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This Gorgeous Portrait Series Celebrates Older Trans And Gender-Nonconforming People

"I missed the first fifty years of my life, but I'm not missing the second fifty."

Posted on August 30, 2018, at 1:02 p.m. ET

Photo by Jess Dugan

The national conversation about trans identity and community tends to focus on the newest crop of trans youth. But why don't we hear about older trans and gender-nonconforming individuals who manage to overcome the at times seemingly impossible odds and survive — and thrive — in America?

Photographer Jess Dugan's latest project To Survive on This Shore aims to bring attention to those voices. For over five years, Dugan and social worker Vanessa Fabbre have traveled across the United States photographing and interviewing older trans and gender-nonconforming individuals to ensure their stories, largely untold, are finally shared. Dugan told BuzzFeed News in an interview that she views the project (now a published book, released this week) as, first and foremost, an “educational and activist mission.”

“Prior to starting this project, I heard from several younger trans people that they had never seen images of older transgender people and that they had no roadmap for what their life might look like going forward,” she said. “I wanted to create this project for them, as well as to record and validate the experiences of older transgender people, many of whom are directly responsible for the world we live in today.”

Duchess Milan, 69, Los Angeles“My mother said when you die, you stand there before the light, and you say, 'Was I worthy of myself to know that I have liked me?' Okay? I like me. Okay? And I will tell the whole chorus, honey, 'I like me.' I don't hurt anybody, I don't do anybody wrong, you know. I’ve dealt with everything I can, as much as I can. So just find that inside yourself and take time with that person. Faults, flaws, wishes, all of it, it doesn't matter. We're not going to get it all. None of us gets it all. Okay? But what we do have, we can polish. We can polish it, honey, till it blinds them.”
Photo by Jess Dugan

Duchess Milan, 69, Los Angeles

“My mother said when you die, you stand there before the light, and you say, 'Was I worthy of myself to know that I have liked me?' Okay? I like me. Okay? And I will tell the whole chorus, honey, 'I like me.' I don't hurt anybody, I don't do anybody wrong, you know. I’ve dealt with everything I can, as much as I can. So just find that inside yourself and take time with that person. Faults, flaws, wishes, all of it, it doesn't matter. We're not going to get it all. None of us gets it all. Okay? But what we do have, we can polish. We can polish it, honey, till it blinds them.”

Dugan noted that of all the trans-related stories we tend to hear in the media, most focus on violence or discrimination of some kind. "With this project, I wanted to create representations of many different ways of living and aging as a trans person," she explained. "I also wanted to record the history of people who, in many cases, paved the road for the world we live in now."

"I worried their stories were at risk of being lost or forgotten, and I wanted to record and preserve them," Dugan said. She said that while the current national focus on trans youth is of extreme importance, the stories of trans elders should not be ignored.

"I think it is important to remember that transgender and gender-nonconforming people have always existed."

Gloria, 70, Chicago“I’m a senior citizen. I made it to seventy and a lot of them won’t make it, they won’t make it at all. Because most of them die from drugs, from sexual disease or they’re murdered. They ask me questions like, 'Well, Momma Gloria, how did you get through?' I say, 'I got through with love from my family and the grace of God.' That’s how I got through. You have to have some stability and you have to have some kind of class, some charm about yourself. I never was in the closet. The only time I was in the closet was to go in there and pick out a dress and come out of the closet and put it on.”
Photo by Jess Dugan

Gloria, 70, Chicago

“I’m a senior citizen. I made it to seventy and a lot of them won’t make it, they won’t make it at all. Because most of them die from drugs, from sexual disease or they’re murdered. They ask me questions like, 'Well, Momma Gloria, how did you get through?' I say, 'I got through with love from my family and the grace of God.' That’s how I got through. You have to have some stability and you have to have some kind of class, some charm about yourself. I never was in the closet. The only time I was in the closet was to go in there and pick out a dress and come out of the closet and put it on.”

According to Dugan, she and Fabbre always conducted the interviews in the same way — starting with "How do you identify today, and what were some key moments that led to that identity?" and ending with "As you look ahead, what hopes, or fears, do you have about the future and growing older?"

Scroll down to view portraits and excerpts from To Survive on This Shore, available now.

D'Santi, 54, Santa Fe"I identify as a straight male, and I’ve always known. My first memory was saying, 'I am not a girl. I don't want to be a girl.' People need to know they're not alone. Because that was my battle. For fifty years. I was in it by myself. I knew I was different, but I could never figure out how. I self-medicated, a lot of alcohol. I drank until I blacked out. I liked that altered state, because then I didn't have to be me. I was just one of the guys. Now, I’m really excited to live my life. I just want to play more music. Spend time with my wife, the grandkids, my family. Be authentic. I missed the first fifty years of my life, but I'm not missing the second fifty."
Photo by Jess Dugan

D'Santi, 54, Santa Fe

"I identify as a straight male, and I’ve always known. My first memory was saying, 'I am not a girl. I don't want to be a girl.' People need to know they're not alone. Because that was my battle. For fifty years. I was in it by myself. I knew I was different, but I could never figure out how. I self-medicated, a lot of alcohol. I drank until I blacked out. I liked that altered state, because then I didn't have to be me. I was just one of the guys. Now, I’m really excited to live my life. I just want to play more music. Spend time with my wife, the grandkids, my family. Be authentic. I missed the first fifty years of my life, but I'm not missing the second fifty."

Sky, 64, Palm Springs, California “I think the greatest fear for me is the greatest fear for anybody who’s in a couple, that my partner will pass away. I’m also worried about the lack of nursing homes and long-term care facilities geared toward our community. Right now, if something happened and I needed to be in a home, finding a place where I would be comfortable would be a challenge. I’m hopeful that in the next twenty years, something will change, preferably sooner rather than later.”
Photo by Jess Dugan

Sky, 64, Palm Springs, California

“I think the greatest fear for me is the greatest fear for anybody who’s in a couple, that my partner will pass away. I’m also worried about the lack of nursing homes and long-term care facilities geared toward our community. Right now, if something happened and I needed to be in a home, finding a place where I would be comfortable would be a challenge. I’m hopeful that in the next twenty years, something will change, preferably sooner rather than later.”

Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, Atlanta“This coming into my real, real fullness of knowing why I was different is because I was expressing my spirit to this world. And I didn’t know how God felt about it but I believe in God and I have a deep spiritual background and I talk with the Holy Spirit constantly who’s taken me from the Lower West Side doing sex work to being at the White House.”
Photo by Jess Dugan

Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, Atlanta

“This coming into my real, real fullness of knowing why I was different is because I was expressing my spirit to this world. And I didn’t know how God felt about it but I believe in God and I have a deep spiritual background and I talk with the Holy Spirit constantly who’s taken me from the Lower West Side doing sex work to being at the White House.”

Bobbi, 83, Detroit“I think people talk in either/or terms, right? Before transition and after. But to me, it’s really development. I'm proud of both lives. I'm proud of both mes, if you see what I'm saying. And I feel it has been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person. I’m grateful. You can't just become a woman with a knife or a pill or anything like that. It takes a whole combination in a sequence, in a formation. You've got this time span, it's a learning experience, it's a little bit of everything.”
Photo by Jess Dugan

Bobbi, 83, Detroit

“I think people talk in either/or terms, right? Before transition and after. But to me, it’s really development. I'm proud of both lives. I'm proud of both mes, if you see what I'm saying. And I feel it has been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person. I’m grateful. You can't just become a woman with a knife or a pill or anything like that. It takes a whole combination in a sequence, in a formation. You've got this time span, it's a learning experience, it's a little bit of everything.”

Aiden, 52, Burien, Washington"The challenges are trying to be fully seen and received because others, of course, decide who you are. I move through the world and I don’t get a second glance. I live in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac with people who have no idea about my history. My partner has primarily identified as a lesbian in her adult life and now she’s not visible to the segment of the population that we both considered community. Not just the lesbian community, but even the broader queer community, because my transition is now a couple of decades old. You know, I continue to look more and more male. I’m older. I’m not a young pup anymore, but I still am in my heart."
Photo by Jess Dugan

Aiden, 52, Burien, Washington

"The challenges are trying to be fully seen and received because others, of course, decide who you are. I move through the world and I don’t get a second glance. I live in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac with people who have no idea about my history. My partner has primarily identified as a lesbian in her adult life and now she’s not visible to the segment of the population that we both considered community. Not just the lesbian community, but even the broader queer community, because my transition is now a couple of decades old. You know, I continue to look more and more male. I’m older. I’m not a young pup anymore, but I still am in my heart."

Justin Vivian, 54, New York, NY"I identify as trans non-binary. I always knew I was trans, and I always knew that I was femme. On the gender spectrum, I am much closer to female. I didn't start taking estrogen, or as I call them, “lady vitamins,” until I was in my late forties. Part of the reason I did that was so I would have a physical and medical record of being trans. So many older LGBT people, when they become ill or if they start to deteriorate mentally and aren't able to articulate things as well, end up involuntarily, just by the assumptions of the people who care for them, being relegated back into the closet. My fear was that I would become incapacitated in some way and then be stuck in a room full of old men and I never, ever want to be an old man. That is not my jam."
Photo by Jess Dugan

Justin Vivian, 54, New York, NY

"I identify as trans non-binary. I always knew I was trans, and I always knew that I was femme. On the gender spectrum, I am much closer to female. I didn't start taking estrogen, or as I call them, “lady vitamins,” until I was in my late forties. Part of the reason I did that was so I would have a physical and medical record of being trans. So many older LGBT people, when they become ill or if they start to deteriorate mentally and aren't able to articulate things as well, end up involuntarily, just by the assumptions of the people who care for them, being relegated back into the closet. My fear was that I would become incapacitated in some way and then be stuck in a room full of old men and I never, ever want to be an old man. That is not my jam."

Hank, 76, and Samm, 67, North Little Rock, Arkansas"It was a lot like in the olden days, you know, there were a lot of people around like me and people just expected us to become 'unmarried aunts' or 'fancy boys' and nobody ever confronted you with it. My father would say things like, 'Oh, this one will never get married.' If I heard him say that today I would say, 'Oh, he’s telling them I am gay.' Only I didn’t have those words for it back then." —Hank"Hank and I have been together forty-four years. I found this one in Western Michigan. She was different from anybody I have ever met in my whole life and I knew that she would be in my life for the rest of my life. There was this immediate connection that would always be there. The way we are today, we started out that way." —Samm
Photo by Jess Dugan

Hank, 76, and Samm, 67, North Little Rock, Arkansas

"It was a lot like in the olden days, you know, there were a lot of people around like me and people just expected us to become 'unmarried aunts' or 'fancy boys' and nobody ever confronted you with it. My father would say things like, 'Oh, this one will never get married.' If I heard him say that today I would say, 'Oh, he’s telling them I am gay.' Only I didn’t have those words for it back then." —Hank

"Hank and I have been together forty-four years. I found this one in Western Michigan. She was different from anybody I have ever met in my whole life and I knew that she would be in my life for the rest of my life. There was this immediate connection that would always be there. The way we are today, we started out that way." —Samm


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