Former Santa Fean’s Project Counters Hateful Legislation With Moving Portraits of Trans Youth and Their Families
I became friends with acclaimed portrait photographer Jesse Freidin several years ago when he photographed my dog Maddie, and, in 2022 when Jesse relocated to the Northeast after five years in Santa Fe, I was sad to see him go. But paths have a way of crossing again, and it was wonderful to reconnect this year and learn about his initiative ‘Are You Okay?’—an inspiring project supporting trans youth, the most vulnerable members of our LGBTQ+ community.
An Artistic Crossroad
“For 15 years, I specialized in high-end dog portraits,” Jesse told me. “For a few years, I had been ready to shift gears but didn’t know what that was going to look like. As a queer person I was getting concerned by anti-trans laws, starting with bathroom bills. No one was telling the story I wanted to be told, which is always a good reason to start a project.”
Putting his other work on-hold indefinitely, Jesse set out to chronicle the lives of transgender youth and their families across the country. And what better place to start than in the Land of Enchantment? He launched the project at the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
“I went down to Albuquerque to do a test shoot. It was wonderful. There was a real story to be told,” he remembers. “After that initial shoot, I dropped everything else.”
Chronicling Supportive Families
For the past two-and-a-half years as part of his Are You OK? project, Jesse has been photographing transgender youth up to age 24 who have the unconditional support of their families. Noting the importance of family support, parents and siblings are also subjects in Jesse’s photos.
“I’m only photographing kids who have family support and are comfortable being in public,” Jesse says. “So, it’s a particular cross-section I’m working with.” Surrounded by their supportive families, these outspoken and deeply loved youth present their strength to the world in a revolt against the country’s attempt to erase them.
Jesse uses the same staging composition and interview questions for each photo shoot and interview. He says a big challenge in each shoot is putting his subjects at ease. “People who live through trauma and pain cannot be photographed like everybody else,” he notes.
A Disturbing National Trend
To date, Jesse has photographed about 130 trans youth and their families in roughly half the states across the country, and he’s increasingly concerned with anti-trans sentiment that he feels parallels the virulent anti-gay climate in the first half of the 20th century. Jesse has seen many of the states he’s visited passing anti-trans bills into law. “The number of these bills proposed this year is horrifically high,” he says.
Of all the states proposing horrific anti-trans youth legislation, Jesse believes the worst might be Montana. “It’s the modern equivalent of the ‘gay panic and moral defense’ panic, where it’s legal to harm a gay person if they come on to you,” Jesse says. “In Montana, the ‘trans panic’ defense is legal. If you go on a date with a trans person who did not disclose to you, you’re allowed to murder them.”
Jesse also singles out Tennessee: “It’s illegal for trans youth to access trans-affirming healthcare. So, kids who may have been on hormones already, now that’s been taken away. Many of those kids won’t survive,” he says.
The situation in the Lone Star State took an ugly turn last year when Texas Governor Greg Abbott called on licensed professionals and members of the general public to report parents of transgender minors to state authorities if it appears they are receiving gender-affirming care. This move and more than 50 other bills in the Texas legislature targeting transgender people,
A Trans Exodus, But to Where?
“I’ve photographed families that are leaving Texas and families that are sending their kids to college out of state as early as possible,” Jesse says. “The kids are scared, and their parents are scared and thinking of having to flee the country.”
An increasingly hostile national climate in the U.S. prompted the launch of the non-profit TRANSport, which aids transgender people in financing their moves out of the U.S., should they decide to seek asylum in another country.
“The current perception is that Canada and New Zealand are the best options for trans youth and their families,” Jesse says. “I’ve met some families who have made the move. The fascism that is fueling this is in almost every country right now. Many parents are concerned because there is no guarantee that where they’ll move their families will be safe.”
Meanwhile, many trans people have moved to the U.S., seeking a friendlier cultural climate, only to be confronted with more hostility. Jesse heard this first-hand when interviewing Jules, a young woman in Miami who moved to the U.S. to escape anti-trans violence in Brazil. “Now, with the dangerous, trans-phobic situation in Florida and across the country, Jules asked, ‘What country is safe?’”
Funding a Labor of Love
As Jesse notes in the Are You OK? website, “being on the road costs money, equipment, and vehicle upkeep costs money, paying assistants costs money, and studio and editing time do as well.”
“This has been crowdfunded,” Jesse told me. “The first book I wrote, I used a Kickstarter. For this project, I didn’t have it in me to do a Kickstarter,” he said. “I’ve made enough money for two years on the road, with an assistant most of the time. I’ve received a large number of small donations and a few larger ones.”
He adds, “I am raising funds to allow this project to continue traveling nationally, with the goal of photographing youth and families in every state that proposes anti-trans bills over the next few years. Your donation gives voice to this project, and this project gives voice to kids under attack.”
‘Are You OK?’ portraits have been exhibited nationwide, including at the Los Angeles Center of Photography, Detroit’s Wayne State University, and the South x Southwest Gallery. Over the past year, Jesse has taken on many speaking engagements, with more planned throughout 2023.
If you’d like to be a part of the Are You OK? movement, you can make a donation of any size here.
“These laws aren’t OK,” said 17-year-old Are You OK? portrait subject Lexi of Illinois. “And I think people need faces to see that we don’t agree. And we’re here. And we don’t like being put down.”