Transgender Youth Come into Focus in "Veme: Queering Phoenix" Photography Show

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Bea Velazquez stands in the center of a small gallery on the second floor of Phoenix Center for the Arts. Friends mill about, directed from photograph to photograph, as Velazquez offers insight into each individual, each portrait, each intimate experience. The 27-piece, black-and-white exhibition is getting a lot of eyeballs tonight, its debut showing at December's First Friday. Straight couples stand with their hands in each other’s back pockets, reading, looking. Transgender teens stand near their own faces, smiling shyly as friends look on. It's pretty amazing, seeing yourself up there, they say. Almost unreal.

The show is "Veme: Queering Phoenix," a retrospective compilation of real-life experiences from Phoenix's LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) youth of color. The photography exhibition features portraits and accompanying stories and continues its limited viewing through this weekend. It is expected to show in Tucson in the spring.

"The term 'queer' has been re-appropriated by the community as a term of strength and empowerment, and also [of] being politically active and politically conscious," Velazquez says. "When you say that, you're essentially saying that you're part of the LGBTQ community — but not heteronormative in other ways. It has a greater connotation and scope than just saying 'I'm gay.'"

The confrontational stigma of the word — as a negative for freakish or, unfortunately, other — is still present, but that’s one of the reasons using it is so powerful, Velazquez explains. It's a strong term that cannot be ignored.

"It’s meant with that strength," Velazquez continues. "It's meant with that point of 'Look at me,' and that’s what the title has to do with it: 'veme' in Spanish is a command to look at me — it doesn't just mean to see me."

"Veme: Queering Phoenix" was conceived, shot, and produced entirely by Velazquez, and it doubles as a thesis for the master’s candidate at Arizona State University. It began a year ago as a passion project rooted in the work Velazquez was doing with One-N-Ten Youth Center, a Valley organization that provides assistance and outreach to LGBTQ youth through mentorship programs, connections to housing and wellness services, and group activities. The organization provided much of the financial backing for Veme, and Velazquez continues to work for it as a program coordinator in Central Phoenix — a job that feels more like a family than an obligation. (Velazquez also received a $2,000 stipend from ASU.)

Velazquez has lived in Phoenix for seven years and worked at One-N-Ten for five of them. They decided to create a retrospective of life experiences here, particularly within the LGBTQ community, and the seeds for "Veme: Queering Phoenix" were planted. Velazquez began a GoFundMe account. Initially for expenses, the online fundraiser has since grown to $1,370. With the projects costs covered, the remaining money will go to the participants. The goal is "to help them with anything from like putting a deposit on an apartment to accessing behavioral health services to beginning hormone therapy. All of those things that can really, really change a young person's outlook and a young person's life, but can often times be really, really hard to have financial means to access."

With funding in place, Velazquez teamed up with two advisers: Patricia Clark, an artist who works with video and photography, and Gloria Cuadraz, who specializes in oral history. Shooting began in July, with Velazquez, "collecting stories that are often times not heard and often times not acknowledged."

"Photography allows us to look at someone without it having to be face to face. It kind of takes away some of the intimidation that may exist in facing someone directly while still giving you access to the individual and an ability to look at that person and that person’s expression," Velazquez says.

"Young queer people are really breaking the boundaries that even had previously existed for gender expression: how they look, how they dress, how they express their identities physically, right? What’s better than photography to capture [that]?"

Some of those photographed are friends, or students introduced to the artist through One-N-Ten. Others sought out the project via social media, as an outlet to share their own stories. One photograph is Velazquez's own self-portrait. Ultimately, what surrounds the gallery-goers spilling out of the room is easily a year of work — and a lifetime of often painful reality.

"I always grew up knowing that there were complexities to the way in which I perceived myself," Velazquez says. "It was a very, very long journey."

The photographer is seated at an oval conference table in the offices of One-N-Ten, in Midtown Phoenix, a few weeks before opening night. Three of the people profiled for "Veme: Queering Phoenix" have just left the room after an intense and near-emotional roundtable about their experiences growing up, from coming out to surviving day-to-day life. Actually, the whole process has been emotional, Velazquez allows: "So many people would just break down crying during the interviews."

Velazquez is a native of Mexico and self-identifies as "genderqueer," preferring pronouns like they/them rather than gendered ones like he/she. ("Genderqueer has a lot to do with being able to understand the duality within you," they explain.) The eldest child of an immigrant family, Velazquez grew up aware that a certain aspect of their persona didn’t conform to the "ideal child" mentality held by their parents.

"I love my parents dearly, and we have a super good relationship — especially now. But when I was younger it was harder to navigate those waters. I didn't come out to my parents until I was 20 — even though I'd come out to my sister and friends before that," Velazquez says. "The biggest thing that I struggled with was being open [but] I accepted myself pretty early on."

"When you tell your family about your sexuality or your gender identity, you're doing it so you can build a better — positive — more open relationship. So, to be able to approach your family with that honesty and being like, 'This is who I am' and them just sort of like accepting it and having life continue as normal is really beautiful and allows for that to evolve."

But sexuality and gender identity are two different sides of two different coins, and many often struggle to accept the latter. When Velazquez — and almost all of the show's subjects — talk about coming out, they're referring to their sexuality. Which means, at the time, Velazquez came out as gay and their parents were accepting of them as a lesbian. But genderqueer? That's not something they know. It's out there, Velazquez says, through pictures on Facebook or when they don ties with seemingly androgynous outfits. It's implied but not forced.

"It's such a different topic for [my family]," says Sam Johnson, whose portrait is among those Velazquez shot for "Veme: Queering Phoenix." Like Velazquez, Johnson identifies as genderqueer but chose to come out with regard to sexuality as a teenager, telling only close friends and family members. Though they know Johnson is gay, they don't know about the gender preference — and Johnson wants to keep it that way.

"I can't help but have that fear of not having the security of having some place I can go home to," Johnson says.

If the year 2015 did anything, it made the "T" in LGBTQ recognizable. Stand out, even. Transgender is now a word known by much of America, superseding the outdated or offensive terms that predated it, creating at least some semblance of understanding on a linguistic level. Caitlyn Jenner dominates tabloid news and has taken over reality television. Laverne Cox has graced magazine covers and makes Orange is the New Black a must-watch show. That is not, of course, to say they come without controversy and backlash — but they do put famous faces on a sometimes difficult-to-grasp concept.

"In many ways I feel like Caitlyn Jenner really exemplifies and embodies the rift that exists within the LGBTQ community, concerning things such as race and class and privilege," Velazquez says. "The objective of a project like this is not only to create positive representation and to bring people from outside of the LGBTQ community into something like this, but to bring exposure to issues that we within the LGBTQ community face. Gay white men — gay white cis [cisgender, in which a person's gender is 'in agreement' with sex assigned at birth] men — are still considered the face of the community when there have been many, many studies showing they’re not the majority within our community.

"That is exactly what's happening with Caitlyn Jenner, right? Caitlyn Jenner already had a position of power and a position of privilege and had lots of access to things such as media, so she very much exemplifies the way in which resources are not divided equally within our community and the way in which it’s much easier for white trans women to gain acceptance than it is for a black trans woman to gain acceptance."

After all, hate crimes, Velazquez says, are predominately — disproportionately, even — against trans women of color.

Two weeks before "Veme: Queering Phoenix" opened to the public, activists, mourners, and friends joined together on the lawn of the Arizona State Capitol for a candlelight vigil — a tribute to those in the transgender community who lost their lives to violence this year. The list of nearly 100 names included one familiar to a few: Kandis Capri.

Capri, a 35-year-old African-American transgender woman, was shot on August 11 outside of an apartment complex near the intersection of 45th Avenue and Thomas Road. She later died in the hospital.

At the time of her death, Capri was the 16th transgender person to be murdered in the U.S. As of this writing, 21 transgender men and women — 19 of whom were identified as people of color — have been killed, making 2015 "the most lethal year on record for gender-nonconforming people," according to the Human Rights Campaign.

In a report released by the National Advocacy for Local LGBTQH Communities, anti-LGBTQ homicides rose by 11 percent in 2014. And, for the fifth year in a row, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs' findings "reflect a disproportionate impact of deadly violence for people of color, transgender women, transgender people of color, and gay men."

LGBTQ people of color are 2.2 times more likely to experience physical violence. Young people who identify as LGBTQ — like those aged 14-24 who participate in One-n-Ten programs and those Velazquez profiled for "Veme" — are 2.5 times more likely to be injured due to violence.

And, perhaps most disheartening, 41 percent of those who identify as transgender try to kill themselves at some point, according to studies released by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

That level of violence against the transgender population, particularly for those of color, is one of the most troubling and resonating aspects of this project, both for Velazquez and for those profiled.

"I know several people who have passed due to violence or have been the victim of violence or crime here," says Richie Barraza, whose picture by Velazquez features a smiling face and platform Mary Janes. Barraza considers themselves to be "gender-neutral, non-conforming," something they call "more or less in the middle of male and female, not really one or the other."

"I myself have been harassed and bashed — [even] dressed in androgynous clothes," Barraza says. "If most of the people here in Phoenix knew someone who was trans or gay or however people identify as, then I’m pretty sure that the level of violence would drop [because] it hits home."

"It's just fear in general," says Christopher Crull. A member of the Gila River Pima Indian Community, Crull is a teenager and attends Cesar Chavez High School. He identifies as male and is out to his family and friends as gay, a decision, he says, that was equally tough and doesn't necessarily get easier. Though his family supports him, Crull recalls the bullying that happened after he came out: subtle jabs by fellow baseball players and opinions from strangers who don’t even know his name. It's frustrating, he says, and "we need to educate people more. With education comes less ignorance."

"Change needs to happen now. It's been way too long for all of this to be put off to the side; this is a bigger issue," he says. "There are hundreds of thousands of lives that still matter. Transgender people, homosexuals, [and] lesbians are still killing themselves for not being accepted, who are still homeless, who are still doing drugs, who are still selling their bodies on the streets, and most of those are minorities, and it has to change."

"Veme: Queering Phoenix" is riddled with stories like those: Conversations Velazquez had with HIV-positive people, with people who were abandoned as children, with people who find themselves openly discriminated against — in public or, more frequently, online.

"When I first came out to my mother, she was very accepting, loving — but the first thing she said was 'Be careful.' We [just] want to feel comfortable in our own skin," Crull says. "Even to this day, I’m intimidated if I want to hold a guy's hand in public. I don't hide my sexuality, but I don't want to make it very apparent. I came out freshman year, and I lost many friends because of it."

Around the room at One-N-Ten, the mood changes. This a safe place, a place many of these young people have been before, yet those seated at the table have downcast eyes. It’s a familiar feeling, the abandonment and the fear. Crull's voice catches as he keeps talking.

"I'm proud of who I am," he says, voice shaking, "but if I could change my sexuality I think I would, because people look at me differently, treat me differently. I believe in individual expression, but I hate fighting these stereotypes every day."

Later this week, Velazquez will graduate, master's degree in hand. The 25-year-old will pack up the life they've made in Phoenix and move east, albeit slightly, to New Mexico, joining their partner in Santa Fe.

The night of "Veme's" debut, surrounded by the art-going public, Velazquez says the show of support is awe-inspiring. Throughout the night, people go up to the photographer, thanking Velazquez for doing this with the un-ironic, oft-used phrase "We didn't have anything like this when I was younger."

“I think it really shows a different picture of who we are and who we are as a community,” Velazquez says. “I think for a wider audience to be able to hear those stories, it gives them a perspective that they may not always think about and a little bit of an insight toward things that they haven't necessarily questioned themselves but are very much the essence of how queer people reach their identities.”

"People are becoming conscious of those abilities to identity outside of the gender binary and outside of the heteronormative boxes that we’ve accepted in general as a society," Velazquez adds. "What better way to become aware of that than personal stories, right?"

The other half of the audience are kids or co-workers from One-N-Ten, aware of the project's existence or who even participated in it but didn't imagine it on this scale or this …. public. Indeed, Velazquez continued to reach out to the community long after the shoots and storytelling had begun, going to youth centers and meeting groups to talk about the undertaking, which one day led to a reunion with someone who had been previously profiled.

"I asked her, 'Why don't you give us a little bit of your experience [with the project]: how did you feel, what did you think.' And she said, 'You know, I don't think anyone has ever sat down with me and asked me about me for that long ever before in my life'," Velazquez says.

"It's that impact that I wanted to make: To have this person say no one has ever cared enough about my story, no one has ever wanted to take pictures of me that way. For her to be like, 'It was really, really validating and made me feel good about myself' ... my work is done."

The artist will be on hand during a showing of "Veme: Queering Phoenix" on Friday, December 11, at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 North Third Street. The exhibition will remain on view through Sunday, December 13, from noon until 6 p.m. Entrance to the gallery showing is free. For more information, call 602-254-3100 or visit www.phoenixcenterforthearts.org. For details about the project, head to www.vemequeeringphx.com.

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