Earlier this summer, the documentary photographer Leon Cato watched as his city, New York, came together for a historic moment. Brooklyn Liberation, a silent rally for Black Trans Lives, made headlines around the nation, as an estimated 15,000 people donned masked and marched. For Cato, it marked an important first step in recognizing the underreported and disproportionate violence perpetrated against Black Trans people–but we still have a long road to travel.
It’s been almost a decade since the photographer attended Transgender Remembrance Day with his cousin, Naechané Valentino Romeo, a London-based rapper, trans man, and advocate, but his mind has turned back to that moment more than once in the past months, as people nationwide continue to speak out against injustice.
“The purpose of that day and ceremony is to remember Trans people who lost their lives the previous year, mostly through violence, simply because they were Trans,” he remembers. “Although the ceremony was very solemn, it was also comforting for the people in attendance–a place where they could find support and understanding.”
Though he initially set out to create just a few portraits, Cato spent a year documenting Romeo’s work, friendships, and transition. Throughout those months, he watched his cousin navigate prejudice, often from within their own family, while forging his own path and mentoring the rising generation, including young Trans people and kids of all genders in a local music program.
Cato’s lifelong friendship with Romeo forged the foundation for the photo essay, now titled adam’s apple, but it also served to deepen their relationship and trust in one another. “Naechané and I spent a great deal of time together throughout the project,” he remembers. “He was very candid about the process and it felt as though his story was supposed to be told in this particular format.”
“The two of us would hang out together, and sometimes his other friends would join us. I also accompanied him to a series of appointments with the National Health Service for pre-operative meetings and testosterone injections. I wanted to capture his personal interactions as well as his medical journey because it felt as though his transition was as much about the emotional as the physical.”
Cato says he’s always been drawn to stories of courage, self-determination, and the fight for freedom; in this case, it just so happened that he didn’t have to look far to find it. In his cousin, he discovered not only a friend and confidant but also an inspiration. “Naechané has a very magnetic presence,” the artist tells me. “People gravitate towards him, and he has embraced his role as a leader. He’s very brave and highly creative.”
While collaborating on adam’s apple, the photographer was able to share his cousin’s story, and, in turn Romeo opened his eyes to the challenges facing Black Trans people. At Transgender Remembrance Day all those years ago, Cato heard 717 names read out–all transgender people who have lost their lives to violence around the world. In 2019, at least 27 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed in the United States alone. The majority were Black.
Cato won’t forget those numbers. He also won’t forget that while the Brooklyn Liberation march was being organized in his hometown, two Black Transgender women, Dominique Rem’mie Fells and Riah Milton, were killed. They were 27 and 25 years old, respectively. “What is especially important right now is for society to truly recognize that All Black Lives Matter and that Black Liberation is the key to a better world,” the photographer says.
“It’s devastating to know that so many black and brown trans people lose their lives simply because of who they are. Sadly, this is also underreported and not treated with the same outrage that other human rights issues are afforded. It’s a crisis that needs addressing, and I hope to see the spotlight widening to ensure real inclusivity within the Black Lives Matter movement.”
That hope for a better and more compassionate future is what drives him, in moments of joy and moments of pain. “Not everyone will have the same opportunity that I did, and they may have to work harder to seek out other ways of understanding and supporting individuals and communities that are different to themselves,” he tells me. “But undertaking that work is critical and necessary. The reaction to the murder of George Floyd shows that people can move out of their comfort zone–if they choose to do so.”
You can learn more about Leon Cato through his company, UnderCat Productions, and you can follow him on Instagram at @undercatproductions.
All images and captions © Leon Cato / UnderCat Productions