When you ask a child about their dreams, nothing seems impossible.
What adults find immutable, kids see as brimming with possibilities. This sense of magic, imagination and curiosity is captured in Noah Grigni’s art. Their exhibit at the Boston Children’s Museum, called “Protect Trans Dreams: A Portrait Project,” asks kids how they would change the world. It asks about their favorite things. The gallery is full of bright pastels, like an Easter egg hunt or a field of wildflowers.
The non-binary artist spent the last few years getting to know the families and painting portraits of trans children. Recordings of the children, each of whom has a very specific dream, play above each portrait.
“I love exploring the woods, climbing trees and taking care of my chickens. If I could change anything, I would want a world with no pollution,” says Frida, age 9.
“I love animals, making art, and cooking clam chowder. I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up! My favorite animals are wolves, sloths, dragons, pandas, and my guinea pigs, Caramel and Oreo,” says Jupiter (they/them), age 11.
“I want people to stop thinking boys can't wear dresses. There's nothing more that I want in life than to wear dresses, write stories, and express all my crazy ideas. I want you to be yourself, and I’ll be myself. Love yourself for who you are and don’t be afraid to," says Ravi, age 10.
Grigni grew up in Georgia and came out as trans at age 13. They wanted their subjects to experience what they didn’t when they were growing up: agency, affirmation, and community. Part of that meant painting each kid exactly as they asked to be painted.
“Lily wanted me to draw her hugging a baby coyote because that's her favorite animal. And she wanted me to draw her in a field of sunflowers. And Jupiter wanted me to draw him as a veterinarian with his guinea pig, Caramel with wolves in the sky,” they said.
Grigni said they feel a strong sense of protectiveness over these kids.
“Although they are growing up with so much more visibility than I had, they're also growing up with a target on their backs,” Grigni said. “And that's a completely different trauma: to be a 6-year-old and to be aware already that there is a political effort to erase you. To be aware that you're safe here in Massachusetts, but if you move somewhere else, you might not be able to access health care, you might not be able to play sports.”
When they came out as trans, they asked to join the boy’s soccer team and were told not to by school administrators. They tried out anyway, without taking hormones or having surgery. They just wore a binder and hoped no one would notice. Eventually, they did, and Grigni was forced to quit the team.
“I didn't have a bathroom I could use for one year at high school, and I just held it every day,” Grigni said. “Things like that are manifestations of transphobia that I normalized in my childhood because I came out as a trans boy ten years ago in Georgia in a setting where nobody had context for that.”
On a recent weekend, Grigni taught a watercolor workshop to a room of parents and little ones. They began by reading a book they illustrated called “It Feels Good To Be Yourself.”
“Your feelings about your gender are real. Listen to your heart. No matter what your gender identity is, you are okay exactly the way you are. And you are loved.”
The kids were each given mirrors and told to create self-portraits in their dream world. One boy with red hair drew a picture emphasizing his bright green eyes and freckles. His father, Patrick Murtaugh was glad his son had this experience.
“We certainly want to expose him to everything … And being respectful of everybody and listening to people’s feelings and making them feel welcome I think is really important, especially in today’s society.”
A few parents wished they’d gotten more of a heads up. They hadn’t talked about gender identity with their kids yet. One mother expected her 4-year-old to have many questions. But other kids seemed to understand, like one little girl who wore a shirt that said, “Dragons are a Girl’s Best Friend.” She thought about it and then suggested an edit.
“Um, I think instead of, after we heard this story, instead of “A Dragon is a Girl’s Best Friend” it should be “A Dragon is a Person’s Best Friend,” she said.
Grigni’s subjects visited the museum to see the paintings with their families. They marveled at their portraits. Luke with his guitar and green hair. Ravi in a rainbow wig and beautiful dress. His mom, Nandini Roy, calls Ravi her ray of sunshine. Together, they talk about their dreams.
“What are my dreams?” she said, pondering out loud.
“Are they the same as mine?” Ravi asked, looking up at her.
“Well, I always tell you that I hope you will always feel happy and healthy,” she said. “Especially now. I dream that our world will get a little bit kinder.”
Ravi just listened and smiled.
“Protect Trans Dreams: A Portrait Project” is on view at Boston Children’s Museum through July 24.
This segment aired on June 29, 2022.