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Video produced by Melissa Harmon and Kyla Ryan/South Florida PBS

These portraits of transgender seniors offer a 'roadmap' of resiliency

MIAMI — Justin Vivian was worried that if she grew older and lost her ability to advocate for herself, she would be treated as a man.

Vivian, who identifies as nonbinary, needed a paper trail to document her trans identity for future health care providers. The solution was estrogen: Taking the treatment creates a medical record of her identity in her senior years.

Justin Vivian, 54, New York, NY, 2017. Image courtesy of projects+gallery and Jess T. Dugan.

The trials and triumphs of transgender and nonconforming older adults like Vivian were captured in an exhibit at the The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami. Photographer Jess T. Dugan and her partner Vanessa Fabbre, who is a social worker and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, brought these stories to light for an audience who may not have ever met an older transgender person. The photos were also compiled for a book, called "To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults."

Duchess Milan, 69, Los Angeles, California, 2017. Image courtesy of projects+gallery and Jess T. Dugan.

Sukie, 59, New York, NY, 2016. Image courtesy of projects+gallery and Jess T. Dugan.

Over five years, Duggan and Fabbre traveled throughout the United States to create this project. They started with people they knew, before word got out and others asked to participate. The interviews and photo sessions were mostly conducted at the participants' home to create an intimate space. In another interview, Dugan explained that they don't use last names for participants.

Dugan's photographs force the viewer to connect with the gaze of her subject, in hopes of engaging both in a moment of mutual respect.

"I want [the audience] to look them right in their eyes and feel this very human connection that I think makes it very difficult to discriminate against someone or to be hateful toward someone if you've really come that close to understanding who they are," she said.

Gloria, 70, Chicago, Illinois, 2016. Image courtesy of projects+gallery and Jess T. Dugan

Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, Atlanta, Georgia, 2016. Image courtesy of projects+gallery and Jess T. Dugan

Aidan, 52, Burien, Washington, 2016. Image courtesy of projects+gallery and Jess T. Dugan

Two participants, known as SueZie, 51, and Cheryl, 55, from Valrico, Florida, reached out to Dugan and Fabbre about appearing in the photo and research project. The two were a couple before SueZie's transition.

Both were at the exhibit when it opened in Miami. They're still together, more in love than ever, they said. They spoke with people who stopped to look at the photo that Dugan had taken of them.

SueZie. 51. and Cheryl, 55, Valrico, Florida, 2015. Image courtesy of projects+gallery and Jess T. Dugan

"All we do is go out in public and just be public. You know, don't hide," Cheryl said. "Because we're proud of who we are, we love each other. We're not interfering with anybody's lives, we just want to live our life the best we know how. And to show everybody, it's okay."

The people who told their stories really wanted to participate in order to create a roadmap for younger trans people, according to Dugan.

"I was really struck by the extent to which people wanted to participate, to give back and to share their message, to make it easier for younger people to come into their own identity to hopefully not struggle" as much as they had, Dugan said.

This report originally appeared on Florida stations WPBT and WXEL.

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