The two tools that got me through my earliest experiences of being a trans person on the beach were: 1) Alcohol and 2) Laura Dern.
The first time, I was on vacation with my family in Myrtle Beach, SC, and I was utterly terrified. Still in the thrust of medically transitioning, I was experiencing major, welcome but nonetheless uncomfortable, changes in my body and my hair. My breasts were growing, and I was not “passing.” In the midst of all that, we traveled to this incredibly conservative Southern beach destination, and I only got through it by drinking copiously, hiding behind my family, and when all else failed, staying behind in the hotel room.
The second time, I went to a very different beach: Jacob Riis Park in Far Rockaway, Queens. Riis has long been known as a safe haven for NYC’s LGBTQ community, and instead of hiding (or drinking my anxieties away), I swam topless, wearing boy shorts and a snapback hat. I didn’t need to focus on performing as female, didn’t feel that I needed to “pass” to survive. I thought of the actress Laura Dern wearing boy shorts on the beach, looking happy and comfortable — that’s what I want to look like on the beach. I was so comfortable in my own skin that day that I ended up with a terrible sunburn.
The beach, the pool, the lake, or anywhere skin is expected to be shown can be emotional places for anyone with a body. But those of us who are trans have (at least) another layer of anxiety: Are we safe? Are we “passing” in a way that fits the cisnormative ideal that is forced on most trans individuals? If we expose our bodies, are we also exposing ourselves to potential danger?
And the truth is, the answers to those questions vary hugely from region to region, place to place, even day to day. “Safe space” isn’t an umbrella term, and while there are certainly places like Riis in major, queer-friendly cities like NYC, trans people in smaller and more conservative locations have to constantly work — and band together — to find and protect safe spaces where they can be themselves, free from expectations and, yes, danger.
To explore what safe spaces mean to trans people across the country, I took a road trip this spring to take portraits of friends — both old and new — at beaches, pools, and sunbathing areas in several very different regions of the U.S. I visited Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas City, and Riis, photographing and conversing with trans people in each place.
One thing this project was a stark reminder of: my own privilege as a white trans individual. It’s unequal and unfair, but as a white person I experience a certain level of safety that trans people of color don’t. I have a valid voice that can speak about my own experience, and to some extent speak for the trans community, but I never want my narrative as a white trans woman to come before that of a person of color.