Now you see me

Trans youth portrait series highlights the life-saving power of family support

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Left to right: Rahliek, 20, Virginia; Reece, 8, Pennsylvania; Noni, 23, Massachusetts; Sunny, 8, Texas. Credit: Jesse Freidin

“I hate the governor in Texas,” says 8-year-old Reece. 

The second-grader is sitting alongside their mom for an interview with photographer Jesse Freidin, who has been traveling the country since 2020 for what he calls “a trans survival project.” The idea is to leverage the creative tools of storytelling and portraiture to uplift the voices and visages of one of the most vulnerable communities in America: trans youth.   

Here the bright-eyed, nonbinary kid in Freidin’s lens is discussing Gov. Greg Abbott’s signing of a bill targeting trans college athletes — one among a grim surge of discriminatory laws moving through legislatures across the country. Reece says they don’t really play sports, unless you count karate. Asked about their experience with the other kids in their mixed-gender martial arts class, they turn to mom: “Luckily, you told them what my gender and my name was, so now when they accidentally say it wrong, they correct themselves.” 

Despite their mother’s best efforts to find inclusive spaces where Reece can thrive — signing up for something as simple as a karate lesson means checking ahead of time to make sure the dojo will be safe and affirming — she lives with the ambient fear of watching her child grow up in a world where their identity is a liability.

The laws are scary,” she tells Freidin. “We talked a little bit to Reece the other day about what’s happening in Texas — about the parents who are simply loving and supporting their kids and doing the right thing being called child abusers, and how that’s really disturbing. … As of now, we’ve been met with nothing but support. But I am nervous, and I feel like we need to be prepared.” 

Reece responds to this prospect with a playful self-assuredness that comes from growing into your own skin, on your own terms: “Being prepared looks like punching them in the face if they do that.” 

“When other kids see my photo, I want them to feel confident. Because I feel confident.” 
Reece, 8, Pennsylvania. Credit: Jesse Freidin

‘Are you OK?’

Kids like Reece are the heartbeat of Freidin’s multimedia project spanning a multi-volume book and a touring showcase of photography and interviews. Uplifting stories of trans youth and the families who love them, these everyday moments form the spine of the artist’s traveling Are You OK? exhibition, coming to Boulder’s East Window on March 1 and currently on view at the Dairy Arts Center through May.

“I was angry about seeing these anti-trans laws really picking up steam. I was angrier as an artist and storyteller that nobody else was focusing on the kids and families being harmed,” Freidin told Boulder Weekly on a Zoom call from his studio in Northampton, Massachusetts. “I thought, ‘What can I do?’ I’m not smart enough to be a lawyer. I’m not going to go to every single protest, but I can tell a compelling story.”

So Freidin set out with his camera and recording equipment to chronicle the lived experiences of trans youth and the support systems on which they depend. Initially focusing on areas of the country with active anti-trans legislation, he has since spoken with more than 150 trans and nonbinary youth from over half the states in the U.S. 

“As a man of trans experience myself, I’ve been these kids,” he says. “I did not have parents that affirmed me as a child, but I know their thoughts. I’ve been there, which is why it’s so powerful that we can hold space for each other.”


Photographer Jesse Freidin conducts an interview as part of his Are You OK? project, chronicling the stories of trans youth and their family support systems.
Credit: Everett Moran

East Window owner Todd Herman finds a similar power in the idea of holding space for our most vulnerable neighbors, which has been the guiding light of his social justice-oriented North Boulder gallery since it came on the scene nearly half a decade ago. But the longtime curator says there’s a big difference between holding space for an at-risk population and speaking on behalf of their plight. 

“I’m really cautious when anybody says they’re ‘giving a voice’ to a community. We’re not doing that,” he says of the free exhibition running through June 22 . “We’re opening the door and letting people speak for themselves.”

In addition to the upcoming show in the art space’s namesake east-facing gallery window, large-scale portraits from Freidin’s Are You OK? project are currently wheatpasted on the exterior northeast wall of the Dairy Arts Center. Both installations are on display 24/7, with QR codes to learn more about the stories of the young people and their families in the frame. 

“I am a queer man, so it struck me really hard. I’m connected to a bunch of trans folks, and I just wanted to hold space for them,” says Dairy Arts Center Visual Arts Curator Drew Austin. “All queer people and people of color are going through a lot right now, but the trans community specifically is under violent attack from the political side. And it’s quiet, but it’s also not quiet — it’s loud.” 

Selections from ‘Are You OK: A Trans Survival Project’ are on view at the Dairy Arts Center through May 2024.
Courtesy: Dairy Arts Center

‘Where are we safe?’

Nex Benedict loved cats, video games and The Walking Dead. The nonbinary teenager often dealt with bullies. On Feb. 7, they were beaten in a bathroom fight by three classmates who had purportedly been antagonizing the 16-year-old at their high school in Owasso, Oklahoma. Nex collapsed at home in their living room the following day. They were rushed to the St. Francis Pediatric Emergency Room in Tulsa, where they were pronounced dead.

There are still many unknowns surrounding Nex’s death, which is under investigation. But one thing is clear: Many lawmakers and government officials in the late teen’s home state — and others like it — see kids like them as a problem to be legislated away, instead of a whole human who needs love and support. 

In May 2022, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill forcing public school students to use the bathroom matching the sex on their birth certificate. Two weeks before Nex died, State Superintendent Ryan Walters, a self-styled culture warrior against what he calls “radical gender theory,” appointed conservative activist Chaya Raichik to a school library board. Raichik operates the popular social media account Libs of TikTok, which targets LGBTQ-affirming educators. Her posts have been linked to dozens of bomb threats at schools across the country, including one 20 minutes south of Nex’s hometown. 

Nex Benedict, January 11, 2008 – February 8, 2024.
Courtesy: GoFundMe

Stories like this might feel removed from Boulder’s so-called progressive “bubble,” but many of the families Freidin has spoken with over the last few years say the threat is never as far away as it seems. 

“What I’ve heard so many times from kids and parents is, ‘Where are we safe?’ And nowhere is safe until everywhere is safe,” he says. “For those families that have to move out of states [with anti-trans laws] — that’s not living, that’s fleeing.” 

Colorado has recently become a haven for some of those families. As nearby states become increasingly hostile to trans people, kids like 13-year-old Hadley Charles — whose family moved from Oklahoma City to Denver after Gov. Stitt’s landslide reelection in 2022 — are reportedly seeking refuge in the Centennial State, which last year became the first in the country to include gender-affirming care services in essential health benefits. (“We were in a fight-or-flight situation,” Hadley told CPR in January. “And we chose flight.”) But fleeing to a relatively affirming place is still no inoculation against the creeping threat of harm that seems to be gaining momentum in American life.   

“Historically, North Boulder has not been friendly to the trans community or people of color,” Herman says from his NoBo gallery space, recalling isolated but fervent backlash to a Dread Scott exhibition last year dealing with issues of race and racism. “There’s a lot of surrounding areas that really dispel the broad reach of our little sanctuary, and that scares me.”

“There are too many people who are burnt out and tired, and Black, and beautiful, and they just can’t fight anymore given everything they’ve been through. I wanted to be that one light for somebody.”
Noni, 23, Massachusetts. Credit: Jesse Freidin 
“I know one other trans girl my age. It kind of makes me feel better about the laws they’re trying to make, because it lets me know there are other people in the world that are like me.”
Sunny, 8, Texas. Credit: Jesse Freidin 

Austin says that’s why the affirming family units at the heart of Are You OK? made it such a compelling draw for the Dairy Arts Center. A recent 2023 study by The Trevor Project found that family support can significantly reduce the likelihood of suicide attempts among Black trans and nonbinary young people. The world may be a dangerous place for kids who exist outside the bounds of “normative” gender expression, especially for those at the nexus of intersecting discrimination, but research suggests an affirming home environment can make a big difference. 

“If I grew up with the support to come out and really embrace my full self, I would be in such a different place and have such a different understanding of who I am,” Austin says. “I think it’s really important to showcase and uplift queer youth, specifically trans youth who are coming out and embracing themselves for who they really are.”

Like Austin, Freidin may not have had a vibrant support system to fall back on as he came of age in a world hostile to his identity. But the renowned photographer is still here, lifting up the kids in whom he sees himself and the families who help them navigate a cruel and dangerous world. Back in his New England studio, the artist says it all comes back to a question of survival.

“Our community is being annihilated,” he says. “For me, this is about showing the young faces under attack that are most vulnerable, and the caring families that love their trans kids. Because if we don’t show them, they’re not going to survive.” 


ON VIEW: Are You OK? – A Trans Survival Project. March 1-June 22, East Window Gallery, 4550 Broadway, Suite C-3B2, Boulder. Free | Through May 31, Dairy Arts Center – Northeast Mural Wall, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Free 

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LGBTQ youth can access 24/7 support from trained counselors with The Trevor Project. Text START to 678-678, call 1-866-488-7386 or visit thetrevorproject.org to learn more. 

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Editor’s note: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized details surrounding the personal story of Dairy Arts Center Visual Arts Curator Drew Austin. The article has been edited for accuracy.