WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT BEING NONBINARY THROUGH DOCUMENTING A YEAR OF MY LIFE
"When I start this project, I call myself woman. It’s through taking these photos every month that I realize the word no longer fits."
WRITTEN BY H. NICOLE MARTIN, ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THEM.
“What a strange idea,” my housemate says when I tell her that I’m going to take a photo booth strip of myself once a month for an entire year. “A way of tracking myself,” I say. “Only you,” she replies.
I ride the bus in the rain down to Pike Market and clatter down the warped stairs to Orange Dracula, a shop replete with buttons and vintage postcards of nudes. It smells of sage and myrrh, sandalwood pressed in corners alongside posters of horror films. The floor is scuffed with hundreds of black shoe marks. Outside, the December mist in Seattle barrages the city in scents: wet concrete, salt, muck.
I sit in the photo booth and take two rounds of photos to be safe. The film develops blue in my hands; the strip slick with water. Each frame seems phosphorescent with light. In the first attempt, my face feels too wide. I am disappointed by my own image. Is that who I am?
I slip the images into my journal where they sit, untouched for weeks. When I start this project, I call myself woman. It’s through taking these photos every month that I realize the word no longer fits.
The rules of the photo booth are simple: one strip before the month’s end, always with film. I can list every photo booth in Seattle and the bus routes I need to take to get there, each transfer and every shop’s hours of operation. Some months I am early, taking my photos before the calendar reaches double digit dates; some months I almost miss my routine, rescheduling plans to find a booth before the month ends. I exit these places alone, waving a strip with my own face filling four frames, passing couples who clamber in behind me to take shots of themselves kissing.
At the end of December, a week after I’ve taken my first photo strip, I fly to Minneapolis and stay a night with my friends K and L, and the baby they’re fostering. Outside is a powdery snow I remember from my childhood: white heat, the sound of parchment paper crumpled by tiny fists making snowballs. Inside the co-op K frequents, as I finger Brussels sprouts, I tell K I am thinking of using different pronouns for myself. I rock their baby in my arms, a swaddled bundle of mostly dark hair and wet eyes, and sway by the produce. Back and forth.
She asks how long I’ve been thinking about this and I say it took me by surprise. I cannot recall one instant marked by exposure. Instead, the shift feels inchoate, outside of time or language.
Three months into the project, at the same time I become afraid of embodying my queerness and slowly start to closet myself, my body begins to shut down.
Pain takes up residence in my back, slivers of heat careening through my veins. A frizzle of electricity sparks in every nerve of my body. My joints ache. I lose feeling in my hands. I begin waking up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep until I make myself as still as possible, wrapping my arms around my body so I can become unmoving, a stone distant from the destruction happening in my muscles. I come home after work and school and sleep for a few hours so I can wake up and study, wash my clothes, make dinner, begin again. My brain blurs. When I try to write, language sputters and slips through every space in my brain like wind through tree branches. My hands shake and I take Advil to manage the pressure in my head.
Some days, the pain in my body is so great I start to cry, but I cannot locate its source anywhere. It is everywhere. It seems to come from some place inside, where I am alone. I try to stop thinking about being queer, about being nonbinary. I avoid a person named E who I am afraid I love. Her presence in my life asks me to be visible with my queerness in a way that terrifies me.
When I exhale the pressure in my chest out of my lungs, I pretend the breath forces the ill-fit of my identity from my body. I have been good at being privately queer and publicly “straight.” I have been good at being a woman. I am scared to leave the security of those five letters to locate myself somewhere else, where the tenses are unknown to me. I stay quiet and pretend I am not suffocating my own self into silence and deterioration.
Until I can’t make the 10-minute walk home from school. Until I have to go to the emergency room.
In my Lyft to the hospital, I lie and tell the driver that I am going to meet a friend who is sick, even then not letting it be known that the person in pain is me. E texts me to say she’s waiting for me at the door.
Six hours later, the doctors cannot find anything wrong with me. “Stress, perhaps?” one offers. “We’ll refer you to a specialist for further tests,” a nurse tells me. When I start crying, the person I am terrified of loving reaches out to hold my hand and whole body flashes with what feels like light. When E texts my mom, she asks me what pronouns I want her to use for me.
After I am discharged, we walk across the hospital campus in the dark, our hands seconds from touching. We eat falafel and cold fries in a small place still open on the ave. I am too weak to open the door, and as we sit, I lean against the table watching her face; watching how her hands move. We call separate cars home and when she holds me before I say goodbye, only a breath, I am exposed. Two days later, I ask her out on a date.
For my next round of photos, she comes with me.
My strength doesn’t return immediately. The pain ebbs and flows, but each instance I am honest with myself and others, I feel the pressure in my chest release. Over the next 10 months of this project, I come out as nonbinary and queer. I stop speaking to my father. I start dating E and fall in love — gobsmacking, heart-thumping, pinch-yourself-lucky in love. I attend my first drag show where my housemate performs to Lorde’s “Green Light,” and as I look around at a whole community of queer folk, I think about how honesty makes honesty possible and language exists to better the ways we can be together.
Through it all, I take 10 more photo booth strips.
I don’t know any of this that first day in December, as I buy a pastry stuffed with taro and walk around the market slick with gray sky. I only know the three seconds between each click of the camera, the faces I make, the ways I hope the image communicates my identity to the world: beautiful, enticing, what I believe to be a woman, the woman I have believed to be myself. In the third frame, I am smirking and think of it as a tiny omen; what for, I am not sure. I begin the project because I have a sense it will be important, though I cannot fathom why.
There is no end date to this project, as there is no final image of self I imagine moving toward. One can point to physical changes as markers of the moves I’ve made: my hair is shorter, I’ve thrown away all my dresses. But to suggest that my physical presentation encapsulates my questions about my gender is to equate that a photograph is the work of an instant only; is not buoyed by an entire life informing the frame.
Today, I am here. I drink my oolong tea. I prepare to go to work. I text my partner that I will be over later. And I exhale, not holding my breath or holding in the questions, but holding them as close as photo strips between my fingers, poring over the places I once was, and all the people I became.