Lissa Rivera’s ‘Beautiful Boy’ Explores Gender Fluidity Through Photography

See Lissa Rivera’s new exhibition exploring gender fluidity

A lot can happen in three years. Trends come and go. Movements make their mark. But how someone feels inside, their innate definition, or non-definition, is timeless. It may shift with society for better or for worse, but it’s always there. Three years ago, BJ Lillis wasn’t living his true identity. Three years ago, he was on a long subway ride with co-worker Lissa Rivera, when he decided to reveal to her that he’d spent most of his college years dressing in women’s clothing. But upon entering the professional world, his yearning for such clothing remained stifled; Lillis opting for men’s business attire to conform to societal standards.

Rivera’s new photo exhibition, “Beautiful Boy,” featuring Lillis, her now romantic partner and muse, is a follow-up to the dozens of images that make up a project by the same name. It’s driven by the desire to not only help Lillis regain sexual empowerment but also to start a conversation about male femininity.

While the Oxford English Dictionary defines gender-fluid a term describing someone who doesn’t necessarily identify as male or female — or who might feel rather female one day and male the next — it is also a unique experience for each individual. For Lillis, dressing in women’s clothes is an intrinsic part of his happiness and his existence.

Having opened up to Rivera on that bus ride, Lillis found himself presented with a pleasing offer: Rivera would take pictures of him dressed up in the clothes he hadn’t felt comfortable sharing with the world in too long. Lillis had never truly seen himself through the lens dressed as he wished. “Looking at photographs and looking at a film can really change who you are,” Rivera told The New York Times.

“When we took the first photo,” said Lillis, “I felt like I’d never had my photo taken before.” The months following that first photo session in 2014, the two became a couple, and the vitality of new love added a layer of intimacy that would unfold a journey of fascination and ultimate connection. “There’s a real kind of honeymoon period that people have mentioned in the earliest pictures,” Rivera said.

The portraits are an ode to early 20th-century fashion photography and classic cinema. Rivera notes Vogue photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) as one of her many influences. And though Rivera is responsible for designing the images, ultimately, Lillis’ path toward liberation is clearly the tour de force.

“The work really gives permission for women to look at women and for men to look at men,” Rivera said, “and for people to be nothing or anything or everything.” Lillis notes that, in every single one of the photos, he is simply being himself.

‘Beautiful Boy’ is open at the ClampArt gallery in Chelsea until July 15

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