This project by Roanoke photographer Ashley Hobbs and her wife Jessica Simmons is based on personal experience with the dangers gender non-conforming people face on a daily basis.
Sarah Honosky | May 15, 2018
A Roanoke-based photographer and her wife look to change the conversation surrounding gender non-conforming presentation with their visual storytelling project, Discovering Gender. Ashley Hobbs and Jessica Simmons used Instagram to launch the project to the community, showcasing a blend of photography and personal narratives.
“I want people to realize that people that are gender non-conforming are everywhere,” said Hobbs. “I want to see more acceptance.”
The Discovering Gender project was created with the mission of empowerment and education, to hopefully make life a little less dangerous for those who don’t fit typical gender roles.
“One of the primary goals of the project is to expose people to non-traditional gender presentation in a way that’s positive and reaffirming and not necessarily political or pushing an agenda,” said Hobbs. “It’s just to put a human face on it. To normalize it.”
Photography has been a lifelong hobby for Hobbs, and she has the Instagram following to show for it. Her talent with a camera was the best way for her to change the conversation: not just through written word, but by providing the audience with a visual, creating an understanding of the diversity of gender presentation and identity through personal, anecdotal proof.
“It’s also to help younger kids who are struggling with their identities have role models…a platform where they can go and they can say ‘I recognize myself in this,’” said Hobbs. It’s the kind of platform that would have helped when she and her wife were growing up–Hobbs in Giles County and Simmons in Franklin County, both of which are rural counties in southwest Virginia. With Discovering Gender, they offer a lifeline to those who need it.
Hobbs and Simmons are both gender non-conforming, and growing up in small, Old South towns, there was a tangible danger and discomfort with presenting in ways that weren’t deemed socially acceptable. Even something as simple as using a public restroom could be cause of conflict.
“For many years I had this struggle,” said Hobbs. “I always felt like I had to tone down the way I presented to make other people comfortable.”
The project offers the validation and representation for gender non-conforming individuals that they aren’t receiving in mainstream media. Positive LGBTQ narratives are a critical void in popular media, especially for those who don’t prescribe to binary gender presentation and identity.
“There’s not really any representation, especially positive representation, for gender non-conforming in mass media,” said Hobbs. “It’s a personal thing for me because of my own experience. I grew up in the South, the conservative South, and from the time I was very young, probably 11 years old, I was very androgynous in appearance.”
Queerness in Southern culture is a fraught topic, often met with ignorance and backlash. But the LGBTQ population in the South, particularly trans and gender non-conforming people, are attacked with more than hateful words and systematic discrimination.
“It’s not just that it’s socially frowned upon,” said Hobbs. “In some places, it’s dangerous.”
Transphobia has a death toll, and 2017 was the deadliest year in a decade for trans people in the US. A third of the nations transgender population has experienced homelessness in their lifetime; on average trans kids are as young as 13 when they find themselves without home, support, or safety.
“People always had something to say about it,” said Hobbs. “I was bullied a lot for how I look. And even to this day, going into public bathrooms, especially in the South, can be terrifying.”
While doing a shoot with two drag queens in downtown Roanoke, Hobbs and Simmons dealt firsthand with the threat posed toward gender non-conforming people. They drew a crowd, people snapchatting, staring out of store windows, and doubling back to watch.
When they were confronted by a man affiliated with a nearby church, Hobbs said he came out of nowhere. “He doesn’t say anything to me and my wife who are obviously just standing there, and I had a camera in my hands. But he approached the two drag queens and was like ‘what’s going on here?’ He was freaking out. He was very obviously offended.”
The Discovering Gender project seeks to create a safe, representative space for individuals whose identities and gender presentation are constantly met with this kind of entitled derision. Not just by highlighting images of gender non-conforming individuals, but by accompanying every post with a message of hope, a positive statement that they want to share with the world.
“People, when they hear about the project, really seem to connect with it,” said Hobbs. “I get a lot of messages from people even internationally who love the idea behind the project. It’s been overwhelmingly positive.”
Though the Discovering Gender project is just beginning, Hobbs hopes to work with as many gender non-conforming people as possible across the US, putting out a call on Instagram to anyone interested in participating and sharing their story–and as added incentive, they will receive high-resolution, professional, digital images from their shoot.
While Discovering Gender is beginning to provide a platform for real, genuine stories of gender non-conforming individuals in Virginia and beyond, there are other community resources that provide help and support for LGBTQ+ individuals, like Trans Lifeline and The Trevor Project.
Organizations and projects like this give voice and representation to those who need it, initiating a dialogue that will begin to change the larger national narrative.
“It’s something that people really, really connect with,” said Hobbs. “There’s a lot of shame that accompanies being gender non-conforming. So when people say other people living authentically, I think it makes them feel less shame.”
If you have questions or are interested in getting involved reach out to email@example.com. The Discovering Gender Instagram is the best place to find future shoot locations and blog posts.
All photos by Ashley Hobbs, from Discovering Gender