© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

St. Louisans’ Photo Project Brings Older Transgender People Out Of The Shadows

Jess Dugan, left, and Vanessa Fabbre
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

When the TV show “Transparent” won two Golden Globe Awards a week ago Sunday, many transgender people felt validated, and a little less invisible.

That’s a goal of a St. Louis photographer and her partner, an assistant professor of social work at Washington University. They’re collaborating on a national project that would be a perfect fit for “Transparent” main character Maura, formerly Mort, who transitions at a 70.

It’s a book called “To Survive on This Shore,” featuring portraits and essays about transgender people over the age of 50.

Jess Dugan andVanessa Fabbre began capturing the images and stories of older transgender subjects over a year ago when they lived in Chicago. Now they live in the Tower Grove South neighborhood.

It’s a way of bringing members of two marginalized communities — seniors and transgender people — into the public eye.

“When they tell you their stories, you cans see how those two things connect,” Fabbre said.

‘I Never Hated My Body’

Dugan takes the portraits, and either she or Fabbre conducts the interviews. But who, exactly, is a candidate? The common belief used to be that all transgender people were "born in the wrong body." But that narrative is changing for some people. Not everyone wants to have surgery or take hormones.

Jess Dugan
Credit Provided by Dugan
Jess Dugan

Some just use the broad term “queer”to describe their own unique identities. The way Dugan and Fabbre see it, “transgender” has also expanded to become more of an umbrella.

“I personally have chosen to uses it as a term that includes people who transition, people that are gender-variant, people who are more fluid and have a range of identities,” Dugan said.

Gender-variant is when your behavior or appearance doesn’t conform to society’s ideas about what’s male and what’s female. Take Dugan’s own story.

“When I was a kid growing up in Arkansas, I looked like I do now,” Dugan said. “I was very tomboyish, I had short hair, and I got harassed in bathrooms, chased out of the bathroom by students, by teachers.”

Dugan came out as gay at 13. A year later, she began questioning her gender. But fully transitioning to male didn’t feel right. Then she saw a video about someone who had their breast tissue removed but didn’t take male hormones.

“It sounds so cheesy but it was this aha moment that you could pick and choose the elements of transition,” Dugan said. “Because I never hated my body, but I hated how it was in the world, I hated how I was perceived, and it was uncomfortable.”

Dugan had chest surgery at 18 – 10 years ago. She – and I’m using female pronouns at her request -- includes her own shirtless photographs in much of her work to reveal her personal understanding of the issues.

Bonding over High Heels

Fabbre also understands the value of self-disclosure, especially when they’re probing into other people’s lives.

Vanessa Fabbre
Credit Provided by Fabbre
Vanessa Fabbre

“The first thing you have to do before you ask someone about who they are, is to tell them who you are,” Fabbre said.

Fabbre has also thought a lot about gender, but another big struggle has been around her height.

“I’m six-foot-one. Probably in every photograph of me, you pretty much only see my head because I’m always in the back of the photo,” she said.

Fabbre bonds with many of the transgender women she interviews over high heels. Fabbre threw hers out a while back, but she still remembers the dilemma of adding extra inches.

“If you’re six-one you’re not supposed to wear heels, if you’re around men who might feel uncomfortable around that. But for a lot of trans women who are enjoying playing with gender, they want to wear those heels,” Fabbre said. “They have to make the choice, are you going to make yourself comfortable or are you going to make other people comfortable?”

Isn’t that the question we all face – especially as we get older and strive to be more authentic? It’s a running thread among Fabbre's and Dugan's subjects – nearly two dozen people around the country, so far.

Tasha, 65
Credit Jess Dugan
Tasha, 67

In her studio, Dugan points to a 67-year-old Birmingham, Ala. woman named Tasha who was blasted by firehoses marching for civil rights 50 years ago. Now she’s fighting a different battle, armed with little more than the truth.

“The kids in her neighborhood will ask her are you a man or a woman, and she’s honest with them she tells them, ‘I’m a man who lives as a woman,’” Dugan said.

Soon, a handful of St. Louis subjects will join Tasha and the others on the proof-print wall. On Tuesday, we’ll take you to the photo shoot of a 64-year-old St. Louisan whose transition six years ago saved her life,even though it cost her her job, her son and her granddaughter.

Watch the trailer for the TV show “Transparent.”

More on Older Transgender Individuals

How Can An Older Transgender Spouse Stay in A Long-Term Marriage?

Key Challenges for Older Transgender People

Better Lives for Older, Transgender Adults

LGBT Aging Guide

Coming Out Later in Life

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.