Exploring Gender

It was only at the beginning of this year that Leo began to acknowledge that the gender they were assigned at birth didn’t feel right.

So when Leo offered me the gift to help them creatively explore a part of their non-binary journey, I knew it might be one of the most precious gifts I’d ever received. It became an open and sensitive dialogue between us, where there was no such thing as the wrong question. Only a space for honesty and the honour to give something visually back to them, in a place they connect with.

We had been talking for some time about how we might photograph this part of Leo’s gender exploration – looking for a way to celebrate and importantly acknowledge this time. They packed a rucksack filled with clothes and artefacts they now gravitate towards, as well as some clothing that despite holding such strong stories, they need to disconnect with. For the time being at least.

We headed to a forest in South Wales, where the waterfalls and branches from the trees became more symbolic than either of us envisaged.

We went with what felt right at the time and at one point of the day, as they waded into the water in a dress they no longer wear, all was silent as they let this part of their former identity go. I literally didn’t breathe in those moments.

It was only at the beginning of this year that Leo began to acknowledge that the gender they were assigned at birth didn’t feel right. This became the start of their journey, and it is by no means the destination.

“I had no clue that I was non-binary until a few months ago, in fact I barely knew what it meant, despite being a tentative member of the LGBT community. Each person’s journey is unique. It’s like trying to fit the puzzle pieces together then realising that they were never meant to fit, just throwing it all up in the air and making your own,” says Leo.

Although they have only recently begun having open conversations with others about their gender, Leo didn’t hesitate in wanting to support others by creating a safe space for people to question, express and explore their gender and sexuality. They created the Radical Curiosity course, which ran over four weeks in August this year. I feel this is especially wonderful, as Leo had only just announced their true self to the world, less than a month after I had spent the day photographing them in the forest.

A close friend of mine is currently supporting her 16-year-old, Jay, as they explore and communicate many feelings around their gender and anxiety.

“The only thing I ever want for my children is to be happy,” says Jay’s mum. “There have always been ups and downs in the parenting journey for so many of us. For me though, it’s essential that I support all and any challenges they face and that we keep talking and learning. The most important part is that we love ourselves and we surround ourselves with people that love us back equally.”

Having only recently shared this part of their journey with their own family, Leo now smiles while telling me that a friendly competition has begun in the family. Their mother might ask ‘Laura, can you make a cuppa please?’, to which their father will correct her with ‘Remember, it’s Leo now.’

I asked Leo what they might say to parents who want to help support their children through a similar experience. They tell me that it’s important for parents to remember that it’s completely fine to change, and not to question or doubt anything about their experience. They already know the most about this, they are the ones guiding, rather than the parents, especially as by the time they are getting to the point of talking about it, they’ve been through such a lot already. So don’t assume anything, give them space, and keep it open. Keep the conversation going, for example when you’re washing up together or while out on a walk. Be the safe space.

What neither Leo nor I realised about the day we spent at a waterfall in a forest, was that it would become a baptism for their new name. That tentatively walking into the river in a white lace dress, unplanned and undirected by me, was the visually symbolic moment that unlocked the language needed to express the next part of their journey.

Discarded With Honour is a personal photographic project with stories around the objects and possessions in our lives that no longer serve us. By giving them a ceremonial goodbye, we hope to let them go. This day with Leo was a disconnection of a loved-dress they no longer wear, as they connect more into their non-binary journey.


As featured in JUNO Magazine 

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