Today I have a friend I’ve known since high school on the blog to talk about intergenerational relationships of transgender women and the ivtersectionalities between mental health and transgender identity. I hope you will all enjoy this thought provoking post. Take it away, Aurora!
CW: Transmisia, racial slurs, occasional misgendering.
PART ONE: THE FIRST THURSDAY OF APRIL, 2014
I stood outside the building for at least 10 minutes, before I turned around and walked back towards home.
I meant to go to the New York City LGBT Community Center for a support group for transgender people. I’d never been there before; in fact, I’d never actually met an openly-transgender person before. But I didn’t make it inside that day.
I don’t know exactly what I was afraid of. But I just wasn’t ready that month. At the next month’s meeting, I took a deep breath, and walked in the front door and spoke to the man at the front desk. It was five minutes after the group was supposed to start.
Me: “Hi, um. I’m, um, I’m looking for the, uh, the transgender support group.”
Him: “Sure! The one for trans men, right?”
Three years later, I’m still not sure whether or not this should have upset me. I lean towards no.
He gave me some complicated directions, and I wandered through the building, through the courtyard, and then into another building.
This was my first time meeting any other actual transgender people in person, as far as I knew. I’m sure I’d met a few before; there’s a lot of us. But this was my first time meeting any other actual openly-transgender people before.
I found myself in a room where I didn’t quite feel like I belonged, through no fault of anyone there. I was by far the youngest person in the meeting of about 30 people; the second-youngest was at least a decade older than me. Most of them were between 40-60, with a solid chunk of them well into their 70s.
I was also the shortest one, by at least four or five inches. I was always on the short side, and always self-conscious about it; this room confirmed it. I felt like a child, only partly because of the height difference, but mainly because of the age difference.
Most of these women had transitioned very late in life; some started at triple my age. They faced a great consequence for that: the older transitioners did not look like women. It was heartbreaking, not because I feared the same fate for me–I’d done the research, and I knew that transitioning in my early 20s would be more than young enough. Some didn’t even know it was possible to transition until they were triple my age. They were victims of aging, with bodies that had grown more and more masculine throughout their adulthoods.
The older ones wore baseball caps to cover up their receding hairlines, if they still had any hair at all. A few had grown out their natural hair, which, in many of them, had grown back with the help of hormone replacement therapy. Most wore a wig. On some, a five o’clock shadow crept its way into each crevice on their face. Some had deep, booming voices that ricocheted off the brick walls of the little room when they spoke. On the inside, they felt the same way about their gender as I felt about mine. On the outside, I was nothing like them.
The two women running the meeting made a few failed attempts to keep it organized. They had a set topic that they kept trying to come back to, but the group itself kept discussing mental illness. Most of them had been openly transgender since back when being transgender was a mental illness, described in the DSM-III and IV as “gender identity disorder.” “They only put us in the DSM to try to re-stigmatize homosexuality!” one of them yelled; others nodded in agreement (GID was added to the DSM seven years after homosexuality was removed. GID was removed from the DSM in 2013.)*
The conversations of mental illness grew. “They just wanted an excuse to institutionalize us! Throw us into asylums! ‘Let’s take these trannies and throw them in here! Keep them away from the rest of us!’” she said in a mocking voice. I shuddered a little bit when she used that word. So did a woman sitting near me, a thin black woman who piped up for the first time that night to explain that the word in question, she felt, was no different from another heinous word used to describe black people. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was appropriate for me to indicate my agreement.
The discussion of mental illness ebbed and flowed throughout the night. Some mentioned having other mental illnesses, and some were extremely vehement about how hard they’d worked to earn the right to call themselves “not mentally ill” because they were transgender. One said she’d actively tried to hide her obvious symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, because she didn’t want medical professionals to develop a stereotype about all transgender people having Bipolar Disorder. They lived in a world surrounded by stigma attached to mental illness, and they wanted no part of that for themselves or their community.
After the meeting ended, several of the group’s members and I visited a diner nearby. I made new friends there. The age difference didn’t seem to impede my friendships with them initially. If anything, they were only more eager to help. “Oh, you’ll be totally fine,” one of them said in her booming voice, smelling my nervousness radiating off of me. “You transition this young? Christ, you’ll be cute as hell.”
The comments about my appearance made me uncomfortable, even if they were made with good intentions. But these comments were coming from people who’d craved received similar compliments. I couldn’t blame them for making them.
They saw me as an innocent young transgender girl, starved for their wisdom, which they happily regaled upon me without my prompting. My view of them was not exactly the inverse. I didn’t need their wisdom at much as they needed to share it with me. To me, they felt more like equals. After all, we were all transgender women, and we all looked equally like women at this time. By which I mean, none of us really did.
Walking back from the diner to the subway, one of the women — a woman in her 60s or 70s named Katherine (who’d only transitioned a couple of years prior) — caught up with me as we walked down 14th Street, towards the subway. “You know, a lot of these young girls, like you… They come here, to this group, they come to us, they’re nervous, they’re scared, they don’t know what to do, and then we teach them everything. We show them where to get hormones, and where the best support groups are, and we tell them all about the right doctors and the right surgeons,” (surgery was an idea that I’d barely considered at the time). “They come to these meetings for a year or two, and learn everything they need to know.”
“And then they transition,” Katherine said, before letting out a long sigh. “And then they disappear.”
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“They just stop coming back,” she replied, stone-cold. “We give them everything they need and then they stop coming back to the group. We give them so much help, and then they blend into the woodwork, while the rest of us stand out like a sore thumb.”
I rode the train home in silence, reflecting on everything I’d seen and heard. I mostly thought about what Katherine had said. ‘I would never do that’, I thought to myself. ‘No, not me. If these good women teach me what I need, I would never take their wisdom and then abandon them like that’.
‘That’, I decided, ‘would be a cruel, ungrateful thing to do.’
* * *
PART TWO: SOMETIME IN APRIL OF 2015
I spent a while unsure about whether or not to transition. For some transgender people, the consequences of transitioning are greater than the pain of staying your assigned sex. Some know that they will be disowned by their loved ones, kicked out of homes, written out of wills. Some will lose their careers, their friends, their relatives, even custody of their children. I didn’t need to fear these losses the way many other transgender people do, but I still considered not transitioning. I knew that transitioning would be difficult, and I knew I could still lose — at most — a handful of friends, and maybe some relatives.
Whether or not I was transgender was not a question; I was, of that much I was certain. But whether or not I should transition was a much more complicated decision.
I mentioned this to a few of the women at the group, when we met at in the back of the diner on 14th Street after the group in April. Some of them attempted to posit advice to me: “What things and people do you fear you could lose if you transitioned?” “How much happier do you think you would be if you transitioned?” “Are you concerned about blowback in your career?”
Katherine — the woman who warned me about the younger transitioners from the group a year earlier — framed the question much more simply. “When you die, what do you want your gravestone to say? Should it say a male name? Should it say ‘Loving father and husband’? Is that what you want to be buried under?”
“Or should it say something else?” She paused. “Should it say something male or something female? Loving husband or loving wife? Caring father or caring mother? Do you want an accurate gravestone or not?” Then Katherine’s voice became quieter, as though she didn’t want the other tables to hear.
“What your gravestone says is how you’ll be remembered for the rest of eternity.”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “How do you want to be remembered?”
Two things struck me about what she said. The first was the word “eternity”. ‘What a bizarrely biblical word for her to use,’ I thought. ‘What a strange way to describe forever.’
It-ter-nuh-tee, I would slowly whisper to myself on the train that night, feeling my tongue flick around just a little bit between my lips as the word softly passed through them. Ee-ter-nih-tee.
But it was another term that stuck with me more. What stood out most was the particular terminology that she used: “accurate gravestone”. An idea so foreign to the rest of the world — “How could a gravestone not be accurate?” — mattered so much to everyone at this table, including me.
I couldn’t bear the thought of being known — not just in life, but in death as well — as the wrong kind of person. I couldn’t bear the thought of not having an “accurate gravestone”.
I came out to my parents the next day.
* * *
PART THREE: A COLD AFTERNOON IN MID-JANUARY OF 2016
In the winter of 2016, I began taking an American Sign Language class in New York City.
At this point, I’d been on hormone replacement therapy for about five months. My body looked only a little bit different. I had made slight but measurable progress. I wasn’t out of the closet to most people yet. I still used my old name. I showed up to the first day of class expecting to be seen the way I always was: as male. That’s just how I was living at the time. I wasn’t yet ready to live the way I live now.
That being said, I was not pushing myself to present as either a man or a woman. I had no facial hair. I showed up to the meeting with my hair down, just grazing slightly past my shoulders. I wore a puffy purple coat, which most people would’ve categorized as “unisex,” and a matching purple scarf.
My ASL teacher, a Deaf mean in his 30s with a thick black beard, opened up the first lesson by teaching us two simple signs: “same” and “different”. He gestured to three women sitting next to each other. “Same!” he signed at them for the whole class to see. Then, he pointed to a man and a woman sitting next to each other. “Different!”
He kept this up. People sitting next to someone of the same gender had “same” signed at them. But a man and a woman sitting next to each other had “different” pointed at them.
And then he reached me, sitting with two women to my left and two women to my right. “Same, same, same, same, same,” he signed.
* * *
PART FOUR: A FEW WEEKS LATER, ON AN EVENING IN LATE-JANUARY OF 2016
To call myself “elated” after the encounter with the ASL teacher would be an understatement. I’d told nearly every friend I was out to at the time. My friends from home had all reacted happily. “Congratulations! That’s wonderful!” one friend said. Younger trans friends were congratulatory. “It sounds like it’s going well!” Even my parents, who were still getting used to these changes, were excited for me. I was excited to see the older women at the group a few days later, so that I could tell them all about it!
At the diner, I shared a corner of a table with some of the older transitioners, including Katherine, and told them the very same story.
“…and then he signed ‘same’ at me and the women I was sitting between! Isn’t that exciting? He just… He just *saw* me as a woman! I wasn’t even trying!”
Their reaction was nothing. There were no cheers. There was no joy. Their faces fell just slightly.
What had happened completely accidentally to me in my ASL class was something that would never happen to them. They would never been seen on the outside as who they are on the inside. They would never be automatically grouped in with all the other women, let alone so effortlessly. Certainly not without trying really really hard to present themselves just the right way.
Certainly not accidentally.
I had intended to share a happy little story about my progress with them, but all I did was brag about something that they would never have. I’d waved money in a homeless man’s face; I’d shown pictures of my enormous Thanksgiving dinners to a starving woman.
Their experience as a transgender person was one blanketed in the stigma of a mental illness they’d never had. For most of their life, they’d been considered worthy of institutionalization in a mental hospital, not just in the eyes of the general public, but even in the eyes of doctors and mental health experts. They’d been spit on in the street, from the stigma of a mental illness that they didn’t have and that didn’t exist.
But here I was, bragging about my success. Thoughtlessly, carelessly bragging.
I’d made each and every one of the women in that conversation uncomfortable. They didn’t know how to speak up for themselves and say “We will never understand how that feels, and all that we want is to feel it.”
Instead, they sat silently for a few seconds until someone changed the subject. I traveled home that evening with a stomachache.
* * *
PART FIVE: THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS
I realized that Katherine was right all along. Her premonition–that I would learn what I’d needed to learn from this group and then abandon them–was true. But I’m not sure if I abandoned them, or if they abandoned me. Maybe we both abandoned each other. Maybe nobody abandoned anyone.
I know that there was nothing left to fuel a friendship. We had one very important thing in common–we were all transgender–, but what good could that be when such a vast sea of differences stood between us? Their average age was older than my parents, old enough to be my grandparents. I was still a college student, and these women were old enough to collect Social Security. Several of these women had already easily outlived three of my grandparents. They exchanged stories of the Vietnam draft and watching the Watergate scandal unfold.
How in the world could I relate?
A friend of mine — a friend unrelated to this story — immigrated to the United States from Poland in 2005, when she was about 25. Her new next-door neighbor in America — an elderly American-born man in his 70s — immediately introduced her to a friend of his: a 70-year-old woman, who, like her, had immigrated to the United States from Poland at about 25. “The two of you can speak Polish to each other and talk about Poland!” her new neighbor explained excitedly. “I’m sure you’ll have so much to talk about!”
They didn’t. A 45-year age difference, and no interests or hobbies in common, did not a friendship make. They met once briefly, had nothing to talk about, and never spoke again. If a common language and home country couldn’t fuel their friendship, then how could these women and I — people united only by one singular trait — possibly be friends?
By this point, I stood to gain almost nothing from their friendship, and they stood to gain even less from mine. I was a bit heartbroken, but I couldn’t find any reason to keep coming back to that group. I didn’t feel like it would be right to them to share my successes with them. In the end, I got a few of their numbers to text them occasionally, and our contact fizzled.
Katherine’s premonition came true. I never returned to that group.
I left the group with a handful of knowledge, and with the priceless idea of accurate gravestones that had convinced me to transition in the first place. But I left feeling icky about leaving, taking all that knowledge and wisdom and then disappearing, especially so abruptly.
I wonder what Katherine thinks of when she thinks about me, if she even does think about me. I wonder what she thinks of me: a person who got to do something she dreamt of her whole life, something she didn’t even know was possible, a whole 45 years younger than she did. If I didn’t get to transition until my 60s, if I didn’t get to be comfortable in my own body until I was more than triple my age, I would have frustrating feelings about those who transition in their early 20s like me. I wonder if she holds jealousy, anger, bitterness.
Or maybe it’s narcissistic of me to assume that she thinks about me.
Maybe she doesn’t even think about me at all.
* * *
PART SIX: SOMETIME IN DECEMBER OF 2016
I visited the NYC LGBT Community Center for a meditation class one evening, in the same building as the group I’d met Katherine at, nearly three years before. Before the class, I stopped at the coffee shop in the lobby. While watching the slow barista at work, I noticed Katherine in the corner of the lobby, sitting in silence, reading a book. I’m terrible at recognizing faces, but I know it was her: the distinctive wrinkles that wove along her chin and forehead, and her signature wavy/messy hair, growing grayer each day, clinging onto what little brown pigment was left. Most notably, the large scar along the side of her neck that she got in Vietnam.
She looked so content, so peaceful. She was somewhere else, somewhere far away, distracted, lost in her book. I sat at the table at the coffee kiosk for about 15 minutes, peering over my phone at her while I nursed my shitty coffee and pretended to read before my meeting started. She didn’t look up from the book once.
I left her alone. She was busy, and our time together had passed.
* * *
PART SEVEN: JANUARY 11, 2017, AND THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED
Sometimes my coming out feels a little bit fraudulent. It was, at minimum, less eventful than it should have been.
Coming out is supposed to be difficult. I have friends who came out as gay and who lost friends and family for it. One friend’s aunt and uncle sat shiva for her when she told them that she was a lesbian. A friend of mine who lived with her parents was handed a garbage bag and told to “pack her shit and get the fuck out” when she told her dad she was transgender. Katherine’s children didn’t speak to her for a decade, and they are still on difficult terms.
But I faced no backlash. No distant relatives writing me out of their will; no people unfriending me, neither in real life nor on Facebook. One post on Facebook quietly pushed a slightly-refreshed identity to the acquaintances I’d picked up along the way to that moment.
For Katherine, and for most people who transition at her age, such a thing is not possible. I faced essentially no difficulty in coming out publicly. The worst response we received came from one distant relative who told my parents that she would pray for me; she did not make clear whether she meant “I will pray for God to protect your daughter” or “I will pray that God will fix your deranged son”.
That the worst response I received was a “we’re not sure whether this was well-intentioned and just poorly-worded or if she actually hates us” type of response should show the success that I had. Older transitioners are rarely so lucky. Many of their transitions end in bitter divorces and ruined friendships.
Katherine lost her best friend of over 60 years over it. My best friend picked out my name for me. The difficulties that she and I face as transgender people are not equal.
Where would I be if I’d been born in 1950? Where would I be if I had to come out to my grown children, or potentially even to my grandchildren? Would my spouse stand by my side? Would I have to throw away a career? Would I have a best friend who happily suggests a new name for me, or a best friend who cuts off all contact?
The months that followed my own coming out came with many tears: happy tears for me, and very happy tears for the younger transitioners I’ve come to know, who will know even less of adult gender dysphoria than I have. Sad tears–sometimes, very sad tears–for the transgender people I knew who transitioned so late in life, partly because, for many of them, their appearance will never fit their identity, and partly because, as one of them once said, they’ve “wasted the first 55 years of their lives,” living as someone else. Living as someone they never were.
Living as someone they could hardly survive being.
I did that too, but not nearly as long. I think that that kind of anguish, much like interest, compounds over time.
* * *
PART EIGHT: TWO WEEKS AGO (SAMMY)
My part-time job as a babysitter for a few local families finally intersected with this story when I babysit for a family with three children; two boys, 10 and eight, and a two-year-old girl. Or that’s at least what this mom — who needs me to babysit because she has the flu — says when she describes her kids to me over text message. When I meet her in person, I’m informed that her middle child, eight-year-old Sammy, is gender non-conforming, and sometimes likes to dress up as a girl. She asks if I’m comfortable with this, and I say that I am.
Less than an hour after I’ve met the children, Sammy has asked me if I’m a boy or a girl. I say I’m a girl, with an obvious hint of surprise; I’m rarely asked this question. He asks if I was born a girl or if I became one. While shuffling and handing out a new round of Uno cards, I say that I became one (ignoring the incredibly problematic terminology behind the idea of a transgender woman “becoming a girl”). I don’t make eye contact with anyone as I say it.
Both Sammy and his older brother are shocked. The older brother lets out a “wait, really?” but then drops the topic after I answer in the affirmative. Sammy, however, fires off an entire line of questioning for me. He wants to know all about it. He asks if I’m transgender. He asks if my parents were okay with me transitioning. He asks if it was difficult. He asks if I’m happier. I answer all questions with a “Yes” and a small smile.
Three hours later, with his brother out of the house for a little while, his baby sister fast asleep in her crib, and his sick mom fast asleep in her own bed, he tells me that he likes to play dress-up.
“That’s nice,” I respond. I can’t act too excited; that could be seen as encouraging it, which some parents wouldn’t be okay with. But I can’t act uninterested, because, well, I’m definitely a little bit interested.
“Did… you ever play dress-up when you were a kid?” he mumbles.
I very softly nod, as though I don’t want anyone to hear me, even though we’re the only two people in earshot.
He lights up. “Do you want to see me play dress-up?”
He interprets my gentle nod as a wild enthusiastic “yes”, and bolts up the stairs. He returns five minutes later, out of breath, wearing an inexpensive wig with hair about as long as my natural hair, a small pink t-shirt, and a skirt with purple tights on underneath. “Ta-da!” he yells.
Only a minute later, as if nothing just happened, he returns to playing with the toys he was playing with before. There’s something different in the way he carries himself. There’s a small sliver of strength that wasn’t there before. There’s a slight feeling of confidence in the air. A child has gained a shitload of confidence, and she’s much happier now. Shit. I mean, he. He’s much happier. I’m still supposed to call her a “he”. Him, dammit. This is really difficult to do with a kid who looks like a girl.
I keep accidentally calling him “he”. I ask him if he prefers being called “he” or “she”; he says he’s fine with either one, but when his mom comes downstairs and I talk to her for a few minutes, it becomes clear that — although she is perfectly fine with the dress-up — she is certainly not okay with anything other than “he”. He wears the outfit for the rest of the evening, and when his mom comes downstairs to walk me out, I keep accidentally calling her son “she,” because this child that she calls her “son” just looks like a girl.
If he’s even transgender at all — he seems uninterested in actually transitioning for now — there’s plenty I could help him with. But we’re at different points in our lives. I’m much older, and we have very little in common.
If he is transgender, he’ll likely spend a lot less time being called mentally ill than I did, just like I spent less time being called mentally ill than my older peers. Similarly, he’ll likely want little of my help; if he’s anything like I was, he’ll likely want almost none of my help at all. He’ll get support from people his own age, and the Internet might fill in the gaps. Maybe I’ll abandon him by needing a transgender youngster to mentor, and maybe he’ll abandon me by not needing my help. For now, our only relationship is as a child who needs a caretaker, and a babysitter who needs some extra money. Nothing else brings us together, and it’s certainly possible that nothing ever will. But that’s okay.
I know the people that I first reached out to for guidance probably think that the younger transitioners come to them for help and then toss them aside when they’re finished with them. From their perspective, that’s a pretty understandable interpretation of the truth. If I hadn’t had to deal with them trying to show their support for me by giving me piles of advice I didn’t really need, I’d probably be far too eager to present Sammy with that very same thing.
* * *
PART NINE: THREE DAYS FROM NOW
I still have one good friend from that group: Danielle, a vibrant blonde woman of about 35, and undoubtedly the youngest person I met at the group who still frequently attends it. Danielle and I hang out from time to time and discuss what’s been happening at the group. It gives me a chance to observe the drama of the group from a careful distance. Today, she sent me a text updating me on some recent events.
Katherine passed away yesterday. Danielle was interested in whether I would be attending the funeral, three days from now.
I won’t be able to attend the funeral. I couldn’t make it if I wanted to; I’m currently volunteering as a camp counselor at a summer camp in New Hampshire, and I can’t sneak out to New York for a funeral, but I’ll spend some time thinking about her. I’ll be a bit distracted from what I’m supposed to be doing today, but I’ll mourn her as best as I can.
* * *
PART TEN: ETERNITY
When I met Katherine, I would have told you that we had only one important thing in common: that being transgender was the only trait we shared. But that would be incorrect.
Katherine and I will someday have another thing in common: we will both be buried beneath an accurate gravestone. We will each rest under a gravestone that says the right name and the right words, and we will rest there for eternity. Ee-ter-nih-tee.
She and I don’t have much in common. We both struggled for our whole lives with how we were born, and we both struggled with the stigma of a mental illness that no longer exists. But I believe the most important thing we have in common is that we both fought for our accurate gravestones, and that someday, she and I will both rest in peace forever beneath our accurate gravestones. This loss is sudden and sad, and I’m supposed to appear sad when I’m mourning the loss of a friend, but knowing that she’ll forever rest beneath a gravestone that describes her properly will keep a little smile on my face for today, and for tomorrow, and for eternity.
*Editor’s Note: Gender dysphoria remains an overarching diagnosis for trans individuals in the latest edition of the DSM and the language of the DSM still largely reinforces gender as a binary system.
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