It’s time we discuss the generations that we let fall through the cracks.
Recently, a social media post made the rounds from an academic looking to do research on the relationships between trans youth and “Elders.” The criteria as implied in the graphic post asked for trans youth who are between the ages of 18–25 and have been out for less than three years, as well as trans Elders; Those in their mid to late 30’s.
The post, hailing from a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University is innocuous enough, not intended by any means to be inflammatory or provocative, but fetched a response that the researcher themselves, a non-binary person, didn’t anticipate.
A 35–39 year old person is not an Elder. Statistic have shown us that many trans people have not arrived at their full destination regarding their gender at 35 and are still navigating the difficult terrain of identity. While increased visibility and broader awareness of transgender people in general- sadly coming as a result of the relentless political attacks on our rights- it has allowed people to embrace their gender earlier in life.
Our society has put a lot of emphasis on trans youth and young adults. We’ve created significant supportive systems such as college advocacy groups and statewide programs for LGBTQ young folks in workplace environments, essay competitions, employment opportunities and more. While we have a long way to go, we’ve climbed many mountains in terms of progress… for current and future generations.
But what about the 80 year old transgender woman who wrote to me recently. She lives on her own, transitioned in the early 1970’s, witnessed the rise of the LGBTQ+ movements and the evolution of vocabulary and the shift in our communities relationship with our peers and the institutions that govern us.
She also feels left behind.
“I’m invisible,” She said to me via an email. “I never got to the part where I could be seen. You see, I never lived with regret. I was always out as a trans woman. I was beaten up, assaulted, laughed at, rejected by family, fired from multiple jobs, evicted from my apartment, arrested for my clothes not being appropriate for my sex. I still didn’t care. I wasn’t going to live in shame, I knew I was a good, quality character. The life I’ve led has unfortunately left me arriving at the table between meals. When I was young, no one wanted to talk to me about being trans in a civil or respectable manner. It was always a fight, or name-calling or a challenge to a duel. You just deal with it and move on so you can enjoy life. By the time the conversation started to happen about people like me, they didn’t include me. It was scientists, doctors, psychiatrists, gay people, liberal politicians, progressive religious folks all telling you we were their ‘okay pal’ but no one wanted to talk to anyone in our community about our lived experiences. Decades later, they began talking to us, but only the younger transgender people; College students, young activists wearing the trans flag in a fist on their t-shirts attending protests and marches. Even still, years and years later, there was no seat for me at the table because now I was too old to be in fashion. I never got a chance, and neither did millions of us who spent our youth fighting for our freedom and safety in the world that shunned us. Now we’re older, we’re a blemish on the record of mankind, one they refuse to look now, so they basically say ‘We failed you, so we’re just going to pretend you don’t exist.’” She adds, “We should matter, still. Trans kids matter, blacks trans lives matter, but so do us- we who were robbed of valuable years that we either had to spend in hiding or fighting for our humanity.”
Lindsay, a 59 year-old trans woman who traveled to Thailand in the early 2000’s to have gender affirming surgery lives with her wife of over 20 years, Sue in the Welsh countryside. “It feels like for so long I fought and fought the public, the media, the politics, the religious zealots, the bigots and I have nothing at all to show for it. My generation reaped none of the rewards or privileges we gave everything up for in the 80’s and 90’s. Back then we didn’t have the internet and to experience any sort of community with fellow trans people, we had to send discreet letters about meet-ups so we could fellowship and not feel so isolated. It had to be somewhere far away from our homes so we didn’t risk running into someone from our families or colleagues from work who might recognize us because it could be detrimental. We were largely dismissed as perverts and that’s exactly how we were treated. We didn’t get a Transgender Day of Visibility or Pride Parades. At this point in my life, I’m not someone this community wants to be visible, nor do they have any pride in because we’ve ultimately been erased. It’s on trend with society’s obsession with youth and beauty, isn’t it. I’m older, disabled and that doesn’t look good on paper.” She says. “Inclusion today means everything but older people. We stood on their shoulders until they were in a wheelchair, now we don’t need them anymore.”
There are pertinent issues that face aging transgender people that are not part of the conversations occurring within the greater community, such as how to ensure trans elders receive appropriate care in places like nursing homes. A disturbingly large portion of the older trans community over 60 have no family to rely on, as they were more likely to experience displacement and ostracizing when they were younger. It was far more common for people of the Baby Boomer generation to be exiled from support systems, shunned by parents and siblings and even run out of their hometown if they didn’t conform to their gender role and were honest about it. Some have no children, thus no one to take care of their financial affairs in the event of illness or death. Self-made families often provide no legal jurisdiction in the event one becomes incapacitated or in need of guardianship.
Kate Terrell, the late trans activist, once told me she had been hospitalized once about ten years ago, in a room with a several male patients. “The nurse was going around asking for everyone’s emergency contact, and you’d here this man say his daughters, and another man, who was accompanied by his wife, gave her number and he cracked a joke about not handing it out to any male orderlies. Another man said his Mother was in the waiting room… and when the nurse got to me, pulled back my curtain and asked who should be contacted in the event of an emergency, I just wilted. I had no one at that time. No spouse, no kids, no parents. It made me feel so utterly alone in the world. I just cried. I thought, ‘My God, I’d worked so hard to help create communities from the dawn of the internet and completely neglected the fact that I would be on my own one day.’” When Kate passed away in 2020, she wasn’t alone. Two younger people sat with her, Jake, a 40 year old trans man, and his sister, Victoria, 38, who she had taken under her wing later in life. They became her family.
The statistics are worse when it comes to trans women of color, who have an average life expectancy of just 35 years old. This devastating reality is only amplified when you compare it to cis women whose life expectancy is 75. Much of this is the direct result of these women experiencing disproportionate instances of violence and homicide, but also drug abuse, mental health issues and suicide, a great deal of which is imposed by cultural attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people within the black community.
Society just doesn’t see older transgender people, anywhere. It’s not that they aren’t there, but they have been pushed far to the fringes of our advocacy and they desperately need our help, and deserve a respect that is long overdue. While we celebrate our icons who have passed, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who, if alive today would be 77 years old and 71 years old, respectively, we have forgotten to honor those who came before us, and are still here, experiencing another type of transition…
… Into the final stages of life.
While it is true that children need our help, young people, and there are so many programs and initiatives to stimulate diversity and inclusion, we’ve neglected to remember these vulnerable people, of which there are many, whose refusal to disappear into the shadows paved the pathway for us to live in the light.