Jess T. Dugan: To Survive on This Shore is a series about the aging transgender community (PHOTOS).

Gorgeous Portraits of Aging Members of the Trans Community

Gorgeous Portraits of Aging Members of the Trans Community

Behold
The Photo Blog
Nov. 20 2015 12:57 PM

The History of the Trans Community as Told by Its Aging Members

helena
Helena, 63, Chicago. “One of the reasons I switched to the Afro-centric clothing and the hair and all of that is I don’t like where the mainstream puts women, visually. And it’s all visual. It’s like we don’t have any insides. So I thought, well, OK. I’m already isolated. The advantage to being isolated, it gives you permission to really be who you are, because you think nobody really cares.”

Jess T. Dugan

Friday is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day that honors those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. For many people who identify as trans, coming out is a rite of passage filled with a mix of fear and euphoria, though the history of this community has not always been fully visible.  

Jess T. Dugan came up with the idea for the project “To Survive on This Shore,” a collection of portraits of the aging transgender community, when she met her partner Vanessa Fabbre, an assistant professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, in 2012. Fabbre received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago; her dissertation, Gender Transitions in Later Life, explored issues of gender, identity, and aging.

That work resonated with Dugan, and the couple decided to team up, with Dugan making the portraits and Fabbre conducting interviews and documenting their subjects’ stories (although on occasion Dugan also does the interviews as well).

grace
Grace, 56, Boston. “I still see myself on a journey. When I received an award a few years ago at a conference I said, ‘In the ’60s they called me a sissy. In the ’70s they called me a faggot. In the ’80s I was a queen, or they called me a queen. In the ’90s I was transgender. In the 2000s I was a woman, and now I’m just Grace.”

Jess T. Dugan

bobbi
Bobbi, 83, Detroit. “I think people talk in either/or terms, right? Before transition and after … but to me it’s really development. I feel it’s been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person. I’m proud of both lives. I’m proud of both mes, if you see what I’m saying. And I feel it’s been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person. 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.”

Jess T. Dugan

chris
Chris, 52, Boston. “I feel like I was always punished for my masculinity when I was female-designated by both straight people and lesbians. I was not the kind of woman that either women or men wanted to be around. I was way too scary, and people didn’t know what to do with me. So in a huge way, my transition has been like nirvana for it to get all aligned with me and then have the world treat me well while I’m aligned has been amazing.”

Jess T. Dugan

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“One reason we really wanted to start it was we realized there were almost no images of people who were trans and older,” Dugan said. “Even older than 30. All the imagery out there is of a certain demographic, predominately of young white trans men. … Or, it’s a villainess, a scary trans woman horror film character made by the mainstream; there was no real visibility.”

The photos and accompanying stories have resonated in the trans community, but, surprisingly to Dugan, people outside of the LGBTQ community have been equally enthusiastic.

“I think because there’s this aging component and because there is this element about deciding how much something is worth to you with your own mortality in mind or deciding who you want to be, how you want to live, and realizing at some point the risks you’ve been so afraid of are worth taking,” Dugan said. “I’ve been blown away by how much the aging element actually made it seem very universal and in a way made it less about being trans specifically.”

As the project has gained attention, more and more people around the country have reached out to Dugan and Fabbre. At first, the only parameters they set on the project were for the subjects to be older than 50. They are now trying to make sure they are representing the broadest possible group of subjects including a mix of race, socio-economic class, geographic location, gender identity, and also the age in which they decided to come out. As the focus narrows, Dugan said it has become increasingly difficult to turn people away since having their visibility validated can be a powerful experience. Once people decide to transition, however, it doesn’t signal the end of turmoil.

charley
Charley, 53, Richmond, Virginia. “Being a male—not so much just because I’m a black male, but being a male—I believe I have gotten better jobs because of being a male. Because I don’t have to sit across that table with somebody interviewing me as a butch lesbian, and they’re trying to figure out: ‘OK. Is this a male? Is this a female? Do we want this person with this large question working for us?’ ”

Jess T. Dugan

renee
Renee, 68, Chicago. “My wife’s been very supportive, and that helps immensely. I mean there are not very many wives that stay with male-to-female transgender people who come out, and yet she’s encourage me to investigate who I am and what I am. And even going back years when I first came out to her, neither or us really knew where I was, what I was. It could have been the end of our marriage.”

Jess T. Dugan

“Sometimes one person transitioning means the end of a relationship and in some cases a whole life they have built, and that can be really painful, but it’s also incredibly liberating and I think there is a kind of moment of euphoria of coming into yourself.” 

Dugan’s book Every Breath We Drew was published last month. She was also invited to be part of the LGBT Artists Champion of Change event at the White House on Nov.23.

tasha
Tasha, 65, Birmingham, Alabama. “Whether you say, ‘yes, ma’am,’ or ‘yes, sir,’ I’m all right. I’m all right. I don’t let nothing like that bother me. At times it was kind of rough growing up when you had to hear guys call you all kinda names, such as freaking fag and all this kinda stuff and all. It used to hurt and make me angry. But as I got into the church and started letting the verse of John 3:16 register in me, a whole lot of stuff changed.”

Jess T. Dugan

mickey
Mickey, 60, Chicago. “I have an older sister, who’s four years older than I am, and my dad raised me as his son. I was his son, except for those times when I had to present as a little girl. I mean, you knew—I knew when those were. No one told me, ‘That’s bad. You can’t be a boy.’ They didn’t say that. There was just this given ‘You will dress like this for this occasion.’ ”

Jess T. Dugan

michellemarie
Michelle-Marie, 62, Williamsburg, Virginia. “When my father passed away he said I had to make some decisions in my life, and only when I made them was I going to be happy. You know, it was the first time in my life that he said he was proud of me. I just thought he meant I had to get over my depression. But my sister told me that he knew all those years what was the problem. So I came home, and I literally left Mike in every trashcan along Interstate 40. And I came back and started.”

Jess T. Dugan

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.