Meet — Tawan Kariem Bunch

 

Tawan Kariem Bunch
23, New Jersey

Where are you from?

I'm originally from Jersey. Born and raised. I also spent some time in South Carolina, and all along the Eastern Seaboard, because I was expelled from my high school.

Why were you expelled from high school?

This kid thought that I wanted to date his boyfriend, but we were just friends. He didn't like how close we were; so one day I may or may not have patted his ass in front of him. (Laughs) It was a hearty, bro-kinda pat. But the following day, the kid came up to me and started poking my face. We started fighting directly in front of the school office, and it looked like I'd instigated. So yeah, I got expelled. And that's when my mother found out I was gay.

How long have you been modeling?

Probably about two years. Initially, before I moved [to New York], the only creative thing I had was a Tumblr. I was always deleting my accounts and making new ones because those direct messages—I just can't. It's so weird. But my personal style was getting noticed; so when I moved here, I already knew all the right people from social media. Next thing you know, I walked my first runway. Things just started working out.

How is your image a reflection of who you are?

When I was a teenager and would come to Manhattan to kiki and chill with friends, I would have to bring a change of clothes. Skinny jeans, a boot and a tank. Back then, we didn't have people like Young Thug for the average boy to relate to. Seeing a boy in a skinny jean at the time was quite a statement. Never-mind a dress and hair.

But at a certain age, I was just like "Fuck that. I am not wearing a disguise anymore." Because it was a disguise. When society or ignorance or whatever dictates how I live my life— that shit is uncomfortable. Bringing a change of clothes, changing between bushes, feeling like I couldn't wear what I wanted to wear. That's now how I operate now.

When did you decide all this?

I think when I got on Tumblr, to be honest. Once I got on Tumblr, I knew I wasn't the only idiot. I'm not a weirdo! I'm not crazy! Some people can function in society not abiding by society's gender rules! And you know what, I hate to sound tacky and say it, but Gaga? She did it for me in every way. I give her all the props. (Laughs) Around that time I was like wait, pause. I'm 'bout to pop out in a six-inch platform boot and just say "fuck it."

What is the public response to your style and appearance?

It's both positive and negative. When I'm dressed femenine, people are softer in their demeanor towards me. Maybe I seem more approachable. But this [a T-shirt and baggy jeans]? I'll get car doors locking on me as i'm walking down Mulberry Street. If I look like the average black dude walking around with a hoodie on, I can't walk into certain bars or restaurants to just use the rest room. So my perspective swings on both sides of the fence. It's my privilege.

Do you ever wish you could look how you want to look without it making a statement? Without the public attention?

All the time! When I'm feeling myself, I don't want it to always be such a thing. If I'm in hair and a thong, that's just how I'm feeling. I'm still Tawan. I'm still nigga. I can be in a boot, a heel, or a skirt, and I'll still be dude. I'm not a new person today. But the lines can seem so blurred. It's a new thing for people. Even for me sometimes too, because I'm still discovering things about being a gender-fluid person. You need tough skin to exist in this space sometimes. You realize a lot about how people perceive and treat you.

You brought up the word "privilege" in describing your gender fluidity. How do you feel to acknowledge this "privilege?"

You know what, I'm going to be real about this. I put this side of myself out there, so I feel like I have to talk about these things.

Around my first runway season, I considered myself transgender. That's who I thought I was — a woman. Being suddenly surrounded by so many trans friends, I thought, "Wow, I am a girl!" But I will say, with a lot of the girls in the scene, there is a strong yes-man culture. At least that's been my perspective. There would never be a devil's advocate present. It was always a strong "Yeah girl, you're trans" type of thing; and I think I got wrapped up in that. Maybe a few months afterwards, I was like, "wait no this isn't me. This actually isn't what i'm about." And afterwards, I felt like, I'm just gender fluid. You know what I mean?

But then I started feeling bad when talking about my experiences. There was one publication that I was supposed to do a story for, featuring trans girls in the art/fashion/music scene. But when I mentioned that I wasn't actually transitioning, my point of view suddenly wasn't valid and I was pulled from the story. It wasn't being pulled that bothered me, but that I was made to feel my perspective was less-than. As if to say I haven't lived my own version of this life for a year. So these days, I do feel some guilt in my privilege as a "regular gay guy." The fact that I get to switch it up, turn certain things off, and "blend in" when I'm in "day drag" or whatever. It is privilege. 

How has your family reacted to your gender-expression?

Well, it didn't take long for them to come around with the gay thing. They were like "Oh, he's gay, whatever." But when I started putting on weaves and feminine clothes... Well, it started with heels. My mother did not get it. She was not here for it. Which was super weird for me because I was always femenine as hell.

You probably put on dresses as a little boy.

Please. I would play in her clothes daily. But she eventually came around a few months before my modeling. I had a talk with her and I was like, "I am not some alien creature." And eventually she came to one of my very first runway shoes. 

It started off a little rough, as with most African-American families that aren't very exposed to that type of thing. But my mother started giving me wigs, and that was a huge deal for me. That's such a step for her. The family reaction has been pretty cool. Positive and welcoming.

What are your goals?

My only goal is to be comfortable. That's literally it. For me, it answers every question that needs to be asked. To be comfortable — in my skin, my surroundings, my home, my profession.

What is your hope for queer America?

For us to not just be kiki. Like, we're not a joke. We're not just a party. We're literally the same as everybody else — we just like to dabble in some other shit.

Whose job is it to get that message across?

It's everybody's fucking job. Society is run by people, so it's up to us to make that shit work. We have to bypass the ignorance, stigma, stereotype and fear, and just get down to coexisting. That shit sounds cliché, but you don't get anything done when you're separating into cliques and terrorizing each other. 

 

images: Stefano MasseLauren Gesswein, Mark Fitton

 

 
Henry Bae