When we think of trans folks, we often think of young people. While this is probably due to the fact that millennials are largely the generation to strip away the stigma and bust meaningless gender stereotypes, it’s just not accurate to act like they’re the first generation to accept trans identity. There are plenty of older trans folks out there living their truths.
We spoke with Jess Dugan about her photo project in collaboration with Vanessa Fabbre highlighting the lives and culture of trans elders. If you’re lucky enough to be in Fort Collins today, stop by the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art at 5:30 p.m. to hear her talk and see her work in person.
How did you first get into photography?
I was first introduced to photography in a formal way at the age of 16, during my last year of high school, and I took to it immediately. From day one, I was interested primarily in portraiture, and my earliest photographs were of my LGBTQ peers. I continued on to earn my BFA in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and my MFA in photography from Columbia College Chicago.
When did you first learn about the importance of trans issues?
I came out as gay at the age of 13 and started questioning my gender shortly thereafter. Today, I identify as queer and nonbinary. When I was coming out as a young, queer person at the age of 13, I didn’t see a lot of images of people who looked like me in mainstream media. I first discovered images of queer and gender-nonconforming people in the pages of fine art photography books, and this discovery had a profound influence on me as both an artist and a queer person. I am happy to say that, in a relatively short amount of time, there are far more representations of queer people available in mainstream media now. Over the past 15 years, I have worked rather extensively within LGBTQ communities, focusing on telling my own story as well as the stories of others.
How did the idea for photographing older trans adults first come about?
To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults is a five-year project made in collaboration with Vanessa Fabbre, a social worker and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and also my spouse. We met in 2012 and realized that, although we worked in different fields, we had overlapping interests and could create an important body of work by combining them.
We also knew there was a lack of representations of transgender people in general–and especially transgender older adults–and we wanted to fill that gap. We had heard from younger transgender people that they had never seen images of transgender older adults and they lacked a roadmap for what their life might look like as they aged. Simultaneously, we were aware that, in many cases, transgender older adults were directly responsible for the progress around gender and sexuality that we benefit from today. We wanted to record and preserve that history before it was too late.
The work exists in many final forms, including a fine art exhibition, hardcover book, and limited-edition portfolio designed for university and teaching museums, which is on display currently at the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. The full interview transcripts are also being donated to several archives, and Vanessa is using them in her scholarly research.
What was it like taking on this project? What were some of your biggest challenges?
Creating this project was an amazing experience, but one that also required commitment, community building, organization, travel, and financial support. Over the course of five years, we photographed and interviewed 88 people throughout the United States, traveling coast to coast, to big cities and small towns, documenting the life stories of this important but largely underrepresented group of older adults. We sought subjects whose lived experiences exist within the complex intersections of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, geographic location, and life narrative.
Why do you think doing a project like this is so important?
Most prejudice and discrimination comes from a lack of understanding. I believe that photography–and storytelling through photography–is a powerful medium for education. Once you come to know someone’s story, it is much harder to discriminate against them.
What are some of the biggest challenges you think older trans folks face? And what can we do to help older trans folks?
Transgender and gender-nonconforming people face a variety of issues, including employment discrimination, housing discrimination, loss of family, lack of access to healthcare… the list goes on and on. For people interested in helping transgender older adults, I’d suggest getting involved with an organization that works with LGBTQ older adults, such as SAGE (Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders).
Loneliness is another major issue among LGBTQ older adults; many LGBTQ centers have “friendly visitor” programs where you can volunteer to spend a certain amount of time with an older adult every week.
In the future, would you like for a project like this not to be necessary? Or do you think it always will be?
I would love to live in a world where a project like this is not necessary. In the meantime, it is my hope that this project leads to greater awareness and understanding about older transgender adults and their life experiences, including both the joys and challenges.
Cover photo: Caprice, 55, Chicago, IL, 2015