Sat 17 Nov 2018
Early in October, Ruth Rose went on holiday to Corfu with a group of female friends she had known for years. They swam in the sea every day, making the most of the late summer sunshine. On the last morning before flying home to England, the women took one last swim and skinny-dipped so as not to have to pack their costumes away wet.
Such adventures would once have been unthinkable for Rose. But the surgery she underwent at the age of 81 has opened doors she would never have thought possible. “In some ways it’s like having new hips after being told you would be condemned to arthritis for the rest of your life,” she says. “You do it, and life begins again. And that’s what happened to me. Age has nothing to do with it.”
When we read about people transitioning gender, the focus is often on teenagers; in an emotive debate about access to school changing rooms and Guides camping trips, older trans people are rendered almost invisible. Yet there are more than five times as many adult as child gender identity patients in the UK. Some are now having gender reassignment surgery not just in late middle age, but well into retirement.
The numbers remain tiny, but they are rising; according to the NHS, 75 people aged between 61 and 71 had gender reassignment operations in the seven years to 2015-16, and that’s not counting people who quietly transition without surgery. These trans baby boomers are now beginning to challenge received ideas not just about gender but age, and the capacity of older people to live bold, adventurous lives. “I think people need to learn quite fast that older people no longer all fit the white-haired granny stereotype,” says Jane Vass, the head of public policy at Age UK. The charity recently published advice to older people who are transitioning, covering everything from the impact on state pension ages to what to write on death certificates.
“If it was ever true that older people were all the same, it’s certainly not now. And yet we still seem to respond as a society to a very narrow view of what ageing is,” adds Vass. Later life is full of changes, she points out, from the end of a career to the death of a spouse. Why wouldn’t it also be a time in which people embrace opportunities denied them in the past, before it’s too late?
It’s perhaps only now that many older people feel comfortable coming out, having grown up in a time when being trans was so steeped in shame and silence that many couldn’t even put a name to what they felt. “I remember as a child thinking, am I unique? Am I strangely perverted?” says Christine Burns, the 64-year-old trans activist and author of the social history Trans Britain: Our Journey From The Shadows. It was only in the 1960s, when the Sunday People newspaper began salaciously to out trans people – most famously the Vogue model April Ashley – that she understood she was not alone. “To see those stories, egregious as they were, helped in a sense. I always say that, on that Sunday morning, I learned there was a name for people like me, but also that it was worse than I feared.”
Half a century on, trans people undoubtedly still experience stigma and discrimination. Fierce debate about proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which could enable people to identify themselves as trans rather than going through a drawn-out process of medical and psychiatric assessment, has turned trans acceptance into a political football. But for those raised in an era when men could be arrested just for wearing women’s clothes in public, the thaw in public attitudes is still striking. “When I first came out [in the 1970s], I got reported to the police and my employer, for being in charge of a company vehicle dressed as a woman,” recalls Jenny-Anne Bishop, the chair of the support group Trans Forum, who had gender reassignment surgery at the age of 59. “Now I’m as likely to have lunch with the chief constable to discuss hate crime reporting. It’s changed that much.”
Tue 13 Nov 2018
Recently a colleague asked me what it was like growing up gay in Arkansas. Even I was surprised to find I didn’t have an answer. After all, I should be an expert on that subject – and, indeed, a couple of horror stories she no doubt expected to hear are true.
However, as an adolescent, my sexual orientation, dormant as I kept it, wasn’t the reason I felt queer. Right after I hit puberty, my mother and I moved to a university town from a small farm community to escape the aftermath of my parents’ divorce, and in the years that followed she had to work too many hours at too many jobs for too little money to make ends meet. Periodically she entered a depression and I, in an attempt to prevent it, strove to be perfect.
Though my efforts to stop my mother’s depression failed, as consolation my perfectionism earned me a subsidized spot at an elite university. This rendered my queerness in even starker contrast, since I was now among a student body primarily from the top 20% of wealthiest families in the country.
Though I developed many deep friendships at college, the fact of the matter was that I had a set of concerns quite different from those of nearly all my peers. They worried about flawless GPAs and gradations of the Greek system and whether or not their parents would bankroll tropical breaks. I worried about my mom’s financial and emotional survival and how I was going to get to and from Arkansas and whether or not I could find an internship that would simply pay.
It wasn’t until later that I would worry about the balance and exorbitant interest rate of the credit card I had just gotten, because for now it was a relief to be able to buy dinner off-campus or a shirt on clearance without having to do mental math to make certain I could afford it.
To further complicate my situation, being the first person in my family to eventually finish college, and one of only a few of us to leave Arkansas, I had now transformed myself into an alien among even my own people.
For years there were these more urgent obstacles of class to navigate before I could afford the luxury of parsing my sexuality. Now that I’m a writer, now that I’m a professor, now that I’m 37 and still happily single – the fact that I’m gay is one of the least queer things about me.
Because I believe in the importance of representation of minorities in the classroom, and because one’s sexual orientation typically isn’t apparent, as a senior lecturer now at Vanderbilt University – the same institution I attended as an undergraduate – I often wonder if I should come out to my students at the beginning of each semester.
I envy my LGBT colleagues who are married or otherwise partnered and thus set to reveal this aspect of their identities organically – for example, by simply mentioning what they did over break and with whom. My own necessarily unprompted coming-out, as a single man, probably would land with all the awkwardness of a revelatory sit-down with Mom and Dad, which I never had with my parents.
Recently, though, I realized the same need for representation in the classroom of first-generation college students – representation of those of us from the working class. A year ago, in conjunction with the university’s office for equity, diversity and inclusion, I met with a contingent of Vanderbilt’s faculty members, administrators and the president of the student body – all of us first-generation college graduates – to discuss how the university might better serve its own first-generation students, who across the country have higher rates of stress and depression, and lower rates of retention, than their peers.
What I was most surprised to learn in that meeting was that nearly everyone present reported that their working-class status had had a greater impact on their experience as undergraduates – for some of them, on their entire lives – than did any other aspect of their identity, including race, gender and sexual orientation.
How best then, for those of us who’ve risen from poverty to positions of power and influence, positions of financial stability, to help our younger counterparts, those who are struggling to rise themselves? We should make ourselves seen and heard. We should stand before low-income students as concrete examples of where they might go and whom they might become and what they might be. We should come out to them as working class.
By Gwendolyn Smith
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Two decades ago, a black trans woman by the name of Rita Hester was stabbed multiple times in her first-floor apartment in Boston, Massachusetts. The police arrived at her apartment to find her in cardiac arrest. She was pronounced dead after she was transported to a local hospital.
Two decades later, Rita Hester’s death has yet to be solved.
At the time, I was operating an online forum for transgender people on America Online. The web was only starting to gain popularity, and many people on the internet still used commercial services like AOL and CompuServe.
Talking with others in the forum’s chat room, The Gazebo, I brought up the Rita Hester murder. As we discussed the death, I noted how similar Hester’s death was to another anti-transgender murder that took place three years prior, that of Chanelle Pickett.
It’s not to say that these two deaths were actually linked, as the murderer of Pickett, William Palmer, was in jail at the time of Hester’s murder. Nevertheless, I noted that both were trans women of color, both had gone out to a bar before heading home, both were in Boston, and both were killed near the end of November.
The others in the room — including two members from Boston — had never heard of Channel Pickett.
This shocked me: while it had been three years since Pickett’s murder, the trial had only wrapped up less than a year and a half prior, and had received a fair amount of local media coverage.
George Santayana, a philosopher and writer, once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In that moment, my own community was living that quote: we were forgetting the people we had lost due to anti-transgender violence, and opening the door for future death.
Nov. 20 is recognized as Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we honor the lives of those we lost at the hands of anti-transgender violence. In 2017, advocates tracked at least 29 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. due to violence, the most ever recorded. This fatal violence disproportionately affects trans women of color.
Trans people in the United States are more likely to be homeless, unemployed and lack health insurance, and they often live at the complex intersections of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and classism. As we reflect today on the immense loss and violence the trans community faces, it’s critical that we as allies strategize our place in the movement for trans equity and justice.
One of the most prominent spaces where trans communities historically have been made invisible is within mainstream feminism. Transgender women and communities are largely excluded from prominent cultural conversations about gendered oppression, the harms of patriarchy, and how to advance and fight for gender equality, despite being the most vulnerable in a binary-enforcing culture.
And because feminists have long contributed to trans erasure, it is absolutely critical that feminists step up and put themselves on the front lines fighting for trans liberation today and every day.
Take, for example, the Women’s March ― of which pink “pussy hats” have become synonymous. Where the Women’s March included the leadership of many prominent women of color activists, the exclusion of trans women and the utilization of “pussy hats,” which equate a place in the movement for gender equity with having a vagina, was alienating to many trans and nonbinary people.
Trans communities have so much to lose under the Trump administration, so this blatant oversight is all the more problematic.
Since Donald Trump took office, this administration has taken numerous steps to roll back LGBTQ rights, from refusing to protect trans students to denying visas to diplomats’ same-sex partners to banning trans individuals from serving in the military and dismissing the advisory council for HIV and AIDS. Last month, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration is planning to exclude transgender and nonbinary people from its legal definition of gender, which, if implemented, would have devastating effects on trans communities’ access to health care, housing, education and civil rights.
However, the erasure of trans experiences and identities existed long before Trump came to power. When we look at the national conversation on gender equity and feminism, from the Me Too movement to the gender wage gap, trans women and communities continue to be left behind in favor of centering the experiences of cisgender white women.