Coming of age is never an easy process regardless of who you are or where you spend your formative years. However, growing up and navigating life as a gender non-conformist in the rural South poses an entirely different set of challenges.
Roanoke residents Ash Hobbs and Jess Simmons met in 2011 and were married in 2015. Each experiencing the stares, curiosity, ignorance and isolation while living their lives as androgynous, non-binary females in the rural South. While their families are supportive, it was hard for them to relate and understand their experience, especially with few positive role models in their community or media.
Hobbs and Simmons realized others in the rural South and beyond may be having similar, isolating experiences. So, combining their talents for social media marketing and photography to begin reaching out beyond rural Virginia via Instagram, looking for others who may be struggling with gender, sexuality and/or mental health issues. They soon began hearing from persons nationwide and from around the world, creating a supportive, online community.
Recognizing a need for role models and better representation of the gender non-conforming community, Hobbs and Simmons started the Discovering Gender Project. According to their website their non-profit’s mission is to use “social media for good,” as stated by Hobbs and use photography to tell stories that will:
Bring positive media attention to gender non-conforming individuals and the issues that impact them;
Create a safe space for gender non-conforming people where they feel represented, encouraged, and supported on their journeys to live as their most authentic selves;
Educate people on sex and gender (and the differences between the two) and to represent as many forms of gender expression/identity as possible;
Educate people about the mental health challenges faced by gender non-conforming people, how to help and to direct gender non-conforming people to appropriate, helpful resources whenever applicable;
Humanize gender non-conforming people by illustrating that they are valid, they exist in large numbers, and they are vibrant, essential parts of our larger communities;
Discovering Gender has grown far beyond an Instagram presence and a hashtag. Hobbs and Simmons endeavor to take photographs of persons that identify outside the gender binary in the contiguous 48 states. Eventually, the couple wants to publish a book of photographs and subject interviews.
“You cannot put just one face to the transgender or gender non-conforming. We humanize those worlds and show people as a vibrant, valid person in our community,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs also emphasized that many in the gender non-conforming community suffer from depression and social anxiety and “Discovering Gender” is an empowering platform, offering subjects the power to ‘own’ their own story and garner positive attention and virtual support and inspiration via social media.
Hobbs and Simmons have been traveling throughout the South as time and funding allows, interviewing and photographing persons outside the gender binary and telling their stories. Currently, the couple does not have plans to visit Hampton Roads, but are open to make a trip if there is enough interest among the community to participate in their project.
They are interested in documenting as many different permutations of gender as possible. If you are interested in getting involved or want to see more of their photographic stories, visit their website HERE. You may also follow the “Discovering Gender Project” on Instagram @discoveringgender.