Documenting the complex transition of a photographer’s child

Documenting the complex transition of a photographer’s child
In her new photobook You Refuse to Believe that You Ever Liked Pink, Dena Elisabeth Eber intimately explores her evolving relationship with her child, Alex.

One afternoon a few years ago, while the world was still in the grips of the COVID-19, photographer Dena Elisabeth Eber was at home in Toledo, Ohio with her child – who went by Margaret at the time – when she received some tough news. Her mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and didn’t have long left to live.

“I was just thinking, ‘Oh wow, my mum, who’s super healthy and going to live to 100 years old is going to die,’” recalls Dena, who works as a professor in photography at Bowling Green University. “And here I am dealing with one month for my mother to live and Alex comes to me in autistic timing to say: ‘Hey mum, don’t call me Margaret anymore – my name’s Alex.’”

Alex, who is diagnosed with autism, had never identified with being a “girly-girl”, and had previously come out as queer to Dena while in high school. “I realised I wasn’t straight in high school when I met a woman that made it click for me, because for my whole childhood I was obsessed with (Star Wars character) Ahsoka Tano and the goth chick from Total Drama Island,” Alex explains. “I chose the name Alex very young – it was originally my Minecraft username and that was after Alex Russo from Wizards of Waverly Place. Reflecting back, I had a crush and I identified with her.”

But her child being trans was not something that Dena had seen coming. The photographer quickly realised that she was about to embark on a long, complicated journey during which she would have to relearn who her child was and her vision of Alex. With the pair being Jewish, the change came with extra significance, with names holding particular importance in Judaism. “I had to question my own reality and my own sense of what I thought was true,” Dena says. “I had to say shiva for Margaret and mourn that death, then start the process of falling in love with Alex – it was like a different person and a different child.”

Now, a new photobook You Refuse to Believe that You Ever Liked Pink, presents that complex journey in printed form. Inside are deeply intimate portraits of Alex as they underwent physical change set across from old photographs of them as a young child named Margaret, along with writings and screenshots of text messages that illuminate the tight bond between mother and daughter. With a family scrapbook-style presentation, the book is a deeply revealing, personal window into their evolving relationship, and the journey a mother must go through to accept her child’s new identity.

“I didn’t see Alex as trans when they were little,” Dena explains of the childhood photographs. “A lot of the process was looking back at those pictures and scratching my head – are those pictures telling me something I didn’t see? What did I miss?”

Since coming out, Alex’s transition has been far from smooth. Alex has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects connective tissues in their body. “It makes my skin looser, which meant that all of my stitches popped off, and where for most people it might heal after a month, it took me an entire year to heal, and my scars are now just turning the colour of my skin.”

The book’s publication comes at a time when the rights, and very existence, of trans people comes increasingly under attack in the USA. 2023 saw lawmakers across many American states introduce bills that targeted the rights of trans people, including restricting access to healthcare. Drag performers and toilets have become the centres of media and culture wars, and to go along with that, violence against trans and non-binary people is on the rise –in 2023 there was a 32.9 per cent increase in hate crimes based on gender identity, according to the FBI’s crime statistics.

“I live in a college town – Bowling Green is a very liberal campus, so I haven’t encountered any hate thankfully,” says Alex. “But I am scared, especially now that I’m dating a trans man and we could end up being a target of hate at any point.”

Despite the rising transphobia, violence and erasure, trans people are resolutely, resiliently, existing. Last year, the biggest survey ever conducted of transgender Americans found that 94 per cent of people were more satisfied with their lives after transitioning or living at least part of their lives in a different gender to what they were assigned at birth. Even though the medical aspects of Alex’s transition have been far from smooth, they fall squarely in that 94 per cent.

And that happiness is ultimately the most important thing to Dena. “It’s taught me to question my perceptions, and that what we perceive is true is not necessarily true,” says Dena. “And no matter what, I love this person. I deeply, deeply love this person.”

“And I love this person,” Alex replies.

You Refuse to Believe that You Ever Liked Pink by Dena Elisabeth Eber is published by Schilt

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