Follow Transilient on a photo-documentation journey that’s moving the conversation about transgender people beyond gender identity.
I was living in New Orleans when I heard about the passing of HB2, or the controversial North Carolina bathroom bill. I was floored by the news and couldn’t leave my house or stop crying that day, because I’m from the Carolinas. I’m also a transgender man. I spent my childhood in South Carolina and my twenties in North Carolina. I was an LGBTQ+ activist in Asheville and ran an LGBTQ+ advocacy group called Just Us for All. The idea that HB2 had passed wasn’t a setback for only transgender people in North Carolina, but for justice in our country as a whole.
When I was growing up, the lack of representation of transgender people messed me up so much that I had no idea how to analyze my feelings about gender, my body, my sexuality or how I could live normally in the world. In my childhood, portrayals of transgender people or gender-nonconforming individuals on television or in film were never positive. Most media depictions of us are uneducated and exploitative tragedies. Many are films where the transgender character is played by a cisgender (non-trans) actor and is either depressive, a sex worker, doomed to die due to their transition, or murdered.
So many films have not done the trans community justice. Some examples are Boys Don’t Cry (the true story of the rape and murder of the trans man Brandon Teena), Dallas Buyers Club (Jared Leto plays Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender woman, whose character was added to the screenplay for shock value), Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close plays a transgender butler named Albert Nobbs, who dies in a fight), and The Danish Girl (the story of Lili Elbe, the transgender painter who also, after much pain and conflict, dies).
In the past, and still today, trans representation has centered around transgender women. While that has been a necessary step toward liberation, as trans women are the most impacted by violence, I didn’t understand what that meant for me as a trans man. All I had was Brandon Teena’s story, and that was enough to scare anyone from thinking about transitioning for the next decade. The language and ideas around trans people have changed in the media since my youth but not always in the most positive ways.
When HB2 was passed, I witnessed the media start to present what is generally known as “trans stories,” or trans accounts of personal liberation. While valid and necessary, I was tired of the uniform narrative of what it means to be trans, which comes out in three questions: (1) “When did you know?” (2) “Have you had the surgery?” (3) “How do you keep going while being so different and isolated?”
Transgender people are so much more than these three questions. We are more than our gender identities. All people are. After HB2 and my own transition, I made it my mission to give trans people space to show off facets of themselves outside of their gender identity. As an artist, I knew I had to do something with my creativity and make a change.
We are more than our gender identities.
All people are.
That’s why I launched a project aimed at changing the conversation around trans lives and stories. Transilient is a traveling photo-documentation project that exclusively features trans subjects and voices.
The summer of 2016 was difficult, and it challenged me artistically. It was really hard to stay optimistic and hold space for my community post–Pulse shooting. It seemed like every time I turned on the radio while on the road, another tragedy occurred. On top of that, election season was starting to heat up. To say the least, I was distracted and scared a number of times. That fear, though, made it even more important than ever to do this work.
In retrospect, what kept me going were the people I met. My people. I always knew transgender people were beautiful. However, after the first round of interviews and driving 10,000 miles in two months, nothing in the world could ever convince me that trans people are anything but spectacular beings. I met some of the most amazing, brilliant, talented, loving and gorgeous humans while doing this project.
Samson stood out to me from the minute we met and is someone I respect to this day. He and I met up at the home of one of my longtime friends in Charleston, South Carolina. Samson didn’t even live there. He drove all the way from Columbia to meet me. He was charming, funny and kind. My old friend and I turned to each other when he left and said, “Wow. He’s so hot!”
Samson: “My favorite tattoo is actually one that goes across my chest. It says Hallelujah written backward in mirror letters. My wife just asked me about it this morning, and I always kind of dismiss it and am like, ‘Ah. It’s kind of important. I got it, whatever.’ I just told her what it was about. I got it the day after I finished my last round of chemotherapy. I wasn’t supposed to because with chemo you’re not supposed to get a tattoo, but I did it anyway.”
Griffin invited me and my assistant into her home in Denver. We listened to Griffin’s entire life story about being a mixed-race kid growing up in Colorado, losing her mother due to immigration status, being bullied, finding herself in punk rock and later yoga, her transition and the sexual assault that transpired post-transition. Having shared a very similar upbringing, I really connected with her. Hearing her tell her story has changed me forever.
Griffin: “My survival instinct has always been to react and react and react, and at this point I think that’s not the direction I want to go in anymore. I want to choose the healthy route — a route that is going to amplify and make my life feel good. Now that I am doing that, I realize how much I have to let go of. Like letting go of feeling ugly and feeling like you can’t share everything with people. I know who I am. I’ve started to see who my friends are and who my family is.”
When we got to Arizona, it was a tough time. I had my 30th birthday there on the same weekend that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s lives were taken. To make things worse, I didn’t feel very safe in Arizona. This is coming from a Southern boy! I couldn’t find anyone to interview. I did a deep Google search and found the name Kay Kisto. Kay had been in a local Native American beauty pageant held by her reservation, so I searched for her on Facebook and connected. When we met, she was so lovely, so open about her life and passions. She was optimistic and humble. I really enjoyed holding space for her and getting to know her.
Kay: “Everyone was so happy when gay marriage passed. We weren’t sure if it would apply to us. Our tribal council told us the tribal constitution still defined marriage between a man and a woman. Even though marriage equality is a given all across the land, in Native land that is not the case. Native American communities have their own sovereignty, and this means that when LGBTQ legislation is passed in the United States it does not get passed on the reservations. We have our own legislator and our own amendments we go by. In our communities, it is not recognized at all. You can get married outside of the reservation, but you can’t come back and get rights. If both people in the relationship are community members, they can get away with certain things. But when it comes to owning a home, having land and having children, it is still very rocky. Our sister tribe to the north, Salt River, goes by what the state goes by, but in many, many Native communities it is not recognized.”
Sparkle is one of the first trans people I ever met. She and I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, at the same time. Everyone is attracted to Sparkle. She truly lives up to her name and constantly pushes the boundaries and limitations that the world tries to put on her.
Sparkle: “When I first started doing yoga, I was a mess. I was on a bunch of medications for depression, ADD and anxiety, and I was doing recreational drugs on the side. No matter how hopeless or how depressed I was, I started to feel like yoga was my outlet. Yoga kind of forces you to stop repressing things, and that’s where all my pieces came together. I did it on my own for a long time, and I eventually became a teacher. After I transitioned, I started a trans and queer yoga retreat called YoGay.”
Eli was one of the first people I interviewed for Transilient. We met through a friend of a friend. He was visiting New Orleans from Georgia and volunteered to be photographed and interviewed. This made me like him immediately, because that’s something I would do! If it weren’t for him and Carmen (a lovely woman I interviewed in New Orleans), I don’t know if anyone else would’ve agreed to this project. You can’t build something out of nothing.
Hanging out with Eli was great. I had been in New Orleans and pretty isolated for about eight months. I hadn’t hung out with another trans man in some time but especially one who I could relate to so strongly in terms of what we wanted in our futures.
Side note: I wish I could take all my photos in New Orleans because I have yet to encounter another place with such beautiful lighting.
Eli: “I worry too much. I worry about things like medical issues and whether or not my wife will be OK in the pregnancy. I’m not scared of screwing up; I’m scared of the delivery going wrong, and I know I will need to let go of all this. I’m not scared, though, of embarrassing my kid. My wife says if you judged me purely on my jokes, one would assume I’ve been a dad for a really long time. Right down to the wallet I carry, I look like a dad. I’m always known as the dad of the squad among my friends. So, yes, I’m scared of things, but I’m excited.”
Julisa Abad left an impression on me. I think she does on everyone she meets. I met her in Detroit and fell in love with her passion, strength and self-determination. I still admire her and her work every day. I am head over heels for her.
Julisa: “I speak three languages, I have a college education, and I type 85 words a minute. There is no reason I should not be able to get an opportunity. I can help. I know what we need!”
Looking Back and Planning Ahead
The coolest part about doing this project has been staying in contact with everyone who was a part of it. This includes not only the people I interviewed but the people who let the Transilient team crash at their homes. I even get advice and support from some of them, and vice versa.
Transilient is on the road again this summer, July 2017 through mid-August. This time a few things are different. We are doing the work post-election, with two new assistants, and we have financial support through the National Center for Transgender Equality. This means more visibility, not just for the project but for the trans and gender-nonconforming community. More visibility can be either really great or potentially dangerous. While the stakes may be higher, I couldn’t be more excited to highlight the resiliency and magnificence of my community. Selfishly, I’m also excited to keep making more friends, too.
The only way we’ll win is by staying alive. It’s by celebrating ourselves — the youth, the elders and those of us in between — and all the radiance and knowledge we offer the world. I don’t do this alone with my camera and interview style. We do this. Trans people collaborate with me, and I merely give people a platform. I also hope I make them feel seen and attractive.
In turn, others can become educated.
What will make the world a better place? Our acknowledging that we change the world — all of us as humans — just by waking up, taking care of ourselves and trying to be the best versions of ourselves.