Being non-binary is my act of resistance, Winnipeg artist says

For an essay and portrait series commissioned by CBC’s Creator Network, artist Azka photographed members of Winnipeg’s non-binary community. Here are their stories, along with Azka’s portraits and personal essay.

When I started shopping for my own clothes as a preteen, I found myself always being drawn to the men’s section.

I loved the colours and textures — denim, leather and metal — and the collars and sharp shoulders of the “men’s” clothes. I wanted to embody it all.

I remember being nine or 10 and slipping “boys” hoodies into my parents’ shopping cart. I hoped they wouldn’t notice or say anything at the sales desk. 

I always felt more comfortable dressing in dark, loose-fitting sweaters, jackets with extra pockets and pants that didn’t hug my thighs.

As I got older, my presence in that department became an issue, particularly for some salespeople.

They would often approach me and ask: “Are you shopping for your boyfriend? Are you shopping for your dad?” I really just wanted to say: “No, actually I’m looking for myself.”

I can be exactly who I am, and that is non-binary.– Azka

For as long as I can remember, I had always felt most like myself in “men’s” clothing, but when browsing through those racks I’d instead get told: “The women’s section is that way.”

As a South Asian, I grew up with a lot of cultural biases about femininity and masculinity, and these biases go far beyond clothing. Cultural gender role expectations extend to occupations, physical appearance and personality traits.

When considering my own personality, I found myself to be independent, yet nurturing and empathetic. But what makes independence “masculine” and empathy “feminine”? Are they not both qualities of a good person, regardless of their gender?

After years of introspection, I came to the conclusion that I am allowed to be all these things at once and reject the subjective and stereotypical ideas of what it means to be masculine or feminine.

I can be exactly who I am, and that is non-binary. 

CBC Creator Network: Azka

Photographer Azka creates beautiful portraits of transgender and gender non-conforming Winnipeggers for CBC

Identifying as non-binary can be different for everyone. People use non-binary as a term to describe themselves when they experience gender outside the binary of male or female.

As a first-generation immigrant, my cultural identity is rooted in one country, but I live in another. However, post-colonial countries and many other places historically haven’t tolerated those who challenge or reject the idea of gender. 

For me, identifying as non-binary is an act of resistance against our erasure and against post-colonial ideologies of gender.

European colonialism played a major role in erasing and harming gender-variant individuals throughout history.

In South Asia, hijras are intersex and transgender individuals who historically held important roles in society. In the late 1800s, British colonial rule criminalized and pathologized hijras in efforts to incarcerate and eradicate the population. 

Additionally, although two-spirit individuals have historically held positions of respect and honour, European-Christian teachings in residential schools sought to harm and erase them. 

In many pre-colonial societies, such as South Asian and Indigenous communities, gender roles were fluid. However, boxed or departmentalized ideas of gender still predominate in society today.

To mark Pride month, artist Azka embarked on a photography portrait project to turn the camera on non-binary Winnipeggers. (Robin Summerfield/CBC)

My identity is a political rejection of these arbitrary borders. Borders are created to divide and separate, and I truly believe my body and my identity exist beyond these lines.

As a non-binary individual, I am borderless.

But sometimes I also feel invisible. I want to change that.

Transgender and non-binary people, especially people of colour, are underrepresented in the media. I don’t see people like me on TV shows or in movies very often. We are rarely characters in books. 

I often feel like there isn’t any space where I can just be myself, so I decided to create it. 

As an artist, I wanted to highlight and capture people in my community truly being themselves. I spread the word and people signed up to participate in my project within a week. 

Photographer Azka, who uses they/them pronouns, brought nine non-binary Winnipeggers together for a portrait shoot. ‘As an artist, I wanted to highlight and capture people in the community truly being themselves,’ they say. (Robin Summerfield/CBC)

At the end of May, a handful of us came together in a beautiful, sunlit studio in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. Some people I knew, and others I had just met. 

My goal was to photograph people like me, have conversations about gender and talk about how others can make more space for us in the community.

As the camera clicked, we laughed, talked and connected with each other. This project instantly became so much more than just pictures and interviews.

Over those two days, we created our own community and our own safe space to just be ourselves. Simply coming together in this studio and holding space for each other was powerful in and of itself, and it was an experience to remember.

By working on this project and meeting all these wonderful people, I felt even more seen and validated in my identity, and I hope any transgender and non-binary people seeing these faces feel the same way.

I hope this portrait project shines a bright light on us, and enlightens others who may not know enough about us. Through these joyful, soulful and real faces, I want to show others that we exist and that we deserve space in the world as we navigate being the truest versions of ourselves.

I hope that people unlearn categorizing everyone into boxes of male or female.

I hope people ask for pronouns more often, use our pronouns, and let us shop for whatever kind of clothes we want in whatever department or store we choose. 

And ultimately, I hope we all become more supportive human beings because all life is sacred.

For their portrait project, Azka photographed their subjects and asked everyone three questions: 

  • How do you define gender?
  • How do you challenge society’s idea of gender?
  • How can people make more space for non-binary and trans folks? 

Here are their portraits and answers. (Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.) 

Charlie Eckert, 24, they/them


I challenge society by just being myself, wearing what I want, presenting how I want and always asking for people’s pronouns. I try to be very inclusive and I’m always willing to educate others.

I love when my loved ones make an effort to use affirming language and give me unconditional love.

I would also love to see more inclusion in sports and education. I find that in education, people are accepting and tolerant but are not educating or educated on the history and the vastness of gender.

Zaina Edoo, 23, they/them


When I gave myself a blank slate in terms of my gender, I was able to give myself what I really wanted. I used to dress incredibly feminine, and now I don’t care if someone sees me as a guy or girl. I feel so much more open and myself.

My workplace has made a great effort with using my pronouns. Everyone has been understanding, and they will correct themselves on their own. I feel loved, seen, and important. People around me cared enough to make an effort to make me comfortable, and that feels amazing.

People can make space for us by providing gender neutral washrooms, and gender neutral clothing, especially work wear.

Charlie Sharp, 21 he/them


[I challenge gender] by just existing. As I’ve transitioned medically I feel more comfortable being able to go back and forth between feminine and masculine accessories and clothing items. This alone gives me the power to determine how I’m perceived even when others get confused.

We need to begin the normalization of they/them pronouns for everyone until told otherwise. We also need to normalize clothing and accessories so they are not even directly correlated to someone’s gender identity.

Kim Cao, 31, they/them 
Chantal Shivanna Ramraj, 33, she/they


Kim Cao (sitting): The bare minimum that cisgender and heterosexual individuals can do to practise their allyship is to do the work. Google things, offer your pronouns and ask questions. Make space for others to feel safe enough to come out to you and be themselves. 

I am trying to do the work by being present in my own life, making myself visible in order for folx to see themselves — especially youth and people of colour to know that who they are is not wrong. I want them to know there is space for them to be loved and held by the people that they will find as their community.

Chantal Shivanna Ramraj (standing): I define gender as infinite, and somewhat indefinable. It is personal, but also communal and political. Gender is a performance, as [gender theorist] Judith Butler explained. Gender is socially constructed, yet personally created. Gender is who we are, both partly and completely. In this way, gender is a contradiction. It is nature and nurture — both of which are infinite and diverse in possibility. 

Our economic system favours a certain kind of heterosexist family unit. There will only be space for us when we can survive sustainably as independent people.

Sometimes I identify as non-binary, but truthfully, I am painfully aware that no one is actually binary.

Shiv Chadha, 24, he/they


A perfect world wouldn’t demand gender norms, nor would it restrict love and sex to reproduction. Without restriction of sexual desire and gender stratification, we won’t have a gender norm that defines masculinity and femininity.

Jess Crawford, 28, they/them


I came out in a small town on Treaty 3, where the youth I was working with were so incredible and gender diverse. Having just moved to Winnipeg and visiting queer-friendly spaces, I felt seen, heard, respected and valued, and that is so euphoric.

I will forever be learning about my own gender and experimenting with my presentation, and that can be confusing for people. [Currently] I am teaching a variety of people about the social [construction] of gender and trying to further these discussions across and within the nursing profession. I’m also pursuing a masters in nursing in this realm. Transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) nursing students feel represented when they see other health-care providers that are like them. I am making space for TGNC people in health care.

We need to view diversity as the norm, deconstruct gender on a global scale and amplify gender diverse voices and specifically BIPOC voices. We need to neutralize language across health care and beyond.

Ava Truthwaite, 22, they/them


To me, gender is something that I do, feel, play with and express. It can’t be split up into categories to slot people into. It’s so much deeper than that.

I don’t restrict myself to a particular section in clothing stores. I don’t define my gender for other people’s comfort. It’s a continuous act of challenging colonial notions of what gender is and what it ought to be. Gender diversity among Indigenous folks existed long before colonization. Challenging those colonial conceptions of gender and gender norms is in itself a form of Indigenous joy and resilience.

People can make space for us by not making any assumptions about people’s gender identity and their pronouns. Let TGNC people define, or not, their gender experience on their own terms. Be respectful of people’s pronouns, and how they choose to present themselves. Amplify voices of TGNC folks.

Annalisa O’Neill, 26, they/them


Gender is complex and abstract, so there isn’t one way I feel comfortable describing it. I don’t even like identifying myself as non-binary, but it’s the easiest way to get my point across.

I’m no longer willing to change my appearance/lifestyle to fit a new “queerer” expectation. I over-compensated my identity for a long time. I thought: ‘Oh, I have to butch up if I want to be taken seriously as a non-binary person.’ This thinking just led me to the same lost feelings as womanhood did — so I’ve abandoned it.

At this point, I just wake up and do whatever I want. I think existing radically and unapologetically for myself is my way of challenging the expectation. I’m not on a journey that seeks a destination in a label. Life is fluid, and I’m just floating alongside it.


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