“Where were my big sisters?” Trans women elders and their community

It’s interesting how some things stay with you.

It’s been over a year since I read Kai Cheng Thom’s book, I Hope We Choose Love, but I never forgot the questions she asked in one of her essays: “Where were my big sisters? Where were my foremothers? Where were the older trans women, the accomplished trans women, the fierce survivor trans women that queer culture is so fond of mythologizing in my life?”

Thom’s answer to her own question is maybe more accurate than she knows. “Some of them died. Others went mad. Perhaps there are others who simply dropped out of the public eye – as much as any trans woman can – to try to live quieter, less visible lives.”

I’m a 66-year-old trans woman, and one who often asks herself why she doesn’t drop out and live a less visible life, but since Thom’s question has stayed with me, I thought I’d fill out her answer as much as I can.

Demographics obviously play a big role here. Trans women my age were not a big cohort to begin with. Sure, there were many of us out there, but there weren’t many of us who were actually out. Of this reduced number, I’m saddened when I take the tally of how many have died.

A few years ago, I ran into a trans woman older than myself who I considered a mentor when I was young. She was a mentor to many, actually, and trans folks who knew her often ask me, “Whatever happened to…?” Inevitably I got around to asking her about the intervening years. She sent me her reply in an email. Here are some of her observations, with my comments following lest the passage of years has obscured the reality under which we were living.

After I achieved my goal (transition), I just wanted to live a happy life as a woman, and forget all the pain that had preceded it.

The 70s and 80s were highly transphobic times. There was little joy in being trans. Your best chance at escaping the life was medical transition, if you could get past the gatekeepers. If you couldn’t, hormones acquired illegally and self-administered based on other trans women’s knowledge of correct dosage was not uncommon. Even many of the trans women I knew who were of an activist bent, ended their activism and disappeared when they transitioned. Trust me, they have no desire to come back.

Socializing with what appeared to the public to be “men in dresses” drew attention to me as possibly being one of them.

Her observation about “men in dresses” may seem transphobic, but it’s a reflection of how we were perceived and how we struggled to escape the identification. Those who “passed” as cisgender were more privileged than those who didn’t because in a transphobic world if you can slip into the mainstream not only are you safer, your identity is not being misinterpreted or challenged. (Privileged as I’m using it here is a relative term. I’m sure they weren’t feeling privileged when they were being bullied as kids.)

I no longer wanted to associate with those unhappy people as a group. I just wanted to be a normal person.

Ouch. Her comment about “unhappy people” was a hard truth then, and can still be now. In her essay, Thom talks about there being “no respite in either my personal or professional life from narratives of trauma, enormous responsibility, and scrutiny.” At some point, self-preservation must take precedence over feelings of responsibility. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself. If your best path requires you to abandon the trans community, then that’s what you need to do.

You don’t have to have lived through those times to understand all this. I often hear trans youth express how tired they are. That’s a commonality we share. It’s exhausting being trans.

Thom knows this, of course. In her essay, she mentions the numerous ways trans women are abused. “We carry the stigma…of being dangerous, perverted, mentally ill, deceptive, aberrant. On the flip side, trans women are also fetishized – not only sexually but ideologically.” All that is no doubt true, but many trans folks don’t face that drama every day. It’s the mundane aspect of being trans that takes its toll.

We still live in a time in which trans folks cannot just be. You are who you are, but too many people insist that you can’t be who you are. This is not like arguing about politics, which god knows can be tiresome. You can walk away from that and regard it as a difference of opinion (however misguided). It’s hard to walk away from people telling you that you can’t or don’t exist. It undermines you as a human being. You have to fight for your identity, but you’re only fighting for something that other people have the privilege of taking for granted. It’s exhausting when you’re running to remain in the same place.

I hate to paint a dismal picture of this, but if you’re fed up with it already, then imagine how it feels after fifty or sixty years. The good news is that it does get better. The bad news is you carry your trauma with you, and as you get older and you find some place that’s comfortable – and you will, whether that’s in someone’s arms or in a place that allows you to breathe and grow – you don’t feel like reliving past pain.

You may wonder then why I’m still doing this. I wonder, and often, but I can’t change who I am. I have an itch for social justice that won’t go away and by staying active I feel like I’m doing my part, however small. Self-preservation is, however, never far from my accounting.

Writing and keeping a website still allows me to keep a safe distance. I’m not on social media because I couldn’t be bothered, and whether this website gets ten or a hundred visits a day won’t change what I’m doing. Every writer likes to have her work read, of course, but I’m not going to kill myself for visitors. If I need a vacation from being trans, I’m going to take it.

I believe a healthy society is one in which all ages participate, but prolonged transphobia has prevented us from achieving that idealized state. What I like about many of Thom’s essays in her book is her facing the reality that the queer community is not what she thought it was and feeling out her place in it and where she’s going next. We’re all going to get older – it’s better than the alternative, as the old saying goes – and it’s helpful to think about who we want to be when we get there.

Here’s the link to my review of I Hope We Choose Love. I enjoyed it the first time, but I appreciate it more now upon further reflection. It’s a thoughtful collection of essays.