by Eva Reign
Right in the heart of Boston’s Seaport District, the Boston Children’s Museum sits perched at the edge of the waterfront. For over a century, this establishment has been a safe haven for New England’s youth to play, explore, and learn more about the world. Now through the end of July, the second oldest children’s museum in the country is running a first-of-its-kind exhibition. Protect Trans Dreams is a series of vibrant and immersive portraiture by illustrator Noah Grigni that spotlights a select few of New England’s transgender youth.
“My art is for everyone, but it’s really for trans kids. I hope my art affirms trans kids and teaches cis kids how to support their trans peers,” says Grigni.
Protect Trans Dreams is a collaboration between Grigni and the seven families of the trans children they depicted in these works. Grigni asked each of the children what their interests were as well as their hopes and dreams. One child asked to be an astronaut. Another wanted to be a fallen angel surrounded by candles. Grigni’s series affirms trans youth in a public space like they never have been before.
This exhibition comes at a pivotal time in the nation’s history. Nearly 240 anti-trans bills have been proposed in 2022 marking this a landmark year for the infringement on trans rights in the United States. The majority of these propositions target trans youth and incite the debate over the legitimacy of trans livelihood. The increase in legislative action has led to a decline in the mental health and overall well-being of trans youth.
“Noah had a very clear vision for what they wanted this show to be, and that’s exactly what we see in our gallery space right now” says Melissa Higgins, Vice President of Programs and Exhibitions. “One thing we really value here at the Boston’s Children’s Museum is giving kids a chance to share their voice in whatever form that might take, and Noah’s show does that very well by focusing on the kids’ dreams and their hopes for the future.”
Grigni embarked on this project after getting an Instagram message from an upset mother of a trans girl named Olly. After reading It Feels Good to Be Yourself, a children’s book Grigni illustrated in 2019 about the diversity of gender, Olly brought the book to her classroom for show-and-tell. She felt empowered by the book and wanted her classmates to better understand who she is as a trans girl. Her teacher chastised her by stating that the book was inappropriate. Olly’s mother messaged Grigni asking them to create a portrait of Ollie in an effort to make her feel better after the incident. As Grigni began Olly’s portrait, they had an idea to create more portraits and display them in a gallery or museum.
“Museums are basically gatekeepers of all art and culture. They are institutions that legitimize and delegitimize whole groups of people, and trans folks are often not included, especially in museums for children. It’s important for trans kids to see themselves affirmed in these types of spaces, ” Grigini said.
Before diving into the creation of each painting, Grigni needed more willing participants. They put out a call for the project among support groups for families of trans kids in the New England area and sought out the most diverse group possible. They had a large response from excited parents and narrowed the selection down to seven participants including Lily, Frida, Olly, Ravi, Willa, Luka, and Jupiter all aged from six to thirteen. Many parents were excited by the project, but many had reservations stemming from a desire to protect the privacy of their children.
“We were in a really dark place. We had to move from our town and shield Frida from so much,” says Jake, Frida’s father. “Exposure was scary, but I hope this show makes trans kids feel welcome and reminds them that there are people advocating for them.”
Over the last couple of years, Grigni has cultivated relationships with these participants and their families, making sure to represent them authentically. The Atlanta native is no stranger to the cobblestone roads of New England. Just a few years ago, they graduated from Lesley University with a BFA in Illustration. During their studies, they interned at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts before working as a freelance artist throughout the city. The onslaught of the pandemic forced them to return home down South. Throughout that time, they kept up communication with the families over a series of Zoom calls. They paid special attention to any requests from both the children and their families.
“We don’t take Noah’s kindness for granted,” says Amy, Jupiter’s mother. “Noah always did what they said they were going to do. If something wasn’t right, they would change it, so I’ve always trusted them throughout the process.”
Now, Grigni is back in their old stomping grounds with a solo exhibition empowering trans kids and encouraging their self-expression. During their own adolescence, Grigni was a trans teen navigating unsupportive structures in school and figuring out self in a conservative, oftentimes unsupportive environment.
“My art used to be all about dysphoria and personal trauma,” says Grigni. “Now I’ve turned that around so that it focuses on euphoria and trans joy. To trans kids feeling scared right now: you are beautiful, you are enough, you are valid just the way you are and you have a loving and supportive community that’s waiting to welcome you. We are living through a terrible time, but you will make it out of this. You’re going to be okay.”
Eva Reign (she/her) is a Brooklyn-based actress, writer and artist from St. Louis, Missouri. Known for her work as a correspondent on the Vice show “Transnational,” Eva is currently nominated for a Peabody Award and GLAAD Media Award. She previously worked at the Condé Nast LGBTQ platform Them. as Assistant Editor before going on to launch her own column at the platform “In Bloom: The Life Column with Eva Reign.” This column focused on the beauty and strength of the Black trans community. Her other writing has appeared in Vogue, The Cut, Byrdie, PAPER and Highsnobiety. This past year she completed a film fellowship with Queer|Art under the mentorship of renowned artist and filmmaker Tourmaline through which she developed a feature film-length screenplay. Soon she will make her film debut as the star of Billy Porter’s forthcoming film Anything’s Possible from MGM’s Orion Pictures premiering exclusively on Amazon Prime.