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Body Positivity / LGBTQA+ / Relationships

Representation Matters: An Intimate Look at Love and Sex Beyond the Binaries

Photographer Melody Melamed created 'Autonomous Marrow,' a portrait series that explores the idea of gender identity and its correspondence to sexuality.

Photos and interview by Melody Melamed.

Introduction by Lily di Costanzo.

In the past few years, society at large has finally opened up to conversation about fluidity in both gender and sexuality. We’re beginning to untangle the concepts of “gender” and “sex” and “sexuality,” and recognize where the concepts do — and do not — intersect.

Still, our culture at large has a ways to go. We still operate in a world defined by binary thinking; and we certainly don’t see enough non-traditional couples represented in the media.

That’s why photographer Melody Melamed created ‘Autonomous Marrow,’ a portrait series that explores the idea of gender identity and its correspondence to sexuality.

In the spirit of people speaking to their own experience, Melamed asked six couples from her series to speak about to the power of existing outside of traditional sexuality and gender norms.


Tamren & Tori:

Melody: ‘Autonomous Marrow’ explores the idea of gender identity and its correspondence to sexuality. We know that similar to gender identity, sexuality is also fluid. As a trans/non-binary identifying person, what is your response to society’s idea that sexuality is binary?

Tamren: It’s easy to think of gender as binary because that is how most people in the modern world have been socialized. The idea of gender is relative both culturally and socially, so challenging it is not difficult if we look outside of the comfort of our own lives. Before colonialists and missionaries imposed their beliefs on some indigenous communities like the Navajo, there was a belief in a third gender. This also exists within the Hijra of India.

I personally identify as a non binary person who is not concerned with fixed ideas of gender and their “corresponding” presentations. I was biologically assigned female at birth and have 24 years experience navigating the world as a Latinx woman. Since then, I’ve been on testosterone to masculinize my physical features, and now get perceived by most cisgendered folx as male but have no absolute desire to be a man. My desire to be masculine presenting has no relation to my gender. If you know me well, folx will share that I’m actually quite flamboyant, which is often associated to femininity. Femininity also has nothing to do with being a woman. My existence often consists of challenging those preconceived notions.

Melody: Why do you think it is important for people to see non-traditional couples represented in the media, if at all?

Tamren: For the majority of my life, it has been rare to come across a representation that I can personally connect to and see myself in. Representations of us in the media helps tear down those preconceived notions that people hold on so tightly to. Seeing is believing after all.

Melody: What is the best part of being in a couple that exists outside of traditional gender norms?

Tamren: The best part is that you still deal with all of those things others couple deal with, but your very existence as a couple challenges norms around what relationships should look like . You still fall hard, you love hard, and hurt hard, but there are these additional layers we have to take into consideration.

We are more aware of our bodies, and more aware of our partners’ bodies. We have to spend a great deal of time communicating about consent, boundaries, our bodies, our partners.

Tamren

In addition to being a person of trans experience, I am also polyamorous and have other lovers apart from the person I’m pictured with. At the time, she was my primary partner and we have now moved on to being platonic friends.

Mallory & Imani

Melody: As a trans/non-binary identifying person, what is your response to society’s idea that sexuality is binary?

Mallory: I am of two minds about this. I think receiving the blanket statement that “sexuality is fluid” as a young gay person can be either exciting or frustrating. As a young lesbian, I found it frustrating to be told that my “sexuality was fluid” by my straight friends after asserting that I was not interested in men. At the same time, now that I have been exploring and embracing my gender more fully, I don’t think something as expansive as sexuality could possibly fall into a binary. My identity is always growing and changing, and I find myself most excited by folx who also exist outside/between/beyond any and all binaries.

Melody: Why do you think it is important for people to see non-traditional couples represented in the media, if at all?

Mallory: I think it’s important for young LGBTQ people to see non-traditional couples in media so that they can know that we are out here living and loving each other! So they can know that there is love and desire and companionship and sweetness in the world that will find them, no matter how strange and mis-fit they may feel. If I had access to positive queer representation as a kid, I think I would have saved myself a lot of time and tears over who I am and what my place in the world may be.

Melody: What is the best part of being in a couple that exists outside of traditional gender norms?

Mallory: We get to choose our own way! There is no script to follow! It’s scary and exciting! We are making it up as we go and we can choose for ourselves what it means to be in a relationship with another person. I love that we can play with the roles that have been passed down to us. I love to be the one who orders for my date and pays the bill when we are at a restaurant; I love holding doors and offering my jacket when it’s cold. I also love when my date orders for me and dotes and cares. I mean, I know those things are just us riffing on the “boy role” and the “girl role” when dating, but it feels so freeing to be able to be seen as both and neither of those things at the same time – it’s so much more fun and feels so much more natural to me than working within the confines of cis expectations/narratives surrounding love and dating.

Ericka & Ebony

Melody: As a trans/non-binary identifying person, what is your response to society’s idea that sexuality is binary?

Ebony: Sexuality and gender identity aren’t correlated since anyone of any gender can identify and express their sexual and romantic attractions to any gender identity, or have no attractions at all. One doesn’t inform the other and I think society has it that they do (I.e., if you are a cis woman, you’re going to be attracted to cis men, etc.). As a transmasculine person, I’m constantly opting out of every subscription of that in the world and standing firm in that my transness doesn’t feel like a complication of gender but simply reinforces how gender actually works whereas the binary distorts gender to serve a predominant, white supremacist, capitalist scheme. There’s hella freedom in seeing that very clearly and being the resistance to that level of political control over my body and that of my non binary femme partner. We peep game.

Melody: Why do you think it is important for people to see non-traditional couples represented in the media, if at all?

Ebony: It’s my hope that it’s gonna help undo the notion that there is even a such thing as a “traditional” (i.e. white cis het, mostly monogamous) couple and that whatever is being considered a “non-traditional” relationship has always existed and always will (I’d say a single parent household is non-traditional and often viewed as a socioeconomic failure usually on the part of the femme presenting parent, especially if they are black. I grew up with two mothers–my mom and my aunt but would that be considered a “non traditional” coupling? Again, even as we move away from the binary, white supremacist notions of what is alternative or non traditional still follow. It’s beyond gender and sexuality for black folks a lot of times). And also that non traditional couples can look any way and be of any gender, sexuality, be configured in anyway-poly, mono, “poly adjacent” as Ericka likes to say, and the list goes infinitely on. It’s up to the individual to choose.

My hope is that one such non traditional relationship that the media normalizes and celebrates is one that isn’t physically, emotionally, mentally or financially abusive regardless of those gender and sexuality of those represented. That would be something, huh?

Ebony

Gabriel & Pol

Melody: As a trans/non-binary identifying person, what is your response to society’s idea that sexuality is binary?

Gabriel: It would be utopian for every person to grow up feeling that they can freely explore their gender and sexuality without being shamed for any of it. The idea that sexuality must be an either/or choice denies the reality of many people. It limits all people from accessing the full range of identity and expression when the least transgression is punished with shame, fear, humiliation, and discrimination. Frankly, it’s also just boring. Seeing sexuality as binary closes off so many possibilities for connections and shapes that a life can take. Finally, in many places, it’s a legacy of Western colonialism, moralizing, and evangelizing as one tool of white supremacy and creating false hierarchies of power.

Melody: What is the best part of being in a couple that exists outside of traditional gender norms?

Gabriel: I’m dating another trans person now, so the mutual understanding of the struggles and joys. Not having to talk about it but also being able to talk about it freely with a wealth of information, and being there for each other in it. Loving that they exist because it helps me exist.

Ren & Nicole

Melody: As a trans/non-binary identifying person, what is your response to society’s idea that sexuality is binary?

Ren: F*** that!

Nicole: That idea just doesn’t make sense because that’s not how people work.

Melody: Why do you think it is important for people to see non-traditional couples represented in the media, if at all?

Ren: Because we actually are traditional. Leslie Feinberg’s book Transgender Warriors details our history across all continents, and in communal societies prior to colonialism, people who we might now recognise as trans were a beloved part of the community. They often held highly regarded positions as spiritual leaders. Modern representation is a step toward the goal of recognizing how integral we are as part of the human tapestry. It causes them to reckon with the fact that we’ve always been here and always will be.

Nicole: Because it’s important for people to see themselves as loved and cared for, and as part of their communities.

Melody: What is the best part of being in a couple that exists outside of traditional gender norms?

Ren: That’s actually really hard for me to answer, I don’t usually think about our relationship that way. I’m a practicing witch and after Nicole introduced me to Leslie Feinberg’s work and I learned we have such a rich and beautiful history, I’ve found a spiritual signifigance in our relationship. It gives me a sense of connecting to a lost part of my ancestral practice. Also, I really love Nicole and everything about being with her. Also, no cis boys.

Nicole: Not having any societal expectations for how we’re supposed to interact with each other. We both do housework, we both have jobs, someday we’ll have children and share the responsibility of caring for our child.

Zoe & Felix

Melody: As a trans/non-binary identifying person, what is your response to society’s idea that sexuality is binary?

Zoe: It’s all a social construct, love who you love!

Felix: I think that in every relationship we change to compliment or compensate for our partners. Because our genders never feel stagnant, me and Zoe also change in reaction to the other’s gender in order to make our relationship something new. Our love is always changing from gay to straight, romantic to brotherly to sisterly. Sometimes we think does this waiter think we’re a straight couple? Do the guys in our building think we’re sisters? We have never tried to find a classification for our relationship, though, because I don’t think that would do it service.

Melody:Why do you think it is important for people to see non-traditional couples represented in the media, if at all?

Zoe: There are SO FEW queer and trans people in mainstream media. Every instance of visible representation has the potential to impact a young closeted queer kid.

What is the best part of being in a couple that exists outside of traditional gender norms?

Zoe: I love having a partner who understands what it’s like to feel dysphoric and to navigate the world as a gender non-conforming person. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to justify and explain my queer/ nonbinary identity, and having a partner who just ~gets~ it is the best feeling. Felix makes me feel safe and understood without saying a word.

Find more of Melody Melamed’s work on Instagram at @melodymelamedfoto.

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