Inside the Boston Children’s Museum’s gallery are seven brightly colored portraits of children living out their dreams, either for themselves or for the world — strumming a purple guitar, donning an astronaut suit, cupping a seedling.
The portraits, the work of illustrator Noah Grigni, are of transgender children, ages 6 to 13, all from New England. The exhibit, “Protect Trans Dreams: A Portrait Project,” debuted on April 13 and will be on display through July 24.
“The ways that trans kids are talked about in the media today still center around trauma,” said Grigni, 24, who lives in Atlanta. “That was why I wanted to focus on dreams for this show, because I didn’t want to frame these kids in relation to hardship.”
The museum commissioned Grigni for the project in 2019, shortly after the children’s book, “It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity,” illustrated by Grigni, was released. Also around that time, Grigni, then living in Boston, got a message on Instagram from the mother of a 5-year-old transgender girl.
The mom said that the daughter’s kindergarten teacher would not allow the daughter to read Grigni’s book during class as a way to explain her identity. So, she asked Grigni to create a portrait of her daughter “to make her feel better after that experience at school,” the artist explained. The idea for “Protect Trans Dreams” was born.
“Museums are really these gatekeepers of culture, and they have a lot of legitimizing power,” said Grigni, who identifies as a non-binary transgender man. “So it was important to me to take an institution that is so powerful and to make space for trans kids to be joyful and hopeful within it.”
In the exhibit, the kindergartner is drawn as the astronaut, set against a vivid blue background and surrounded by a cluster of flowers and stars. Grigni reached out to Boston-area transgender support networks, like Greater Boston PFLAG and Camp Aranu’tiq, eventually finding the other six children willing to participate in the project. “I got a huge response,” said Grigni, who came out at age 14. “A lot more families responded to me than I actually had the capacity to include.”
While the exhibit was postponed by the pandemic, Grigni connected with the seven children and their families over Zoom, asking them about their dreams, what they would change about the world, and what makes them happy. Grigni also asked the children how they wanted to be painted. “Some of them had very specific visions,” they recalled, “and some of them just wanted me to paint them how I see them.”
The portraits hang on the walls of the gallery space, and in glass cases in the middle of the room are the original watercolor illustrations from “It Feels Good to Be Yourself.” An audio track of snippets from the talks Grigni had with the seven children plays in the background, and there’s a drawing nook where visitors can illustrate their responses to the same sorts of questions Grigni asked their subjects.
“There’s a long history of creating exhibits that address what some people would perceive as difficult subjects, simply to advocate for children and foster a better understanding of our similarities and differences,” said the museum’s president and CEO, Carole Charnow. “This exhibit continues the tradition of raising up voices that don’t necessarily have a platform.”
The debut of the exhibit comes at a moment when many states are enacting legislation that prevent transgender children from receiving gender-affirming medicine — or, in some cases, making it a crime for medical professionals to provide this care to youth.
“They’re very aware of the people who want to see them disappear,” said Grigni of their portraits’ subjects. “I just wanted this show to be the antithesis of that.”
Charnow said she hopes that the exhibit is “a welcoming open door to this topic” as anti-transgender legislation continues to appear in the news. “We’re really proud that at this moment in time this exhibit is here to prompt discussion and hopefully build bridges.”
Before “Protect Trans Dreams” opened to the public, Grigni said, there was a private showing for the children who inspired the portraits and their friends and families. When the exhibit officially opened, Grigni said many transgender adults came to see it.
“It was really beautiful to see so many trans adults in the Children’s Museum caring for their inner child,” said Grigni. “All of my work is driven by thinking about what would have helped me as a trans kid, what would have made me feel safe and supported, what was missing, and how can I try to create that for the kids I’m working with today.”