Sometimes two is better than one, but when the two work as one nothing is better
The best feeling anybody can have is to say 'thank you' after a sincere compliment. However, the biggest 'thank you' that I can give anyone is not for what might be the apparent or obvious, but instead for what is not. I give thanks to every person I have had contact with that make up this success story. My outlandish outbursts, anger, and dispositions early in my diagnosis were like tectonic plates colliding, resulting in catastrophe. I thank them for enduring, engaging and loving the worst possible me. Most of all, I thank you Albert.
What Two Look Like
You are never alone no matter how lonely you feel. Even though we might not have the support systems we need to aid, calm, or draw strength from, we all have at least one other person we count on when everything appears dim and dark. The “Two White Shirts” series explores the relationship between two people that primarily rely upon one another for support. It shines a light and features the story of the person we never hear about. Usually, it is a significant other, family member or a close friend that we entrust with our otherwise non-communicable thoughts, and emotions that fester in the vastness of our own bowl of turmoil. Whoever that person is, and whatever the relationship one thing is certain. He, she, or they have more than likely never asked or expected anything in return. Their time and resources, patience and understanding are tested throughout the relationship.
In this series I decided to change the dynamics, so instead of individual shots, I combined the shoot for the primary and supporter. My original format for The White Shirt Project afforded the participants a safe space environment. The Two White Shirts follows the same idea and framework ensuring the integrity and reputation of the project.
The intensity of the shoot is the same as it becomes woven with the energies contained within the room. Music is played to taste as memories are incited, triggered and handled with care. However, no shoot is ever the same, and the uniqueness of what makes us one of a kind is demonstrated as we look into the eyes of each person in the series.
Suzanne & Gary
I was attracted to Jose’s White Shirt Project (TWSP) the minute I saw it. Not only because I knew several of the people in the original photographs, but I thought the visual concept was ingenious and well, beautiful. It was, in essence, ‘portraits with a twist.’But it wasn’t until I stopped by his Parkchester apartment and interviewed Jose for a story about the TWSP on thisistheBronX, the website I publish, that I learned of its agenda to address mental health issues. I was even more taken back when, in that interview, Jose revealed his own mental health problems. This, of course, is a main point. Mental illness is not always detectable. Maybe someone seems a little strange, but really, who among us isn’t? The silent demons that play in some people’s minds are effectively portrayed by this unique photo series. I imagine that for Jose, the TWSP is a relief, a release, a way to express his own difficulties in a dramatic, dignified, and beautiful way. But maybe it’s a bit of a struggle, too, for him to combat his most personal issues publicly. Wanting to support, not only did I use some of my healthcare contacts to provide medical resources for the TWSP, but I put him on BronxTalk , my BronxNet TV show, to help spread the word. Also, I have to say, I was eager to be part of it and told him if he was going to shoot further, we’d love to participate. After all, when it comes to mental anxieties, yeah, I’ve got them, too. We all do. Suzanne and I were told that the underlying theme of the shoot was support, how one person in a relationship supports the other. While Jose might have preferred an image that reflects taut emotions, I think he found that with us, that was going to be difficult to capture. The reasons why are evident in the photo. We support each other through all of our issues. The comfort and contentment on my face masks the joy of mutual support that Suzanne openly expresses. This is the energy that sustains us when life gets most difficult.
Growing up I pretty much knew what was expected of me and I did it. Unfortunately though, I had little trust in my parents and teachers to help me achieve things. And unlike many, I did not know how to go about succeeding myself. I had trouble overcoming things in my mind that got in the way. Accordingly, I respect people who have to deal with their problems and are able overcome them. Even though comparatively, some of mine might seem small, we each have our own issues and they are all that we know. Our problems are our problems, large or small. Sometimes I feel that some of my issues have held me back, while other folks who have gone through worse have achieved success. It took me twenty years to graduate from college, and I am proud as hell that I did it. However, I never did everything I wanted to do with my college degrees. I am a mixed media artist and my biggest block right now is having confidence in, and showing my work. I’ve spent time in therapy, so that I wouldn’t raise my two children with the same roadblocks I have had to face. I guess it follows that I love when people I know sit down to tell me what’s bothering them and I’m so happy that they trust me, very different from my own experience growing up. I appreciate being the person that other people come to for advice. Ironically, other people’s problems are a distraction from my own. With Gary’s help and support, our kids have grown to be independent. They get to do what they want in life and they are equipped to travel the paths they choose. I draw strength from my wonderful marriage, and I enjoy the man I’m with. He pushes and helps me be all I can be. Although sometimes I’m a bit resistant, I try not to be. We laugh together all of the time. My adult children support me, and I support them unconditionally as they also support me. I know that I am a VERY strong person, a loving person, and a feminist. I’m a positive person with a humorous outlook. So far things have been fine in my life, if not perfect. But what’s perfect anyway?
Gypsy Sun & Shakimono
The beautiful transformation of humbled soul, embracing TWS project like an open canvas/ inner sails, splashing the paint of truth on the seas of my past. This step in my life is so important at this moment because, I am learning to walk a different road. I come from a very spiritual, violent, and abusive past. Heavy was I who wore the cloud... one of shame, fear, weakness, and insecurity. To channel my 5 year old at this present moment at the age of 49, is still a feat of courage and strength. The echoes of that pain was deafening, and the hurt had squeezed my voice shut. Non audible to a world who I thought wasn’t listening.
My first caress of this shirt in the soft evening, channeled my Obatala. First key in spiritual totem pole. Now I have ancestral backing. Faith and perseverance are the steps my soul is taking, as I am standing still. Second caress, the collar. Now this shirt is my shield. Now I embrace confidence, focus, invigoration; breathing is balanced.
The third caress to the heart. Hand on purity. Graceful moment of sharing delicate crystals of my past. Trust is in the room. With my Santos with me. I feel welcomed. I speak. Dark waters of past flow through my eyes of healing, as I stare forward into the eyes of another open heart. The embrace and mystical energy of my counterpart is raining on me, like a transitive nightfall of diamonds. She is there...
The fire that burns inside of our relationship is a cosmic fire, an eternal flame. He means everything to me... "he means vision, culture, power, thunder, lightning, strength, compassion, and grace." And it is my greatest blessing to be his wife as it is his for him to be my husband. I’ve been through my fair share of pain and struggles with childhood trauma. At some point in my life I had to realize a series of patterns and admit that there was a problem.
Four years into our relationship enduring homelessness, and all of its fixings. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, and PTSD. It was easier to deal with my mental and emotional problems NOW that the problem itself had an identity.
As a child, I was taught to fear any labels involving mental illness. Yet, the more I made seeing a therapist a regular thing, the better I was able to understand the symptoms of this mental disease and how I could use my spirituality to change the way my brain had been trained to think.
Living in the Bronx provided a safe space for me to explore my healing options. I chose my art and music with Gypsy Sun. I chose our culture and manifested it in my own self-expression. This is something that as an abused child and broken adult, I was prohibited from doing.
My husband’s medical providers couldn’t reach him, only music could. Knowing that, I was sure that nothing was going to stop me from being there for him when he needed. I am grateful for that time in our life and the blessings of unconditional love and the strength it took to endure and be there for a man who sometimes couldn’t be there for himself. He was, and still is always there for me.
Sabastian Cain Roy & Lailani Muniz
The Interview Q & A
Lailani: I am the eldest of 2, grew up in a duel family household. I grew up not knowing gender because I was allowed to express how I felt. (Feeling: "It was awesome, but later I found out that even those who said they accepted me were criticizing, making jokes, and being disrespectful with their negative comments). Expression: Noise. Sebastian still continues today, but I am stronger now.
Sabastian:The beginning of my story is similar to my wife's except that I grew up in the 1970s and it started at age 4. I knew I didn't identify with my gender assigned at birth, but I had no knowledge of what Trans was, let alone what it meant. Once I was exposed to a trans person; it was a trans woman, but offensively referred to as a man in a dress. (Note that an early age I expressed to my mom that I did not identify with my gender assigned at birth, for this I was disciplined continuously).
Lailani: In middle school is where I explored my sexuality publicly dating girls but secretly dating boys too. In my senior year, I applied for high school but was not accepted into the school of my choice. I was told I had to attend the school in my district and that scared me because the year prior a student was beaten up bad and another was killed. Feeling: Horrible/ Disappointing/ Heartbreaking/ Defeated - causing me to give up on my education, so my GPA dropped below my 4.0 average. Expression: Sad/Defeated
Emotion #1: Heated (Being bullied & called a faggot/Homo, my blood boiling but scared to show it, so I was Heated/Angry) Emotion #2: Broken (Feeling alone, not finding love, still there but slowly able to connect) Emotion #3: Numb (No feeling, unable to feel any emotion, disconnected from my feelings & emotions) Emotion #4: Hope (I can see the light, recognizing that It's possible) Emotion #5: Happy (Puzzle pieces coming together, finding love, my soul mate, having the opportunity to have children together)
Q:How does Sabastian support Lailani? Born at Bellevue Hospital, moved to Long Island about age 7, before moving to LI. Sabastian expressed his feelings about not identifying with the gender assigned at birth (Female). In the 70s, not identifying with the gender assigned at birth was not spoken of and if so it was punished. Having both parents where one was absent due to work, my mother expressed her hurt and anger by disciplining us, keeping in mind my older brother was diagnosed with CP (Cerebral Palsy). I am the middle child of 3, my younger brother acting out causing him to be kicked out of school. I chose to stop speaking about my gender identity, holidays were the worst because I was forced to wear female dresses, female shoes, feminine hairstyles, IT WAS HELL! When my mother felt like it, she would kick me out, I would go to a friend's house, some time I would go to my aunt's house, but drinking heavily and losing memories. With the loss of my aunt, I started to slow down on drinking. I have a bio son who is 27. Learning I could transition in my 30s was the first time when I felt I could finally live.
Q:From the beginning of the relationship have you, Sebastian, always been Lailani's support? Yes; that's just the person I am and the role I play. It's automatic.
Q:How does your story relate to Mental Health? Lailani: My entire life, growing up in the South Bronx, experiencing anxiety on many levels pre and post-transition, living male I was very detailed on my appearance to take as much attention away from me as possible. Sebastian:By being someone's support system depending on the situation it could drain me and take long for me to get back to where I was. Being in a trans-specific relationship causes us to have to educate others.
Q:What are your feelings and experience dating another trans person? Both: It is Awesome! Sebastian: The support system is dif. Lailani: As a trans woman still transitioning, waking up with facial hair, when dating a cis person you're conscious and wake up early to continue the illusion but being with another trans person and going through it together is comforting.
Elizabeth Rivera & Stefanie Rivera
When I first saw the White Shirt Project by Jose Ramon I was moved by the power behind each of the images. Each image evokes a powerful emotion and thought process especially about mental health. What was even more impactful were the familiar faces in each image. People I have grown to know and love over the years in such striking yet intimate poses. I was intrigued by the project and wanted to know more.
I met Jose at the ….. Conference where I got the opportunity to speak to him one on one. During that time he shared with me that he was doing a follow up project called Two White Shirts. In this new version of the project he seeks to understand the dynamics of what a support system looks like between two people. When he shared this with me, I shared with him that I have a transgender sister who is 2 years younger than me who has been a huge support to me. He lit up and told me he wanted us to be a part of the project, I thought it was a great idea. Stefanie and I have been through a lot over the years. Most people do not realize it, but Stefanie and I are actual real life siblings. Born from Puerto Rican parents, she and I are two of three children my parents had together. I am the oldest. Stefanie is the middle child. Our youngest sibling Ruben passed away at 8 years old of complications due to Spinal Meningitis. My mother went on two have two more children. Two daughters that I now constantly dote on as the Big Sister.
Life has not always been easy. When I was younger, Stefanie confided in me of her wants to transition before I could muster up the courage to come to terms with my own gender identity issues. It was at that moment that I knew she and I would have an extremely challenging future. I recall praying to God with tears in my eyes and asking him why he would do this to us. Why make this life harder for us than it already was? We were raised Pentecostal Christian and our Uncle was the Pastor of our home church. Our childhood memories are riddled with constant bullying and degradation from varying family members that disagreed with how we carried ourselves. I knew as the oldest I would have to work hard to be there for my sister as much as I can. Especially since we both obviously were Transgender. I admit that our relationship has not always been perfect. I have not always been the best big sister but I’ve tried to make up for my shortcomings. Stefanie knows that I love her deeply and thank God every day for making her my true life transgender Sister. She is the reason why I am the activist/advocate I am today because I wasn’t just advocating for myself but for her as well. And now the whole community. My journey would not be the same with out her. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
My name is Stefanie Rivera and I first became aware of The White Shirt Project upon seeing images of the folks that I know through community in its campaign on the internet. I was immediately struck by how beautiful the photos were. I was coincidentally approached after-the-fact about participating in the project via email by my older sister Elizabeth Marie Rivera. Elizabeth and I are both siblings and are both transgender. The both of us were born in Brooklyn, New York to Puerto Rican parents but were raised in Lynwood, California. A suburb of Los Angeles. Elizabeth and I both returned to our native New York years later.
My sister and I were raised in a strict and sometimes abusive household where there was definitely a lot of yelling, alcoholism, beatings, and gender policing. I used to get in trouble a lot when I was younger due to my behavior and being perceived as overtly feminine. This caused my older sister to repress a lot of her own feelings regarding her own gender identity for a very longtime. As many Latinx families. My sister and I were brought up as Pentecostal Christian’s which made our journeys through our childhood and adolescence that much more difficult. We would eventually runaway from home and carve out a life for ourselves but that also came at a very steep price. We would essentially be shunned as most trans people usually are by their families.
My relationship with Elizabeth has not always been the best but the one thing I truly can say is that she has really been there for me through some of my most difficult and challenging moments in my life. She has given me the support where there was none being offered by my other relatives. I look up to my sister so much. I find her to be very inspirational with how much she has been able to accomplish with so very little. I met Jose Ramon through my sister but his work definitely caught my attention prior to that. You get the idea that visually he is attempting to capture a story through the lens of his camera. This time he has managed to capture the story of two sisters who have had a very long and challenging road but have also fought tooth and nail against all odds to support one another in a world where blood is sometimes thinner then water.
Steven A. Toledo & Renzo Valentino
Steven A. Toledo
I first learned about The White Shirt Project when Jose Ramon was searching for a Bronx venue to host the exhibit, and as a proud queer Boricua and social justice advocate, there was not a moment of hesitation before agreeing. And then Jose invited Renzo and me to be part of the project, and it was an honor. I believe deeply in the value of bringing visibility to our lived experiences, and within the LGBTQ community, not only because of how much unnecessary adversity confronts us but also because our mental health inevitably suffers.
I consider myself privileged to have experienced unconditional love through my mother, fulfilling academic and professional accomplishment, as well as a network of friends who consistently bring joy to my life. At the same time, I have many moments of self-doubt, fear, and hopelessness, especially during my youth, and know how deep and dark those spaces can be. And perhaps because of these experiences, I find satisfaction and purpose in serving my community, and in particular, my husband, Renzo. During the photo shoot, I knew that this pose would ultimately reflect our present dynamic: the two of us in a tender embrace, with me being enveloped in his arms, as I stand firm in supporting and holding close my other half. For me, this image reflects partnership, and I know that we will be there for each other, in sickness and in health.
When I heard about The White Shirt Project, I was immediately connected to it. I was lucky enough to be asked by Jose Ramon to be part of the project with my partner Steven. As a person living with depression, mental health is a battle I have to fight every second of the day, and it is something that needs to be raised more as a topic, especially in our community.
Every day, I don’t always know what to expect. Somedays are good, and some days can be awful, and it is hard to pull myself out and fight depression. I guess at the end of the day we are warriors battling and fighting a war with ourselves. Society has taught us that what we feel and experience is for the weak, especially if you come from a conservative country as I do. That’s why support from family, friends, and relatives is essential. I’ve been lucky enough to have that foundation in my life and open up about this battle. Steven, my partner, who I love with every beat of my heart, has been my rock and support since the moment he decided to take this crazy journey with me. Lately, dealing with depression hasn’t been easy, but knowing I have a person who understands me is what keeps me on my feet, and I look forward to the future. Unconditional love is what has kept me alive to this day.
This is a conversation that needs to take place in every single family, school, and group. We must listen and understand each other and not make mental health a negative behavior that comes without reason. We are born vulnerable and sensitive, and unfortunately, not everyone in this world is strong enough to stand up, put a smile on their face and deal with the oppression, discrimination, and injustice we as a community face every single day. Love and understanding are what will keep us alive.