For Tanner Byer ’17, the Watson Fellowship he was awarded isn’t for a project that is merely academic. His upcoming research tour of Japan, Thailand, Australia and Germany for “Rewriting the Masculine Body as Feminine” is also deeply personal.
The prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship awards $30,000 to promising students for one year of research and travel and Byer is one of 41 winners for 2017. On the academic front, Byer has two aims for his project. First, to learn how femininity is constructed onto masculine bodies through makeup, costumes and expressive movement. He will explore the theatrical, political and artistic communities built from these feminization rituals. Second, Byer will seek to understand the guiding principles behind feminization of the masculine form and question the demonization of nonconforming gender expression.
Byer calls enforced gender conformity “an evil rooted in our social climate that terrorizes the well-being of those who dare to be different.” It is his own history of daring that formed his forthcoming research.
“Nonconformative gender expression has shaped my life entirely. It has allowed me to find self-love within a marginalized community,” says Byer. He describes wearing makeup as defiance of normative standards for gender and cross-dressing as both art and therapy.
Byer was the first openly gay student body president at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon. To promote homecoming he took the stage wearing heels. It was his act of resistance — a subversion of the traditional image of what men in positions of power should look like, he says. He hopes to inspire others to question their belief system.
Questioning is the heart of Byer’s research project. He will question how cultures, each with their unique standards, birth cross-dressers —whether the tunte of Berlin or the onnagata of Japanese Kabuki theater —and how the cross-dressers reach wide acceptance in mainstream society. His research will also pose the question of whether the incentives of a cross-dresser are innate, fostered, uniform or region-specific.
Subverting gender norms is one among many of Byer’s passions. He is a molecular biology major and department liaison, and he studies the biochemical interactions of cellular machinery that regulate the expression of genes within the human genome.
“As a liberal arts student I strive to embrace all facets of my identity: culturing cells and running western blots by day, and emerging from the lab to don heels and wigs by night,” he says.
Byer’s time at Pomona, where he joined the College’s Title IX Coalition, has shown him both the importance and necessity of community and safe spaces, he says. He intends to continue to establish safe spaces “where community can grow from the ashes of oppression.” He is confident his Watson year, during which he will study international spaces for cross-dressing, will better equip him in that quest.
“It is about attracting, and encouraging likeminded people to gather and discuss how to fight the historical plight of nonconformity. It is about developing techniques to explain to the naïve that their ignorance is dangerous,” Byer says.