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To Survive on This Shore
posted 04.14.2015

By Vanessa Fabbre

One important component of Dennis Dailey’s “Circles of Sexuality” is sexual identity, which incorporates biological gender, gender identity, gender role, and sexual orientation. As professionals in the field of aging, we know that these aspects of identity are dynamic throughout the life course, often taking on unique meanings in later life.

More articles in this series...

The Circles of Sexuality and Aging
By Terri Clark

Sexuality, Intimacy and Aging: It’s Time to Talk!
By Peggy Brick

Satisfying Mature Gay Sexuality
By Brian B. Doyle

You and Your Doctor
By Joan Price

Sexual Health in Older Adulthood: Defining the Goals
By Maggie L. Syme

In a project with the photographer Jess T. Dugan, “To Survive on This Shore,” we are collaborating to combine photographs of transgender and gender variant people over the age of fifty with interviews about their life experiences to provide a nuanced view into the complexities of gender identity in later life. We decided to combine photographic images with interviews in order to more fully tell the stories of these older adults and intentionally sought out subjects whose lived experiences exist within the intersections of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and geographic location. Though everyone in our project identifies somewhere along the transgender spectrum, there is no single narrative that captures the varied paths that lead to gender discovery or transition.

There are also many ways to learn about others’ life stories, so in order to let subjects prioritize the topics of identity and aging that are most salient in their lives, we use a conversational and informal approach to biographical interviews. After the interviews, we make selections that highlight salient themes and pair this text with the photograph so that these may be experienced together. The interview selections serve to facilitate an emotional and empathic connection to the person portrayed in the image and to highlight the diverse ways in which transgender adults think about and experience aging. Tasha, whom we interviewed in Birmingham, Alabama, shares her story in a way that we think allows for this connection to happen. 

Tasha, 65, Birmingham, AL

When I was growing up, I knew that something about me was different. I knew that I liked the guys. I pretty much today live as a gay man that lives just like a woman, because I see from day one, from that day to this day, I've always felt like a woman born in a man's body. And that's the way I live. I live as a woman today. I didn't get to the place of where I'm so all right with this until later in life—at a young age I would’ve had a sex change. But today, I'm so all right with me to it doesn't even cross my mind today. I have never been a clear cut case of being in the closet. I've always been wide open. And back in that time of the civil rights movement, I still didn't have any problem. I was still wide open. I participated in the marches and stuff. I was arrested, wet up with the hoses, all that stuff. Whether you say, "Yes, ma'am," or "Yes, sir," I'm all right. I'm all right. I don't let nothing like that bother me. At times it was kinda rough growing up when you had to hear guys call you all kinda names, such as freaking fag and all this kinda stuff and all. It used to hurt and make me angry. But as I got into the church and started letting the verse of John 3:16 register in me, a whole lot of stuff changed. And it said, "For God so loved the world that whosoever will, let them come." And after that, I felt like I was one of the "whosoevers." And knowing that I was gay and knowing what people were saying, I stopped getting mad. I stopped fighting and just be who I am—and just be me. Now, I am real respected in my neighborhood as Tasha because a lot of people don't even know my real name. I'm Tasha to everybody. That's where I live as a Tasha. And most of the children say, "Miss Tasha." But when I come upon situations where children are curious and ask, "Are you a man or a lady?" I don't lie to them. I just tell them I'm a man that lives as a woman. And then I have no problems with them. If you don't say anything to me, I'm not going to say anything to you, although I have some eyes that can talk to you where I won't have to say anything. But, all in all, I feel that I done had a good life. I'm just happy with me today, real happy.

Another participant, Chris, whom we interviewed in Boston, also shares his story in way that draws the viewer into the complicated negotiations of gender identity over time. 

Chris, 52, Boston, MA

I feel like I was always punished for my masculinity when I was female-designated by both straight people and lesbians. I was not the kind of woman that either women or men wanted to be around. I was way too scary, and people didn't know what to do with me. I was always a fish out of water in terms of my gender presentation. So in a huge way, my transition has been like nirvana for it to get all aligned with me, and then have the world treat me well while I'm aligned has been amazing. So I lived in that lesbian world even as it was difficult to do. I actually gave birth to both of our children, which was actually never inconsistent with my sense of still being a man and being pregnant, and I know that many people can't understand that, or they might have some understanding. But it was not inconsistent for me to be with my male identity and want to have children. Integrating all of our identities as a family has been a journey. So my spouse and former spouse identify as lesbians, my kids identified as part of a lesbian family, so applying to colleges, how do you explain on the FAFSA forms for the federal government that somebody's a biological mother and at the same time they're legally a man and what's their legal relationship, and how do you explain that I am legally a man that was never married to my former spouse who is legally their mother because we were a lesbian couple? So there's layer upon layer upon layer of complication when interfacing in the world, even as it was not very much of a blip in terms of my family's experience of me and didn't change a whole lot the way our family life ran, was not really that big of a deal—and yet this interface out in the world became a pretty big deal.

Photographs and words are both powerful narrative tools. In combination, they have the power to tell meaningful stories, elicit empathy, and promote social change. Our aim in combining these two forms of narrative is to tell more of the subject’s story than the photograph could on its own, encouraging a deeper and more meaningful engagement on the part of the viewer. We are attempting to call attention to a unique group of older adults that are often overlooked while also simultaneously portraying the universal human experience of identity development and aging. We desire to provide visibility to a community that is often overlooked, both because of their age as well as their gender, and to encourage empathy, understanding, and dialogue.

For more information about this project go to:


Vanessa Fabbre, PhD, LCSW, is an Assistant Professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Photos by Jess T. Dugan

This article was brought to you by ASA’s LGBT Aging Issues Network

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