They’re holding balloons and their smiles are reaching for their ears so the joy can dance across their twin faces.
It’s the kind of family photo you step into, a portal into a piece of love, even if you weren’t there.
For Golden — a Black, gender-nonconforming, trans-femme photographer, poet, and community organizer — it’s a reminder of both love and liberation.
“The way we are standing, we are so queer and so gay, standing there bow-legged, knees bent in,” they tell me, reflecting on this cherished moment from their childhood. “And I hold this photo in my heart very closely because I’m able to catch a freedom of femininity being blossomed and not dimmed.”
A little piece of living in your truth, safely. Protection is a privilege our world has not given to trans and gender-nonconforming folk.
Rita Hester, killed in her Boston apartment in 1998, did not have that security. Hester’s death inspired transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith to start Transgender Day of Remembrance, held every year on Nov. 20 since 1999.
Hester lived. She loved. She was here. Twenty-three years ago she was murdered for being herself. Golden is 24. And trans women of color are still fatally targeted. Affirming trans lives, gender-nonconforming lives, queer lives is an urgent necessity.
To be Black and all of yourself and survive is hard enough in supremacist systems that command code-switching to navigate. To be Black and woman, Black and immigrant — to add an identity atop your Blackness — is another obstacle course in living and loving.
To be Black and queer or Black and trans? This is a fight to exist. At least 46 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed this year, more officially recorded murders of this kind than in any other year. Anti-transgender violence is an epidemic in America, as declared by the American Medical Association.
And when media talk about trans folk, too often the details of their death become them. Nina Pop, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Marquiisha Lawrence? They were women with lives and loved ones.
Every year, Transgender Day of Remembrance honors the memory of transgender and gender-nonconforming people lost to violence. It’s also a day to celebrate, to counter the pain with the joy.
Golden is intentional about both honoring Hester and creating space for Black trans artists to lift one another through story. They host WE BEEN HERE, a virtual artist space centering trans folk and poetry.
“I want to deeply love Black people as a politic, as a life goal, as a daily celebration,” Golden says. “I think that joy is in everything I do. I have always learned how to love by fighting for people. That is a joy I will always hold.”
Acceptance of self and being embraced by others. It is going beyond pronouns. It requires more than caring about their lives after their deaths. Golden learned to fight and to love and to hold self from their twin, from their mom, from their dad.
“I don’t take for granted all the things that my family has survived and also champion in their life to get to where they are,” Golden says. “That is what loving is, that giving. I’m willing to sacrifice things for the people I love but also remain true to who I am.”
Over the last year, Golden has been making a self-portrait series, taking photos in Boston and Virginia called “On Learning How to Live.”
“There are so many Black trans people being murdered and it becomes a very real fact that a decade of time can pass without any photographs of yourself that feel like home,” they said. “That’s the exploration, trying to figure out what it is that motivates me daily as a Black person, and as a Black trans person, to discover what that living looks like and what it takes.”
We have to wake ourselves up to the reality of trans violence, to take accountability, to make justice, healing, and sharing space a priority so everyone can live.
Raquel Willis has been doing groundbreaking work to create healing justice spaces. A Black transgender activist and writer, Willis was executive editor of Out Magazine when she published the Trans Obituaries Project. The initiative highlights the epidemic of violence against trans women of color and developed a 13-point plan to end the epidemic.
“We live in a world that has been formed and molded and continues to be guided by white supremacy and patriarchy,” she says. “And the transphobia and cis-normativity that is at the core of it, the master narrative is that to be human is to be white, is to be cis, is to be a man. So to envision a more expansive humanity is jarring to a lot of people.”
To define violence, to tell the stories of the murders of trans and gender-nonbinary folk is necessary. But we cannot let those stories be the only stories. And we have to allow more stories of people to exist beyond ball, beyond fashion, beyond tropes. Trans folk live full, nuanced lives. We need those stories.
“We should be empowered to share our stories with nuance,” Willis says. “We have to live with a tremendous amount of humility and realize there’s always more to a story than we can even fathom. We shouldn’t be making assumptions about folks or how similar or how different we are from each other. There needs to be space to live in complexity at all times.”
We also have to allow happiness. We cannot root people in their pain.
“If you’re Black, your life does not have to be bereft of joy. If you are trans, your life does not have to be bereft of joy. If you are both of those things at the same time, it doesn’t have to bereft of joy,” Willis says. “If we are not fighting for ourselves and others to feel good about each other, then we are on the losing team.”
Jet Spratling recently started Intersection222 as an Instagram community to push queer joy, especially for Black, masculine-presenting and gender-nonbinary queer folk.
“A lot of times when we are spoken about, it’s almost like we are not human,” they say. “We are othered a lot and I think it’s important for us to see queer people living their lives in a beautiful way and celebrating themselves and feeling comfortable because it makes you feel more comfortable in being yourself.”
Growing up in Dorchester, Spratling, a model and artist, says it wasn’t until the age of 21 that they started to truly be themself.
“I identify myself as queer,” they tell me. “I didn’t come out specifically as anything. I just said, ‘Hey I have been having a relationship with a woman,’ and that was really it. I was searching for spaces where I could find people like me, even just learning about your identity and your community, it almost felt like I was going through puberty again and I didn’t know where to start. There weren’t a lot of safe Black queer spaces.”
Twelve years later, Spratling says it’s still a challenge to find those spaces in Boston.
“For the most part, I have felt safe being myself in places where everyone is,” they say. “But it would be nice to have spaces that are specifically for us. We don’t even have that many places that are specifically for Black artists and Black people to come together in Boston. It feels like you have to be extraordinary as a Black person to be accepted, and as a queer Black person, it’s even worse. You have to live up to a standard of excellence just to be seen as human.”
The fighting just to be whole is exhausting, enraging, and never-ending. And it makes the room for rest, for delight, for community, necessary.
As Spratling celebrates Black queer lives, they also recognize the importance of everyone feeling the full range of emotions in their lived experience.
“Sometimes you aren’t so happy,” they say. “We are fighting for our lives and sometimes when we have the opportunity to speak, that’s the first thing that comes out. Our anger. Us trying to make people understand we don’t deserve the treatment that we get and we deserve to live. Or we are speaking because there was a tragedy and sadly it happens too often.”
But like everyone, of all identities, room to be free, and feel fully, is part of the human experience.
“Being here, being whoever you are, is human,” Spratling says. “You deserve to have a voice and to be able to live safely in your experience whatever that is.”
To live. To love. To joy. These things should be a birthright, not a battleground.