account, she started exploring the potentials of photography. Today, with almost 5,000 followers, she uses the platform to hone her artistic vision and weave visual stories about herself and her community. “I became more aware of an aesthetic that I was interested in and wanted to uphold,” she explained. “I realized that just drawing things wasn’t enough for me; I could convey my voice artistically through other mediums outside of two-dimensional, surface work.”
Influenced by David Bowie, Schafer is a quickly evolving artist driven by experimentation, self-discovery and play. Her works break down binaries of all kinds ― between exterior and interior, personal and political, authentic and artificial, serious and fun. 
Schafer is also an activist, specifically advocating for trans youth. Having transitioned at 14 years old, Schafer has actively protested North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which forces transgender individuals to use bathrooms that don’t reflect their gender identity. After the bill passed, Schafer joined a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and began sharing her experiences through art and writing. Though HB2 was technically repealed in March, the compromise passed in its place perpetuates the discriminatory views that propelled the original law, and does nothing to protect trans populations from prejudice or abuse. 
As a high school student based in North Carolina, Schafer has firsthand knowledge of the emotional damage and physical danger inflicted upon trans teens when they are denied the basic liberty of using a bathroom. “Every time I use a public bathroom, I have to make a choice,” she wrote for Teen Vogue. “Do I break the law, or do I disregard my comfort and face the risk of harassment and violence?”
Initially, Schafer viewed art and activism as separate parts of her life. But more recently, she’s begun to experiment with the ways creative expression and political resistance can bolster one another. For her high school senior thesis project, Schafer is working on a series of garments aimed to fight discrimination against trans communities, exploring how imagination can wrestle the body away from binary understandings of gender.
One of Schafer’s recent wearable creations is a pair of bulky red underwear with two large hands covering up the wearer’s genitals. Lettering across the unorthodox undergarments reads: “Peel away every perception.” On the item’s backside is a black-and-white line drawing of a wrinkled face, lips pursed in what resembles judgment. The garment speaks to the absurdity of discerning one’s identity with one particular body part we rarely even, if ever, see.
“The piece is dealing with how people perceive me versus how I feel,” Schafer said. “I am encountering new facets of being trans every day. I need to process that through my work. They’re almost like journal entries.”
Another biographical ensemble, titled ““Pubescent,” is a yellow two-piece featuring felt cutouts of writhing torsos placed atop the wearer’s breasts. The outfit, with its exaggerated, proportions, visualizes the changes a body undergoes during puberty, or gender transition. Awkward, unruly and ultimately beautiful, the outfit visualizes the experience of inhabiting a changing body. 
Schafer also communicates her personal experiences through illustrations, like this 2015 series on Rookie, which navigates the difficulty of dressing up for formal events like school dances, where a strict gender binary was especially enforced. “I longed to escape, and to express what I felt inside me — not what was expected of me,” she said in a statement.
So far, Schafer has enjoyed incorporating the spirit of activism into her art. “I want to do something meaningful with my work,” she said. “Being able to translate my experiences as a trans person into my artwork, and using my work as a platform to support marginalized communities in general, those are things that are really important to me now. They’re definitely becoming part of my artistic identity.”