There are some stubbornly-held and often-loud beliefs out there that transgender people are a new phenomenon, as though they materialized as part of a 21st-century youth-led conspiracy to destroy the desperately-clung-to gender binary.
It’s simply not true. There is tangible evidence in artwork, photographs, diaries, and other written accounts that gender nonconforming people existed throughout history — and with this proof of life are records of the countless struggles and existential threats they endured.
What is true is that younger generations are leading the most public charge ever to normalize different gender identities, seizing on the power of social media and broader support from their peers than previous generations enjoyed.
Young trans people are simply more visible.
But the hardships and dangers for them are as present as ever, which advocates say is one reason that visibility of trans and nonbinary elders is important. It is crucial, they say, for youth to not only have access to the stories of people who came before them, but to see trans people who made it to old age, who not only survived, but thrived, and found stability and joy.
This is one of the drives behind “To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults,” a photographic exhibition on view in the George Eastman Museum’s Project Gallery through Jan. 2, 2022. The show seeks to shed light on the variety of identities and experiences of more senior trans and nonbinary people.
“Just relating to people on a human level is really important,” says Jamie Allen, associate curator at Eastman Museum’s Department of Photography. “And that’s what this work does really well. We are not only visually confronted with people and their portraits, but then we have an opportunity to learn their stories. And when you learn somebody’s story, you can’t avoid the fact that they are another human being who comes from some place, who has a background, who has struggled — possibly in some similar ways as you.”
It’s easier for people to dismiss a concept they don’t understand than to shrug off an actual person seated across from them, telling their story. Eye contact and active listening promotes empathy. And while this exhibition isn’t a real one-on-one meeting, it’s the next best thing.
“To Survive on This Shore” is the culmination of a five-year collaboration between photographer Jess T. Dugan and social worker Vanessa Fabbre, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis whose research focuses on the intersection of LGBTQ issues and aging.
Dugan and Fabbre, who are a couple, traveled across the country documenting the stories of trans and gender-nonconforming people, whose lives are the intersection of their gender identity and other factors, such as age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and geographic location.
The exhibition provides two entry points for viewers to connect with the subjects — through their open and steady gazes and their accompanying first-person statements, drawn from interviews by Fabbre.
There are shared experiences among them, but trans and nonbinary identities are not monolithic. The subjects are ministers, immigrants, veterans, musicians, and grandparents.
There’s Jay, a 59-year-old resident of New York City who transitioned in the ’70s and was an LGBT political activist.
“I’m a pretty classic transgender man, as I see it, because from my earliest recollections as a tiny child I experienced myself as a boy in a girl’s body,” he says in the text accompanying a portrait of him seated on a park bench, an arm casually slung over the back. “I felt that some dreadful mistake had been made and I didn’t get the body that I was supposed to.”
That’s a familiar enough statement from a trans person. But that bewildering experience is followed by a recounting of the horrific discrimination that both he and his partner, Eleanor, endured when receiving medical care. Jay also discusses the vastly different, more dignified treatment they received after he became “passable” as a male and the couple was “read” as heterosexual.
Then there’s SueZie, a 51-year-old Floridian who transitioned later in life, and was already married to a woman. “Her spouse just picked up with it and stayed with her, and really made that possible for her to have a life of being herself,” Allen says.
SueZie’s wife, Cheryl, weighs in, describing her acceptance of SueZie’s identity and clothing choices, the hiccups in their relationship when she chose to transition, coming to terms with the “total 180” in SueZie’s happiness, and working toward understanding. Her own identity changed, too.
“I was always heterosexual, never a lesbian. We say I became a lesbian by attrition,” Cheryl joked.
The portrait of SueZie with Cheryl is one of sweet contentment and deep connection.
The work in the exhibition and book by the same title forms an important archive of transgender experience and activism in the United States, which is still a relatively arcane history. There are stories of deep hardship and trauma, of quiet resolution, and of the glory of settling securely into one’s authentic identity and turning around to lift up the next generation.
Atlanta-based Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, is a former sex worker living with HIV. She co-created the first trans ministry in her church, and works in a clinic across the street from the corner she worked in her previous life.
One of the best parts of the exhibition is beholding the comfort, the ease, and the grace of the subjects as they present themselves for the camera and interviewer.
“I put my money down and took my chances,” said Los Angeles-based Duchess Milan, 69, an elegant silver-haired woman in red lipstick.
“I’ve gone to all the weddings, all the funerals, and it’s a situation that everybody just thinks of me as who I am,” she said. “It’s not even an issue anymore. ‘Oh you mean her? Oh, that’s just Auntie.’”
As the elders lift the youth, they have a directive for the next generation: “If you hear our story and it resonates, it is your job to keep holding the torch,” Jay said.
To learn more about the exhibition “To Survive on This Shore,” go to eastman.org/tsots.
Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s life editor. She can be reached at [email protected]