A complete annihilation of gender
August 19, 2019 1:46 PM   Subscribe

"It's our job to push institutions forward and create art that reflects the world we want to see.” Ally Schmaling, Boston-based queer and gender nonbinary photographer, created a portrait series exploring queer and nonbinary identities — people living without limits and refusing to identify with traditional male and female gender labels. They started as a wedding photographer, where they honed the ability to find pockets of joy, and have since moved into portraiture.
posted by stillmoving (34 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
These are great! I didn’t see a link in the article - there’s lots more at their website here.
posted by obfuscation at 1:57 PM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh my, and their Instagram has some amaaazing shots like this one
posted by obfuscation at 1:59 PM on August 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I feel like there's an imperative to be fabulous that gets sort of put on people who are gender nonconforming and/or queer - that it's not enough to to schlump around in a shirt and jeans being non-binary, one also has to have a creative haircut and lots of accessories because that's how one "proves" one's non-binaryness. Or like one has to be super-ultra desirable/young/thin/hot, because that's a way of "proving" that non-standard people aren't gross and awful.

One of the Big Trans Twitterers that I follow - who is a great twitterer in most respects - only ever retweets pictures of thin, young, normatively beautiful but, like, "creative" people, and has this whole "being trans is so great, trans people are so hot" line that I find really, really alienating.

It's just weird. I understand that any image is always a choice, it's just as much a choice to take a picture of an average-looking GNC person in their average basic clothes as it is to take a picture of someone with a really neat haircut. And I understand, as a visibly queer masculine spectrum person who takes a bit of care with my appearance, that standing out and looking definite is a way of coping with a frequently hostile world.

I still feel weird about it, because at least some of the world I want to see is, maybe, the kinds of beauty and fascination that emerge when you look at something carefully for a long time and are maybe hidden at first glance.
posted by Frowner at 2:28 PM on August 19, 2019 [54 favorites]

Some of Ally's portraits are on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts as part of the wonderful Gender Bending Fashion exhibit. It ends this weekend--not too late to see 'em, but go soon!
posted by Sublimity at 2:50 PM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Frowner, I feel so much the same way. I tend to keep my reaction to posts like this one to myself, because it’s a huge fucking buzzkill, but these kinds of image projects almost always make me go “oh right, I’m just as bad at being nonbinary as I was at being either binary gender.” My body is messy, my clothes are messy, my hair is messy. No matter how hard I try to be a person who has Haircuts and Outfits and an Aesthetic, it just. Doesn’t. Happen, and fucking hell I just want to see one goddamn photography project that shows a trans person who looks sloppy like me. I don’t need to feel beautiful, I just want to feel allowed. I want to feel like for once I’m not failing at having a body.

These photos are gorgeous and lovely and well done, and by God I’m tired of seeing gorgeous and lovely and well done photos of people who are better at their genders than I’ll ever be.
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 2:51 PM on August 19, 2019 [28 favorites]

Nonbinary visibility is kind of a paradox, because the goal of binary gender expression is to make it obvious at a glance which of two genders a person is. True victory in terms of nonbinary visibility will be a complete destruction of that obviousness, not just for nonbinary people but for everyone. The fabulous fashions may get the attention, but you messy jeans-wearers are doing the work too! I try to help, too by wearing a kilt and knitting in public. I hope to live in that messy world free from the tyranny of binary norms in my lifetime.
posted by rikschell at 3:24 PM on August 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

if you break out gender presentation into "marked" and "unmarked" instead of feminine (marked) and masculine (unmarked) you can see clearly that gender operates on a spectrum and also as a bar to clear.

Furthermore, no matter where you are in your gender presentation, be it inside the binary, outside the binary, across the spectrum, or on several points along the spectrum, it's REALLY REALLY REALLY hard to escape "marked" and "unmarked" gender presentations. The power levers that are used to differentiate between marked and unmarked gender presentation are sexual availability, desirability, misogyny and the male gaze. This has a profound impact on everyone who is read as "marked".

So therefore, any gender presentation that is marked is subject to misogyny and any gender that is unmarked isn't. It's dead simple. This is why nonbinary and GNC folks need to join in a big ass tent alongside all women, cis and trans, and all trans men as well. Because there's a whole ass lot of us "marked" folks out there that are subject to misogyny in all ways.

Now having said that I can engage with the content of the FPP.

Pretty much every work of fashion and art I see which challenges the binary or celebrates the nonbinary spectrum is selling a MARKED gender to the population in order to get clicks, credit, likes, market share and ultimately recognition for their efforts. I've never seen anyone attempt to use unmarked gender to accomplish this. And it's doing harm to a lot of folks who don't measure up to sexual availability and desirability.
posted by nikaspark at 3:31 PM on August 19, 2019 [24 favorites]

because the goal of binary gender expression is to make it obvious at a glance which of two genders a person is.

As a nobinary trans woman my goal is to provide safe passage for binary trans people into a world where someday, in the far far far off future, gender assumed at a distance is no longer a thing, and we aren't expected to broadcast a gender to random public folks we don't even know.
posted by nikaspark at 3:34 PM on August 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

so I wanna expand on sexual availability and desirability a little bit, because I don't want people to misconstrue what I'm saying.

With trans women particularly, the bar of sexual availability is magnified to the point that we're seen as sex hungry whores (which is actually overlaying a homophobic trope on us because we're still seen as men even though we're marked) and the bar of desirability is inverted from "desirable" to "mega disgusting". So that means we're stereotyped as overly sexually available and then we're overly hated because we're seen as attempting to be desirable when we shouldn't be...But it's the stereotype that trans women are hyper feminine whores that lead to the desirability problem in the first place. It's misogyny and the male gaze all the way down no matter which way you invert it.
posted by nikaspark at 4:06 PM on August 19, 2019 [9 favorites]

frankly speaking i would give my eyeteeth for some shots of nb humans that are not on that like, "cool queer" look. i think part of the problem is also that "nonbinary" is a pretty incoherent category

i mainly pass these days as one of the two major genders out of a sense of exhaustion with the whole affair, which is uncool but real
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 4:22 PM on August 19, 2019 [11 favorites]

The Basic Ball sketch in A Black Lady Sketch Show is just so perfectly spot on for this.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:46 PM on August 19, 2019 [10 favorites]

because the goal of binary gender expression is to make it obvious at a glance which of two genders a person is.

Is it? Or is it instead that a goal of gender-conformity can be legible gender and the gender binary is something which is forced upon our all our genders with varying degrees of pain and "success"?
posted by hoyland at 3:25 AM on August 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

(nikaspark: if I wanted to read more about marked and unmarked gender presentations vs feminine and masculine, where would I start?)

I'm really grateful for the discussion thus far because whenever NB portrayals come up, I'm not sure how to (or whether to) express or process the ambivalence I feel. On the one hand, I'm glad for any portrayal of nonbinariness, and so I'm really happy this was posted. On the other, I scroll through the pictures trying to find a person like me and then there's a moment of despair when there's not one? And again, I want to say that the despair happens at the same time as the happiness--seeing the person in the bright yellow layout in the NPR piece, for example, made me say a little yay. I feel like the ambivalence goes even further though, because on the rare occasions I do see pictures of someone who is kinda like me, the internal conflict really begins.
posted by mittens at 5:24 AM on August 20, 2019 [9 favorites]

Yes, mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think that high-glamour presentations like this kind of serve as a foot in the door. It is a form of portraiture not that far removed from the artifice of weddings, so I have few illusions that these people look the same way without the aid of a professional stylist. So I feel odd criticizing Schmaling for doing that type of studio work rather than documentary work (which has its own aesthetics and biases.)

And one of the things I've been thinking about is how we're mainstream enough to be beautiful screamers in bad syfy horror (Another Life).

On the other hand, I do feel uncomfortable with the stereotype that nonbinary/genderqueer people are mostly young, pretty, and fashionable. One of the things I really appreciated about Sense8 were the scenes where they recruited extras and one-off parts from the community. Although there I feel more inclined to address editorial biases that treat young trans people as creative and influential while old trans people are bitter and tragic.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:50 AM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Mittens: I came across it a lot when my partner was reading and studying linguistics, philosophy and critical fashion theory for grad school, here’s one article I came across, published in 1993 in the NYT that helped ground me:
(It’s from 1993, it is strictly binary)
posted by nikaspark at 6:52 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think there's something in all this about problems with images and social media. First off, I think that as a society we assume that images have more power to affect change than they really do, so it's very easy to put a lot of political work into making striking images. And because of the way social media works, a "striking image" is one that succeeds within an already-existing set of imperatives about fashion, beauty, youth, novelty and desirability. An image is only successful if it's going to go viral, basically, and it's only going to go viral if it can compete and win among influencer photos and erotica. And if images are what makes social change, then images have to be similar to influencer photos and erotica in order to make social change.

I think that as a society, we're still dazzled by social media. Before social media, if you were queer/on the left, you distrusted mass media because mass media was so obviously terrible, so obviously totally in the pocket of big business, so sclerotic, so inaccessible. You didn't say, "hey, if only femme queer people could be depicted as objects of sexual desire in popular media it would change everything," and while part of that was a specifically political critique, part of it was because something like that would never happen. It would never happen.

And now, of course, it happens with some regularity - not in uncomplicated ways, but fairly frequently. And we're still basically blown away by that, and we're still basically blown away by having what feels like "access" to "mass media" through social media.

Previous critiques of images-as-political-work and of mass media were rooted in old mass media and old rules of access and so they don't really map neatly onto the present, but I think we need new ones.
posted by Frowner at 7:22 AM on August 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Frowner said: Before social media, if you were queer/on the left, you distrusted mass media because mass media was so obviously terrible, so obviously totally in the pocket of big business, so sclerotic, so inaccessible.

But still it was monolithic and you had to do something with it, and while I'm still asking myself how healthy it is to look back on those days with fondness, we were debating the media, searching for hidden clues that a story or image was queer, arguing whether something was subversive or whether what looked like subversion was really just contained and turned inward...oh god, there was so much to say about mass media back then. I'm going through a sort of midlife nostalgia attack for those kinds of 80s-90s queer analyses lately, and love what you're saying about how different social media has made things.
posted by mittens at 8:00 AM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

But still it was monolithic and you had to do something with it, and while I'm still asking myself how healthy it is to look back on those days with fondness, we were debating the media, searching for hidden clues that a story or image was queer, arguing whether something was subversive or whether what looked like subversion was really just contained and turned inward.

I mean, this seems like the reform-or-revolution question - when there's no access to mainstream media, we're all sort of in it together and we all debate whether/where there's queerness, but once there's a kind of access, a different range of political positions become possible. Is it enough if fashionable, young, normatively beautiful nonbinary people can be fashion models and actors in an otherwise largely unchanged media landscape (the presence of nonbinary people will change some things and open up some cultural possibilities, though)? In that situation, how young is young? How normative is normative? Or is the media landscape sorta fucked up in itself? If so, how much does it need to change - improvements or overthrow?

And of course, since people like me have different opinions on those questions on alternate Tuesdays, it's not like the conversation is even consistent within itself.

I sure do miss the nineties because when I was younger I knew less and was far more certain.
posted by Frowner at 8:27 AM on August 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

If so, how much does it need to change - improvements or overthrow?

I was pondering this thread last night wondering what kind of queer art I would like to make and I realized that I want to capture the unremarkable beauty of the everyday lives that queer people live, and make that for queer people on our terms.

Like I don’t think we can ever escape being marked because we are not and never will be a social norm. Once a part of our queerness becomes a part of a social norm it’s like a part of a glacier that’s melted into the ocean and never coming back. We are forced to refashion ourselves anew because...patriarchy I guess. So to that I think whatever Art and fashion and culture is made from us, it will have currency in the unmarked world as this fabulous and exotic thing, and I suppose the best I can ask for is that we work to not cater to that, (the straight gaze? Cis-facing?) but rather package up our own plainness and share it with each other, democratize it, federate it, create a queer Internet anarcho syndicalism of our everyday.
posted by nikaspark at 8:49 AM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don't have the spoons or time to be thoughtful but I'm glad the party was pooped. I'm an agender dyke, basically, and my presentation is never super feminine but wear skirts 2/5ths of the time. I am treated different based on how I present. I have a masculine hair cut, it's frequently unkempt and not obviously trendy or super polished. when I wear men's clothes (not trendy ones either, just like, men's tshirts from walmart), people are very weary about me. When I wear a skirt, or earrings, the reaction is much different - unless the person is an outward homophobe. I still get clocked as gay, and I live in Virginia. I love being outside the gender spectrum, and not interested in men. It's allowed me to reconnect with my body in special ways. I enjoy being ugly.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:38 AM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

There's something funny about the framing of the NPR piece since the text leads with the portrait series, but only three of the images on the page are clearly a part of that series. The rest of the images appear to be work pulled from their portfolio or Instagram presented as part of the same context. Maybe there's a conversation to be had about how Schmaling is curating themself to get gigs and commissions, but they appear to be swimming in the same soup as the rest of us.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 9:53 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Although there I feel more inclined to address editorial biases that treat young trans people as creative and influential while old trans people are bitter and tragic.

i was about to write a whole thing about "where the fuck are middle-aged trans people, even ones permitted to be stylish but in a non-youthful way", and then i'm like: of course representations of trans people are refracted through the lens of ageism.
i think there's also stuff afoot about stealth and presentation and the general tendency of visible trans people to be relatively fresh trans people which i prefer not to talk about at length in mixed company.
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 10:35 AM on August 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

Why is this so painful. Living without limits?

Having a hard time articulating this feeling, but here goes...so, I'll never get to experience a single day without being misgendered. Or a day where I don't have to fight against my own socialization. There is no such thing, right now, as a true safe space for me; even fellow nonbinary people are dismissive of the word I use to identify myself.

Like two days ago I got to listen to a couple of nonbinary people complain about the word "enby" (in front of me!! when they knew I identified that way!!) because "no other word has an n and a b next to each other." (uhhh, like, noNBinary? Or raiNBow?)

Doesn't matter that having a word that means "something" and doesn't mean "not-something" meant the world to me.

They didn't listen to my explanation of the origin of the word (ie, it was coined for a specific intersectional reason) and continued to use it like an adjective, like it's just a shortened version of the word nonbinary. And they suggested that I'm using it as a safe word or code word, to avoid openly identifying as trans. When I said plainly that it is a term of pride for myself, they graciously informed me i was allowed to identify that way, and that they wouldn't mind.

Now every time I self-identify, I'm going to flash back to that moment, and feel a pang of doubt. In a couple of sentences, someone managed to rob me of my sense of self, and I'm just praying this feeling wears off.

So anyway.. this is tangentially related to aesthetics. It's about the cute/non-cute dichotomy and how it relates to a nonbinary identity. Because cis society ostensibly tolerates 'cute enbies", queer culture, my culture, is increasingly hostile and dismissive to anyone who fits that bill.

Same shit, different day re: being pansexual.

FTR it only seems like there's a sudden glut of of young nonbinary people because 1) in general younger people are more visible, 2) we all only started coming out of the closet en masse like five years ago, and 3) without the weight of years of confusion and marginalization behind them, they're more vocal about their identities.
posted by captain afab at 11:22 AM on August 20, 2019 [10 favorites]

Their work is beautiful and makes me happy! Seeing older trans people in To Surive on this Shore recently, which apparently was posted to metafilter, brought me so much comfort, too. I would like All of the trans and nb visibility, though I appreciate the mundane ones more, because I'm very boring.

Also, is 'gender nonbinary' a legit phrase, or is it people unfamiliar with the vocab trying to reach for 'gender noncomforming'? It always stops me up.
posted by gaybobbie at 12:00 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

nonbinary is different than gender nonconforming. You can have a binary gender and be gender nonconforming. This is what I mean by "nonbinary is an incoherent category"
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 12:24 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I look at the categories more like an ambiguous terrain map and less of a border.
posted by nikaspark at 12:41 PM on August 20, 2019

I keep seeing 'gender non-binary' too and I don't think it actually means anything in particular, other than possibly trying to locate non-binary people in a single third gender. (Which, with apologies to captain afab, is the issue people in my circle have with 'enby'. It seems to have boundaries and that's cool, but not so much when people pretend it doesn't.)
posted by hoyland at 1:44 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't think people writing "gender non-binary" realise they're doing that, but it feels like the result.
posted by hoyland at 1:45 PM on August 20, 2019

without the weight of years of confusion and marginalization behind them, they're more vocal about their identities.

Last comment, I swear, but things like this hurt me, as someone who has been identifying as trans for a relatively long time. We weren't retrograde like people seem to think we were. We weren't obsessed with being gender conforming. We didn't think we were "born in the wrong body". We were plenty vocal, no one listened.
posted by hoyland at 1:53 PM on August 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

I love that the conversation here can acknowledge and praise these amazing photos (holy cow these are striking images!) while also examining and critiquing the broader context that they exist in. It's important to have visible representation of people who are genderful and genderless in fabulous and bold ways like this project presents and it's also vitally important to have representation like the post gaybobbie linked.

More and more I find myself thinking that, personally at least, the dismantling of binary thinking (that identity must be discrete and that categories are mutually exclusive) must extend far beyond the concepts of woman and man. I hear folks talk about trans elders and think about how I consider friends who are my own age or younger than myself to be elders who I can look to for guidance when I feel like a child still learning to tie their shoes. The simultaneous joy of seeing yourself in Schmaling's photos and the pain of seeing what you are not, or at least what you feel you cannot ever be. Wanting to be both visible and invisible, seen and unseen, known and unknown. How cis/trans can feel like one more fucking binary that we are only allowed to occupy a single side of while also representing powerful distinction in experience that is so important to recognize. How we exist both as a part of and apart from our community of binary trans brothers and sisters. Does my gender contradict itself? Very well then. I contain multitudes. I am so grateful to all of you, here and elsewhere, for sharing your own contradictions, feelings, observations, and knowledge.
posted by metaphorever at 3:00 PM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

I keep thinking about this whole question of representation, and I think that an issue is that we have learned to expect representation to do the work of organizing.

Representation is always going to be partial and frequently going to be problematic, especially under capitalism, etc etc. Like, what if you're a young photographer who knows young people? Or a trendy person who knows trendy people? Up to a point, you can compensate for that by making call-outs to get a wider range of models, but what if you just want to take some pictures of your friends, or what if you make your best effort but your social network is still limited? There's value in that, too. This would probably also be a problem even in utopia, because we don't know everyone.

The problem is that who gets to make art and art distribution circuits are screwed up. It's not like there's a whole slew of older working class photographers out there with the training, connections and cash to do a big photo project. And of course, there's big media pressure to frame photography as "LOOK LOOK AT THE ENBYS LOOK AND LEARN THEY ARE ALSO HOT BUY FASHIONZ" instead of "here is a sensitive set of portraits by a portrait photographer who, like other portrait photographers, has specific concerns".

For [various historical reasons that would make this a very very long comment] as a society we're in a headspace where we believe that representation is organizing, and we hold it to the standards of organizing. It should make change, it should be representative, it should improve our lives both collectively and as individuals, and when representation falls down either because of capitalism or because of its intrinsic limitations, we feel hurt, angry and helpless.

I would argue that while it's important to make and distribute images, and while it's important to have a political understanding of images, what we're often looking for from images is only ever going to come from organizing - by which I mean getting together (in some capacity - ideally in the flesh but also online/skype/phone/whatever) and being full, real people with each other, sharing our actual full lives and coming to understand and work for our common needs. We can't be "seen" through a flat, limited photo of someone else; we need to be really seen by each other as complete individuals with complex relationships.

I think we set ourselves up to be "seen" by "society", the Big Other, whatever, and that brings with it very limited satisfactions because it's only ever partial and abstract - society is only ever going to 'see" me through the lens of convention/stereotype/category, even if society is friendly to me.

I also think that "organizing" doesn't mean "get together and have a mean argument about who can call themselves non-binary" or whatever. That's just more palaver about representation. Representation and language can do good work, but they don't replace the intimate and complex ties that we build through really knowing each other, knowing each other's histories and needs, etc.
posted by Frowner at 6:52 AM on August 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

Frowner: I'm a bit uncomfortable with that dichotomy as presented. One of the things that communities do at any scale is create art, and I mean art in the broadest possible sense including my niblings' crayon hand-turkeys. Within LGBTQ communities, a lot of organizing work includes creating venues and publishers for that art, and by necessity, a lot of LGBTQ professional and semi-professional artists are involved in creating, maintaining, and funding those systems.

Schmaling included from what I've been able to dig up through google. The nonbinary series came out of an open casting call, and it looks like she does some degree of organizing work as well. While I'm not a big fan of her aesthetics, I think the issues involved in NPR giving her this type of exposure are very different from what we're talking about when Disney finally decides that a character's sexuality is more important than Tony Stark's pants. Schmaling is a regional queer artist who got lucky with a national blurb.

IMO representation is as much about investment and funding as the semiotics of image. I support a lot of queer-produced and queer-focused art that doesn't represent me specifically on that basis.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:01 AM on August 21, 2019

Straight, man, and women are all incoherent categories. Unfortunately serious attempts to deconstruct them are pretty much non-starters.

I mean, we can debate ontology and theory until the cows come home. At the end of the day, is it going to get me less of a beatdown when someone clocks me as queer?
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:58 AM on August 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

At the end of the day, is it going to get me less of a beatdown when someone clocks me as queer?

Wearing cis camouflage and if you require it, surgically altering your body to be legible to cis people.

(Unfortunately that’s the best option I see?)
posted by nikaspark at 3:55 PM on August 21, 2019

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