Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre Share An Enlightening Perspective On Trans Community
2015 has—rather spontaneously, as Jess T. Dugan will say—become the year for transgender visibility: Caitlyn Jenner took to television; Jeffrey Tambor was honored with four top awards for his performance as a transgender dad in “Transparent;” “Orange is the New Black,” costarring Laverne Cox, returned to our screens. “I think everybody who was working on transgender stuff was like, ‘Really? Now? OK,’” Dugan half-jokes.
In a case of serendipitous timing, life partners Dugan and Brown School of Social Work Assistant Professor Vanessa Fabbre are compiling a photography-driven book, “To Survive on This Shore.” Their project captures transgender and gender-variant adults over 50—a generation not often visible in the media.
Since fall 2013, the couple has traveled around the country to interview (Fabbre’s job) and photograph (Dugan’s) approximately 60 adults. This generation is historic in the LGBT community: One participant was at Stonewall Inn in New York City when the famous riots broke out that spurred the LGBT movement into action. But significantly, these adults note the community that younger people questioning their gender or sexuality can seek out today wasn’t available back then.
“Many of them were coming out in the time of no internet,” Dugan says. “Now there’s like a million transition videos on YouTube, and even just having the sense that there are other trans people is huge. A lot of people we talked to thought they were the only one or didn’t have any way to find information. Ben, for example, ran an LGBT archive in western Massachusetts, and Lou Sullivan sent him a pamphlet about FTM International (Female To Male International, one of the first transgender groups). He wrote them a letter, got on a plane and flew to California to meet Sullivan because he was the only other person he had ever known who was trans. So the first time he ever met someone else [like him] was on a doorstep in San Francisco. Stories like that show how desperate this need for community is, to know you’re not the only person experiencing this.”
By representing this segment of the transgender and gender-variant population, Dugan and Fabbre make the point that these gender issues are not simply a youth issue—or a new thing that “these crazy young people” are doing, says Fabbre, who has a background in gerontology. “Everybody’s story is so different—I think that’s what we love about the project and what’s emerging as being so interesting,” adds Dugan. “People think of it like it’s a small group of people, but everyone is so different.”
And for many older adults who transition later on, it doesn’t have to be a physical shift: It’s the social element—appearance, names, pronouns—that’s integral to identity. “For some people—well, for many people—aspects of their body are primary, but I’m thinking of the people who haven’t been able to do lots of hormones or surgery, that to them it’s been very, very significant to socially transition,” says Fabbre.
The project has significant historical import: Combining photography with oral history, Dugan and Fabbre have captured a pioneering generation. They’ve donated their interview transcripts to the Sexual Minorities Archives, The Kinsey Institute, and at time of press, are in talks with a third archive. They also hope to publish a book about the project in 2017.
Ultimately, though, their photos capture not transgender people, but people. Fabbre mentions a quote from Audre Lorde: None of us lead “single-issue lives,” and for many of the participants, identifying and presenting their gender is one of many journeys they’ve been on. “Gender is not the only thing in any of our lives, and it’s not the only thing in the people in our project’s lives,” says Fabbre. “You’re not just an old person; you’re not just a trans person. It’s really infinite, the layers of identity, but at least by taking those two things, it forces people to break the stereotype of an old person and break a stereotype of a trans person.”
Photography by Jess T. Dugan.
This story was featured in the November 2015 issue.