Grace Manger recently had the opportunity to interview Vanessa Fabbre, an assistant professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis who studies growing older, aging, and coming out as transgender later in life. Vanessa and her partner, Jess T. Dugan, have created To Survive on This Shore, which consists of a combination of photographs and interviews of transgender and gender-variant people who have started to transition later in life.
Grace: What is To Survive on This Shore, and what does it aim to accomplish?
Vanessa: To Survive on This Shore combines photographs of transgender and gender-variant people over the age of fifty with interviews about their life experiences in regards to gender, identity, age, and sexuality and provides a nuanced view into the complexities of aging as a transgender person. By combining our experiences working as a photographer and social worker within the transgender community, we hope to create a project that is simultaneously highly personal and socially relevant. We’re aiming for more than just education. We’re aiming for people to have a more empathic experience that expands their awareness of gender, and we want people to glean an appreciation for how diverse the members of trans communities are through the photos and the interviews. There is all this media attention on older adults like Caitlyn Jenner, and I think it’s really important that we don’t just tell that one story.
Grace: Do you think that there is a narrative that is more dominant than others when it comes to the telling of trans stories?
Vanessa: This is coming from someone who works more with older adults, but I think that [the dominant narrative] is still the “wrong body” narrative – being trapped in the wrong body. I think it’s there for an important purpose and that people worked really hard just to get that narrative out there so that others could begin to get their heads around trans issues. That narrative came from a lot of people who are in an older generation, but I think it’s important for people to realize that it can actually be problematic if you only validate one narrative. I think it can be really detrimental to people who come out because they don’t have access to a lot of different stories and narratives about gender.
Grace: That’s kind of how we came to find you and your project, actually. We were worried about My Kid Is Gay promoting this one narrative of really young kids feeling like they’re trapped in the wrong body, and we wanted to make sure that people understood that that’s not always the case.
Vanessa: My partner has an interesting perspective on this. She is female-bodied and uses female pronouns but decided to have top surgery and really identifies more as genderqueer. She chose not to pursue any other aspects of transition, so she’s just a more masculine-of-center person. She’s 28 now, and she often reflects back on her childhood and wonders what would have happened if she had been growing up now. Would people, in an effort validate her masculine identity, have actually blocked hormones thinking they were being progressive and helpful and helping her transition? Her endpoint was not transition, it was finding this middle ground and challenging the binary. So, I think it’s a tough place to put parents and other caregivers in because they want to be supportive of trans identities but leave room for people to figure it out themselves. I think that it’s important not to focus all of our energy around gender on individuals, but also on society-level dynamics. We’re fighting, on the one hand, for individual rights and greater understanding and compassion for individuals, whether they’re young or old. But we’re also fighting the system that was constructed and actually never worked really well. You can do that, I think, by opening that narrative up and saying, “What if I respect that my child is gender-variant and they don’t want to transition, so I don’t push them into the binary. I’m going to let them figure it out.” I think that’s one way of pushing back and helping an individual and also kind of pushing back on a societal level, too.
Grace: Yeah, I think it’s kind of a slippery slope for parents and caretakers. Because on the one hand you’re absolutely right, maybe they do just want to be supportive, but it’s also not this moving from A to B line. Like, they don’t want to be A? Ok, then I will do everything to make sure they get to B. My older sister came out as trans and started to transition about four years ago, when she was 22, almost 23. A lot of people had a really difficult time with it at first because my sister had never wanted to wear dresses when she was little, so how could she possibly be trans? It took a lot to work through that.
Vanessa: I think it’s important to remember that, for people who do come out or transition later, whatever later is, sometimes that is because they’ve built up these walls within themselves – that could be about a strong sense of gender expression, or it could be related to certain sexual preferences or identities related to gender. I call it “the dam bursting.” It’s easier for us sometimes if a child wants to wear dresses, dresses, dresses and then transitions, it’s like, “Oh, okay.” But it’s harder for us to grasp when there is maybe something more complex going on. I think there’s a lot to learn from people who’ve just simply lived longer and dealt with these experiences. If we pay attention to their stories, they’ll expand it for us.
Grace: I would love to hear your thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner’s recent coming out and transition? And how you think that affects people’s knowledge and understanding of trans issues since that interview?
Vanessa: I think overall, the most important thing that is happening with Caitlyn Jenner is that people are relating and developing empathy. I think in order to promote true learning around gender issues, empathy has to be part of the equation. She’s relatable, people from older generations know this person and thought of her as a good human being, all that. I think the real work to be done is go beyond her story and also address the role of race and class in trans issues. Caitlyn Jenner is a white woman with financial and social capital. I think the most important thing that can happen from the Caitlyn Jenner story is for people to ask if her story is typical. In terms of narrative, but also thinking about social privilege and social disadvantages.
Grace: What do you think your project, To Survive on This Shore, can offer parents of transgender people of all ages?
Vanessa: I think that our project, the way we present it, can be comforting, and show that there are a lot of different ways that people navigate their lives. There’s no one way to do this, there’s no one way to be a trans person, there’s no one way to be a parent of a trans person. And I think that that’s the benefit of being the minority. I think that we actually can create together the ways that we’ll do this.
Grace: What advice would you give to a parent whose child has recently started to transition?
Vanessa: If a parent came to me, I would emphasize that moving forward, you have to get support for everyone involved. And it’s easy to just focus so much on the child and helping them figure things out, but I think that can be really detrimental to others involved. So recognizing that parents, and family members, and friends have an equal right to support is really important. A real issue with caregivers—and I have worked with caregivers—sometimes they’re such good caregivers that they end up hurting themselves. So everyone has a right to feel supported and understood. And overall that helps the child, too.
Vanessa Fabbre, PhD, LCSW, is an Assistant Professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago where her dissertation, Gender Transitions in Later Life, explored issues of gender, identity, and aging. Vanessa’s research explores the intersection of LGBTQ issues and gerontology, focusing specifically on transgender and queer perspectives on aging and the life course. At the Brown School she teaches courses in social justice and direct social work practice with older adults.