April 18, 2018
Telling Humanizing Stories That Are #MoreThanTrans
By Basil Soper
A year ago, Urban Matters introduced its readers to Transilient, a traveling photojournalism project that, in the words of its founders, wants to show the world that “trans people are more than our gender identities.” We asked them for an update on their work; here’s their report, including photos from trans profiles done during the 2017 Southern and Southwestern tour described below.
Transilient believes that no matter what kind of trans or non-binary person the world sees one as, the word "person" should shine through beyond the word "transgender." We also know that’s not as simple as it sounds; a recent poll found that 25% of Americans wouldn’t be friends with a transgender person. Transilient, which began two-and-a-half years ago, attempts to remedy this with humanizing stories and images that go beyond gender identity. Trans and non-binary people are your mail person, doctor, neighbor, local risk taker, traveler, and artist – people who lead routine American lives. We are #MoreThanTrans.
During the summer of 2017, with the help of a “Prized Solution” grant from the Center for New York City Affairs, Johanna Case and I traveled the Deep South and Southwest for six weeks, starting in Miami and ending in San Francisco. We profiled 70 people. (We also received a small sponsorship through the National Center for Transgender Equity.)
While we didn’t map the tour with state legislation in mind, we arrived in Texas during the battle over passing a “bathroom bill” there, and worked with GLAAD, a national organization that has monitored discriminatory reporting in the media for more than 30 years. We also witnessed an incredible amount of isolation, poverty, and lack of medical and emotional resources, and found that trans people have been pushed aside during this time of political turmoil. The country is so fragmented, the current Administration has it out for trans folks, and people are being bombarded with causes and pain, and argue over who has what privilege. Nothing has changed for the better.
Personally, I believe the best way to shift the trans narrative and educate society is through the mainstream media. During last summer’s tour, Buzzfeed did a profile on us that caused the project to gain a larger following on social media. INTO did an intimate interview with me while in L.A. which propelled people to support Transilient’s mission. In its short history, Transilient has been featured in publications such as Refinery 29, Bustle, Crixeo, Mashable, The Advocate, and OUT magazine.
Simultaneously we need to grant space to community members to build self-confidence. That’s why we’re building Transilient as a full trans-led operation. Last summer, I brought Jonah Welch and SahLeem Butler on tour with me. Klie Kliebert and Carmen Butler, both based in New Orleans, built a communications team and kept us going while on tour. Using my experience with this type of traveling documentation, I was able to skill-share with my new teammates and, in the process, produce more work with diverse perspectives. Klie and Jonah have now become permanent partners on the Transilient team, as director of photography and communications director, respectively. While I direct the team, the project has always been collaborative. All of us, and volunteers, transcribe interviews; I edit them and choose what is presented to the public. Having this much involvement and diversity in the project gives the work a richer array of perspectives and thoughts. It also allows me to focus on what I am good at: media outreach, volunteer coordinating, writing, and raising funds.
Our next tour will be this fall. Starting in Pennsylvania and ending in Washington State, we’ll hit rural areas across the middle of the country. The same vision will guide us in 2018. We will be giving our community members a chance to show off how unique and interesting they are while going to areas that get very little LGBT visibility. Homelessness and unemployment plague the trans and non-binary community. Equity is one of the largest values shared by the Transilient team. We feel obligated to help build up our community through financial support and skill sharing. We have received grants from LUSH cosmetics and a sponsorship with the It Gets Better Project that will cover the next year’s expenses, but we still need funds to pay the assistants we plan to take on tour with us. It’s unreasonable to ask marginalized people to leave their lives for a month and a half and go back empty-handed and at risk for homelessness. Please consider donating to our fundraiser here.
What started off as a crazy traveling photo pipe dream has grown into a nationally recognized project and fledgling organization. Our long-term goals include publishing a book of our work and building a trans artist residency for trans folks of all ages.