A long time ago, some time in the early to mid-’90s, I was sitting in the back seat of my parents’ shitty Ford sedan. In my working-class family’s economy car, there was very little room in the back seat, and my little brother’s sweaty head lay heavy against my side. We traveled along the Shoreway with the meager Cleveland skyline to the right and the vast marine nothingness of Lake Erie to the left. Burke Lakefront airport lay between the highway and the shoreline.
In the dark, the blue lights of the airport’s runways twinkled against the background of millions of gallons of water left by the last Ice Age. The eerie lights stretched in orderly rows toward the horizon. It was so dark that one could almost believe no light could possibly escape the beckoning lake as the tides lapped seductively on Ohio and Ontario shores, their mystery and arctic cold goading even the calmest of hearts.
At this time, in my early teens, I was quite sure I was an ugly animal — not actually human at all, and my very existence an affront to God and to the very concept of beauty. The severe and unending bullying I received from my peers and classmates had convinced me. If I were worthy, why would I be punished and ostracized?
Adopting this belief as my truth came with a great cost. I lost a lot of joy, I lost a lot of creativity, and I lost the ability to make the rules about my own body and how it is seen and known. With my grief, and with all the pain I felt being a young queer and genderqueer kid, there were few moments when peace manifested in my body.
But on this particular evening, I saw something for the first time.
I stared at myself in the dark reflection of the car window. My focus shifted from the immensity of the great lake to the center of my own iris. I think Joni Mitchell was playing. What looked back at me was dark and beautiful.
Almond-shaped eyes that surely contained mysteries in their ink and mahogany. Pale skin highlighted by cheekbones, floral in their bloom, solar in their color. The hair was thick, shining, reaching past the shoulder of the reflection. It was dark enough to have its own event horizon. The lips already carried the mischievous lilt of my voice that I’ve since carefully refined, but which at the time existed like an unused guitar.
I became enamored of this night-time self, this self reflected in glass and landscape as Cleveland sped past and retreated in the rear-view mirror.
This self was not a girl or a boy. This self was silent and observant. This self trapped me in a glance and guided me toward some kind of awareness of what was “other” inside myself. It guided me toward my power, my eventual liberation, and my love.
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I am still working to find myself beautiful and worthy. My bravado sometimes overshadows what is still tender inside of me. But now that tenderness is a slender sprout of green in the soil of self rather than an open wound.
Now, I don’t just look at myself in the dark, believing I’m some other person from a more beautiful alternate reality.
Now, I leave my house during the day and don’t hide who I am.
Now, I wear bright colors to offset my own luminosity.
Now, the person I want to be is no longer just a reflection. I am sinew and synapse, blood and bile, masculine elegance and feminine power.
Feminist, lesbian, and theologian Carter Heyward writes that “our bodyselves become the ground on which God moves through, with, and among us.”
All our bodies are holy. All our bodies are a location of grace, of the interplay of interpersonal, global, and cosmic forces. We are a temporary moment amidst the infinite. The only power we have is how we will shape the mandala of our lives and bodies.
So now, when I take selfies, it is because it makes me real. It affirms the tremendous journey of transformation that I’ve been on. Not the transformation from female to male, but the one that comes when I learn to love my body and myself.
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It may seem a tad narcissistic, but each picture I take dispels some of the early messages I received about the worthlessness of my body. I feel my heart beat a little more boldly in my ever-widening chest.
A selfie also gives me the power of self-definition. I have control over the image and how I am seen and understood. As someone who recently came out as genderqueer, I find this control profoundly important. A selfie is an invitation to enter into the definitions of the photographer. A new world of meaning opens, and that meaning is self-curated.
Being queer, being a woman, being disabled, or being a person of color is an exercise in constantly being defined and assessed by someone else’s parameters. It is living in someone else’s reality with someone else’s definitions. The power we have to overcome starts with joy, love, and the recognition of the worth and beauty of our own bodies.
[Headline image: The photograph features a selfie of the author, a light-skinned person with short reddish hair and a short dark beard and mustache. They are wearing a dark blue shirt and blue reflective sunglasses. Behind them is a grey stone wall.]