2015 - Ongoing
*Jason, an eight-year-old transgender boy in central Illinois, often returns from school crying inconsolably. His mom decided to move the family and homeschool him.
*Riley Alexis, age twenty, nonbinary (they), from Switzerland put themself into a mental health clinic, fearing suicide. A society that does not support and protect them has become too much.
*Rebecca, a single mom in Chicago, has fought her eight-year-old son’s school district for a year for him to be able to use the boys’ bathroom. The district initially decided to settle out of court, but after Trump's election, the district rescinded, believing they will win.
Each of these young people is a subject of my project Transcending Self. They and their parents chose to make their stories public, believing that doing so will create a more tolerant world, safer for themselves and for others.
Statistics related to being transgender and nonbinary help to illustrate the challenges people like Jason, Riley Alexis, and Rebecca’s son face. Every three days a transgender person is murdered worldwide, with the majority of victims being transgender women of color. In fact, 2016 was the most dangerous year on record for transgender people. Furthermore, nearly half of transgender and gender-creative youth will try to commit suicide before they turn twenty. Studies show support, both familial and societal, can greatly reduce these statistics and that familiarity with gender creative people is one of the greatest predictors of support.
Transgender and gender expansive youth with strong family support were found to be 82% less likely to attempt suicide1. Notably, a new study2, just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found that trans children from supportive backgrounds and with supportive peers were no more likely to have depression than their cisgendered peers. Moreover, a recent study3 found that simply looking at photos of transgender people can help reduce prejudice. They found the mere exposure to transgender people can be a source of prejudice reduction. Although the numbers are still too low, 66% of Americans familiar with transgender people feel favorably toward that community 4. In contrast, only 13% of those personally unconnected to transgender people look upon the community with favor.
It has become apparent that visibility saves lives and I am encouraged for the future. I have found a hope in the young people I am working with that will challenge the current narrative. The younger kids, have a self-assuredness and confidence; they are clear about who they are. In older youths, I see openness and a willingness to break free from the rigid boxes into which society has forced us all. All possess creativity and compassion for peers and strangers alike. It is common for people to photograph transgender people by focusing on their bodies. My focus lies elsewhere. I want to see what is fundamental: what makes them who they are inside and out. I want viewers to get past the curiosity of bodies and see humanity.
Two and half years ago, I began Transcending Self by photographing and interviewing transgender and gender-expansive children and young adults. It took a year of research and many rejections to find my first subject. The consequences for being public as a trans person can be extreme, from bullying to death threats; therefore, trust building is an essential part of the relationship and it took time. I am now connected to trans and gender-expansive groups and families around the globe. To date, I have photographed and interviewed twenty-five youths, ages three to twenty, throughout the United States, Germany, Switzerland, England and Ireland. More than thirty youth in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America are waiting to participate. All of this has been accomplished through my own funding and efforts.
Upon receiving external funding, I plan to continue making images, focusing on expanding the backgrounds and diversity of the youth participants both in the U.S. and abroad. The long-term goal for Transcending Self is to exhibit the material in three different mediums: a book, an interactive website, and public exhibits to raise awareness. For the website, I have collected audio as well as the written interviews, and additional photos, to foster a more complete immersive experience.
Politicians and religious leaders have recently threatened gender-nonconforming communities, both in the US and abroad. Fear is so high that on election night 2016, several transgender youth are reported to have committed suicide. It is now more important than ever that these stories are told so rights can be protected. Beyond politics, I know the work is already making a difference. I receive weekly, sometimes daily, emails like this from Sarah, the mother of a transgender boy who has attempted suicide twice: “The glimpses into each of the families in your portraits leaves me wishing I'd only known their stories sooner so that I might have prevented my sweet boy so much hurt. Thank you for all that you're doing for our children and the world.”
Transcending Self is a critical project not only for the transgender community, but for everyone. Challenging existing narratives about identity works to build a world in which all people are free to become their truest, complex selves: a world in which difference is embraced rather than marginalized, validated instead of repressed.
*names have been changed or omitted at the request of the families
** Interviews and captions have been condensed for clarity and space.
*** some of the caption spelling is in British English