On photographing non-binary community members in the Midwest and Rust Belt

By J Houston

I’ve been photographing members of the trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) community across the Midwest for five years. Late last year, someone was leafing through my work and said it reminded them of Diane Arbus’s photographs of the ‘freak show.’ The individuals in her work were called deviants and marginal people. I sometimes think about how fetishized their differences were in those photographs, and how fetishized transness is now. People are often happy to consume and share photographs of the trans experience, as long as we are either spectacle, or palatable to them.

In the Midwest, the options available to trans and gender non-conforming people can be limited and are often unsafe. But transness can manifest in different ways here. The need for being binary trans, or for “passing,” is finally becoming debunked, as there’s a large portion of the community that is interested in sitting somewhere in-between or outside this delineation. There are also trans and non-binary people creating room in rural areas through domestic space, coding, and the expanse of the outdoors.

The large format photographs I’ve made across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and upstate New York create snapshots of individuals, friends, or partners at various points in their physical or mental transition. These portraits document individuals and the spaces we build in the region, depicting the transformations as destinations themselves, instead of a point on a journey to some fictional point of finality.













J Houston was born in Kalamazoo, MI and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon. Their images made with the trans community have been a finalist for Duke CDS Essay Prize, Robert Giard Grant, and Silver Eye Center for Photography’s Fellowship. They are currently in fellowship at Robert Blackburn Print Studio and live in Brooklyn, NY. You can learn more about their work at j-houston.com.

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