Recalling meeting his future fiance David on a beach in Mombasa, Kenya, B called it “first-sight love.”
The picture-perfect story shatters when David and B were attacked by a homophobic mob at a party before their wedding. David was stabbed in the chest. B fled the country.
B’s story is one of several that photographer Robin Hammond has captured as he travels the world taking photographs of members of the LGBT community to illustrate and verbalize the discrimination, oppression, abuse and violence they endure because of their sexual or gender identity.
B’s photograph was on display at the New Hazlett Theater in Pittsburgh Monday night as part of an exhibit of Hammond’s work at an annual meeting for Crisis Center North, a counseling and advocacy program working to help victims of domestic violence in Northern and Western Allegheny County.
The organization brought together Hammond’s work and a lecture by Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Health and Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine about the ongoing research into struggles members of the LGBT community face as part of their event “Stories Coming Together.”
They hoped to bring a special focus and awareness to the LGBT community in Pittsburgh and inspire more action, according to Crisis Center North executive director Grace Coleman.
Coleman said she stumbled upon Hammond’s project as she was looking for inspiration following a particularly difficult year of domestic violence cases.
“I just couldn’t look away. I thought I really need to bring this to Pittsburgh,” Coleman said. “I want them [the attendees] to recognize any form of violence is a human rights issue. Everyone is unique, and when one person is harmed, everyone is harmed.”
Another told of a gay man from Russia who had been pushed under a passing car and beaten with a baseball bat. Still another tells how a transgender woman in Lebanon was nearly killed several times by her father and brother for her sexual and gender identity.
“The point of these stories is to challenge the narrative that these people live with, that who they are is unholy or unnatural or immoral,” Hammond said in a video explaining his project, titled “Where Love is Illegal,” at the Monday night event.
For each image, Hammond had the subject choose how they would pose, what they would wear and what story would accompany the photograph. The photos were taken as Polaroids, Hammond explained, so each subject would have the option to destroy the image if they felt it could endanger them.
He wanted to “give them the agency, for many of them for the first time, the ability to have control over how they were seen and they were heard.”
Levine, a Jewish transgender woman, was unable to make it to the event because of a personal emergency, but provided a video presentation that highlighted the academic side of the discussion.
She proposed a recent hypothesis that a person’s gender identity, or their self-perception of the gender they identify with, is a reflection of the brain rather than their upbringing.
Men and women have somewhat different brains, she said, and some studies indicate a transgender woman’s brain looks more female than male, and a transgender man’s brain looks more male than female.
“In other words, it’s basically just who you are,” she said.
In the future, Levine said, society should focus on creating better training programs for medical professionals, new ways to preserve fertility for individuals who are transgender and more guidelines for non-binary individuals — people who do not identify as male or female.
As a member of the LGBT community, he can see that happening in his own life — particularly when he is at work and a bad customer grates on other employees’ nerves but rarely bothers him.
“You go through so many bigger things when you’re an LGBT youth, the smaller things are minor compared to everything else,” he said.
For Kelly Stefano Cole, a board member at Crisis Center North and a former University of Pittsburgh professor, the event made her realize how “completely unaware” she was of targeted acts of violence toward members of the LGBT community.
Hammond’s photos, she said, were “so real and so raw. You can see how much these people were willing to bear.”
The photos made her realize both how sheltered America can be and how universal the issue of domestic violence still is.
She had been in a violent situation, she said, and was unable to admit this to herself for a long time.
“When you start to look at these images, it isn’t the American people so much,” she said. “It’s the people from all over the world. But then those people are really no different than me.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at