Rendered in prismatic colors, their skin defies race.
More than a dozen visages stare back at patrons of The Laughing Goat Coffeehouse at Norlin Commons on the CU Boulder campus, their expressions joyous, wry, defiant. Blue sky behind them portrays them as boundless—floating, flying.
“I see a huge lack of representation of [the transgender] community in art,” Wisconsin-based artist Rae Senarighi (he/him/his) says of the prints. “I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of walking into a portrait gallery and seeing representation of someone like myself. I look at artists like Khendi Whiley or Titus Kaphar, those folks are explicitly only painting Black representation because they see this lack of representation . . . or misrepresentation. It’s exactly the same for the transgender or nonbinary community. Even if there is representation, sometimes, if it’s not done by a trans person, I feel like there’s all of this ‘otherness’ in the work. My mission in life has become to create accurate and celebratory representation of the trans and nonbinary community.”
The exhibit, Transcend: Transgender Voices, came together as a collaboration between the University Libraries and the CU Boulder Pride Office. Education librarian Linds Roberts (they/them/their) says around 80 people showed up for the exhibit’s opening on September 16.
“I think for everyone there’s this sense of looking for refuge,” Roberts says, “because I think politically this time is still really hard. There’s a lot of beautiful movement happening for trans and nonbinary folks, but there’s still a lot of heaviness.”
Roberts points to the St. Vrain School District pulling away from a years-long collaboration with A Queer Endeavor, a CU School of Education project that partners with schools to increase queer representation in pedagogy, but also to the Supreme Court’s decision to support gender-neutral passports.
“There’s this sense of both moving forward and moving backward,” Roberts says. “And this all lands differently for different people in our community, different identities. I’m for sure on the more privileged side, but for our community members with intersections of marginalization around trans identity and race and language and citizenship, there’s certainly still a feeling of a lot of vulnerability right now. So coming together with joy and ways to find each other and find support is really important.”
Senarighi began the series—the originals are nearly life-sized and done in oil—in 2015 after surviving cancer diagnosis and treatment. A graphic designer by education, Senarighi found his passion for painting rekindled in the wake of cancer.
“At first I went into my studio and I spent about a year painting abstract paintings,” he says. “But then I got hired to do a mural for an LGBT center where I was living in Portland, Oregon, and I kind of stumbled back into portrait painting. I had done portraiture in my early 20s, mostly pastel kind of stuff. That mural really got me interested in portraiture again. Once I was doing it, I responded to it viscerally. I just wanted to do more of it.”
He quickly set a few rules for himself as he mapped the series: skin and hair would be rendered in rainbow colors, clothes would be painted in black and white, and each individual would stand before a vibrant blue sky.
“Trans people aren’t allowed to take up space,” Senarighi says. “We’re constantly told to hide in order to survive. And so the blue sky background, it was just an homage to us taking up space.”
Despite his own marginalization, Senarighi is acutely aware that as a white, “masculine of center” person, he operates with far more privilege than many other trans people.
“Anyone who is bucking the binary system of how they represent themselves, they’re still receiving a lot of push back in their day-to-day life,” he says. “I was assigned female, but I’ve always been masculine of center and the larger systems of power as they exist cater to patriarchy. And those discriminatory tendencies tend to not fall on folks like me, who are masculine of center and who are white, that backlash tends to go directly to Black and brown folks, especially those expressing femininity.”
While the exhibit focuses on joy, it’s impossible to ignore the reality: The Human Rights Campaign reports that in 2021 so far, at least 36 transgender or gender nonconforming people have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means. In previous years, the majority of these people were Black and Latinx transgender women.
“One of the things that I get asked a lot is how can I be a better ally?” Senarighi says. “The thing about allyship is that it’s a constant learning process. You’ve never arrived at being an ally. I, as a white person, have never arrived at being an ally for Black and brown folks on the causes that they are pushing forward. The best I can do is to continually keep listening and learning and trying to do better. Being an ally is an action. It’s a verb. It doesn’t stop. There’s no end point.”