These Black transgender activists are fighting to ‘simply be’

Joshua Rashaad McFadden says the people in his photographs are more than their most painful moments. In this photo essay, he celebrates their full humanity.

This is one of eight stories from The Past Is Present project, a collaboration between National Geographic and For Freedoms.

They were on the front lines at the Stonewall riots—and then again at the protests that erupted across the United States after the killing of George Floyd

Black transgender and nonbinary activists have long made history fighting for civil rights for all people. But are others fighting for their rights—or honoring their lives?

Photographer Joshua Rashaad McFadden asked himself that question after the May 2020 killing of Tony McDade, a Black transgender man who was shot by police in Tallahassee, Florida. Unlike the public outcry that emerged after other police killings, McDade’s death was largely ignored. The disconnect unsettled McFadden, and inspired him.

McFadden spent the next year chronicling the lives and experiences of Black transgender and nonbinary people across the U.S. But rather than focus on the pain and injustices they’ve faced—or their transition, which is usually what mainstream media finds most titillating—McFadden celebrated the humanity of his subjects.

These are their stories—including their responses to the question, “What is your idea of freedom?”






Joshua Rashaad McFadden, is a visual artist as well as an Assistant Professor of Photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. He uses portraiture and archival imagery to explore identity, gender, the Black archive, race, and sexuality. Follow him on Instagram @joshua_rashaad.

This is one of eight stories from The Past Is Present project, a collaboration between National Geographic and For Freedoms.

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