Pride Month is one of the happiest times of the year for me as a queer, poly, trans wedding photographer. As an educator on the topic of queer-affirming approaches for photographers in my community, I’m always looking for ways to help fellow business owners refine their approaches.
The purpose of affirmation work is to help marginalized and oppressed people feel safer in our spaces. There are genuine ways to go about doing this work. I’m going to uncover some of the basic information you’ll need to start your work with the LGBTQ+ community. Since I am a transgender nonbinary person, many of these suggestions will be focused on gender-diverse inclusion.
Why pronouns aren’t optional
In almost every professional workplace and business I patronize, I am asked my pronouns when necessary. And when you are a portrait or wedding photographer, you are absolutely going to need those proper pronouns! Notice how I do not say preferred pronouns? Well, that phrase insinuates they are optional to some folks.
Pronouns are not optional unless someone is not ready to disclose theirs for gender reasons. That is why you should always leave the part of your forms asking for proper pronouns clear and optional.
My own pronouns are they/he and many people tend to stick with the pronoun he because of how they/them can feel for those who are newer to its singular usage. They/them pronouns have been around for almost all of history going as far back as Shakespeare. They have commonly been used as a singular pronoun to speak about folks without pointing to their gender. Arguing that these are “grammatically incorrect” is not just incorrect — it is also transphobic in nature.
It takes very little to use the words that empower and create safe spaces for others. When someone denies they owe this safety to others, they create an unsafe space. Again, there is no excuse for not using proper pronouns outside of disability intersections and those who are in the hypothetical closet still.
You might be thinking, what if I mess up? Well, practice is key. And even if you aren’t good at using them … the intent to do so and the attempt to at least try so is more appreciated than you’ll ever be able to understand. Many folks will not even agree to use pronouns for a myriad of excuses and transphobic origin thoughts.
I know some folks just don’t like the grammar part, but an alarming amount just uses that as an excuse to not support transgender folks at all. This stems from the belief we are “asking too much” by merely asking for proper pronouns or no gendered language. This is the mindset that kills transgender youth at alarming rates right now. We cannot accept the excuses anymore.
Trauma-informed and gender-aware posing
Gender diverse queer clients need awareness of things like gender, sexuality, trauma, neurodiversity, and social class status. You don’t have to be an expert on these things to do a decent job, but when you incorporate trauma-informed approaches to posing and communicating needs … your space will be safer for queer people.
There are all sorts of ways to pose your subjects with comfort in mind. Jolene Sage, a Chicago portrait and editorial photographer, thinks it is more about specific emotions and energy rather than gender. “Yeah, when posing I think comfort outweighs convention, and utilizing poses that convey a specific emotion or energy instead of assigning them genders or body descriptors.”
Posing with touch is rare for me as a trauma-informed photographer. I have so many clients who have a history of abuse involving touch, both my wedding and boudoir clients ironically. Asking if someone is OK with being guided into posing with touch is really ideal to cover in questionnaires and conversations prior to your shoot. Moving so much as a bra strap could trigger someone’s PTSD if you’re not careful.
It is also important to be speaking with your clients about consent and public intimacy. How do you currently ask your clients what their comfort levels are? Maybe that is not something you’ve incorporated into your workflow, but plugging it as a question on your Client Intake Form can really help you further down the line when you’re struggling to remember who has what boundaries.
On using gendered language
“Omg babe you’re so cute today!”
“Boy, I’m so happy to see you.”
“Dude, I love that dress”
These phrases are gender-neutral to some folks but to others, they are highly gendered statements. In varying places in the states, these seem to be the most common way to misgender trans and nonbinary people. Many gender identities can be found by avoiding gendered language. The point is to be kind toward folks who do not WANT to be gendered.
I am one of those trans people. While at times, being seen as a man can be thrilling … it is not who I am. I do not like being called anything beyond my they/he pronouns. As an agender person — aka I’m neither a man nor woman — I don’t feel a connection to gender at all!
The proper greeting for me could be, “Hey there pal!” or “Hi friend how are you?” but the minute I’m associated with womanhood and being a “girl” to someone, I am feeling majorly misunderstood and physically nauseous.
It’s really just best practice to get someone’s pronouns, discuss their identity and what words make them feel powerful without using gender, and only then decide how to address them with any preferred gendered language from there.
Gender dysphoria and euphoria
The entire point of affirmation work done for trans and nonbinary folks is to decrease gender dysphoria in public settings. Dysphoria is a clinical symptom that can build into depression for gender-diverse folks. Being misgendered, aka using the wrong pronouns or words to speak to them, can greatly increase their depressive levels. This is why we are so strict about the usage of PROPER pronouns and insist all folks at least try to use them.
Gender dysphoria is being the only trans person at an event. Gender dysphoria is having to correct folks on your pronouns even after years of trying. It is when you’re filling out a contract and it all says Bride/Groom this or that. And it is when we are forced to pretend we are cisgender in certain spaces, businesses, events or even school to avoid mental and physical harm that comes with being openly and outwardly gender diverse.
There is a silver lining though. We do experience joy in many ways. You can contribute to gender euphoria if you were merely to use the correct words and pronouns to speak with some of us. This feeling is the opposite almost, it has its own feelings of joy, affirmation, and belonging. Euphoria is being properly referred to at a party of folks thanks to name tags with pronouns and correct names.
Euphoria is having a lineup of models with everyone’s pronouns even if just one person is transgender. It is showing up in public in desired gender warmth encouraging clothing and makeup to find others complimenting you and cheering you on. Euphoria is what reminds us life is worth living many times. Being accepted after spending your entire life without a space to truly belong is life-changing.
Contributing to euphoria, rather than taking away with dysphoria, should always be our goal when trying to be trans-affirming.
Defend them when they aren’t in the room
Being a great business owner to your clients means going that extra mile to love them in times of need. Times of need would absolutely include when someone else is dehumanizing them or misgendering them in front of you.
When you do not correct someone on their incorrect gendering, you enable transphobic behaviors behind closed doors. I cannot tell you how many amazing, well-intentioned friends fail to do this one small step to be my friend. They will neglect to use my pronouns, resort to my deadname and sit in their own comfort levels to avoid the person I really am. Which is not truly seeing me as a person, but projecting an ideal version they can control.
You don’t need to cut off friends who do transphobic things unintentionally, but I wholeheartedly encourage you to distance yourself from anyone who adamantly refuses to respect the bare minimum effort of using pronouns or accepting we are our gender. If they cannot even pretend to care in front of you, imagine how careless and harmful they will be in a room with your clients or partners or friends or family.
It isn’t OK to selectively make an effort on trans affirmation. You have to commit to defending folks in spaces that might not be so comfy to do so in. Of course, we can’t expect you to risk your job or safety, but we mean the conversations with friends. The nasty jokes. The insinuation that we are just special snowflakes who pretend we are trans for … benefits I’ve yet to see to this day, frankly.
Learning more can help
It is fine to have questions about how it all works but it is dangerous and depressing for me to be in spaces with folks who do not actively believe in my entire being as a person. There are more people in this world who believe I’m a delusional, traumatized woman who just didn’t like my life and needed more attention.
The truth is, I am a very resilient person who has survived ungodly traumas and lives with extreme neurodiversity. I’m less than a fraction of a percentage of the world’s population with the experiences I have. Gender was never going to be simple for me, it was destined to be complex and beautiful and mine to own.
Editor’s Note: We welcome this guest post by Ez Powers. Ez (ze/zem) is a trans educator, wedding, and boudoir photographer. Ze is located in Chicago, Illinois. Ze has spoken at festivals abroad about their fine art nude photography project. Ez currently mentors fellow boudoir photographers on disability and queer inclusion. Zyr passion lies within the psychology of self-esteem, trauma therapy-fueled social work and invisible disability activism. Ez also coordinates a Queer Photographers Chicago group for anyone interested in joining them. They meet twice each month to collaborate, create and learn from each other!