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Photo project highlights lives of elderly transgender community

Grace, executive director of BAGLY.Jess T. Dugan

A Boston photographer has launched a national project documenting the trials and triumphs of elderly transgender and gender variant people who have laid the groundwork for decades worth of change.

The exhibit “To survive on this shore,” is led by photographer Jess T. Dugan with her partner, Vanessa Fabbre. Several Massachusetts residents, including Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth, are among those pictured in the project.

“With the epidemic of systemic discrimination and violence which continues to be directed at trans people, especially young trans women of color, this project lifts up the lives of those who have survived, often despite great challenges,” Stowell said. “[This] work provides an opportunity to link our community’s past and present with hope for a better future.”


While there’s been no shortage of participants, Dugan said the process has been bittersweet because it strikes a balance between both struggle and joie de vivre.

Many of those she has documented and interviewed have lost their livelihoods during their quest to find happiness and comfort.

“A lot of people have faced significant struggles and lost their kids or their jobs or spouses because of their decision,” she said.

Others, however, have been luckier and preserved a semblance of their lives prior to coming out or transitioning genders.

“We wanted to represent the community in a way that’s authentic, which includes both the struggle and the success,” Dugan said. “We didn’t want to sugarcoat it and only focus on how great it is once people transition, and how much freedom they find.”

Both the positive and negative elements shine through in the images and interviews.

Fabbre said this project helped her discover, through the stories of elderly trans people, that growing older is a process of realizing that the constraints of society can impact people’s individualized identities.


“These stories flip that assumption and make us look at aging as a process of pushing back on society and feeling empowered to reject certain constraints,” she said. “These stories, they really expand the parameters of what we think aging means. And I find that inspiring.”

Dugan and Fabbre, a researcher who conducted the interviews that accompany each photo, have traveled as close as Northampton and as far Seattle to speak with interested subjects from the trans community.

Ultimately, the couple would like to turn everything they document into a book and bring the exhibit to galleries nationally.

“It’s been really motivating and inspiring, and I leave touched by the people who share their stories with me,” Dugan said.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.