'Mimi's Family' Exhibit Showcases a Family in Transition
By Dawn Ennis and Mitch Kellaway
Erica Tobias tells The Advocate, "I have an incredible family who has been totally supportive. Needless to say, when I first came out to them it was a total shock to them. Some of them needed a little bit more time than others. But for the most part, they all expressed their love for me and their joy, and let me know that I would be in their lives and they would be in mine.”
She's 60, has seven children and eight grandchildren -- and six of her grandkids were involved in this project. Tobias tells The Advocate she accepted that she was transgender after her first marriage of 20 years, when her former wife died of cancer. She says she realized, “We all need to be happy, and we need to be responsible for our own happiness.”
Erica Tobias and her family got involved earlier this year, when a trans activist friend recommended her to the curators, photographer Matthew Clowney and exhibit designer Margaret Middleton. They interviewed her at her home near Boston and asked her to be the featured family.
Photographer Matthew Clowney (left) poses with Erica Tobias and her youngest daughter, Jaclyn Tobias, 20 (right). Exhibit designer Margaret Middleton tells The Advocate, "When it came time to find a family, we decided we wanted to focus on the oft-neglected T in LGBTQ. There's not a lot out there for children when it comes to gender identity. Children are aware of the concept of gender and form their gender identities early in life, so it's an important conversation we need to be having with everyone, especially children."
After choosing Erica Tobias and her family as their subject, photographer Matthew Clowney and exhibit designer Margaret Middleton started an IndieGoGo campaign. They raised more than $10,000 in just 15 days. They also launched a Facebook page and a blog.
"With my grandchildren, the acceptance was immediate," Tobias tells The Advocate. "They don’t have any preconceived notions. … The love that they have for me hasn’t changed. And from the first moment that they became aware [I’m trans], we didn’t skip a beat.”
Margaret Middleton tells The Advocate, "It's inevitable that some of our visitors (children and adults) will be gender-variant themselves, and I hope this exhibit helps them feel welcome and worthy of love and celebration."
“What we’re dealing with now are misconceptions about what a transgender person is all about," Tobias says. "We’re the same as any other parents, grandparents, child. The hope of the project is to enlighten the public … that our families can be the same as any others.”
"We knew we wanted the story we told to be about a family," exhibit director Margaret Middleton tells The Advocate. "Since the exhibit is for children, we wanted them to be able to see people their own age in the pictures. "
“I think it [the exhibit] will go a long way towards helping families understand," Tobias tells The Advocate. "And hopefully through understanding, it will allow some families to open up communication when their children, grandchildren, parents are transgender. It’ll hopefully help save some family relationships and, ultimately, save some lives."
In July the exhibit debuted at the Provincetown Library on Cape Cod, and it is expected to tour the nation after its run in Boston.
The exhibit in Boston, like the one in Provincetown, features an interactive "sharing station," where visitors can sit at a table and chairs and use paper and colored pencils to respond to prompts like these: "What does family mean to you?" "How has your family changed over time?" "What makes your family special?" This is an opportunity for visitors to reflect on their own families’ unique qualities and share with others. The sharing station and the exhibit as a whole are aimed at both English and Spanish speakers.
Matthew Clowney, artist and photography professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, posed next to his exhibit. He collaborated with Margaret Middleton, the exhibit designer. "I hope visitors who see this exhibit will feel like they've gotten to know Erica and her family," Middleton told The Advocate. "I think that personal connection they make will inspire them to be allies."