Photographer Vincent-Natasha Gay started work on “This Is Trans” in February, initially intending to document “what it truly means to be trans,” they said. But as the months progressed, the photo series started to take on a greater weight as the political right turned trans individuals into targets, passing restrictive legislation and stoking fears that have driven anti-trans violence to record highs in America.
But “This Is Trans,” which opens at Stonewall on Saturday, Nov. 19, isn’t a political statement. Rather, it’s a human one, Gay lovingly capturing the images of 74 transgender individuals from across the United States.
“It really is just to show that, whether you’re cisgender or transgender, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Atheist, it doesn’t matter,” Gay said of the exhibit, which takes place at the tail end of Transgender Awareness Week and the day before Sunday’s Transgender Day of Remembrance. “We’re all humans and should treat each other as humans."
"The narrative of attacking the trans community and the LGBTQ+ community…" they continued, briefly trailing off. "The whole idea that we’re trying to convert people is completely false. We’re letting people express who they really are. Our only agenda is that we want to live as our authentic selves.”
This authenticity comes through in the photographs. The subjects, who range in age from 12 to 60 and cover the full demographic spectrum, appear wholly comfortable in their skin – a confidence drawn out by the photographer, who viewed each portrait as a collaboration and worked to establish a needed level of trust with each subject.
“I pride myself on being a photographer who develops a comfortable and positive environment,” said Gay, a former educator who pivoted to photography early in the COVID pandemic. “Dysphoria is a huge thing in the trans community, meaning your external presentation doesn’t match your internal presentation. So, for a lot of people, it was creating an environment and a sense of belonging so that they didn’t feel dysphoric once they got through and saw the pictures. And then, together, we helped pick the picture that felt like it best represented who they are.”
Some of the individuals are photographed with items of importance to them: a dancer has tap shoes slung over their shoulder, a beatboxer cradles a microphone, and a woman stands next to a Hello Kitty lunchbox nearly as playful as her multicolored, patchwork skirt.
The bulk of the photographs were taken indoors – and more accurately on the third floor at Stonewall – though some folks chose to venture outside, including one individual who knelt near some rocks overlooking the water, their expression calm, resolute.
“There were some people where this was the first photo shoot they’ve ever done. For some people, Saturday will be their coming out,” said Gay, who acknowledged the added sense of responsibility these realizations brought to the project. “I didn’t pose anyone. I wanted to show them off as they truly are.”
The exhibit is accompanied by a documentary, also titled “This Is Trans,” and directed by Gay and Alex Rogers. The film features extended conversations with an array of trans individuals focused on what it means to be trans, the stigmas associated with it, and how allies can best support the community. “It’s another way of educating people,” Gay said. “Because the whole point of this really isn’t for the trans community. We know who we are. … It’s for people coming in to see that, this person is a woman, this person is a human. And that’s all.”
In a sense, these conversations will take place throughout the gallery during the opening event, with each of the 74 photographs accompanied by a block of text containing the subject’s answer to a single question: What does it mean to you to be trans?
“Society has its definition of trans but being trans has its different meaning to each person,” Gay said. “And no two messages are the same. Some people wrote a book, others just a line or two. So, not only do you get to see the person, but you get to hear the person. You can almost hear them speaking their words.”
Initially, Gay said they envisioned the “This Is Trans” project concluding with this exhibit and the accompanying coffee table book, which will be available during the opening at Stonewall. But now they’re exploring the potential of continuing the conversation, taking the exhibit on the road and even shooting new photographs. “So, the project keeps growing and expanding and more people can have their portrait shown,” they said.
While Gay initiated the project in part on the idea of expanding public understanding of the trans community, they said they also learned much about themselves in the process.
“Coming out, the goal is to take off that mask, to release yourself and be who you are for you,” they said. “But after coming out, I still felt like I was holding that mask, and I was still trying to be that trans person everyone wanted me to be.
“In doing this project and working with all of these people, it gave me the sense that all people want me to be is me. There is nothing else. Just be who you are, because that’s what people gravitate toward. And I think everyone involved in this walked away with that same message.”