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.
Ahead, meet the incredible people whose stories I was fortunate enough to hear on my travels — in their own words.
As told to Anna Maltby. Interviews below have been edited and condensed.
Jacob Riis / NYC
Sawyer DeVuyst, 31, a visual artist and model in Los Angeles
"My happiest memories as a kid are swimming or being in nature near a body of water. I used to love watching my Pops run and dive through the waves at the Jersey Shore, come up, flip his combover, and blow water off his face like a whale. My first time at the beach after top surgery, I sprinted towards the waves, dove through, and came up laughing. I ran back to my towel and repeated this until I collapsed. That feeling of freedom and joy was something I hadn't really felt in that capacity before. Five years later, it's still the first thing I do when I get to the beach.
"I try so, so hard to have a positive body image. Since I was a teenager, I've struggled with disordered eating in various degrees. I still have bad days, but I think that growing into my trans identity has helped me with those feelings. Self-realization is so powerful: realizing that I am not my body; realizing that I am a soul that is in a body. My body is a really intricate, amazing blob of skin and bones and muscles that houses me and allows me to get from point A to point B, to experience the world, to love people, to help people. Realizing that I need to take care of this body so that my soul can be around longer — exercising to feel good, eating to feel good, sleeping to feel good. That is what's important, not whether or not I have a six pack. Like, why do I have to be so upset with my body? It works just fine the way it is."
Jorgie Cowan, 20, an artist and activist in Amsterdam
"The beach should feel like home. I crave it recreationally and spiritually. Like many places I call home, though, it has been colonized. The amount of toxicity in the social dynamics amplifies how vulnerable I can already be feeling in my body or in the way that I'm presenting that day. I definitely practice body positivity and body acceptance, and it's easy for me to want to radiate that for other people, especially after having been on a difficult journey with my own body. But there is a physical residue of trauma and self-hate that a lot of us are constantly cleansing from our bodies.
"As trans and gender non-conforming people, every interaction we have with the world can become infinitely complicated when we realize that our bodies and spirits, and the way we've manifested in them, have no role in our majority culture, so we have to make those roles for ourselves. Allies need to constantly check their own privilege in these spaces. Even with the purest intentions, you have probably not unlearned all of the oppressive behavior we all must. Your ally-ship should revolve around the issues: enhancing the lives of trans people and helping us create space for our own initiatives to be able to flourish. Stay true to these issues and use your privileges as a platform, with the intention of actually including us on that platform."
Pierce Hughes, 23, a makeup artist and designer in Brooklyn
"Being exposed at the beach can be nerve-wracking for anyone, but especially when your body is already treated constantly as a spectacle by cis people. I'm a freak for the beach and I love to swim, so it's really a dream to have a place like Riis where my friends and I can have beach days and still be surrounded by other queer people and feel safe. It's easy to feel good being half-naked in the sand when you're with your community.
"A safe space, for me, is anywhere that marginalized people have created for themselves to be the majority; they act as safety checkpoints for people who are otherwise under constant threat of assault solely because of their visibility. Safe spaces allow marginalized folks to see themselves reflected in the crowd and be in a place of mutual understanding.
"I wish cis people would understand that trans people are beautiful. Treat us like people, not spectacles for amusement. We aren't asking for approval, just respect."
Ashley R.T. Yergens, 25, a dance artist and development associate in Brooklyn
"As a trans dance artist living and making in NYC, I've been fortunate enough to positively engage with my body on a daily basis. When I'm performing and moving through space, I feel brave. For me, there's safety and power in demanding people's gaze with highly specific parameters authored by me and for me. Unfortunately, I can't always access this type of freedom and empowerment in public spaces. I don't believe public spaces can be safe spaces.
"In terms of allies, if we tell you that your party, event, gathering, workplace, etc. isn't a safe space for trans people, then it isn't. You, as a cis ally, don't get to tell me what's safe for my trans body. Furthermore, just because you talked to me about my safety doesn't mean you get to anoint the space as safe for all trans people. Like you, we all have very different needs and desires. If you're not sure if the space is queer and safe, then be honest — don't just slap a 'safe space' sticker on a space because you think it's the right thing to do. I'd rather know I'm entering a space where I need to heighten my awareness and be brave, because I'm a fully capable human with mad self-care skills. "
Leo Sherman-Avedon, 18, an artist and student in San Francisco and NYC
"The beach has always been a sort of freeing place for me, regardless of my physical form. But when it comes to places like the pool, there are a lot of pressures to conform and to be comfortable, two things that are very difficult as a gender non-conforming person being placed in comparison to cis-conforming folks. But I think my body image has become a lot more positive after starting T, and I'm all here for body positivity and reclamation.
"I wish cis people would realize that being trans is really not as much of a thing as they're thinking it is. Everyone knows what alienation feels like, in some sense or another."
Ada Brumback, 27, a videographer, photographer, a videographer, photographer, and musician in Kansas City, MO
"My first time wearing a gender-appropriate swimsuit in public was on a private beach in Rhode Island. It was a surreal experience. After feeling uncomfortable in public swim spaces for my entire life, I felt a major sense of relief. I was on tour with a band, and the keyboardist had a family friend with a beach house we were blessed with an opportunity to stay at. At this point, I feel far better in these types of spaces, but I'm still on edge. The less clothing I'm wearing, the more uncomfortable I am. Wearing a swimsuit in public can be the most vulnerable experience.
"Because my guard is up so much, I have to find a place that's slightly more secluded or unoccupied, and I always have some type of coverup ready to throw on if I experience anything even slightly uncomfortable. It's super important for my sense of self-worth to work up the courage to exist within these spaces, and I think I'll get more brave as time goes on. It's a constant struggle for self-improvement."
Teddy Tinnell, 26, Kansas City, MO
"Going to the beach is supposedly serene and rejuvenating, but for many trans people, the beach or pool can be stressful and dysphoric. So, allies, take some of the burden off your trans friends' brains. Compliment their cute AF swimsuit that probably took a gazillion years to find. Apply sunscreen to their backs. Scope out the bathroom situation for them. Make sure they are keeping their radiant and beautiful trans bods hydrated being out in the sun all day. Keep an eye out for creeps. Bring some watermelon to share. You know what to do — protect each other. On a large scale, allies must take a zero-tolerance policy to transmisogyny. Think about it, and let that motivate your actions and the way you create space.
"I think the notion of 'safe space' is deceptive. No space is safe. 'Safe space' sort of connotes a vaacuum to the imminent dangers of our misogynistic, transphobic, racist world. Plus, often the standard of what is 'safe' is built around the sensitivities of white people. I tend to steer clear of 'safe space' phrasing. There is immense value in creating and holding space within/for the trans community — but making that space 'safe' is an active, not passive, effort. It requires vigilance, listening, honesty. I tend to advocate more for a safety-oriented approach to space, but that could just be the Bash Back/EMT/cat dad in me."
Luan Joy Sherman, 24, an artist in Brooklyn
"I feel much more comfortable in my own skin since I’ve been on hormones, so I no longer have a significant attachment to concepts of masculinity. I really dislike the way some cis people will project what it means to 'be a man' or try to 'treat me like a man,' in order to validate me, or because they don’t know how to relate to me as a trans person. I identify as a trans man, because being trans is my reality. I’m not interested in people assuming I am cis, or trying to erase aspects of my experience by removing 'trans' from my gender identity.
"This is my first summer after having top surgery, so this is the first time I have ever really been able to be in situations that involve swimming or going to the beach without feeling really dysphoric. That being said, I have these scars that don’t bother me personally, but every time I’ve gone swimming this summer, I’m aware of how cis people react to my body. There’s so little awareness of what a trans man might look like, or what top surgery is, that I know it’s unlikely that any of the cis people staring at me are able to put two and two together. They probably assume I was in a terrible accident or something.
"In that sense, I’m very aware of how my body is different and 'anormative' to them. I’m proud to be trans, and I talk about my experiences pretty openly, but at the same time, I’m very aware of how that can put me in danger if I am ever perceived as trans in potentially dangerous cisnormative spaces. I take their ignorance about my scars as a blessing, because I’d much rather them stare at me in confusion, than stare at me because they know that I’m trans and they’re not okay with it.
"My body is inherently queer and political. That's a difficult thing to explain to someone who has never thought much about their gender, has never felt uncomfortable in gendered spaces, and isn't 'anormative' in that regard."
Harper Cantrell (left), 21, a tattoo artist in Savannah, GA
"I feel especially self-conscious and more dysphoric about my gender than usual when I'm at the pool, as swimming attire usually covers less skin. If I plan on swimming, I can't layer up to hide the parts of my body that I am dysphoric about. Not only that, but not being able to hide certain things also makes me feel more scared. What if the wrong person, a hateful person, can tell that I'm trans? I feel that way in public all the time, but especially when I can't cover up as much. I wish cis people would realize that my body isn't my gender. What my, or anyone else's, body has or looks like does not determine who they are."
Cole Cameron (left & right), 20, a student in Savannah, GA
"I regard my body with no gender. Feeling this way is freeing and makes it easier for me to accept my physical form as flawless. I have no conventions to adhere to — what I am is right for me. Everything about me is non-binary. It doesn't matter what other people may think; my parts make me.
"That said, when I'm in public spaces, I feel very self-conscious about the way I am perceived. For the first year that I was coming to terms with my gender identity, I avoided the beach and pool entirely. In addition to feeling as though I'd be scrutinized by the public, I had no idea how to appear attractive, since only the binary genders have parameters for determining being conventionally attractive, in terms of clothing choice, style, and all that jazz. Once I navigated the latter part on my own, I felt more spite than anything. I want people to be confused, but the more unabashedly I appear trans in public, especially in an area where minimal clothing is worn, the more unsafe I feel, especially living in the South."
Rainé Rainé, 25, a performer with House of Gunt and buyer at Civvies Reclaimed Clothing in Savannah, GA
"I was exposed to water at a very young age and throughout my childhood, a time in which my birth parents were accepting of my gender non-conformity. I felt more pressure from my peers for being different: hairy, kinda fat, with a mustache and short hair. I knew I was trans, but I didn't have the language to connect how those parts of my presentation contributed to my identity. Now, I'm able to engage with those elements as part of my visibility as a trans person. I'm an aries, and a showoff even when I'm not trying to put out that vibe, so when I enter spaces I feel I'm not accepted in, I'm often even flashier. As a cis-passing person, my aesthetic contributes to the way I shape my trans identity, too. I'm a pre-hormone replacement therapy, pre-surgery trans person who does sex work and loves to swim and tan, and who loves all elements of beach and pool life, so I enjoy being able to wear skimpy clothes in non-sexual, sunny, wet environments.
"Growing up, I struggled with body image much more than I do now. I was always struggling with disordered eating and trying to be thinner. I've only recently been on a 'healthy' and conscious journey to unlearn the cycles of guilt that have contributed to my mutated body image. Coming to terms with my transness opened a space for me to find more self-love in the parts of my body I cannot change right now, or might not be able to change in this lifetime. I don't know if I necessarily relate to the concept of body positivity, but I do relate to body acceptance. As a trans person, I feel it is important to be able to hold space for accepting the parts of my body I do not like, feel confused by, have love/hate relationships with."
taylor q, 21, a barista, baker, and student in Savannah, GA
"As a person raised in a highly fundamentalist environment, going to a pool or a beach has always felt like a strenuous experience due to the judgement and sexualization I was taught to layer onto my female-perceived body. Now, as an agender trans person, this experience does feel even more complicated, since I'm having to choose between covering or not covering my body to fight dysphoria. I also still have lingering ideas of the judgement regarding what I might be wearing. It can be quite the mental battle, and oftentimes I choose not to engage with these environments.
"I wish cis people understood that they do not have to misgender me with their mouth to have misgendered me. I wish cis people understood that the trans experience is pretty close to an every-moment battle, and will continue to be so until people understand that respecting us, our identities, and our bodies starts in how they view their own bodies and how they connect with their own genders. It starts in our hearts and heads, and then comes out our mouths."
Kris, 22, a veggie crew farmhand at Blubird Meadows, Carrboro, NC
"My gender identity is fluid and rocky — much like the water holes in which queers commune in the back woods of North Carolina. I think 'safe space' is a concept that is often overused and under-appreciated to the point that it's become a buzz word. Safety is a very personal issue that requires people to be honest about what they need, in addition to what they can give. I've personally come to the point where I'm unsure whether or not a truly 'safe space' can exist. But maybe I'm being a pessimist. If a safe space were possible, I'd imagine it to be a place devoid of binary labels. Perhaps, in reference to gender, safety actually can be found in the numbers — that is, in the sheer amount of multifaceted genders presented in queer spaces. If a safe space were possible, I'd imagine it to be a space where each individual is committed to being aware of the different levels of privilege, or lack thereof, that each individual's multifaceted identity would bring."
Lia Clay, 26, a photographer in Brooklyn
"I am a trans woman, and I represent myself in a way that is casual, and doesn’t rely on being femme performative all of the time, even though I do consider myself femme. There are a lot of days when I have to remind myself that I do have a trans body, and that’s completely okay. There are a lot of times I have to correct people when they ask questions like, 'So when are you going to have surgery?' I don’t have to change my body to feel like I am complete. I also feel like there’s a pressure to have body positivity, and to have acceptance for your body, and we need to step up and realize that it’s valid to not accept your body, and not feel positive about your body — these are realities for so many people, and they are allowed to express them.
"I wish cis people understood that not all of us are trying to conform to a cis-normative body. My body may be different than yours, but that doesn’t permit you to treat me, or my preferred gender identity, any differently than you would a cisgender individual. Stop asking us questions about our bodies, and making the focus about our bodies. If we want to tell you, we will tell you."
Kris (right & above) 22, a veggie crew farmhand at Bluebird Meadows in Carrboro, NC
Xander Stewart (left & right), 25, a farm worker, floral designer, and photographer in Hillsborough, NC
"I think most of the public spaces I move through allow me the safety of passing as straight and cis. Swimming areas, however, pose the problem of revealing the signifiers that indicate to strangers that something about me may be transgressive. Whether it’s copious amounts of body hair, peaking out from my Hanes boy brief underwear, or the tattoos on my chest. It’s harder to hide in these spaces.
"Fortunately, I am often in these spaces with other members of my community who are gender non-conforming, trans, and queer. It feels defiant and empowering to show up with a pack of homos in fishnet and camo and binders and booty shorts to take up space and have each others' backs. I am also grateful to live in a small town in North Carolina where I have access to countless swimming holes that aren’t heavily populated and allow for more isolated and secluded time in the water.
"I don’t believe in the existence of truly safe spaces, to be honest. I think to imply that they exist is to ignore the reality of how oppression works on an intersectional level. What may be safe for me, in no way covers the needs of someone who does not share the same identities as me. I do believe in safer spaces, in ones that listen to the needs of marginalized community members, that believe survivors, hold people accountable, and listen to and act upon feedback from the community."