Twenty-three Portraits For a Positive Transgender Image

A Bronx art center asks how it can create space for a group that needs it

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Advocate and performer Chanel International Lopez next to her portrait. (Simone McCarthy)

The building sits solemnly alongside an old cemetery on the grounds of St. Peter’s Episcopal church in the East Bronx. Its vaulted ceilings and lancet arch windows are decidedly gothic, giving the place an air of reverent brooding. But looks can be deceiving.

Once you pushed past the heavy doors on a recent evening, though, the music was pumping. People milled about, holding plastic cups of wine or bags of popcorn, and a disco ball rained glimmers of light all over the room. Instead of pews and altars, there was a bleacher stand, with chairs, and a performance space.

This is the home of BAAD! or Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance—an art and performance organization with an unapologetic spine of activism and a dedication to celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community. And this event—which took place Friday February 12—is about a very specific subset of that group—transgender artists.

Well, not just transgender artists, but transgender people of color who are artists living in or are from the Bronx. Oh, and who are out. “This call was very specific,” laughs Arthur Aviles, the co-founder of BAAD!, who originally started the organization 17 years ago as a home for his dance company. “It’s not easy to find that group of people in the world, and I wanted to be sure BAAD! was giving space to a group of people we’re not used to seeing.”

In a well-lit hallway just off of the main room, twenty-three portraits were hung. They were all submissions directly from the artists, who Aviles found using Facebook and word-of-mouth. The portraits range from simple headshots to stylized compositions with color filters. But the idea was not to display art, but to display the artists. A simple photograph would do, as long as it gave a face to answer Aviles’ call for Bronx transgender artists of color.

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Michael Michelle Lynch strikes a pose. (Simone McCarthy)

For Michael Michelle Lynch the show felt like validation: “It does my heart proud to be up on this wall. There’s not enough of this—in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, in Queens, where a trans kid can come and see themselves and grow and live.”

Many of the portraits displayed in the hallway were of people who did not just identify as artists, but who also work as activists and advocates, concerned with improving quality of life for other transgender individuals and the greater community. Vanessa Victoria, for example, is a model and actress who works at the Anti-Violence Project, which counters violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected New Yorkers. “I love what this is doing,” she says. “It’s highlighting the positive.”

The intersection of art and activism was on theme, because the evening was part of BAAD!’s ten-day film festival, “Get Tough, Get BAAD!” The festival started in 2010 in response to homophobic attacks that were taking place across the city, and in particular a brutal hate crime in the Bronx.

“The media did a good job covering it, you know, ‘this was wrong, this was criminal activity,’” says BAAD! co-founder Charles Rice-Gonzalez of the aftermath of the Bronx attack. “But we felt like, once again, here were images of gay people in the media as victims, as being attacked.”

At the time, he and Aviles went to town hall meetings, participated in street protests, and met with officials. But they also wanted to have their own response. They started the film festival to counter the images of violence, and also to beat back the element of fear that these attacks evoked in the community. “Something that queer people live with is being attacked. I still feel it, I could be on the subway with a bunch of teenagers, I may think I look gay or not gay—I think I do—but I could be reading a book that may have a gay cover or something like that and you’re conscious of it,” he says. “So how do we validate ourselves amidst this, because attacks are going to continue happening.”

Get Tough, Get BAAD! was one answer, he says, as a film series with queer protagonists, showing that “we’re not just victims, were happy, we fall in love, we get the boy, we get the girl.”

Including the transgender community specifically in the festival made a lot of sense to the organizers within this context, because of the elevated rates of hate violence targeting transgender people, especially those of color.

But this evening was not about violence or discrimination, instead it seemed to be a moment to set the activism aside, celebrate, admire portraits, and watch two films with transgender protagonists: Black is Blue, a short independent film, and the acclaimed feature film, Tangerine. “We wanted to bring this group together for the sake of coming together,” says Aviles. “We wanted to connect and ask them, what can we do here?”

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