St. Louis couple’s overlapping passions led to photo exhibition of older transgender people | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis couple’s overlapping passions led to photo exhibition of older transgender people

Sep 6, 2018

From the beginning, St. Louisans Jess Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre were in step.

They met in 2012 while country line dancing, a shared passion, and it wasn’t long before they discovered more complementary interests. As their romance deepened, they began collaborating on a photography project and book featuring portraits of older transgender subjects. After moving from Chicago to St. Louis in 2014, they continued traveling the country to meet with subjects.

They’re celebrating the August publication of "To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults." An exhibition of some of the portraits will open Thursday at projects+gallery, 4733 McPherson Ave.

“Representations of older trans people are still very rare,” said Fabbre, a social work professor at Washington University specializing in LGBTQ issues and aging. “And younger transgender people often haven't felt like they've had role models and people they can look up to.”

‘The struggle to live authentically’

Jess Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre pose in front of a wall of portraits for the book project in this 2015 file photo.
Credit Nancy Fowler

Fabbre, 39, identifies as queer and cisgender, or as the gender she was assigned at birth. Dugan, 32, identifies as queer and non-binary, while placing herself under the larger umbrella of transgender.

Their exhibition includes 22 of the 65 portraits in the book, shot by Dugan. It’s intended to resonate far beyond the LGBTQ community, starting with anyone who’s exploring the realities of getting older.

“If they're coming in and interested in aging then they'll learn more about trans issues,” Fabbre said. “And maybe if they come in already knowing about trans issues, they’ll have a better knowledge about aging.”

Sukie was 59 in this 2016 photo taken in New York City.

The book also includes quotes and information the couple gathered during interviews. Dugan and Fabbre, now married, wanted to avoid emphasizing any single narrative about what it’s like to be an older transgender person.

Still, a few themes emerged. Many subjects spoke about how difficult it was to afford health care, including hormones and surgery, and to find medical professionals who were supportive. An overarching concern was simple recognition and acceptance.

“One theme is the struggle to live authentically [and] what it takes to not just survive, but also thrive in the world,” Fabbre said.

Not ‘a new thing’

Hank and Samm live in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were 76 and 67 when Jess Dugan created this 2015 portrait.
Credit Jess Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre

Resilience in the face of adversity is a theme that caught Dugan’s attention.


“A lot of people in the project had really interesting stories about how they created a network and a life for themselves outside of some of the mainstream channels,” Dugan said.

Dugan, who has an MFA in photography, was touched by the story of a 77-year-old transgender woman in Seattle, who opened her home to other transgender women after her spouse died.

“She often had people stay just long enough to get on their feet, and others lived with her for several years,” Dugan said. “She expressed a lot of fear around not having anyone around if something would happen to her or if she needed something, so that was a really beautiful story about a chosen family and also solving a problem in a unique way.”

SueZie and Cheryl live in Valrico, Florida. They were 51 and 55 when they posed with this motorcycle.
Credit Jess Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre

The couple is sometimes surprised by the way people are receiving the book.

“It's really interesting because at the very beginning, I actually worried that the subject matter would be too narrow to be of a more universal interest,” Dugan said. “Particularly for me as a photographer, I didn't want to get pigeonholed as only photographing trans subjects.”

Now, people are constantly telling the couple their book project is more far-reaching than they ever imagined.

“Several people have told us that they want to give this book to their grandparents,” Fabbre said. “This project basically disproves the notion that young people have made up trans-ness, and it shows that older people have been developing their identities and becoming themselves for a very long time — that this isn't a ‘new thing.’”

Louis was 54 when this photo was taken in a Springfield, Massachusetts church in 2014.
Credit Jess Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL