I traveled the US taking portraits of trans and nonbinary youth. Amid sadness and fear, I also heard stories of hope.
- In March 2020, I started taking portraits of trans and nonbinary kids and teens and their families.
- Along the way, I met so many amazing kids. I heard stories of sadness, fear, resilience, and joy.
On March 1, 2020, I loaded up my truck with a few cases of camera equipment, a small duffel bag of clothes, and an American-flag magnet strategically placed on my tailgate. I was on my way to tell a new kind of story about what it means to be young and trans in America with my portrait project "Are You OK?" In an era when anti-trans legislation was becoming the norm, I wanted to tell a story about what happens when families love their trans and nonbinary kids without shame — and when trans kids are allowed to grow up and live full lives.
Pulling away from my house in the New Mexico desert that morning, I was scared for my own safety as a queer person and began wondering whether this idea had any merit. Maybe I would fail. Maybe no one would care. Maybe I should just turn back. But a deep desire to fight for my community overcame me. I accepted my fears and began heading east. I was on the road from that March until August of 2022 and took 125 portraits, and by the time I arrived back home, I was completely changed.
Ash, 17, Wyoming
I met Ash, a 17-year-old, and their parents in April of 2022 in Laramie, Wyoming. Laramie is a college town up in the mountains widely known for the tragic death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was brutally murdered and left on a fence to die in the early '90s. Shepard's death affected me deeply as a young queer kid, and as I drove past that fence on my way into town I felt like crying. But when Ash met me on the outskirts of town for their photo session, everything changed. Their calmness and the fierce love emanating from their parents pushed my sadness away.
Ash lives in a rural part of Wyoming and told me about how difficult it was to grow up as a nonbinary kid without any positive role models who were like them. They attribute this as a major factor in their depression, which they said they'd faced on and off for years. They finally found community online and subsequently learned the power of their own voice.
Over the past few years, Ash has cultivated many passions, including becoming a public speaker for national groups like the Human Rights Campaign and playing sports. As they've started applying to colleges and are grappling with the weight that not all college campuses are safe for nonbinary students, they worry that they may have to abandon their love of athletics because of the growing number of states requiring students to compete only on school sports teams that match the gender they were assigned at birth.
During our interview, Ash's mom spoke about how crucial it is for trans and nonbinary kids to see themselves represented in the world. It was clear that even in a town steeped in the history of anti-queer violence, hope and strength continue to grow. Ash had become the positive role model they needed when they were young, and that night as I drove back into town, back into Shepard's unspoken presence, I realized that these kids and families were helping reparent my younger queer self in ways I could never have imagined. I slept one more restless night in Laramie and continued my journey across America. There were so many more stories to tell.
Cal, 12, Texas
In Texas I met with Cal, a 12-year-old blond girl, in an empty Houston parking lot where I'd be taking her portrait. She proudly walked up to me carrying a shaggy puppy with her younger brother and parents in tow. I gathered everyone in a small patch of shade; it was one of the hottest days of summer, 2022, and the heat was like another presence in our midst. I set up my posing stool, turned on my audio recorder, and reapplied my sunscreen.
After I spent a few minutes photographing Cal and her parents, we began chatting about their family's fear of being investigated by Child Protective Services. With Gov. Greg Abbott's guidance, families in Texas were being visited by CPS with the threat of removing trans children from their homes, placing them in foster care, and arresting their parents for providing trans-affirming healthcare. It was not a stretch to say that being trans was essentially becoming illegal in Texas.
Cal was scared, but as she spoke with me about her desire to change politicians' minds and the immense amount of activism she did alongside her mother — including speaking with Republican senators at the Texas Capitol who were attempting to take away her rights with transphobic legislation — I felt a sense of joy coming through her young voice. Like so many kids I would end up photographing over the next year and a half, she is our future. She's loved, she's strong, and she's just a normal Texas kid who happens to be trans; she knows her story could change the world.
These stories have changed me — and there are still so many more to tell
One early morning while I was checking out of a hotel deep in Kentucky, I found myself on an uncomfortably long elevator ride with a woman who kept glancing at my camera case covered in trans-affirming stickers — all of which had been given to me by the kids I photographed. I was uncomfortable, and ready for a fight. I inconspicuously rested my left hand on the pocket knife hidden in my jeans, just in case the worst were to happen. Instead, this woman simply looked at me and said: "I like your stickers. I'm on your side." Before I could open my mouth, the elevator chimed and she walked out into the lobby in silence.
Aside from stickers saying things like "Protect Trans Kids" and "Queer Magic," I've received numerous other deeply generous gifts while working on this project. A mom in Birmingham brought me a box of warm cookies from the bakery where she worked. "They're for the road," she said.
Another mom in Texas stuck a wad of cash in my camera case and said, "Just a little gas money." In St. Paul, Minnesota, a dad handed me an enormous zip-close bag full of cookies his religious mother had made, "Because that's just how we treat guests in the Midwest." His wife left me a handwritten card thanking me for helping to tell their family's story, and inside was yet another pile of stickers.
This weekend as I was emailing portraits to the families I've worked with, I heard from two moms that their kids had recently been admitted to the hospital for suicidal ideation. I thought back on the mom who had to cancel her photo session last year because her trans child died by suicide a week before we were scheduled to meet. I thought about all the kids who bravely talked to me about the mental illness they had endured — not because being trans creates depression or anxiety but because the transphobic world they live in does. And I thought about my old best friend Bacci, an amazing trans artist I spent my first years in San Francisco with walking dogs and laughing over beers, who took his own life at age 26.
The struggle continues for trans and nonbinary kids in America. Their lives are at stake, and survival is not a privilege they are guaranteed. I know the antidote to anti-trans rhetoric lives in these kids' testimonies, and I will continue doing this work to reveal their stories.
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