Meet Leo. Leo is 15 and currently going through an epic transformation that has momentarily turned the lives of himself and those around him upside down. A mum who once had the daughter she always longed for is now coping with the realisation that she will be living the rest of her life with a son instead. When your child is born you have certain expectations of the typical life they will lead but most of us know and accept that it won't necessarily end up the way we imagine. Not every person wants to marry, have kids or be involved with the opposite sex. Most of us have come to accept this and can adjust to whatever comes our way relatively easily. But few of us have expected to have to deal with a change in sex. Its not that we've hoped it won't happen, but just that it never occurred to us that it might. This is a new adjustment that we as a society are being presented with today, just like so many others that have come before.
When I first heard that Phoebe was transitioning into Leo I must admit that I felt a little strange. I am still coming to grips with this concept myself and its not because I feel transgender is wrong. Its that for me, all involved have to come to terms with saying goodbye to one person and then getting to know another. Its not just that Phoebe has come out as gay. I do feel that that is a much easier concept to accept. If she were gay the essence of Phoebe and even her name still remains. But Leo is not gay. He believes that he never belonged as a girl in the first place. He identifies with a much more masculine part of him and wants nothing more than to be recognised as a young man.
As a parent we all go through difficult times of watching our children grow. We have mixed emotions of being happy they are growing into fine young adults but at the same time being sad that our babies are not our babies anymore. I have felt this sadness with my 14 year old who no longer wants mother/daughter days or hugs when she comes home from school. I regularly feel like I miss my little girl who fit so snugly in my lap. So how must a parent feel who sees their child not only transform into an adult, but also into the opposite sex. How sad must it feel to not just lose your baby, but lose your daughter altogether and see them grow into a man rather than a woman.
All the idealist concepts such as watching your daughter walk down the isle in a gown, or seeing her pregnant then raising a family are suddenly taken from you. Instead of sharing girly shopping trips you are faced with a child who wants testosterone so they can finally grow facial hair and gain a deeper voice so they can appear more like the man they want to be. Instead of shopping for bras they are researching top surgery, something Leo is eagerly awaiting.
I met with Leo before our shoot together so that we could plan our session, just like I do with all my sessions. But in this case I also wanted to help myself get to grips with the situation so that I could hopefully produce portraits that Leo will love. I've known Leo since he was Phoebe. She was about 5 when I photographed his parent's wedding. And I have photographed Phoebe many times after that. This was the first time I was meeting Leo so I still had some adjusting to do. Just using the name Leo and the correct pronouns was going to take a little time. Thankfully Leo has said his aggression to the wrong name and pronouns has lessened since receiving the amazing support that transgender children have available to them. I never realised how much support there is already in place. The world really has come a long way, even though its clear it still has a long way to go.
Now I said a little earlier that if Phoebe were to have come out as gay and not transgender the essence of Phoebe would still have remained. Having spoken to Leo one thing that struck me when I asked what sort of message would he like to send out with this experience was that I had been thinking about this the wrong way. After a little thought, he said 'that I am still me'. I felt like one person was leaving and another was taking her place but really Leo has always been there in Phoebe and the essence of Phoebe is still there in Leo, always has been and always will be. So I suppose the essence of a person isn't wrapped up in gender or their sexual orientation.
Leo has come a long way in recent years, first coming out to his family and then to the rest of the world. The family are receiving great support from local groups with members who are sharing the same path. From what I can see, by knowing his parents, his aunt who does my framing, some of his friends who I know myself, it appears he has full acceptance. One such person told me of Leo's change so matter of factly it surprised me. It was not the jaw dropping gossip one might expect, particularly from teenagers, but more of an 'oh ya, Phoebe is now Leo'. I imagine he is one of the lucky ones. But I think it must say a lot about the world today if he has been accepted so easily. I certainly hope this is a sign of the times and not a lucky rarity.
Leo is well on his way now to making the physical changes he wants to complete his transformation and knows all about the timescales he can expect. None of this happens overnight by the way. He still as several years to go which includes first hormone blockers, then testosterone and eventually top surgery.
I love the portraits I've been able to create for Leo. And to tell you the truth, I no longer see Phoebe who is going through changes but instead I just see Leo. And I see Leo as a confident and proud young man which I think is pretty incredible considering this intimate part of him he is now showing the world. That cannot have been easy and shows immense strength, especially for someone so young.
In addition to the usual portraits I wanted to create something a little different with hopefully some artistic merit. I've been playing around with the double exposure feature on my Fuji X-T2 which got me thinking of this. Phoebe has been transitioning into Leo for a while now. I thought it might be interesting to see an image that shows to some extent whats been happening. I wanted to portray Leo as Phoebe, in a dress she may have worn to conform but not looking as content or confident as Leo has become. And then to present Leo as he is today with the new found joy and confidence he is feeling now that the world is adjusting to who he wants to be. I'm not sure I've been able to capture this for the world but I certainly achieved what I set out to for both Leo and his mother who each enjoyed the experience in both a therapeutic and amusing way. Tears were shed while selecting the dress and many jokes were made regarding the high heels and keeping knees together while posing as Phoebe. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this portrait (show below).
This has been an eye opening and enlightening experience. To be perfectly honest I am still finding the need for people to live as the opposite gender to which they were born a difficult concept to grasp and I feel for all those involved because its not an easy adjustment to make. But I accept the need that people like Leo must feel to make this change and they deserve respect while they do so. Although we might not be able to understand their feelings ourselves, who are we to say their feelings aren't real when we can't possibly know how it feels to be them? Our world has come a very long way in accepting homosexuality. I hope we can some day also say the same for those wishing to identify as the opposite sex. The world we live in today is providing a whole lot of uniqueness and I happen to think that's something really quite amazing.
As I mentioned earlier Leo has been able to get some great help and support through his transition. If you or someone you know can relate to this story and would like some help I asked Leo where he found support and he suggested the following:
Mermaids. Mermaids is there to support teenagers who are at odds with their birth gender.
The Leicester LGBT Centre - Leo told me himself that he gained a lot of support from this site.
P.S. A funny little story I'd like to include. The photo below was taken (in 2010) as a result of me telling this family that I can't get my own daughter to wear a dress. It was suggested that we try while Leo (then Phoebe) was wearing her christening outfit. My daughter still doesn't like wearing dresses but it makes me smile to think we had Leo help encourage my daughter to put on a dress.