Portraits in Courage from The Transgender Community
Transgender rights have come a long way since 2011 when I photographed this portrait gallery for The New Republic, a magazine that I also art directed at the time. Though much work remains, the movement has made tremendous progress since then with public sentiment toward members of the community having shifted considerably closer toward understanding and acceptance, something that was hardly pervasive less than a decade ago. The urgency of the situation at that time was correctly expressed by the cover headline that called transgender rights America’s Next Great Civil Rights Struggle.
Fast-forward and today, trans- or gender-neutral models and actors are celebrated in the fashion industry and Hollywood. One its biggest stars, Laverne Cox, of Orange is the New Black, posed for my camera that day in 2011, a little-known but feisty actress.
My concept for the shoot was to cut against the stereotypes that at the time dismissively characterized the trans community as mere eccentrics, cross-dressers, and, dare I say, sexual deviants. To confront that unfounded prejudice, I wanted to spotlight the trans community as people just like anyone else with jobs, responsibilities, and relationships, banal in their ordinariness, and undeserving of being singled out. By presenting them as relatable and un-special would help break down the preconceptions that make it easy to vilify as ‘other,’ or outside the mainstream.
However, it would be a challenge to find willing participants. As a group, they harbored a profound mistrust of the media which had traditionally exploited them as a group with sensationalistic depictions. I intended to portray my subjects in a neutral and dignified way, free of artifice, judgment, or editorial comment to allow them to be viewed merely as individuals. With the invaluable assistance of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, based in New York City, we assembled a group consisting of CEOs, attorneys, executives, designers, actors, and other high-achieving professions.
Listening to their personal stories gave me a renewed appreciation of the strength and bravery each possessed to assert their identity on their terms. The challenges and obstacles to realizing that life-long goal is daunting and nearly incomprehensible. But while their struggle unites them, they are not a monolithic bloc. They are individuals, each with their own unique experience and journey. And to a person, they were lovely. It was, without doubt, one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever done.