It was 2009 when Philadelphia-based photographer B. Proud started taking portraits of long-term LGBTQ couples for her series “First Comes Love.” Though new hope for change and equality had been sparked with President Barack Obama’s election, LGBTQ people still lacked many rights in the United States and around the world. Proud, whose first name is Barbara but who goes by B. (and who says she knows how lucky she got in the name department), wanted to increase visibility surrounding everyday queer lives to further understanding and acceptance.
And then 2016 happened.
“I watched Sarah McBride, the first trans person to speak at the Democratic National Convention, and thought, ‘This is going to be an amazing four ― maybe eight ― years,’” she told HuffPost during a phone call earlier this week. “But that’s not how things went. It became clear that our rights were in deep jeopardy, especially for transgender and gender non-conforming people. I decided if I was going to do more of this work, that’s the community I needed to focus on.”
Starting in 2017, Proud pivoted. Having mainly seen other photo projects aimed at elevating trans individuals, Proud decided to feature trans couples and families for a project called “Transcending Love.” Over the last three years, she has photographed and interviewed 60 different couples and families across 24 states.
“I’d like to be able to say to [a person in] Alabama, ‘This is your neighbor,’ [or to a person in] Utah, ‘This is your neighbor’ ― places where people think transgender people don’t exist,” Proud explained.
The series reflects joy, acceptance and love, but Proud felt it wasn’t enough to share these stories from the community without also addressing the rampant and underreported violence faced by many trans and gender non-conforming people ― especially Black trans women. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign reports that at least 16 trans or gender non-conforming people in the U.S., including Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton, have been “shot or killed by other violent means” in 2020 alone ― and those are just the cases that have been reported.
So Proud decided to photograph the sites where some of these deaths occurred in each state she visited for the “Transcending Love” project.
“I would go and spend a few minutes paying my respects, saying their name, just asking the universe for more hope and protection and wishes for our country and world to do better,” she said.
Proud said the juxtaposition of the joy and pride she’s witnessed while taking portraits of trans and gender non-conforming people with the grief and tragedy inherent in the sites of the murders has transformed this experience for her.
“I’m not sugarcoating or providing a facade of something only positive,” she said. “I feel the violence is a critical component. The ‘landscapes’ or murder sites also look quite normal at first glance. But with the knowledge of the gruesomeness of the heinous acts committed there, they become something else altogether. I hope that understanding how the transgender community may live with the risk of violence on a daily basis indicates how imperative it is that we not only accept this community but protect them as well.”
The photographer said her work has typically been met with positivity both within the LGBTQ community and beyond, but she noted that she has been asked why she, a person who does not identify as trans, should be the one telling these stories.
“I’m a fierce ally and I believe we all need to be accepted,” Proud said. “I do not want to be the voice but a conduit, an amplifier of these stories while also offering [trans and gender non-conforming people] the ability to tell their stories. Visibility is key.”
Her ultimate goal is to encourage cisgender people to open their hearts and minds, she said, and she hopes her project can act as a step toward acceptance and protection.
“I hope the portraits and stories will open their eyes to how fabulous the community is. I hesitate to use the word ‘normal’ since as ‘transcestor’ Mother Flawless Sabrina said, ‘Normal is a setting on the dryer,’” Proud said. “Rather, I hope to portray how exceptional these couples and families are, and emphasize how easy it should be to embrace them.”
But she added, “Acceptance is only the beginning. There cannot be a level of complacency in that acceptance, for more urgent actions are necessary to protect the very safety of their lives ― their ability to survive in a sometimes hostile world.”
Learn more about Proud’s work and the “Transcending Love” project here and see more images from the project below.