Collection Explore
June Paul
on To Survive on this Shore

June Paul
Assistant Professor of Social Work
Skidmore College

Until very recently, the experiences and perspectives of individuals with trans and nonbinary (TNB) identities throughout the United States have been underrepresented and overlooked, especially for older cohorts. Thankfully, artist Jess T. Dugan is working to bring these stories out of the shadows and into the mainstream through their multiplatform project with social worker Vanessa Fabbre, To Survive on this Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults.

As a teacher, scholar, and activist who examines the origins, structures, and consequences of discrimination and social injustice on sexual and gender minorities in social service settings, I am incredibly grateful for Dugan’s work. To Survive on this Shore includes a portfolio of photographs and printed oral histories in the Tang collection, which offers an excellent opportunity to engage students in learning about the social, economic, and political structures under which marginalized individuals and communities exist and expand their conceptualizations of and commitment to equity and human rights. Perhaps even more importantly, the portraits and narratives from To Survive on this Shore challenge audiences to reflect on their own experiences and worldviews and consider how their attitudes and beliefs—whether conscious or unconscious—may contribute to misunderstandings and stereotypes about individuals who embrace more expansive forms of gender identity and expression.

It is impossible to view the deeply personal images and quotes without feeling a sense of compassion and respect for what it is like to live as an older TNB person in the United States. Representations within this portfolio generate an acute awareness of the adverse impacts that hetero- and cis-normative systems have on matters such as safety, relationships, employment, housing, and health for TNB people over the life course. It further illustrates their individual and collective motivations to overcome enormous challenges and continually fight for equity and justice. It is these striking and often intimate exemplifications of older TNB people—and their stories—that makes Dugan’s work so engaging and influential.

Although many aspects of the experiences conveyed within this collection are similar, each, holistically, is unique. Scrolling through the To Survive on this Shore website, another component of the project, I am drawn to a quote from Louis, age 54, in Springfield, Massachusetts. After discussing the added effects of racism and classism on TNB Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) regarding issues such as their safety, economic status, and employment, Louis states, “There are so many other oppressions and variables that trans men and trans women of color face that it’s not as easy as hanging a rainbow flag out your window.”(1) These words humble me as I consider the host of ongoing challenges Louis has had to overcome. I am also reminded of the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community itself has been guilty of silencing TNB BIPOC. And that I must continually examine the implications of my white privilege and engage in social justice activism that extends beyond my own immediate communities. I am similarly inspired by the words of Sukie, and how they have emerged as a proud and unapologetic activist for TNB people who are HIV-positive. Their story serves as a powerful testament to the strength and resilience of so many TNB people that work to protect and expand the basic rights and well-being of the LGBTQ+ community.

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Jess T. Dugan (born Biloxi, Mississippi, 1986)
Sukie, 59, New York, NY, 2016, published 2018
interview: archival pigment print on Canson Edition Etching Rag | photograph: archival pigment print on Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag Pearl
Tang purchase

I am equally appreciative of Dugan’s commitment to lifting up the participants’ own voices. Too often, histories and narratives are written in the voice of those with more privileged identities or from an outsider’s view. In creating To Survive on this Shore, Dugan asked participants to select their own outfits, included objects in their portraits that held meaning to them, and, along with Fabbre, used the participants’ own words to describe their experiences—demonstrating great respect for how they wanted to be seen and heard. This process is similar to research methods that cultivate collaboration and engage individuals and communities that have been disenfranchised, silenced, and underserved as full partners in the process of telling their stories to create change. As a practicing social worker and researcher, I believe this culturally responsive, collective approach is critical for honoring the strength and resilience of the people we serve and for achieving truly beneficial social justice change.

Moreover, To Survive on this Shore inspires me to think beyond traditional methods of communication to share my research findings with a broader audience. To be sure, contents within the portfolio generate heart and soul responses that scholars are not often able to convey. I, too, want to harness this creative power, and imagine how similar forms of artistic activism could play a pivotal role in communicating the complexities that surround issues facing systems-involved sexual and gender minority youth to the public, as well as to professional and educational organizations in social work.

I must add that I am not only interested in Dugan’s work as a teacher and scholar. This is personal for me. I came out as queer in 1991 when I was 23 years old. During this time, I also started to question aspects of my gender. I wanted parts of my body to be different but kept those thoughts to myself. Although I am more female-identified than not, the way I feel about and express my gender is not simple. Yet it was not until recently that I have openly acknowledged that I am genderqueer—a term that is used to describe individuals who do not subscribe to conventional distinctions of gender. As I look through the images and read the narratives of the TNB individuals featured in To Survive on this Shore, I am reminded that portions of these stories are also my story. And that, I too, am not alone.

Cite this page

Paul, June. “June Paul on To Survive on this Shore.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. Last modified October 29, 2020.
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