Finding their authentic selves: Transgender and over 50

Story highlights

  • "To survive on this shore" features portraits of transgender and gender-variant people over 50
  • Some of the subjects came out decades ago; others just recently

(CNN)From Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono to Caitlyn Jenner and the acclaimed Amazon series "Transparent," it's arguably the best time in history for transgender rights and representation in popular culture.

Still, we've only just begun to explore the pluralism and diversity in the transgender and gender-variant community. And older people, like elders of any sexual orientation or identification, have largely been left out of our cultural conversation.
Enter "To survive on this shore," a collaboration between photographer Jess T. Dugan and social worker Vanessa Fabbre that began more than two years ago. It includes stunning portraits of transgender and gender-variant people between the ages of 50 and 86, combining them with moving personal interviews about the intersection of gender, identity and the universal human experience of aging.
    The title of the project comes from folk singer Ani DiFranco's "Talk to Me Now," whose lyrics state "Self-preservation is a full-time occupation / I'm determined to survive on this shore / You know I don't avert my eyes anymore."
    "Our culture at large is so youth-focused," Dugan said, "and this certainly extends into LGBTQ communities. There is so much to be learned from older adults, and I am truly honored to hear their stories. We also feel that there is a lot of history that needs to be recorded and preserved for future generations because there is much to be learned from those who came out as transgender many decades ago, as well as those who have come out recently in their 70s or 80s.
    Photographer Jess T. Dugan
    "After each interview and photograph that we make, I leave feeling incredibly inspired by the stories I have heard and humbled that each person is willing to share so much of themselves with us, and by extension, with others."
    CNN: What has this project and your other work taught you about gender identity and people who transition later in life? Is that a function of more visibility these days, a sense of their mortality or something else? What are some of the different struggles and triumphs associated with this path?
    Vanessa Fabbre: I have found that transitioning in later life reflects both internal and external factors. Awareness of time left to live is central to many people's decision-making ... but simply being aware of one's mortality does not fully explain this decision, because we know that many older people are aware of their mortality and don't make changes like this.
    My research shows that it's often about being aware of time left to live in relation to time past. One person I interviewed said she wanted to write her memoir and call it "Forty to Life" so that people could understand how limited her identity was before coming out and transitioning in later life. I call this "time served" in my research, to capture the feeling one has when they've done everything they're supposed to do, followed all the rules and still feel as though society is limiting their freedom.
    In addition, when this internal sense of time is linked to external constraints, it often leads to an experience that I call "the dam bursting" later in life. Many people I've interviewed talk about a point in which years of pent-up frustration and shame build up and overflow. When people "break through" and confront forces they've allowed to build up inside themselves, they demonstrate how external forces can actually be internalized over time. The "dam bursting" is a process through which people confront both society and themselves, in order to move toward a more authentic life in their later years.
    I think these stories show us that sometimes being happy and healthy means recognizing that one has actually "failed" at fulfilling society's expectations. This concept of failure is relevant for older adults who, instead of following society's script, start writing their own script to follow. Many of the people we photographed and interviewed for "To survive on this shore" are examples of this kind of happiness in later life. It's important to recognize that for some people, aging well means recognizing and coming to terms with the constraints that society puts on people who are different. It's about recognizing that environment and social forces have as much to do with how we age as our individual decision-making. In my research I call this "success on new terms," because older adults are the ones constructing their own expectations about happiness and healthiness.
    CNN: "To survive on this shore" coincides with Caitlyn Jenner's coming out and the Vanity Fair cover portraying a transgender woman over 50. How does your work fit into -- or disrupt -- that conversation?
    Jess T. Dugan: After the Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner came out, I had several people write to me and tell me they thought my project was the antithesis of the cover in many ways. This certainly wasn't my intention directly, and our project has been underway for more than two years.
    It has always been my intention as a photographer to find the profound in the everyday; many of my photographs are made within my own community or about my own experience. I hope to create a moment of connection between the viewer and the subject, allowing an exchange to take place that might not happen otherwise.

    Social media

    Follow @CNNPhotos on Twitter to join the conversation about photography.

    I think people's comments about my work being the opposite of the Annie Leibovitz photograph of Caitlyn Jenner are primarily about celebrity culture versus the rest of us. My work is of everyday people who have overcome obstacles to live their truths and be who they truly are in this world. While I have incredible empathy for Caitlyn and what she has been through, she lives in a different world than most people, transgender or not. As such, her experience is very different than both the people I am photographing and the people viewing the photographs.
    In my photographs, I try to tell the stories of specific individuals with specific histories and experiences while also tapping into our shared humanity. I believe very strongly that when you truly know someone, when you sit down and hear their story, it leads to understanding and empathy. It's much more difficult to discriminate against a group of people based on their gender or sexuality when you know them as individuals and can empathize with who they are and what they have been through.
    CNN: What can you share about -- and what can we learn -- from your brave subjects?
    Dugan: I was recently photographing Hank, a 76-year-old living in Little Rock, Arkansas ... with her partner of 44 years, Samm.
    Hank has a fantastic story. Like me, she is on the masculine spectrum, and though we are separated by many decades, we share some commonalities in our gender identities and expressions. If we were born at the same time, we would likely use the same language to describe ourselves.
    When I was leaving, she thanked me for doing this project and for making the work that I do, and I almost couldn't accept her thanks. Because it's people like her who even made my life possible, who paved the road for those of us who have come after. I am profoundly grateful for everyone who has come before me and has helped to make the world an easier place to be for those of us whose gender falls outside of the expected binary system.