What’s your name?
My given name is Leah, that I usually go by. My magical fairy performance name is Leviathan.
What are your pronouns?
They/them. Or fae, ideally, but I don’t ask anyone to call me that. It’s sort of like, when you think about it in depth – what do I actually feel like? And my gender is fairy, but “they/them” is nice because it’s inclusive and ambiguous.
What do you do / where do you work?
I’m self-employed, and I’m a photographer. I teach photography and art, and I walk dogs, and I edit photos. I make music sometimes. Sort of a variety of stuff.
Do you have any hobbies or special interests? What do you do for fun?
I make music. I would love for it to be more than a hobby. I’m trying to put more energy into that during this whole pandemic thing, but it’s hard to keep up momentum without any real external stimulus, and just sort of being in this bubble of sameness. I’m trying to break it up with things. So, music… I dance. I do belly dance, I do flow arts – like hula hoops and stuff – and I like organizing little things sometimes for people to get together and have safe spaces to be creative and expressive.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
Oh, god. It’s difficult. I have friends in my Pagan community that – it took a couple years for them to be exposed to it. Not that they were resisting, just that a lot of them are older. But they’re correcting themselves, and making a concerted effort, and my friend Joey who’s also a non-binary fairy was like, “Hey, what if we did a workshop on that?” I was like, that sounds fantastic. I don’t know if the festival will actually happen, but… So when people are on board, it’s a little easier to just [say], “They,” and they’re like, “What?” “Oh, you said ‘he,’ it’s ‘they,’” and they say, “Oh yeah, sorry, I didn’t realize.” But it’s much trickier when it just sort of happens in passing, you know. Like my parents have never gotten on board. It’s an odd combo of, they both have trans friends and are kind of involved in the sci-fi community – which is chock full of queers – but they’re both in their 60s and just won’t…do it. For whatever reason. Which is frustrating.
So it’s like, if I’m shooting weddings, or I’m working, it’s kind of hard to [say], “Oh, by the way, my gender is this and such.” I started putting [my pronouns] in my email footer now, which I think will help, just because people see it over and over again. I think part of it is just exposure and practice, but a lot of people are kind of resistant, so I don’t know. If it is a situation where I feel like it makes any kind of sense then I’ll try and correct them. But it’s like, you correct them that first time and then they say, “Oh yeah, sorry,” and then they’re not used to it so they totally forget, and do I really want to interrupt them repeatedly to [say], “Hey, you’re mis-gendering me, and it makes me really uncomfortable.” And then people feel really apologetic, and you say it’s okay, but it’s not really okay, I just don’t want you to feel bad. So it’s a tricky situation sometimes.
"I have plenty of friends who are perfectly fine with the gender moniker that was given to them, and that makes sense for [them], and I understand that. And that’s confining in its own ways, and we also have to push against that. If you’re a woman, that can be very constricting. And I feel like I still also fall into that category enough, because I’m perceived as a woman, because I do express very feminine, that I also get those pressures and experiences. So I’ll say, “You should not treat women this way,” and include myself in that, because I have those experiences, but that doesn’t meant that because people perceive me as a woman, that I am."
What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?
Colorful. I think I am very much an externalizer, you know – some people, to process stuff, will try and take it in and then keep it with them and process it, and I definitely do that sometimes, but for me, when I have an experience that’s very intense, it just kind of goes back and forth in my mind and I need to be able to put it somewhere. So definitely part of my gender is being able to be expressive with my clothing and my personality, and being able to retain enough of my true self, even in my work. And I’m really glad that I’ve been able to do that, because if people hire me to be their wedding photographer or whatever it is, then they get a sense of who I am, and that’s what they want. I mean, you have to put on a professional face for some stuff, and it’s kinda you, but it’s kinda not. But yeah, I think I’m very much an externalizer and an expresser.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
I think part of it – I definitely have felt this kind of pressure that does exist in the queer community that makes me really sad of this “holier than thou / queerer than thou” queer-off. And as a non-binary person I’m very feminine, and I appreciate hyper feminine. Not in the lipstick and high heels – I can’t wear high heels, it destroys my knees – but, you know… For a while I had short hair, and I experimented with that, and it was fun, and it was a way to say in the moment, “This is my gender, I’m kind of in-between stuff,” but I want to feel pretty and do pretty stuff, and I have a variety of ways of expressing myself. My clothes vary from day to day, but I don’t want to try and force myself to be someone’s idea of what non-binary is. I think that’s important to be able to expand that. It means whatever it means to that person. And it also has this kind of overarching umbrella meaning for all of us. It gives you the space to be who you are really. I have plenty of friends who are perfectly fine with the gender moniker that was given to them, and that makes sense for [them], and I understand that. And that’s confining in its own ways, and we also have to push against that. If you’re a woman, that can be very constricting. And I feel like I still also fall into that category enough, because I’m perceived as a woman, because I do express very feminine, that I also get those pressures and experiences. So I’ll say, “You should not treat women this way,” and include myself in that, because I have those experiences, but that doesn’t meant that because people perceive me as a woman, that I am.
I mean, this is what the whole push in our generation in the queer community is about. It’s about individual expression, and togetherness. And toxic masculinity is toxic to everybody, especially male-leaning people. I’m thinking about how the first folks I met who [said], “No these are my pronouns, I’m non-binary,” were female-bodied people with more androgynous – that is to say, more masculine-leaning – clothing, you know, and that was kind of my first real exposure to that. I spent a year at 18 just wearing very baggy, neutral clothes because I wanted to just throw off all those expectations. I was like, I’m sick of this. People assuming they can make comments about my life, and how I express myself, and the kind of choices I make, because of how they perceive me as being feminine and cute. I want to be feminine and cute on my own fucking [terms]. And that’s part of the whole picture. People can be what they want to be. And that’s okay. That’s a good thing.
I think that part of my identity is I feel like I have a good perception of people generally, and I can read people very well, but also that can lead to a lot of judgement, and I don’t want to be as judgmental.
And sometimes you make judgements on people and they’re totally right, and that is what it is, but I think that when I see people in the community acting out their trauma on each other as a way to feel validated, and [say things like], “Well, you said this thing, which we just decided in this pocket of the queer community is not okay to say, so fuck you.” It’s like, they didn’t know, or we all have different sides of this, or we’re all learning. There are things I might’ve said that I thought were in the political correctness sphere that now I’m like, oh, that makes sense that that’s not really right, now that I know more. But we all have to educate each other, and you can’t educate each other by beating each other down. People just get in that cycle of, I’m hurting and I’ve been hurt, and I don’t have any real sense of identity, so I’m going to step on someone else to get it. And it just breaks my heart. We’re all in this together. I don’t want to be judged as a feminine-presenting non-binary person. I don’t want to be judged for being a white person of privilege. Those are facts, and I’m okay with that. And I have to consider where that puts me in relation to other people, and the kind of support and the kind of listening I want to do to be perceptive and respecting other people’s realities. Just be like, “Oh, okay, I didn’t know that, I see that now. I will try and remember that and work it into my lexicon, because that’s my responsibility. Just like it’s your responsibility to not judge me.”
I think something I realized about my gender growing up is that I sort of flitted between the boys and the girls and ended up having more friends who were boys when I was much younger because they tended to be more straight forward, and I really appreciate that straight forwardness and just being real and honest in that way. Whereas girls are brought up to be more manipulative and catty, which just sucks. And I appreciate that when I work with kids, I’m able to help with that. And my friend’s kid who’s now 12 ½ has been identifying as non-binary since they were like, 8. My friend’s kid who I’ve babysat and spent time with since they were 2 is now 8-ish and they just came out as non-binary, and I was like, “Yay!” And you can change over time. Some people come out as trans when they’re much much older, partially because it takes them so long to undo so much of their programming and try and restructure their life to the way that they can do that, or they’re finally like, “Okay I have to live my truth, I’ve got one goddamn life, just let me be myself.” But you can change your mind over time, and that doesn’t invalidate what you were doing before, it just means that you’re a complex person, and that you change over time like we all do. I’m really glad that this new generation is being actively encouraged to express themselves. Just take it at face value. That’s how kids are, they’re just like, “Oh, that’s what is.” And it’s good for adults to be learning from that, and to say, “Oh yeah, that’s what is.” And if it changes, that’s fine.
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
Well, I wasn’t even introduced to the concept until – honestly, mid-high school, which seems crazy. Because I came out as bi when I was 12. Before I even knew much about anything. I came out, my mom [said], “Okay,” and then years later she [told me], “Oh yeah, I’m bisexual.” I was like, I fucking sensed that, but why did you not just tell me? But yeah, as soon as I was introduced to the concept I really grabbed onto that. I think it was the Unitarian community that introduced me to that, and just being a safe space. But again, it took a while for people to actually use it, you know. Because we’d go around and be like, “Do your name, and your pronouns,” and I would say, “I’m Leah, ‘they/them,’” and then it comes up in conversation and [people would say], “Oh, she said such and such.” It’s like being poked in the soul. Like, ow, ooh, okay, that’s unpleasant.
But I literally remember being 7 or 8 and the boys were playing some boy-ish game, and the girls were playing some girl-ish game, and I was like, I’m gonna be a free agent. I’m going to literally go between them and pass information. I’m going to be the genderless spy. So I just [thought], yeah, none of this really quite fits me. If I had known about that as a kid I would’ve been all over it. And I think I had the space to wear what I wanted, and express myself as a kid, I just wasn’t very specific. [As a teenager], what are you going to do? You’ve got a limited number of certain archetypes you’re allowed to fit in. it’s interesting how much I think the gay male community has been poisoned by the media and by being at the top of the privilege tower, being the first to be allowed to come out, and there’s a lot of toxicity on that level, and a lot of entitlement. It’s like, guys, we’re all in the same queer boat. Some of us just have a harder time than others because of circumstance. But I think a lot of trans folks end up in that, “Oh, I’m just being the super masculine/butch/gay lady,” but then, “No, I’m actually a dude,” and I was never able to do that, you know?
I think a lot of it is the queer movement and just a lot of where society is in general is moving towards this openness and flexibility, and getting away from the idea of one truth and one life and one reality that you have to adhere to. There’s this big evolutionary push towards diversity and acceptance and dismantling all these hierarchies and oligarchies. Everyone else has been living happily living on top of everybody else, and think, “I don’t want to, it’s hard, and it makes me have to think about all the things I’ve been doing my whole life that mean I’m taking advantage of people in everything I do, and someone is beneath me suffering for my benefit,” and people just can’t handle that. So I think it’s a mark of strength in our community when we can acknowledge that and try to reach out to each other. And I’ve been really impressed with that. I’ve been trying to keep up with the Somerville/Medford Mutual Aid Group, for people who are struggling with the whole Coronavirus thing, and it’s just been really nice to see people actually help each other. I’ve been doing this Porch Portrait project where I charge people 50 bucks, which is ridiculously low for what I usually charge, and I donate half of it to someone in the community. Everyone’s been paying early, which is great, because they understand the need for that, and as soon as I can I sit down and give to everybody that I can, and that in itself is my reward. It feels so good to be able to help people just a little bit, and me throwing in with all these other people adds up. It’s been fantastic. Part of what I love about freelancing is that it’s very much a nebulous kind of, you just give it and it comes back to you. So I think when all this is over I’ll have a lot of people who have met me, and remember me, and remember me as a helpful person, and that will really help me in the long run. Because it’s what I need for my business, and it’s just been really nice. The more stuff I do, the more I’m able to do, just energetically, because it really builds up. So I’ve just been taking myself out of the house and putting myself in a nature place, listen to some music, sing, run around, dance, be by the water, whatever it is, just to have some kind of being connected to stuff and try to get myself in motion.
"To be a fairy is to be kind of open-ended and ambiguous and being able to change and have so many identities and faces, and they’re all you. And that being a fairy means being connected to everything, being connected to nature, and prioritizing kindness. You just put yourself in that headspace."
For the first several weeks [of this pandemic] I was doing really well working from home, and then my uncle passed away, and I didn’t have a structure to go back into. [Normally] it’s like, oh, I have 3 dogs to walk today, or I have to respond to this client, edit these photos, I’ve got 2 hours in this café, I’ve given myself enough structure to keep the wheels turning – and when you just have an empty space, it can be really scary, like even if I feel like I have the motivation, I don’t have the handholds. You gotta build yourself up there, you can’t just jump straight into doing the most difficult stuff sometimes. So, adaptability and support I think is huge, and just remembering that we’re connected to each other and doing things for each other has been huge. Every time I send money to people I try and reach out to people who’ve written a specific message about what they’re going through, and [say], “I wanted you to know that I’m thinking of you and your son, you’re not alone in this, we’re all in this together, please be safe and be well.” Just sending some good will to people, because I think that really comes back. I’ve been trying to drive groceries to people. I can’t go shopping because I have a shitty immune system, but if you go shopping, I’ll get it, I’ll drive it out to wherever, and then that person will have food and they’ll be okay for a little while. Just so that person can feel like they’ll be caught if they’re falling, and they’re not just falling into a void. We’ve all had those moments, and it’s fuckin’ terrifying.
So bringing it back, that’s part of my identity, is that I know I have to prioritize my own health and happiness, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about that. It’s hard sometimes, but I remember that I’m part of things. And I think that’s part of feeling like a fairy. I’m also a professional fairy part of the time; this is when I would be doing fairy work, which I’m trying not to think about, because it’s heartbreaking to me, because it’s been such a huge part of my personal growth over the last year-and-a-half. To be a fairy is to be kind of open-ended and ambiguous and being able to change and have so many identities and faces, and they’re all you. And that being a fairy means being connected to everything, being connected to nature, and prioritizing kindness. You just put yourself in that headspace. And that’s what I love about having a positive community; sometimes we get lost in minutiae bullshit, and I just want to be that person where I can [say], “Hey guys, we’re all in this together,” and sometimes people can’t hear it, and that’s not helpful, which I understand. But we’re here to be kind to each other, and when people are able to keep that in the forefront of their mind it’s really fantastic.
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?
That’s a good question. I feel like I’m – not a full generation, but most of a generation ahead of most of my friend group and my queer peer group in that my mom is this hippie witch, and my dad was this wonderful photographer musician artist, and that they very much supported me to be who I am. I don’t have a lot of the body shame, and I don’t have a lot of the feminine bullshit that a lot of people do. And I’m able to have a positive relationship with my mom and my stepdad. It’s complicated at times, and they say shit that I really don’t like, you know, and I can tell where their prejudices are, and I can confront them about it, but that doesn’t mean they change. So I don’t know. It’s an interesting combo.
"Why are you staying where you are? And why are you spending so much energy to stay in your comfortable perception that was developed decades ago for what was visible then, and why are you inflicting that on other people now?"
I grew up in Arlington [Massachusetts], but in the more suburban part of Arlington, so being much younger it was pretty normative. But as soon as I got to the end of middle school and into high school, I really had the space – I didn’t even join the GSA until I was in junior year because I didn’t feel the need. I had this huge group of nerds and queers in my friend group, and they were cool. But then I wanted to be able to give back, and I joined it, and that was really rewarding as well. So yeah, I think I’m very lucky that I always felt safe to express myself and to stand up for myself in those ways, and I’m really glad that my hometown has moved lightyears since I’ve become an adult; it really is so much of a healthy atmosphere. I’m really, really grateful for that. I think I’m lucky in that way, because a lot of people [have the experience of], “Yeah, my parents were really shitty, and they forced me to do this, and then I had to escape, and didn’t really realize my gender or my sexuality until college,” and then people get out of their little bubble and there’s this huge bloom-splosion of gender-whatever, just selfness, of, “Oh yeah, that’s who I am!” Now that you have the space, you can actually expand to fill that space.
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
I haven’t dealt with it personally in a long time in terms of people judging me for my more feminine presentation… I think the misconception is that there are misconceptions. That if you have an idea of what an enby [non-binary] person looks like, then that is the problem. We look like what we look like, and it is what it is, and we have to have the space to explore with that. And I think that people should be able to gain from that experience of seeing that we are breaking out boundaries in any way we can think of in a meaningful way, and I’m hoping that philosophy kind of spreads to people.
So just having misconceptions and holding on to them, I think – or not asking questions, you know? That’s the big thing. That’s what I really love about a lot of queer culture, is that it’s an invitation to ask questions. So you never assume. Whoever I meet, if I have any uncertainty, which I usually do – because who fuckin’ knows what people look like and how they identify? – [I ask what their pronouns are]. And that they’re not like, “How can you not tell I’m a - (whatever)?” I don’t know. You are who you are. It’s up to you. Tell me what you want to be addressed as, and if that changes, I will do my best to remember and learn on my own time. Because that’s my responsibility.
If the thing that’s in the forefront of your mind is your own insecurity, you’re going to spend your energy holding on to what security you feel like you do have by staying where you are, then you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot. And I think that’s sort of where my family is. My mom has really dragged her feet because she’s very second-wave [feminism]. My best friend, Goodwin, who also came out as non-binary and really insisted that people use [the correct pronouns] a couple years before I did – that’s what inspired me. And that’s what gave me the strength and the practice of being able to bring that forward. But they have been really firm with their parents. I’m friends with their family, and their mom is so lovely, and I’ve known her my whole life, and she’s so sweet and a really caring social justice activist person, but she has this transphobia and is a bit of a TERF [trans exclusionary radical feminist]. And she didn’t realize it, but at one point my friend Goodwin [said], “You know how you’ve suffered with all these difficulties and all these prejudices these people have, and that you’ve fought to get where you are? You’re doing that to them now.” And that kind of struck her. Why are you staying where you are? And why are you spending so much energy to stay in your comfortable perception that was developed decades ago for what was visible then, and why are you inflicting that on other people now?
It’s such victim-blaming bullshit, and I’ve talked to my family about it repeatedly, and I think I’ve managed to get some headway of, people in the queer community have endured so much trauma already. And every time I have a difficulty with my roommates, every fucking time my parents [say], “We’re going to say you should stop getting roommates from the Queer Exchange list.” And I [tell them], that’s the only place I’ve looked, because people who are going to fit in and understand are there. And to say, “Oh, they’re unreliable and they’re shitty because they’ve got their trauma” – we all do, and it’s not their fault. I feel like I’ve had this in my own experience, and I hate when it happens. A lot of people who fully went from living one gender to another gender, and having that really big change, do take a lot of their trauma with them, and it feels like that’s all they talk about is their trans experience. And I’m like, I know there’s more to you, you just feel like people are attacking you, because they are, and that’s all you want to bring up. But how are we going to make any headway if we don’t talk about other things?
I had this roommate who was very traumatized and ended up being very toxic who has some physical disabilities, and that’s all she talks about. And then she uses it to her defense, to undermine people, to dismantle whatever legitimate complaints you have. And I also have a physical disability, not to the extent that [she does], but you can’t pull that shit with me. I know what it looks like. And I know when I have my own moments of, “Oh, sorry, things have been really rough,” to a client or whatever, sometimes I’m distracted with other things, and I don’t want to use it as an excuse. It’s something I’m working on personally. But that’s your responsibility. I think that’s what it is to be an adult, is to understand, these are the choices I’m making, and I understand they might affect people, and that I’m not going to just blame it on whatever, on circumstance, or my upbringing, or the society I’m in. We all are where we are. But the choices you make are the choices you make. To say it’s other people’s fault is not helpful, if you really want to move forward. I plan to have kids, I have a wonderful partner who is going to have kids with me ideally – one, one is more than enough, one child is plenty – but whenever the next generation makes whatever discoveries or changes that they make, I want to be on board for that. I want to be able to educate myself and stay connected enough to have an idea of how to speak respectfully. If we all turn into our parents repeatedly and make the same mistakes, how is our world ever going to move forward?
Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you?
I had someone who I met at the end of high school who was trans, and we fell totally in love, and they were this amazing person – but I think that they were in their own ways very self-destructive. And I was moderately self-destructive, but not in any really terrible way. In high school we all act out and do shit, and I never really significantly damaged myself in a way that I haven’t been able to incorporate into myself in healthy ways. But she kind of encouraged parts of me that I am not very happy with, and she turned out to be emotionally abusive, and a lot of my own hang-ups and little bits of transphobia and the ideas of how I’m supposed to be as a non-binary person came from her. Because she, as a growing trans person who had a lot of difficult with her family and whatnot, would kind of do that whole “Well you’re not really trans” thing. Just constantly using that whole, “Well I’m traumatized and I’m going through trauma, and I’m trans, which means I come first, and your concerns aren’t as valid.” And I just fucking had it with that mentality. So I think that finally being able to realize, This doesn’t make me happy, and it isn’t healthy, and I want to be healthy. And that’s my choice. That kind of got me stuck in a lot of ways, and gave me my own little red flags of people that I have had to work to undo. And my own sense of “Oh, I’m not trans enough,” or, “Can I call myself trans?” Yeah. I’m moderately disabled, I’m moderately trans. It doesn’t have to be all one or all the other. It’s not a fucking contest. It’s just a big fuckin’ umbrella. We’re all under it together. Non-binary means you’re giving yourself permission to explore. It’s an open space to just see what happens, and that is what it needs to be, and you shouldn’t try to force it to be anything else because of pressures from other people.
What do you look forward to in the future?
I mean, I look forward to being able to live my life again. As much as I’m learning how to adapt, and that my adaptability is something that I’m proud of – it fuckin’ sucks, man. I had a life, you know? And it’s always been a struggle in many ways, and I feel like I’m getting to a better place, being able to be more productive. And I’ve got the time to do all the big projects I’ve been needing to do, but have I really been able to do them? No. I’m 29, and I’m on that kind of verge of getting to that next big phase of adulthood, and I’ve been kind of stuck in the same place for a long time of not being able to make the money that I want, and not feeling like I can get to where I want productively. But having work as a dog worker’s really helped me, and it helps to have significant structure of, “I’m doing this at this time, and then I’m working on this at this time,” and taking myself seriously as a photographer and as a musician, and trying to throw off my Imposter Syndrome.
See Leah's work at https://leahcsphotography.com/