Some lost their jobs, their homes and their families.
Others found acceptance and grace.
“To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults,” an exhibition of 22 large photographic portraits, opens at the University of New Mexico Art Museum on Friday, Aug. 23. The show is the result of a five-year project by photographer Jess T. Dugan and social worker-interviewer Vanessa Fabbre.
The exhibition spans intersections of race, class, gender and geographic location.
“They traveled across the U.S.,” said Mary Statzer, museum curator of prints and photographs. “They were trying to get a range of people’s experiences.”
Statzer first saw Dugan’s work last year at Center’s Review Santa Fe, a portfolio review conference.
“I had this immediate empathic reaction to them,” she said. “And I’m a tough sell. Through reading these texts, you get an overview of LGBTQ activism. The fact that the word ‘survive’ is in the title is very important. These people have made a difference.”
Dugan and Fabbre launched the project in response to the absence of nuanced representation of older transgender and gender-nonconforming adults. Their lives span the past 90 years.
The stories recount inadequate health care, specifically for aging transgender adults.
“There are not a lot of facilities that are comfortable with that,” Statzer said.
The interviews recount suicide attempts, abuse, addictions, being locked out by landlords and rejection by families, employers and friends. One man suffered a second, debilitating stroke while nurses ignored him in a hospital.
These subjects became organizers, counselors, ministers, archivists and advocates.
A transgender Chicago woman named Caprice, 55, began taking her sisters’ birth control pills when she was 12. When it came time to tell her family the truth, her mother said, “We are not going to say living ‘as’ a girl. We are going to say you are living in your womanhood, your sisterhood. It gives you power.”
Aidan, 52, of Washington, was solidly entrenched within the lesbian community before transitioning. He says he never felt either fully female or male. Most of his neighbors have no idea of his journey.
SueZie, 51, of Florida, says her asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sleep apnea, acid reflux and migraines vanished nearly overnight when she began transitioning. She said that if there had been a 95 percent chance of dying during surgery, she would have taken the risk. Her partner, Cheryl, never imagined that someday her husband would become her wife. She says she fell in love with the person, not the appendages.
Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, of Atlanta helped create a trans ministry at her church. When fellow parishioners asked why she had the right to be on the “motherboard” designing it, she said, “I’m the mother of the ones you can’t love, the ones that you cannot be a mother to, that you throw out on the street every day, those are my children.”