Too often, the narrative on transgender people is simplistic: it either focuses on the very real tragedies of bigotry and hate-based violence, or it is entirely youth-focused. But there’s a whole cohort of trans people who are facing another obstacle, one that comes for everyone eventually: age.
Photographer Jess T. Dugan and her partner, professor Vanessa Fabbre, set out to document the experience of aging in the transgender community. For five years, they traveled the country with Dugan making portraits and Fabbre, assistant professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University with a focus on LGBTQ aging, interviewing the subjects.
The result is a beautiful and nuanced examination of a community far too often overlooked.
To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults runs Sept. 6 to Oct. 10 at projects+gallery, with an opening reception Sept. 13 at 5p. Saturday, Sept. 15 at 11a, Dugan and Fabbre give an artist talk, and Friday, Sept. 21, the gallery hosts a storytelling session with PROMO and the Metro Trans Umbrella Group from 6-8p.
The exhibition displays portraits and narratives collected by the pair over five years, and their work was recently published as a hardcover volume. The book has 65 portraits and stories, while the exhibition at projects+gallery features 22.
“We started with people we knew,” says Dugan. “Those people started telling other people.” A few years in, Dugan created a website for the work, and some press coverage ensued, which helped build more connections within the trans community. The work was featured in The New York Times, which drew an influx of people across the country wanting to sit for Dugan and Fabbre.
“From the beginning, we were really committed to diversity,” Dugan says. The subjects represent a broad swath of America, ranging in age from 50 to 90 and representing multiple gender identities, races, socio-economic statuses, and geographical locations. They spoke with people who transitioned in the early 1970s, and those who transitioned within the past few years.
“It was very important to us to go to peoples’ homes,” Dugan said. “It allowed a sense of comfort and intimacy that was important.” A fur coat, a guitar, a Vietnam Veteran cap, pastoral garb, a motorcycle—the visual cues delineate lives of nuance and depth. The subjects have allowed Dugan and Fabbre—and the viewer—to glance into their lives, their stories, and the creation of their chosen families.
“I most often have them look directly at the camera,” Dugan says. “It allows them to choose how they present themselves. It requires that the viewer engage with them, to have this one on one moment with a person.” She was struck by how wiling subjects were to share their stories, to invite two strangers in.
“I was always very humbled when we’d leave someone’s house,” she said. “They wanted to be the role models they had needed.”
While the subjects all had very different lives and experiences, a sense of struggle and resistance unites them, Dugan says. And all of them serve as living bridges to the past, to a time when finding your tribe wasn’t as simple as going online.
“We wanted to capture some of this history,” says Dugan. “A lot of the people in the project came out pre-internet. We were worried this history was going to be lost.”
The pair have produced a limited-edition portfolio meant for teaching museums, and the massive oral history they collected will be archived. The hope is that the project will travel, and can serve to educate and empower people all over.