Jess T. Dugan, a photographer, and Vanessa Fabbre, a social worker and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, discovered their work had more in common than they realized. Dugan’s work focused on identity, gender and sexuality, specifically within the transgender community; Fabbre had been researching aging.
Fabbre discovered early on that traditional assumptions about gerontology, not unlike those about gender, ignore some groups of people, such as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, excluding them from research. She began to explore the experience of aging for trans people, and for trans women who had transitioned later in life.
After Fabbre and Dugan met, the two merged their work. Fabbre explains this pairing in an interview published in their joint book, “To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews With Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults,” which features 65 portraits and interviews taken over a four-year period.
“We were both aware that in the LGBTQ world, there’s a fair amount of ageism and lack of awareness about aging, and in the aging world there’s a fair amount of homophobia and transphobia and lack of awareness of LGBTQ issues, especially trans identities,” she writes.
In an interview, Dugan says the two were committed to diversity in their project, including people whose lives “exist within the complex intersection of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class and geographic location.”
Dugan was touched by the people they documented:
“I was continually amazed and humbled with each person I met. Often, when I would show up at their doorstep, we had never met before. Over the course of a few hours, they would share their life story with me, often revealing some of the most intimate, painful, or joyous parts.”
The work appealed to a wider audience than Dugan had first expected. A cultural gap was bridged; although some people may find it difficult to relate to members of the trans community, most can relate to aging. She also found whatever the challenge of identity people face in life, there seems to be a common sentiment.
“Across the project, a similarity was a desire for people to live authentically and the risks involved with doing so made a universal access point,” she says.
The work has been organized into an archive and an exhibition, which debuted at the projects+gallery in St. Louis, and has been edited into a book. Dugan says she hopes that the unedited collection will preserve the history of older trans adults, creating a road map for young trans people.