Beauty in the Eye of the Storm
Inside the ACLU, two trans artists stage a secret photo shoot—and question the attitudes of liberal institutions.
By Jenna Wortham
“Creepy, exciting, and a little weird” is how Amos Mac, a Los Angeles photographer, describes slinking into the American Civil Liberties Union offices in Manhattan late one night in 2013 to shoot the artist and musician Juliana Huxtable, who worked there at the time. Over the course of several evenings, the two snuck in suitcases of clothing, light kits, and equipment.
As an artist and a creative, Mac centers on reclaiming trans bodies in his work. In 2009, he founded Original Plumbing, a quarterly magazine focusing on the experience of trans male culture. “I started documenting other trans artists because I was tired of seeing disembodied body parts and scars hanging on the walls in museums and galleries and feeling like shit when I saw it,” Mac said. “There’s more to this, to us. These people are human beings. We are human beings.”
Mac and Huxtable first crossed paths in 2011, at a house party in Bushwick. They soon met up for coffee and, shortly after, collaborated on several photographs of Huxtable in her home, as part of Mac’s ongoing Bedroom Series, which began in 2011 and features queer artists and writers in their personal spaces. Two years later, they agreed to work together on another series. During a brainstorming session, Huxtable told Mac about some of the disturbing, traumatic, racist, and transphobic attitudes she encountered at her job at the ACLU, where she worked as a legal assistant with the racial justice program.
Mac was shocked by her story but not surprised. “These organizations are large and they don’t always encompass the issues they’re fighting for,” he said. Huxtable also revealed that she planned to quit soon, and the two seized on the idea of reclaiming the space that oppressed her during the daylight hours. As she stated in a 2013 interview with Mac about their collaboration, most of Huxtable’s challenges came from adjusting to the corporate, nine-to-five routine, and she “felt restricted by the gap between the politics of people who, despite their best and most liberal intentions, saw me as a problem.”
The ACLU, like other U.S. institutions, is facing criticism and scrutiny on a national scale for defending the right of white supremacists to march in Trump’s America, forcing many to reexamine the infrastructure that governs our country, as well as raising questions about who they are serving and at what cost. This awakening has come slower to others—while some, like Huxtable, have spent their lives calling for this inevitable revolution of thought and policy.
The photographs from those nighttime shoots show Huxtable in repose around the ACLU offices: in the bathroom, atop mail room shelves, near an enormous poster of the Statue of Liberty. Her regal face is quiet, contemplative. Her beauty rests at the eye of the storm. The nondescript corporate background disappears behind her—the eye cannot focus on anything but her. She looks poised, undefeated. Ready for action.
Jenna Wortham is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and cohost of the podcast Still Processing.