Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Photovoice 2016

Capturing the stories – the lived experiences – of trans* and gender non-conforming people is a powerful educational tool, for future generations and for family and community members who may never have had the opportunity to meet one of us up close and personal. Stories have the power to change how we think about things. I remember, for instance, the first time I met a trans person in the flesh. I was at university and they had just begun hormones to transition from female to male. Meeting them blew my mind. And they showed me how certain public spaces, places like bathrooms, change rooms and gyms, were danger zones when you didn’t fit neatly into the man/woman binary.

Before that encounter, my knowledge of trans* people was limited to movies like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘The Crying Game’. There was a lot of crying going on. But to meet someone in person, to be able to ask questions, to feel what they feel, see what they see, get some understanding of the way they think about their own selves, that was priceless. It gave me a vocabulary to start investigating truths about myself, to question why I was the way I was, and think about where I wanted to go with my life. It gave me permission to acknowledge the deep discomfort I’d felt for years with my own body, my own identity and my own lack of fitting in.

That was over a decade ago. Since then I’ve gone through my own transition, and become the man I never thought I’d be able to be. At first I kept my transition quiet, telling only my closest friends and family members, and those who absolutely, positively needed to know. But with time, I’ve come to see the value in being visible in my transness. For the sake of young people who need to be able to see that being trans is not a death sentence, and that opportunity still awaits. For the sake of families, who want the best for their children and want to know that others have walked this path and lived rich, healthy, loving lives.

In the summer of 2015, as I was browsing through my email, I spotted a request for participants in a Photovoice research project on Safety, Belonging, Wellbeing and Place with Trans* and Gender Nonconforming people. Thinking that it might be an interesting way to meet other trans folks, I sent in my application, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Early on, we identified framing questions we would use to guide us as we went out into the world and took pictures documenting our lives. These questions were: 1)  What makes a place feel safe and that I belong? 2) What does wellbeing look like to me? 3) What needs to change to create more safety, belonging and wellbeing for trans*, Two-spirit and gender nonconforming people in our community?

It’s a year since the Photovoice project officially launched, and a group of 5 of us are planning to attend the upcoming Moving Trans History Forward conference in Victoria, BC, to tell our stories based on the photographs we took. It’s both exciting and anxiety-provoking to have reached this point. To publicly declare, to a room full of academics, activists, and community members, that this is who I am. This is the journey I’ve been on. This is what safety means to me, to us.

The entire Photovoice experience has been eye-opening and humbling. It has helped me to accept the struggle my journey has been, and has connected me with a range of people I would not have met otherwise, our one connection being our disruption of the gender binary. Throughout I have also become more conscious of the privilege I enjoy, as a “passable” white transman, employed, housed, able-bodied, and living in a developed country with relatively inclusive laws. Even with all these advantages my journey hasn’t been easy and I try not to take things for granted. I understand, probably better than most, that nothing is certain, and things can change at a whim, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes for the better.

With my photos I tried to capture the range of emotions that being trans* in this world awakens in me. From the pain and anxiety to the humour that gets you through the day, to a necessary confidence…the confidence of facing a world that isn’t entirely convinced that you have any business existing in the first place.

Where this project goes next will depend on the success of our fundraising efforts. Some of our members will be presenting our stories and images at various public events where we will also be selling T-shirts. Eventually, we hope to do our own art exhibit – hopefully sometime in the coming year. I will keep you posted as the adventure continues.