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Review: ‘On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories’

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By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Everybody, as they say, has a story to tell. An ancestor was captured in an early war. Parents overcame adversity in a new country. A health scare, a welcome blessing, a lucky streak, a chance meeting—we all have our tales to share. And On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories, with photographs by Mark Seliger, reveals some stories you won’t soon forget.

onchristopherstreetWhere would you go if you just wanted to be yourself? There was a time when a transgender person living in or near Manhattan would go to Christopher Street in the West Village to find support, advice, community, or family. More recently, you might have also run into photographer Seliger, who says in a brief statement that he noticed the “freedom of expression and gender identity” that was once abundant is “vanishing” from the area. High-end condos, cafés, and restaurants are moving in, and the trans community is being pushed aside. With this book, Seliger puts a marker on that community before it’s gone.

“I realize that everybody has a trans story, that being trans is something that affects all of us,” he says, using his camera as storyteller.

Being in prison as a trans woman, says one photo subject, is like being “caged.” You don’t belong with the men. They won’t put you in the women’s lockdown. Everybody knows what’s going on, and sometimes the guards have one more slap-down in store for you just before you’re released.

Many stories begin with “I was four”—or five or eight—when several of photographer Mark Seliger’s subjects realized that they were “in the wrong body.” Families were supportive—or not. Transitioning “is not easy,” and the decision for or against surgery is deeply personal. But ultimately it’s the “inner peace” that matters. Still, lying about being trans can backfire, and even if nobody knows, there’s a “constant state of paranoia and fear” that may yet linger.

And then there’s the place itself: Christopher Street has “a dark side,” with drugs, prostitution, and harassment. This means that for the LGBTQ youth who comprise 40 percent of the nation’s street kids, it isn’t always safe.

And so there I was, quietly reading On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories, when it suddenly . . . ended! The surprise was not that I had finished, but that I was so wrapped up in the inside of this book that I didn’t notice the last pages looming.

Yes, it’s that kind of thing, filled with visual portraits that are worth the clichéd thousand words—and then some. Seliger’s subjects seem mostly well-at-ease in snapshots that feel random but natural; some people are identified, some are not, and not all of them weigh in verbally. But those who do tell tales that hit hard, in part because they leave readers with the sense that there’s more to say, but it’s too difficult to speak.

This large, elegantly presented coffee-table book is one you’ll return to again and again, because what’s inside is so compelling. If it is indeed true what they say about everyone having a story, On Christopher Street is filled with some of the best ones.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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