Aging and Transgender: What Happens To Those Who Age Out Of Activism
While it’s true that some Transgender and gender diverse people have children or families, a great number of us do not. In fact, the more common experience of the younger Trans person is one of familial rejection. In America, 40% of the homeless youth served by shelters and support agencies identify as LGBT. When you consider that LGBT youth represent only about 7% of the total youth population, the statistics are alarmingly and disproportionately high.
In these circumstances, many LGBT people end up creating self-made families when we are abandoned by our own. I am one of those people. There are others, however, who slip into isolation, specifically those struggling with mental illness which prevents them from developing long term friendships or nurturing intimate relationships. Because of this, aging Transgender identifying men and women often end up unwed, childless and alone.
Maggie is a 62 years old Trans woman from New Jersey. She does not have children and was never married. “To the world I was always just gay. I was an effeminate boy, but I knew I was a little girl.”
Maggie’s father kicked her out of their family home when he caught her with a magazine featuring gay pornography. She ended up on the streets, sleeping in abandoned houses or in dumpsters to avoid harsh weather conditions. “There were no people offering help for Transgender people back then except in the bigger cities in small pockets. Sylvia Rivera had a house in Brooklyn called the Star House that was exclusively for young Trans people who had been discarded. But the general focus was really on the gay community, and they had to build it up like you build a city. They laid their groundwork, established resource centers, developed a resistance, fought for their rights, embraced the youth, became political, founded their own stake in society that had momentum, you know? It took 30-some years and a couple generations of non-stop hell. But they became part of our culture, not just a bunch of oddities sitting outside of it.” She says.
“I started out just dressing in drag which was like my coming out. I was comfortable and it was more acceptable at the time, even in the LGBT community, it was easier and way more accepting to be a funny, chubby drag queen rather than a Transgender lady. It was a stepping stone to self acceptance, after trying to be a gay man for so long, when I allowed myself to sort of acknowledge that I’m not a gay boy in a dress. I’m a woman. I lost a lot of years to trying to be something I wasn’t because I was afraid, oddly enough, of being turned away all over again by the gay friends who accepted me as a lovable drag queen who made dick jokes in bars. When I did come out finally, dressing feminine and more natural in the day instead of just androgynous, which was cool to do in the 80’s anyway, I found a lot of my friends were- they sort of took to staying at arms length. Maybe it is because there wasn’t as much information available about, you know, being transgender at the time or they just didn’t know how to process it. Maybe they thought I wouldn’t be able to be as funny or they couldn’t laugh at my jokes anymore. Maybe my natural, subdued makeup looked like a doberman took a dump on my face and they were embarrassed. I don’t know.”
Maggie, who collects disability, lives in a small apartment complex. She is the only Transgender woman that lives there as far as she knows. “I don’t try to get around and know people here. I don’t going around knocking on their doors yelling “Hey, any other Transgender folks cooped up in there that love The Price Is Right as much as I do?” I like to leave people alone and I mind my own business. I’m not really interested in all that socializing anymore. It’s just too much. Everyone is so agitated and the whole world is fighting each other over the stupidest things. I like the quiet. I like my privacy. I listen to my music or put on the television, I live in my own little safe bubble here and I’m just fine that way. Better off.”
When we discuss aging, and where that leaves her, and others like her across the Trans spectrum she laughs, “We’re all decaying from the second we have the cord cut, like a bunch of bananas. We’re nice and ripe for awhile and we look delicious, but eventually we turn spotty and unpleasant to look at. When you’re young, you don’t think about getting old. I never saw myself old. At one point I thought I’d be dead by thirty. Now look at me, I’m still gorgeous, just like a Queen Anne House, except my paint is chipping and my roof has a few holes in it, but I’m a piece of nostalgia. At least in my own mind. To the young people out there today, the marchers and the protesters and sit-inners and sit-downers and stand-uppers or whatever it is now, I can barely walk. I’m not an asset. I don’t have much real-estate value anymore. I’m older and single, and that isn’t going to change. When my brain dies- let me rephrase because half the country is already brain dead if you ask me- when my lights go out, when my candle is snuffed, I hope it happens all at one. BAM. I don’t want to be left lingering. There is no one to make any decisions for me, or to bring me flowers or thoughtful cards, or wipe my mouth when I’m drooling on my bib. Who in the hell is going to write my obituary? Christ almighty. I’ll have to hire someone beforehand to make me sound far more interesting and accomplished.”
“My parents are dead, they had their children and grandchildren, like most of the people who live around here who get visitors from family. You see people bringing in balloons for some old lady’s birthday or a bunch of little kids, families on special occasions. I don’t have those things. I don’t know that it’s healthy to say I wish I did, because how can you miss what you never had. I sometimes wonder what it feels like, to not be alone in the bigger picture. But it wasn’t in my cards. I don’t have pictures of family on my walls. I have one of Richard Petty, he was a race car driver, and he’s dead already so, maybe he’ll be waiting for me at the pearly gates. I was loyal to you Richard, god damn it!” She laughs and then trails off. “I suppose it would be a lot better if I were rich, which is why I play the powerball. Saving that, I don’t know what would happen if I have a heart attack or a stroke or I can’t walk or talk, or god forbid have an accident because my Life Alert battery has been dead for 3 years. I have no idea what happens to old Transgrannies when we’re too worse off for even this pasture. I don’t know who would pick my nursing home, or who would pay for it. My best guess is the state decides what to do with me as long as I have a pulse, which isn’t exactly ideal. Sort of like letting the cats choose which branch to hang the birdhouse from. I’ve not got a penny to my name at the end of the month so no one will be concerned with fighting over my property, unless they want my padded toilet seat which, to me, is my one luxury. It’s the best feeling in the world and oh-so satisfying to sit my fat ass down on a puffy warm seat and listen to the air hiss out of it. I am such a posh lady. I never have an opportunity to brag about my foam toilet seat, which is a real shame. I don’t know what they’ll do with it after I’m gone. Maybe I should be buried with it, or cremated, whatever they decide to do.”
“It’s a little liberating, I guess.” Maggie says of having no one to be responsible for her in her golden years. “It means I don’t have an obligation to keep anyone else happy for fear they’ll sick me in a home with a Nurse straight out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Kids are vengeful. Don’t think they’re not considering that time you took away the remote from their video game because they got an F in science when they’re picking where to put you once you become a bobble-head. I certainly appreciate that I don’t have a family to be a burden too, or a husband who has to mourn for the rest of his life- which I would be sure it was for the rest of his life because if he got remarried I’d dig my way up out of that grave and haunt him for being a cheater. I’m terribly jealous, and if anything could bring me back from the dead it’s the idea of my husband being with someone younger or prettier than me. I wouldn’t have it. I’m old fashioned that way.”
Maggie is, in fact, not alone. Generations of Trans men and women have aged out of our activism priorities. Resources designed to serve elderly Trans identifying people are few and far between. We speak often about LGBT homelessness and mental illness as it pertains to our youth, but rarely do we discuss the effects on the elderly or disabled Transgender Americans who, with no family, often end up homeless as well.
Earlier we mentioned Sylvia Rivera, the pioneering Transgender woman who played a pivotal role in establishing pride events and LGBT rights around the country. She advocated heavily for homeless LGBT youth, recognizing that it was an epidemic that afflicted the community to devastating effect.
It must be mentioned that Sylvia, herself, was a long time sufferer of mental illness, and tragically, in her later years, also became homeless, living in a campsite on the banks of Hudson River. During this period of her life, her friend, Randy Wicker, interviewed her. Unfortunately, much of the content is gone from the internet, but there had been, as recently as last year, a piece from this same interview where the police arrived and began making the homeless people move as Sylvia pleaded with them not to touch her things. I find it deeply tragic that a woman who fought so hard for gay rights and worked so tirelessly to end homelessness, ended up homeless herself when she aged.
With gender being such a political hot-button issue and legislation still being raised by lawmakers to prevent trans identifying men and women from using the bathroom in states like North Carolina and Alaska, it has preoccupied our focus on the here and now, the ground on which we stand, but all too often we forget about the people who were here before- and remain here, but they’re older, less visible, and less capable of rallying to their own defense. They may not be sisters, or grandmothers, but they are our pioneers, and without them, we would not have as much momentum as we have today.
Our movement was built on the backs of those who are now elderly, disabled, and all to often, alone. We cannot let them be forgotten as well.