These Photos Of Older Trans People Are An Emotional & Crucial Part Of Queer History

Joanna Cresswell

When artist Jess T. Dugan crossed paths with social worker Vanessa Fabbre some time in 2012, they realised almost immediately they had a lot of overlapping interests, even though they worked in very different fields. Dugan grew up in Arkansas but moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts as a teenager – a more "progressive environment" that was important for her process of coming out as queer and gender nonconforming. "It also facilitated my discovery of photography and art," she says, "and a lot of my work explored issues of identity, gender and sexuality, often focusing specifically on the LGBTQ community and even more specifically on the transgender community." Fabbre, meanwhile, spent her early years in St. Louis, Missouri attending a Catholic high school, and didn’t feel too tuned in to her own identity as a queer person until later in life. "I went to graduate school for social work in Chicago," Fabbre says. "That environment impacted my awareness of queer and trans issues as well as my involvement in social justice work. I also do qualitative research, often through interviews, but had never worked on an art project before." As each of them had been working within trans communities for many years, albeit in different capacities, collaboration on a new project felt natural. "I had never focused specifically on ageing or older adults, and Vanessa had never worked with photography," Dugan says. "We combined the ageing component from her work with the photographic component from mine." The resulting project, To Survive on This Shore, is an expansive coast-to-coast chronicle of the lived experiences of older transgender adults living in the US, shot between 2013 and 2018.

A real emotional investment goes into undertaking socially engaged work, and both Dugan and Fabbre say they felt incredibly touched by the intentionality and generosity of the participants in the project. "Many times, we showed up as strangers but were nonetheless welcomed into people’s homes and told intimate stories about their lives. The process of interviewing and photographing each person was often emotionally intense, and we have stayed in close touch with many of the participants." When it came to taking the photographs and conducting the interviews, Dugan and Fabbre preferred a gradual, more considered engagement with their subjects. Dugan says it was important to go to each person’s home or personal space and create the portrait together in a place that was meaningful to them. "My method of working is slow; I use natural light, which requires slow shutter speeds and the use of a tripod, and I work collaboratively with my subjects, often spending multiple hours making a portrait. Ultimately, I strive to create an image that is responsive to the subject’s authentic sense of self while also reflecting my own sensibilities as an artist."

"In terms of representation, we think it’s important to resist the urge to reduce a group of people to a few characteristics or issues – trans people are diverse in every way and representations should reflect this diversity." Before being able to tackle the issue of how our societies fall short in adequately representing trans and gender nonconforming experiences, though, Fabbre says we really have to address the broader social norms and policies that continue to make life hard for these people. "This means intervening in educational systems to support young people, confronting employment discrimination, and improving access to affirming healthcare," she says.

Dugan and Fabbre hope that the project’s legacy will serve as a record of transgender history in the United States, "much of which is not recorded in mainstream historical archives or books," Dugan says. They also hope that the images and stories they have collected will be helpful to younger generations of trans and gender nonconforming people as they think about their own paths, as well as facilitate more diverse understandings and representations of gender and ageing among all people. "For our work now, we both feel compelled to continue to illuminate the complexity and nuance within people’s lives, especially if they have been stigmatised or marginalised in some way. And we hope that commitment shows up in our future respective work."

Here, Dugan and Fabbre share portraits and words from 12 of the 88 people they connected with along the way.

Gloria, 70, Chicago, IL, 2016

"I’m a senior citizen. I made it to seventy and a lot of them won’t make it, they won’t make it at all. Because most of them die from drugs, from sexual disease or they’re murdered. They ask me questions like, 'Well, Momma Gloria, how did you get through?' I say, 'I got through with love from my family and the grace of God.' That’s how I got through. You have to have some stability and you have to have some kind of class, some charm about yourself. I never was in the closet. The only time I was in the closet was to go in there and pick out a dress and come out of the closet and put it on."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Stephanie, 64, St. Louis, MO, 2014

"I identify primarily as a woman and secondarily as transgender. And some days I feel rather genderless, actually. Even though I’ve transitioned, I can’t deny or completely separate myself from the past because it did happen and those memories are with me. It wasn’t until I got into my 50s that, through internet research, I discovered there was a name for all this. It was a great relief. And then, for me, it was like, 'Push the throttles all the way up, we’re going full speed!' Because, you know, it was a matter of life and death at that point."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

SueZie, 51, and Cheryl, 55, Valrico, FL, 2015

Cheryl: "When we got married, I never imagined that someday my husband would become my wife. Right from the start, SueZie confided that she identified as female on the inside, but transition never appeared to be an option. But I never had a problem with her wearing lingerie. You know, it’s just clothes. I fell in love with the person inside, and what’s on the outside is more about what they feel comfortable with."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Alexis, 64, Chicago, IL, 2014

"I remember I was four years old when I first told my mother – well, no, it was actually my grandmother – that I was a girl. My heritage is Mexican and Apache, and they have very rigid binaries for gender. I love my age, and I love when I can mentor somebody else. I love it because – and I never thought I'd say this – my age gives me a perspective that youth denied me. Because when I was seventeen, I knew everything. By the time I was thirty-five, I started figuring out that, 'Well, you know just about everything.' And I think by the time you get to be sixty-five, you realise how little you really know and how precious those things are that you do know."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Hank, 76, and Samm, 67, North Little Rock, AR, 2015

Hank: "It was a lot like in the olden days, you know, there were a lot of people around like me and people just expected us to become 'unmarried aunts' or 'fancy boys' and nobody ever confronted you with it. My father would say things like, 'Oh, this one will never get married.' If I heard him say that today I would say, 'Oh, he’s telling them I am gay.' Only I didn’t have those words for it back then."

Samm: "Hank and I have been together forty-four years. I found this one in Western Michigan. She was different from anybody I have ever met in my whole life and I knew that she would be in my life for the rest of my life. There was this immediate connection that would always be there. The way we are today, we started out that way."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Caprice, 55, Chicago, IL, 2015

"I’m a fifty-five year old woman of trans experience and I’m a woman of colour. And my life is amazing. I have been working in the field of social service for seventeen years. I have been an activist and advocate for trans women of colour and trans-identified individuals for the majority of my life. My life relies upon me being able to give to my community, and my reward is when I see people take what I have given to them and do something constructive with it. I want people to say, 'She showed me how to do this. She taught me how to do that.' That is my gift. My mom taught me how to open my eyes to this particular gift. God blessed me with the whole thing. I am the greatest gift I have to offer."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Justin Vivian, 54, New York, NY, 2017

"I identify as trans non-binary. I always knew I was trans, and I always knew that I was femme. On the gender spectrum, I am much closer to female. I didn't start taking oestrogen, or as I call them, 'lady vitamins', until I was in my late forties. Part of the reason I did that was so I would have a physical and medical record of being trans. So many older LGBT people, when they become ill or if they start to deteriorate mentally and aren't able to articulate things as well, end up involuntarily, just by the assumptions of the people who care for them, being relegated back into the closet. My fear was that I would become incapacitated in some way and then be stuck in a room full of old men and I never, ever want to be an old man. That is not my jam."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Tony, 67, San Diego, CA, 2014

"I said to myself, 'You know, I’m sixty-three and this has to stop. I’m going to go for it.' So at the age of sixty-three I decided that I just wasn't gonna go on living this way, living female. I was more comfortable living male and I wanted to do the whole total package. They say that when you go through the testosterone, one of the symptoms is that you’re an adult and an adolescent at the same time. I feel that I’m still going through adolescence. I just want to do everything now as a man. This is who I am and I just want to get in everything, you know, like bungee jumping, like going on a rollercoaster again! I want to take care of and appreciate what life is offering me as a man. I’m living the life that I lost."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Duchess Milan, 69, Los Angeles, CA, 2017

"My mother said when you die, you stand there before the light, and you say, 'Was I worthy of myself to know that I have liked me?' Okay? I like me. Okay? And I will tell the whole chorus, honey, 'I like me'. I don't hurt anybody, I don't do anybody wrong, you know. I’ve dealt with everything I can, as much as I can. So just find that inside yourself and take time with that person. Faults, flaws, wishes, all of it, it doesn't matter. We're not going to get it all. None of us gets it all. Okay? But what we do have, we can polish. We can polish it, honey, till it blinds them."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Sky, 64, and Mike, 55, Palm Springs, CA, 2017

Mike: "I think the greatest fear for me is the greatest fear for anybody who’s in a couple, that my partner will pass away. I’m also worried about the lack of nursing homes and long term care facilities geared toward our community. Right now, if something happened and I needed to be in a home, finding a place where I would be comfortable would be a challenge. I’m hopeful that in the next twenty years, something will change, preferably sooner rather than later."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, Atlanta, GA, 2016

"This coming into my real, real fullness of knowing why I was different is because I was expressing my spirit to this world. And I didn’t know how God felt about it but I believe in God and I have a deep spiritual background and I talk with the Holy Spirit constantly, who’s taken me from the Lower West Side doing sex work to being at the White House."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

Aidan, 52, Burien, WA, 2016

"You know, what is my gender? I don’t have an answer to that and I don’t need an answer. I’ve never felt fully female and I’ll never feel fully male and that’s really just fine. I feel pretty good about how I move through the world. The challenges are trying to be fully seen and received because others, of course, decide who you are. I move through the world and I don’t get a second glance. I live in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac with people who have no idea about my history. My partner has primarily identified as a lesbian in her adult life and now she’s not visible to the segment of the population that we both considered community. Not just the lesbian community, but even the broader queer community, because my transition is now a couple of decades old. You know, I continue to look more and more male. I’m older. I’m not a young pup anymore, but I still am in my heart."Photographed by Jess T. Dugan

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