Warrior. Musician. MMA fighter. Wildlife biologist.
These are just a few identities captured in photographer Rhys Harper's captivating photo series, Transcending Gender, which celebrates transgender and gender nonconforming individuals in a variety of settings and environments.
Flying in the face of society's tendency to uniformly stereotype trans communities, each photo emphasizes how unique and varied these individuals are, and that there is no single narrative of what it means to be transgender. Together, they are a powerful means of humanizing and normalizing an often marginalized group.
These photos are for everyone. AlthoughTranscending Gender champions trans lives, its intended main audience isn't the LGBTQ community, but rather "the rest of the world." As Harper explains on his website, "trans rights are everyone's rights."
Harper told Mic, "I would like to start conversations and change the way we think about, talk about and understand gender in mainstream society. For instance, why can't guys have a pink phone case? Or why is it seen as weak for guys to cry when they are sad? Why can't girls be strong and fierce? Why are colors gendered? Why is anything gendered? I want to see a shift in these gendered expectations in our society, because I don't really think they benefit anyone."
Harper's project reinforces the important notion that people are so much more than their gender. Nobody knows this more than Harper, whose own transition inspired him to undertake this project.
"When I started thinking about my own transition quite a few years ago, I worried that people would see me only as a trans person — and that it would cloud their perception of who I am as a person," said Harper. "I wanted them to see me, not my transition. So I immediately began thinking of ways I could photograph transgender and gender nonconforming people in a way that really just captured them as people, not trans people."
Harper's message is resonating. Over 1,000 people — from LGBTQ and straight communities alike — have expressed their support and eagerness to be photographed by Harper.
"The response has been incredible, and I am really excited for the expansion of the project [which will] now include people who are not transgender or gender non-conforming...I really want to start reaching beyond communities that already 'get it' and making changes in communities that may not have a full understanding."
This is an ambitious undertaking, but an important one. Prescribed gender roles harm everyone, not just gender non-conforming individuals: Fixed ideas of what is "masculine" or "feminine" force people into stereotyped behaviors and lifestyles that may not accurately represent who they really are.
Until people understand and accept that gender is a social construct (unlike sex, which is biologically determined), and by no means a person's only defining characteristic, narrow gender roles will continue to flourish.
And as Harper said, we all deserve to express ourselves freely, without being pressured into socially "acceptable" — aka dictated — ways of life.