By K. Abel Knochel
People who identify as transgender later in life often demonstrate great resilience in their ability to reconstruct their identity. Some are in long-term relationships and face the challenge of helping a partner transition through multiples changes and losses.
In early 2015 I interviewed several trans* older adults to explore their experience of aging and gender identity. Two participants, Sophia(John) and AnneMarie (not their real names), shared similar narratives. They began to transition in their late 50s, made compromises that helped them preserve valued family relationships and reconfigured their lives in ways that maintained core pieces of their self-identity.
Sophia(John) is a self-described transgenderist who maintains separately expressed sides of her identity as Sophia and as John. Sophia(John) is in her(his) early 80s and has been married to the same woman for more than 50 years. She(He) transitioned in her(his) early 60s, a few years after retirement.
AnneMarie is a transwoman in her late 60s who has been married to the same woman for nearly 50 years. She began to transition in her late 50s as she began her retirement process.
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Sophia(John) made multiple attempts to disclose her(his) gender identity to her(his) wife, but these attempts were met with “pretty strong messages saying, ‘I don’t want this as part of my life,’ ” said Sophia(John). A few years after retirement, her(his) child’s concern prompted Sophia(John) to begin to transition. Sophia(John) then separated from her(his) wife, but they have since reconciled and returned to sharing a home. “[W]e come from this faith background where … you make this commitment and it’s not something you walk away from,” said Sophia(John). She(he) also described the impact of this separation on her(his) wife as the, “only guilt in my life.”
Sophia(John) consistently presents as John in the presence of her(his) wife and at family functions. “As the years went on, she began to understand a bit more ... but I also realized and have felt that I had a responsibility to … accept and to live with the fact that she didn’t want this as part of her life,” said Sophia(John).
Sophia(John) left it up to her(his) kids to determine when to disclose her(his) identity to the grandchildren and identifies this as a challenge, but one that is worth it to maintain the family relationships. “I feel so comfortable and peaceful and fulfilled as Sophia, but yet I have these strong connections still with my children, my grandchildren,” she(he) said.
Sophia(John) has made end-of-life arrangements that maintain these accommodations to family without erasing her life as Sophia. “I want to allow people who know John to mourn John, because I know that there are many who will. I also need to have an opportunity for people who know Sophia … to also mourn and honor Sophia,” she(he) said.
AnneMarie felt compelled to move forward with physical transition to save her life after 10 years of exploring her gender identity in private. She recalls how both she and her wife cried when she came out to her as transgender and then, “we didn’t talk about it the whole next year: not a word!” she said.
AnneMarie, like Sophia(John), shared a story of compromises made to keep her family, including some she was unable to keep. “I’d say things like, ‘I’ll never bring AnneMarie into the bedroom, I’ll never seek gender confirmation surgery, I’ll never undergo public transition, it’ll just be something I’ll live out with you and at home,’ I was trying so hard not to lose my wife,” she said.
She recalls the limitations her wife set to protect herself and their kids, including presenting in her former male gender expression at all family gatherings until they told their children, and seeking support in a community more than 150 miles away so that nobody in their lives would find out.
AnneMarie and her wife moved forward slowly in the transition through counseling, and shared the news with their children a year later, when her wife was ready. AnneMarie made room for her kids to process.
“It took my son [five months] to call and say, ‘I’m ready.’ I got together with both kids,” AnneMarie says. “We talked family, history, common experiences, fun we’ve had together, all of that.”
AnneMarie discussed the limits she abides by with her family, including using only a version of her chosen name that is close to her birth name, allowing her kids to still call her Dad, and respecting the parameters and limitations her wife places on physical intimacy. “You know, your loving, closest relationships are sometimes the ones that constrain you more than any other,” she said.
Reconstructing Lives True to Core Identities
As John, Sophia(John) lived an adult life of leadership and accomplishment in local business, civic and faith circles. She has now built a new life of leadership and accomplishment as Sophia.
“I thought I was going to sort of leave everything behind and become this quiet, introspective suburban housewife trying to figure out who I was,” Sophia(John) said. “And it turned out … that I had a significant role to play around advancing issues for transwomen through both the public sector and the religious sector. It has been an incredible second part of my life.”
Sophia(John) was an active member of a faith tradition in which she learned to view transgender identity as “a curse from God … a heavy load to lift … a fight to save my soul,” she(he) said. Sophia(John) left this faith community and learned, with the guidance of a counselor, to view her(his) transgender identity as, she(he) said, “a blessing that God has given to you to explore.”
She carved out a space of belonging for herself and other trans* people within a new faith community. This launched Sophia(John) into both local and national roles doing what she called, “my ministry of presence, just trying to be as open and available as I can be and let things go from there as far as people understanding a little bit more about the trans community.”
Sophia(John), as Sophia, has made significant civic contributions to the trans* and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. These accomplishments have a different focus than those she(he) made as John, but she(he) has figured out a way to continue to lead and achieve on the other side of gender transition. She(He) recalls her fear of losing her(his) family and reputation and her(his) decision, in transition, to try to write a different script.
“My reaction was … always feeling that at some point I’m going to be discovered and my whole life is going to come crashing down and all my relationships and the good things I’ve done in life are going to be sort of fall apart and people are only going to remember me as oh yeah, he was the guy that dressed as a woman,” Sophia(John) said. “So, I … decided that I’m going to explore that opportunity.”
Sophia(John) also expresses pride in the outcome, “I really feel blessed to be able to say that both sides of my gender identity have been very positive, both for myself and I think for the rest of the world that I’ve impacted.”
AnneMarie describes a life that has included many shifts and explorations. She declares, more than once, “I define myself by change.” Her stories of change from before her transition include themes of harmful behavior and the pain of not being seen or whole. Coming into her transgender identity, including physical transition, provided a way for AnneMarie to embrace and express change without that pain and harm.
“It’s an example of what can happen when you find a way to illuminate that [gender] dysphoria, and when you find a way to come into yourself, your authentic self, and what it can do for your whole life, everything about your life: your peace of mind, your wanting to live instead of wanting to die, your relationships can be richer,” AnneMarie said.
She described her freedom to explore gender fluidity and a queer gender presentation after physical transition, “I am now one person and I can go forward and I can play in different ways with that person, not changing that person, but changing how that person interacts … . on any given day.”
AnneMarie further describes her transition as continuing forever: “[C]hange is what keeps me alive. So being trans for me is … a way of looking at the world … it’s about wholeness, it’s about authenticity, it’s about honesty. It’s about being willing to try new things. It’s about embracing opportunities that come your way … It’s about being willing to climb out of the box and experience different things,” she said. “It’s not just an identity … it’s a way of life.”
AnneMarie also described her life now and going forward in uplifted terms: “By and large, I wake up every day and think today is going to be the most awesome day ever, and wondering what surprises are in store for the day … . [A]nd I think when we’re open, it doesn’t matter how old we are … When we open ourselves, it’s never too late. It just isn’t,” she said.
Sophia(John) and AnneMarie have experienced losses related to their transgender identity before, during and after transition. These losses are better understood when they are contextualized in the ways these older adults reshaped losses and recreated their lives in ways that helped them maintain core relationships and identities. Their ability to appreciate the impact on others and preserve those relationships was a central aspect of their stories, and serves as a poignant reminder that within significant change, there lies both inherent loss and an ability to transform into a better life.
K. Abel Knochel, Ph.D., MSW, LGSW, is an assistant professor of Social Work at the University of Minnesota: Duluth. Abel's research focuses on aging among trans* and gender nonconforming people. Abel is currently conducting research to explore trans* older adults’ experiences of medical services and social services in Minnesota and to identify unmet service needs.
Trans* is a more inclusive term for people who are transgender, transsexual and genderqueer.
This article was brought to you by ASA's LGBT Aging Issues Network.