SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — In the first half of 2022, bills in state legislatures targeting transgender individuals are already outpacing 2021 legislation according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The exponential growth of anti-transgender legislation over the last few years inspired one Santa Fe-based photographer to begin the Are You Ok? project to share the stories of those most impacted by the legislation.

For the last year, photographer Jesse Freidin has been traveling through the South and the Midwest meeting with transgender and nonbinary youth to give them visibility and a voice in light of recent legislative backlash.

“I just got very activated and angry and felt like I wanted to get involved and do what I could, and photography and storytelling is a tool that I have that I know that I can do,” Freidin said.

So far this year, Freidin has brought the project to Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota with his most recent stop in Sioux Falls on Sunday.

Since he began the project more than a year ago, several states in the country have passed anti-LGBTQ legislation such as the ‘Don’t Say Gay‘ bill in Florida and the recent order from Texas Governor Greg Abbott to investigate the parents of transgender children for child abuse.

“I thought the stories would be different now, however, the stories are the same,” Freidin said. “Kids and families are scared and angry.”

Amy Rambow is the mother of a transgender child and she and her family participated in Sunday’s photo shoot. For Rambow, the recent legislation in South Dakota, and across the country, has been frustrating to witness as a parent.

“It’s extremely frustrating because they don’t wanna listen to the communities they’re trying to make bills and laws against,” Rambow said. “So, you get really frustrated, like, just talk to me… Why are you coming from this place?”

During the 2022 legislative session, Rambow and her family traveled to Pierre with other LGBTQ+ advocates to connect with lawmakers. Rambow said she attempted to speak with the governor and other lawmakers, both in person and via email, but was not able to connect with anyone.

“That’s frustrating,” Rambow said. “You’re there, you’re voting on these bills, but you won’t talk to the people.”

Rambow and her family decided to participate in Freidin’s project to bring visibility to the transgender community in South Dakota.

“I feel like my voice needs to be twice as loud for those who can’t speak out or fear if they speak out,” Rambow said. 

“There are these bills and all that that keep coming out that are just trying to put us down, you know? And not allow us to be ourselves and that’s really just what I wanna be, I wanna be myself.”

Max Bruguier

Mitchell High School sophomore Max Bruguier and his mother, Kim, also participated in Sunday’s event. They also have been a voice in Pierre as they watch LGBTQ+ bills debated each year. Max describes the legislative session as angering, but his mom said they still reach out via phone and email to representatives to share their family’s story.

“We found out that our story did make a difference,” Kim Bruguier said. “At least one legislator changed his vote because of a conversation that we had with him.”

Max Bruguier with family for ‘Are You Ok?’ photoshoot

For Max, the decision to have his photo taken was about putting himself out there to show who he is.

“One of the things we talked about is, ‘Are we okay putting out our story for people to hear?’” Kim Bruguier said. “And he said, ‘Well, yeah mom I’m proud of who I am and the life we live.’”

Max used to participate in school sports in middle school but stopped when he entered high school. His mother said it was out of fear of being targeted by other students because he was openly out. Now, Max is the drum major in the school band and a tenor in show choir. In those activities, Max said he can still participate and feel safe doing so.

“I’m surrounded by people who I love and who love me,” Max Bruguier said. 

As a parent, Kim says it’s ‘terrifying’ to have a child who is out.

“I know that there are people who have a hate without knowing who the kids are,” Kim said.

Freidin said that in his experience traveling across the country, that fear is common among the parents of transgender children.

“Now, those families have much more fear about speaking out,” Freidin said. “A lot of families are going into hiding, leaving the state.”

But while there may be fear and anger among members of the transgender community, Freidin said he has continually heard the same message in his travels…

“They have the exact same message that there’s hope, you just keep fighting,” Freidin said.

Freidin hopes to eventually turn the Are You Ok? project into a book and a traveling gallery exhibit but for now he’s working to make it to every state affected by anti-transgender legislation. His website serves as an immediate, online exhibit for the photos and stories he’s captured so far.

“I want this to be an educational piece of advocacy that can be used immediately now.”

Here in South Dakota, the Rambow and Bruguier families want the transgender community to know that there is love and support for them to be themselves.