A Visual Record of the Joys, Fears and Hopes of Older Transgender People

This reprinted article from the NY Times deals with a largely unseen part of being transgender, that being the joys. fears and hopes of older transgender people. In “To Survive on This Shore,” the photographer Jess T. Dugan and the professor Vanessa Fabbre have created a road map, archive and remarkably moving body of work about a group almost entirely left out of many narratives: older transgender and gender variant people.

It is easy to forget that only recently have transgender issues become part of the public consciousness, with transgender characters on major television shows and even transgender celebrities. But transgender people — like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, key figures in the Stonewall uprising in 1969 — have contributed to the queer movement since the beginning, even if they have often been overlooked.

No more.

“We wanted to create representations of older transgender people, and gender nonconforming people, to both capture their stories, preserve their history, record some of the activism that they had been a part of,” Ms. Dugan said. “But we also wanted to create representations for younger transgender people to see a road map for what their life could look like, to see people aging and living these complicated and exciting and robust lives in many cases.

transgender woman Caprice

Credit: Jess T. Dugan/Courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicag by Jake Naughton

Caprice, 55, Chicago. “I’m a 55-year-old woman of trans experience and I’m a woman of color. And my life is amazing. I have been working in the field of social service for 17 years. I have been an activist and advocate for trans women of color and trans-identified individuals for the majority of my life. My life relies upon me being able to give to my community.”

transgender people Gloria

Credit: Jess T. Dugan/Courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

Gloria, 70, Chicago. “I’m a senior citizen. I made it to 70, 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

transgender people SueZie, 51, and Cheryle, 55

Credit: Jess T. Dugan/Courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

SueZie, 51, and Cheryle, 55, Valrico, Fla. “When we got married, I never imagined that someday my husband would become my wife,” Cheryle said. “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.”Credit:  Jess T. Dugan/Courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

Ms. Dugan and Ms. Fabbre, a social worker and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, wanted to show the fullness of experiences of the older transgender community. The result is a book, to be released on Aug. 28 by Kehrer Verlag, that combines portraits and interviews with transgender people from various walks of life. The combination of intimate and arresting portraits, a signature of Ms. Dugan’s, with frank and deeply affecting quotes — they are often humorous, sad or both at once — is a startlingly deep dive into the individual and collective experiences of this generation of the transgender community.

Common themes include uncertainty of the future because of looming medical care and financial insecurity, which have long been sources of unease for the community. There also are a wide range of feelings about the transition process itself, and Ms. Dugan and Ms. Fabbre wanted to preserve that complexity.

For Ms. Dugan, the most difficult recurring themes addressed how much people struggled or missed out on because they were unable to be their authentic selves until later in life. “I was just struck by the extent to which pressure from society can be so damaging to people, and so limiting and cause so much pain,” she said. “In some ways it’s a big deal to transition and in other ways it’s such a small thing. Your gender identity and expression really shouldn’t have this profound of an effect on your relationship, your kids, your job, your housing, your access to health care. It simultaneously feels like a major issue and like it should also be a nonissue.”

transgender people Dee Dee Ngozi

Credit: Jess T. Dugan/Courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, Atlanta. “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.”

transgender people Bobbi

Credit: Jess T. Dugan/Courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

Bobbi, 83, Detroit. “I think people talk in either/or terms, right? Before transition and after. But to me, it’s really development. I’m proud of both lives. I’m proud of both mes, if you see what I’m saying. And I feel it has been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person. I’m grateful. You can’t just become a woman with a knife or a pill or anything like that. It takes a whole combination in a sequence, in a formation. You’ve got this time span, it’s a learning experience, it’s a little bit of everything.”

Conducting deeply personal interviews with her subjects also changed her image making. “Sitting down with someone and asking them to share their life story is really vulnerable but also empowering and very significant,” she said. “I was continually struck by how personal people were willing to be with us.” In other projects, like “Every Breath We Drew,” she took out all extraneous information. But in “To Survive on This Shore,” she let details of her subjects’ lives creep in, even including photos of objects.

Ms. Dugan and Ms. Fabbre envisioned their project as equal parts activism and art. The images and quotes will form an exhibition and book, and the work has also been acquired by the Kinsey Institute, the Sexual Minorities Archive and the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria. Ms. Fabbre plans to use the interviews in her scholarly research, and they have begun sharing their work with nonprofits for training and activism. They hope that the broader theme of aging can resonate with people beyond the transgender community.

Just as crucially, they want the work to serve as a visual record of the joys, traumas, fears and hopes of older transgender people that the younger transgender community — which often has no role models — can use to learn what the future might hold.

“Many of the people in the project have been out and have been working on progress for the trans community since as early as the 1970s,” Ms. Dugan said. “We were looking back at 45 years of advocacy and education and life experience, and I really wanted to capture that because I think sometimes our collective history is lost. We wanted to create a more broad and complex portrait of what it looks like to be an older transgender person.”

 

 

 

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