Prizm News / August 1, 2018 / By MJ Eckhouse

Rowan Collins
Samantha Bartilson
Ruex Leon
Giovonni Santiago (photos by Shane Wynne Photography, courtesy of the Gay Community Endowment Fund)

 

 

 

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The Gay Community Endowment Fund effort is aimed at boosting visibility and support. 

By MJ Eckhouse

At the 2017 annual meeting of Akron’s Gay Community Endowment Fund, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen gave the keynote speech. The transgender son of a Republican U.S. representative from Florida, he explained how telling his story encouraged some lawmakers to embrace LGBT rights.

Afterward, foundation board members reflected on the power of storytelling. They decided to tell stories about people who are underrepresented within the local LGBT community.

From there, the Trans Akron project was born.

Trans Akron is an online portrait and interview series profiling eight transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people from greater Akron. The photos are elegant, contemplative and joyous, and the stories are about rejection, affirmation, optimism and every other part of the transgender journey.

Rylee Jackson (photo by Shane Wynn)

“Rylee lived in an old house on Aqueduct, where her mother gave her the space to find comfort in her own identity—letting her dress in heels and pink robes, twirling in front of the mirror,” goes the tale of Rylee Jackson, who calls herself blessed despite the obstacles she has faced. “Rylee’s mother died when she was 11, and…she learned to live with the unshakeable thought that every bit of joy or comfort she could capture would only ever be transient.”

Shane Wynn, a well-known Akron photographer, offered her services pro- bono. Wynn said she wanted to put a local face to the issues that affect transgender people.

“I feel like a lot of people think that there aren’t transgender people in Akron,” Wynn says. “And I’m always thinking, ‘You probably met two yesterday, but that’s OK.’”

“As a photojournalist I know that trans people are marginalized, misrepresented and tend to be represented in negative stories. But I wanted to show them in a positive light here in Akron.”

Wynn, who is cisgender and straight, says her interest in LGBT issues likely emerged from her mother’s experience as an immigrant.

“She always taught us to champion the underdog and try to understand other people’s circumstances.”

The University of Akron Center for Experiential Learning issued a grant to the Gay Community Endowment Fund for an intern to assist Wynn. The intern, H.L. Comeriato, wrote the Trans Akron stories.

“As we started to see how thorough and robust H.L. was in putting together the subjects, we said, ‘Why don’t we make a book?'” Gay Community Endowment Fund Chairman Phil Montgomery says.

A book was distributed at the fund’s annual meeting, and a social media campaign began publicizing the project leading up to Pride month in June.

“It went beyond our expectations,” Montgomery says. “It was well-received, it was one of our best attended annual meetings. We received a ton of feedback about how informative it was and what people learned throughout the process. It really allowed us to bring to the forefront underrepresented populations of our community.”

The participants are female, male and nonbinary. Their identities range from military veteran to activist, from Christian to musician.

When the narratives use uncommon terms, such as intersectionality or cisgender, educational videos explain the concepts. Charts accompany the stories, illustrating statistics about LGBT youth homelessness or suicide attempts.

While the subjects speak about gender and discrimination, they also discuss their upbringings, hobbies and careers.

Montgomery said the project started with two goals: to tell the story of those who are underrepresented within the LGBTQ spectrum and to raise awareness of the Gay Community Endowment Fund itself.

Started in 2001, the fund supports LGBT resources in greater Akron and has awarded nearly $475,000 in grants over the years.

MJ Eckhouse is a recent graduate of Kent State University and the former editor-in-chief of Fusion, the university’s LGBT magazine.

FIND OUT MORE

• Read the stories and view the portraits from the Trans Akron series at transakron.com.

• The Gay Community Endowment fund is part of the Akron Community Foundation, a charitable fund that benefits people and organizations in Summit County. Applications are being accepted from Aug. 15-Sept. 15 for a new round of grants. Visit gaycommunityfund.org and click on Grants for more info.

• See more of Shane Wynn’s photos on Instagram @shanewynnphotography.