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Photos, Personal Stories Featured in 'I Am_' Project on Transgender Young Adults

Will aspires to become an endocrinologist or a psychologist, helping other transgender people through the inner struggles he’s endured. Jackson often feels self-conscious about his body — his voice and hands, in particular — but knows everyone feels insecure at times. Since beginning her transition, Willow has found love, and she hopes to see more compassion expressed towards America’s LGBTQIA+ community.

The dreams, fears and often-harsh realities of life for Will, Jackson, Willow and other transgender young people are chronicled through the “I Am__” Project. This series of in-depth Q&A interviews and photographs was created by Pitt undergraduate Kate Koenig, focusing on a collection of transitioning youths in Chicago and Pittsburgh.

“The issues of trans individuals are close to my heart,” said Koenig, who is studying English and history in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. An aspiring photographer who has served as the visual editor and a staff photographer for The Pitt News, Koenig said, “Through the ‘I Am __’ Project, I am hoping to change the hearts of others and show that trans kids are no different from your sons and your daughters, your sisters and your brothers, and every other student attending the University of Pittsburgh.”

Koenig was recognized for her work on the “I Am_” Project with the 2017 Iris Marion Young Award for Community Engagement. Named for the gender-equity activist, philosopher, author and former Pitt faculty member whose work garnered worldwide attention, the award annually acknowledges members of the Pitt community for their work to advance social causes in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“For the social issues about which she is particularly passionate, Kate Koenig possesses both a youthful exuberance and a wisdom that is well beyond her years,” said Todd W. Reeser, a faculty member in the Department of French and Italian Languages and Literatures and director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program, which sponsors the Iris Marion Young Award in collaboration with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “Through the ‘I Am__’ Project and her other pursuits as a Pitt student, Kate has established herself as an outspoken voice for the issues of transgender people as well as others in our society who deserve greater equality and better treatment. She truly exemplifies the ideals of social justice and fairness that we look for in choosing one extraordinary undergraduate each year for the Iris Marion Young Award.”

The “I Am__” Project was inspired by Koenig’s passion for photography and her own experiences coming out as a gay teenager during her first year at Pitt. It was a time in her life that she describes as both heartbreaking and self-defining: “I’ve lost relationships that meant the world to me because of my own identity as a gay person. However, I’ve found acceptance, independence and a sense of self that is invaluable.”

Koenig debuted the “I Am__” Project at Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center in December 2016. Individual entries were published as installments in the Merton Center’s The NewPeople newspaper, and the series was most recently exhibited in the University’s Pitt Program Council Gallery last year. Koenig has always admired her subjects' willingness to put their personal lives on public display.

“It takes courage to be your true self to the world,” said Koenig, a native of Pittsburgh’s South Hills, who now spends much of her time away from Pitt in Chicago, her partner’s hometown. “When I first started looking for people to participate, I didn’t know what kind of responses I would get, if any. I was blown away by the number of people who reached out and told me their stories.”

Looking ahead, Koenig plans to further evolve the “I Am__” Project. She is in the process of interviewing and photographing two new subjects and plans to expand upon existing installments of the series with follow-up interviews and photographs. She views the project as an ongoing series and hopes to one day display it in larger venues across the country.

“If I were to ever have a legacy here at Pitt, I would want to be known as a determined person who cares for the well-being of others,” said Koenig, who plans to graduate in December 2018, eventually relocating to Houston to begin a career in professional photography and political advocacy. “I want to continue working to shine a light on the issues of the oppressed, battered, ignored and shamed in our society, doing my small part to make this world a better place for future generations.”