Free Press // The story behind hopeful billboard at vacant Detroit intersection
Emma Keith, Detroit Free Press
At a mostly vacant, overgrown intersection on Detroit’s east side, a new billboard is quietly spreading encouragement with a simple message: “Trans people are sacred.”
The colorful, whimsical billboard, created by 27-year-old non-binary artist Jonah Welch, is part of a new Detroit public art project called “Signs of the Times.”
Hosted by nonprofit SaveArtSpace, the project has placed 10 artist-designed billboards across the city in the last month. Welch’s project is at 7 Mile and Kempa Street.
Some billboards are solely visual, while others include messages like “We demand an end to police brutality now!” and “Did we dream too fast?” over a photo of industrial smokestacks.
Many of the billboards included in the project are inherently political or make social statements like Welch’s, said “Signs of the Times” curator Ellen Rutt. Rutt’s own billboard reads “Climate change is a global emergency.”
“(When I saw the submissions), it was at that point that I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really excited by the possibility of making these really big political statements,'” Rutt said. “I’m excited that artists are saying the things that I wish our leadership would say, and that I believe to be true.”
Welch, who uses they and them pronouns, originally heard the “trans people are sacred” message from a friend eight years ago. The phrase carries an indigenous, freeing understanding of gender, Welch said, along with a reminder of transgender people’s spiritual and emotional work in their communities.
Welch has kept the message with them since, using it to create art and to remember the value of their existence and identity.
“It had a big effect on me,” Welch said. “It kind of changed the way I thought about a lot of things, and it sparked this joy and this sense of freedom in me, just being like, ‘Hey, I belong here in this world. I’m OK, and at a base level, I’m worthwhile no matter what I’m doing.'”
Compared to national averages across all communities, transgender Michiganders are more likely to live in poverty, be homeless or deal with discrimination at work, according to a survey released in 2017. Transgender women of color often face the brunt of anti-transgender violence on a national scale.
In 2019, at least 12 transgender people — all of them black transgender women — have been killed across the nation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. They included 20-year-old Paris Cameron, who was murdered in Detroit last month alongside two gay men.
In the midst of fatal violence and everyday discrimination against transgender people across the country, Welch said they wanted the levity and freedom of their message to be available to other transgender people.
“An aspect of how oppression affects people is in how spaces look, and whether people see themselves reflected in the actual physical space that they’re navigating,” Welch said. “We don’t see a lot of representation of trans people — it’s more and more, but having (the billboard) in town, it’s like hey, we’re here.”
Rutt said uplifting transgender voices and their messages were a priority for her as she chose to display Welch’s billboard design.
“The more that we can continue to promote a message of inclusivity and absolute love for the trans community, and the more that I can amplify the voices of (artists) within the trans community, is something that feels really important to me,” Rutt said.
The reaction to Welch’s billboard has been “humbling,” they said. They’ve heard from several transgender Detroit residents since their billboard went up, and from trans youth who have told Welch how encouraged they are by the message.
“I’ve been carrying this medicine from these words with me for many years and it slowly sinks in, but seeing that happen with people for the first time has been — I’ve been crying a lot, to be honest,” Welch said.
The project has also received widespread social media attention, appearing in tweets from organizations like the Transgender Law Center and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
All of the political messages and public art that “Signs of the Times” places in advertisement spaces have generally received strong support, Rutt said. The project curator said she hopes the visibility and positive feedback surrounding this project can open the door for more accessible art in Detroit.
“Detroit’s been a creative hub — a really artistic city — for so many years, and so I guess I’m just excited to see this next iteration of that, and the fact that it happens in public means that more people get to pay attention to it,” Rutt said. “Given that Detroit is a driving city … this seems maybe fitting for how to get a message out to the most number of people.”
Welch said their project might not change any minds or sway any transphobic opinions, but that’s OK — it’s there to protect and encourage transgender Detroiters.
Even when Welch visited Detroit to attend the project’s opening exhibit and see their billboard, they were subject to verbal street harassment. As they crossed the street to view their billboard, wearing a dress, Welch said someone yelled “what the (expletive)?” directly at them from a passing car.
“I was like, this is why I want this (billboard) here — because the public is where people harass us and stare at us and say these things,” Welch said. “So it was like, ‘Hey look — I have this little bit of protection here in the public. I have this thing here that’s also with me.”
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