Sky, 64, Palm Springs, CA, 2016
I identify as a polyamorous gay trans man, primarily with a bear bent. A gay man that happens to be very different from many other gay men, but definitely polyamorous. My partner and I have been together a little more than twenty-five years, and that was the core beginning of our relationship.
My way here was as part of the women’s community. I failed miserably as a lesbian. I had sex with too many men. So it just wasn’t right. I moved to San Francisco in 1986 and became very involved in the women’s SM community. I am one of the founders of International Ms. Leather. I had to hide being a trans man for a while because I thought they would take my “card” away. Well, I finally committed and said, “This is not right.” So that’s when I began to transition and never looked back.
I also identify as a dad. My son just turned eleven last week. He’s actually my grandson; my daughter passed away six years ago from cancer. When she passed, he realized very quickly that he didn’t have a mom and he didn’t have a dad, so we let him figure out how that felt to him and what he wanted to do about it. And he decided he wanted dads. I think he’s pretty clear that we’re grandpas, but it doesn’t suit him. We let him choose names for us as well, so I’m Papa and my partner is Daddy Bear. And he always introduces us as his dads.
I’ve long thought that there’s no better school than the world. So we, the little guy and I, will hit the road full-time soon in our RV. We have lots and lots of plans. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to travel anywhere I want to – and I travel a fair amount – and not get any sorts of flack. People assume I’m either a Vietnam vet, a biker, or someone totally crazy you better not fuck with. Either of those three things tends to work for me until I open my mouth and a purse falls out.
I live in abundance of many things: experiences, family, friends, serendipity. Living in abundance is what keeps us healthy and happy. You can’t be shackled by the minutiae of stress and expect to have a full life, and to be fearful feeds into that minutiae. Life really begins when you step out of fear. I’m gonna go where I’m gonna go. I’m gonna go see what I’m gonna see. He and I are going to have adventures without living in fear!
SueZie, 51, and Cheryl, 55, Valrico, FL, 2015
SueZie: I never thought transition would be a reality in my lifetime. After struggling for years, I finally asked Cheryl, “What about surgery?” And she looked at me and said, “Go for it.” Finally she had realized how serious I was. Every night I used to sit in the lanai smoking away, and just thinking, “Can I do it? Can I not? Can I do it? Can I not?” Every night. For years. I also had bad asthma, COPD, sleep apnea, acid reflux, migraines, you name it. But when I started going through the motions everything pretty much vanished overnight. All those illnesses, all those stresses, gone. I said to Cheryl that I felt so good I could probably give up smoking and I wouldn’t even notice. Didn't have another one.
Years of self-administering hormones caused a complication that threatened my chances for surgery. I said to Cheryl, “I’ll die as female. Nothing is stopping that surgery.” If there was a 95% chance of failure, of dying on the operating table, that was a risk I was willing to take. I could not go on how I was. My greatest challenge, it came from within. It was having the confidence to face the world out there. The perception that everyone isn’t going to accept you, it’s a little unfounded. When you first come out, you’re pretty rough. You get a few people to support you. Plenty that don’t. As you start looking better, people start changing their opinions, they swap sides. They join the winning side. And you start getting more supporters.
I don’t care what other people think. “Peripheral blurring,” that’s what I call it. I am aware but don’t pay attention to those negatives to my left and right; I only focus on the positive reactions ahead and in front. So now I go out, bold. I’m in the real high heels, and I have the striking hair. How I see it is, if you’re bold, it’s very positive. It’s not wishy-washy. When you’re positive, it builds your confidence, and of course confidence is attractive, and with attraction comes acceptance. That’s my theory on the whole thing. Bold first, stand out.
Cheryl: When we got married, I never imagined that someday my husband would become my wife. Right from the start, SueZie confided that she identified as female on the inside, but transition never appeared to be an option. But, I never had a problem with her wearing lingerie. You know, it’s just clothes. I fell in love with the person inside, and what’s on the outside is more about what they feel comfortable with. In 2009, when she said she wanted to transition, I admit I wasn’t very accepting. It was more like “What’s going to happen to the kids and what are people going to think?” At that time we weren’t strong enough to risk losing everything, including each other.
I asked her when our son Jaison was born, “Are you even happy?” Because there was no emotion. After transition, it was a total 180. Her disposition improved and our life around here got better. I saw the difference in her and how much it really affected her. I had never seen happiness come out of her eyes before. It was truly amazing. It was difficult and a learning process, because, for instance, I was always heterosexual, never a lesbian. We say I became a lesbian by attrition.
But everything was for the better and it’s working out okay. Even our intimacy has elevated. As I tell people, “I fell in love with the person, not the appendages.” I’ll always love her and we are always there for each other, deeply connected. Jaison has always known that she wears “girlie clothes,” as he calls them, so he’s good with it, too. We’re doing well. The smiles. Never had smiles before. If you’ve seen the pictures of before, you could see the sadness, there was no light in the eyes, there was no smile on the face. Now you can’t stop it.
What am I looking forward to in the future? Maybe she’ll get a little quicker on her makeup in the morning! Gosh. The future. It’s a whole new way of life. We’ve had fourteen years now, and I hope we’ve got another fourteen years ahead of us. I’m excited to see what the future’s going to hold, but also a little nervous. The unknown can be daunting, but we will face it together. I’m really looking forward to it.
Duchess Milan, 69, Los Angeles, CA, 2017
I just know I’m me. I don’t think in terms of names and forms and all that. It doesn't matter. I’m just myself and that's who I am. I am at peace with myself. It is the most wonderful feeling in the world because you’re never in a hurry to get somewhere, you know, to prove to anyone that you’re who you know you are. I know who I am, and what other people think about me is none of my business. So that’s who I am. I identify as the Duchess.
I knew that I might lose family, that people might reject me. But I weighed that, and I thought, “If I lose everything and everybody, but I keep me, that's all that matters. That's all that matters, because I'm not going to live a life that I'm not happy in, for other people. Why? It doesn't make any sense.” So I put my money down and took my chances. My family accepted me. They came to accept me, and I've had kids around me, I've gone to all the weddings, all the funerals, and it's a situation that everybody just thinks of me as who I am. It's not even an issue anymore. "Oh, you mean her? Oh, that's just Auntie.”
My grandmother was a country woman, and she had a lot of sayings. I always heard all my life, “This is how it is. This is what it is. If you plant tomatoes, you're going to pick tomatoes. Okay? Don't plant bell peppers and then look for tomatoes. Okay?” And so many people do that! And then they end up with the bell peppers and say, "Well, I don't like this.” Well, of course not, honey, because you were going for tomatoes. So always go for what you know you feel!
My mother said when you die, you stand there before the light, and you say, "Was I worthy of myself to know that I have liked me?" Okay? I like me. Okay? And I will tell the whole chorus, honey, "I like me." I don't hurt anybody, I don't do anybody wrong, you know. I’ve dealt with everything I can, as much as I can. So just find that inside yourself and take time with that person. Faults, flaws, wishes, all of it, it doesn't matter. We're not going to get it all. None of us gets it all. Okay? But what we do have, we can polish. We can polish it, honey, till it blinds them.
Mitch, 55, Seattle, WA, 2016
In 1995, I met my partner in the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus. She was the alto that sat behind me with the really cool shoes and the good taste in music, and our first date was to see Melissa Etheridge. We have been together for twenty-one years.
I started my transition when I was forty-two years old, in 2002. We both knew that things may be up for grabs again once the testosterone kicked in because you kind of have to figure things out all over again. I finally inhabited the body I always inhabited in my head, and other people were recognizing that from the outside. As I transitioned, I had the opportunity to try out a new identity sexually and I found that, as a man, I connected with men. Some gay men had trouble understanding why I would have transitioned if I wanted to have sex with men all along. But I would tell them, “Well, look at it this way: I was gay before and I’m gay now. For whatever reason, however that works, I have no idea. But that's the way it is. And you're lucky, because I’m with you now." My partner and I had to come to an understanding. We weren’t going to throw away the longevity that we had as partners, but I do have permission to explore sex with men. Now I identify mostly as a gay male.
My dad has Alzheimer’s, which often results in people having long-term memory but remembering nothing in the short term. After I came out to him as transgender, he never got my name wrong, he never messed up my pronouns. He sent me a birthday card that said “To my son.” I remember how that hit me, I went and I cried. You know, it was the kind of acceptance that you hope for but don’t expect. But all of a sudden, he wasn't able to recognize who I was. In his memory, he had two daughters. He started telling me stories from his Army days and asking me where I parked the plane, what airport I flew into, things like that. And I started realizing that he was connecting with someone else. His best Army buddy was my uncle. So I realized he thought I was him, and he started telling me stories about women, saying things like, "Oh yeah, she's the one with the big boobs, right? I think I tried to get with her one night, I tried to kiss her and she wasn’t having any of that. What ever happened to her?" And I said, "Well, you married her. That was my mom.”
So I’m looking at my dad and I’m thinking, “What happens when I end up in this situation?” I need to get my papers in order. I need to make sure I have end of life stuff written out. Because by the point at which you are no longer able to make those decisions and you begin forgetting things, what if I forget I’m trans? If they are dressing me differently in this place because of my body, then am I gonna know the difference? And who's gonna advocate for me? I worry about isolation, even though I have a partner. I can count on one hand the number of people that I would feel comfortable enough to say, "Hey, something happened, Amy's out of town, can you come over and take me to the hospital?"
Even in the LGBT community, it can feel very isolating for FTM guys. We become invisible. If you pass as a man, sometimes you don’t even feel welcome in LGB spaces. When my partner and I show up to events, nobody thinks we’re queer. We look like a little old straight couple. And it's like, "Oh girl, if you only knew… I was every letter of LGBT long before you were born!”
Vanessa, 51, Atlanta, GA, 2016
I see myself as a born woman. At three years old, I can remember wondering what happened to my vagina and why I didn’t have one. Because I was looking for that. When I was a child, I had dolls, dresses, things from my grandparents in West Virginia. My mother's mother used to visit from New Jersey and say, "That one should have been a girl. That's a pretty little boy. It should have been a girl."
I tried to join the military to get away, to be a man. That didn't work. When I was in the military, I would go to the base club, and I would get asked to dance by men because they thought I was a black woman with short hair. I always knew that I was Vanessa, that I was a woman, and it had to come out. I joined the military when I was nineteen and did six years. I was a woman on the weekends. I looked forward to getting my hotel room and being Vanessa. And six years of weekends, you know, it just got old. The reason I didn't stay in the military was because I had to be Vanessa full-time.
Family has been my worst enemy. Everybody else has embraced me. Even people who didn't embrace me came along because they got to know me. I have two sisters and five brothers and I'm next to the youngest. I always wanted to be my sister because she was beautiful. I used to sneak into her makeup. My brothers would harass me and say, "You're a sissy, you're a girl, you're a sissy, you're a girl." My brother Michael, who passed away, was one of my worst enemies. He was very cruel to me. I mean, we would have physical fights because I wanted to be who I wanted to be, and he just could not deal with it. When I was homeless, people were like, "Well where's your family?" They weren't ready to embrace me like that. So I kept to myself. Even though I was homeless, I tried to keep myself up. I didn't turn to – and I'm not judging anybody who does – drugs and alcohol and prostitution.
Religion plays a huuuuuge part in why the trans community isn’t accepted. A lot of the Black churches are still preaching that oooold school religion, that what we're doing is a sin, and God doesn't approve. They need to get on board. They’re still having problems with the gay marriage thing. I'm telling you by my own experience, I've dealt with all the churches. The only ones that did not reach out to me were the Black churches.
Before my dad passed away, in 1995, I came home on leave and I told my mom I was gay. You know, back then, everything was identified as gay, even if you were transgender, or transvestite, trans-whatever, you were gay. It was all clumped into one label. So I said, “I'm gay.” And my mom was like, "Oh, well, whatever you do, don't tell your father." So I was afraid to tell him. But he knew. My dad died in 1995. That day, his best friend said, "Your father accepted you, and loved you, and knew you was Vanessa." And I said, "Oh my gosh." ‘Cause I remember he used to call me and say, "So how are you wearing your hair?" And I would say, "Short." "What does it look like?" That was his way to get me to open up, and I would never do it. I would not tell him. One day he called and I had just got home from the hair salon. And he asked me about it, and I was like, "How do you know I was at the hair salon?" But I didn't realize until his funeral that that was his way to try to get me to open up, and for him to say, "It's okay."
Jay, 59, New York, NY, 2015
I’m a pretty classic transgender man, as I see it, because from my earliest recollections as a tiny child I experienced myself as a boy in a girl’s body. I felt that some dreadful mistake had been made and I didn’t get the body I was supposed to. I prayed every night to God to make me wake up a boy the way I was supposed to be. And that orientation never changed throughout the whole trajectory of my life. That said, I was also a political activist, an LGBT activist. For a long time, society identified me as a lesbian and seemed to ignore my transgender status. Back then, in the 1950s and ’60s, society wasn’t really all that nuanced in how it looked at LGBT people. We were all sort of lumped into the same boat.
My partner, Eleanor, was a big time activist. She was one of the most outspoken people in our community. But she had a huge stroke when she was fifty-six and from there on I was either taking care of her or she was in a nursing home where she was horribly abused. I mean, horribly abused. Eleanor had bedsores from lack of care and neglect at the nursing home and this woman would come in and take this rag and wipe between Eleanor’s legs while screaming at her, “This is for Joy, isn’t it? This is for Joy. You’re going to hell! You should repent or you are going to hell when you die. You’re going to burn in hell, you pervert.” Joy is my previous name and how the nursing home knew me. So that is what they inflicted on her, they basically rubbed the bacteria from her anus and genital area into her bedsores.
Then I got cancer and I was facing discrimination where doctors wouldn’t even give me my biopsy results. The man who was supposed to be my breast surgeon wanted to send me out to psychiatry. Wanted to send me to psychiatry before giving me any breast cancer care! And he didn’t even call me to give me my biopsy results. I didn’t even know that I was sick for a long time.
One good thing I can at least say is that when Eleanor received end-of-life care, the doctors provided the most dignified, compassionate care that we had ever received. But part of it is that I was finally passable by then and they were treating us like we were a heterosexual couple for the first time ever. It was like night and day, the respect, almost reverence, that staff would give. They treated us like we were gold. That experience really highlighted how incredibly different it is to just be treated like a normal human being, and, you know, we had gotten so used to being treated like we were garbage. It was really shocking just to receive standard care. And I have to wonder how different everything would have been with Eleanor’s care, in particular, had we always been perceived that way.
If you hear our story and it resonates, it is your job to keep holding the torch. No one else’s. Please care about the movement as much as I did, as Eleanor did, as we all did. We put our lives on the line for this and there are people who believe in justice and fairness and the morally right thing to do and we have got to stick together and we can’t give up. I will always be with you and watching down wherever I am. I just pray you can soak up strength and love from each other and be everything you were meant to be.
Barbara, 70, Long Island, NY, 2016
I always knew I was different, but how different, I didn’t know. I’m of Italian descent. I had to teach myself how to be a young boy, a young man. It wasn’t natural. I started dressing by the age of five. Dressing gave me a thrill, and that continued all through high school. After high school, in 1963, I joined the Air Force and went into aircraft maintenance. I spent a year in Vietnam. When I got out, I went to college, got my degree in aircraft technology, and went to work with United Airlines. During that time, I met my fiancé and we got married. And so I had a wife, a new career, and mind you, all this time I'm still dressing secretly. She worked the day shift and I worked midnights at United, so she would walk out, and into her closet I would go. We had three kids. About ten years into the marriage, Barbara – although Barbara wasn't Barbara at the time –
was yelling and screaming to come out. I still didn't know what this was all about. And I told my wife one day, I remember like it was yesterday. I was in the shower and this feeling came over me. I was sobbing, struggling. “Who am I? What am I?” When I got out of the shower, she said, “What's the matter?” I guess my eyes were bloodshot. So I explained to her what had happened and it just blew her mind altogether. That was the beginning of the downfall of my marriage. Things had changed. I still loved her, but it was tumultuous. It took thirty years for us to finally split.
My three kids were all adults by then. I wrote them an email and told them about me and what I had gone through. Nobody, and I mean nobody, accepted me at all. To this day. My middle son saw a picture of me as Barbara on Facebook and he was enraged. If he had a gun he’d have killed me for sure. I have not spoken to him in five years. He's threatened the rest of them: “If Dad is there, don't invite me.” He made a disaster out of the family, which is disheartening because I love my children, I love my grandchildren. I have seven grandchildren and two are his. I'm not invited to any of the kids' birthdays because his children are a similar age, and if they are going to be there, I’m not invited. There are about fifty, sixty people in my family. No one has opened their arms to me whatsoever. I pray every day that God will give me my son back. I want him back in my life before I die.
Now, on the brighter side, this is the best time of my life. I am having an absolute blast. I love who I am. I enjoy being a woman and feel natural now in my own skin. I wish I had another fifty years. But, I don't want to be one hundred years old if I'm decrepit and need help. It kills me to think that I would go to a nursing home. No frickin’ way. I want to stay healthy and die in my bed peacefully. No fanfare, no craziness. I've already made my funeral arrangements since my children will never bury me as Barbara. I could just visualize them coming to my funeral and seeing me in a men’s suit. That’s not going to happen. I told the funeral people, put me in a white sheet in the cheapest box you can find and send me out to Calverton National Cemetery because I’m a veteran. I told my ex and I told my daughter, “If you don't do as I say or what I want, I will haunt you until the day you die.” You know, so they gotta do what they gotta do.
Hank, 76, and Samm, 67, North Little Rock, AR, 2015
Samm: Hank didn’t know she was a girl until she was around eleven or twelve. She was always the boy in the family. If it was Thanksgiving, Mom and the girls cooked dinner while she and Dad went hunting. Her mother even customized her clothes. Every Easter, everybody got new blue jeans and yellow T-shirts. The girls got those blue jeans that zipped up the side, but Hank always got the fly front. The girls got a regular plain yellow T-shirt but Hank’s mother would create a pocket on hers so that it would be just like her dad’s.
Hank: But they didn’t call me “he” or “him,” they just called me Hank.
Samm: They knew that Hank was different from her sisters and Hank’s dad was excited, I guess, about having this “boy,” and Hank’s mom didn’t object. Her father would put her in boxing matches with older boys and he was really proud. Once in a while some relatives would show up and say to her dad, “Hey, you are going to make that girl funny.” And Dick would tell them to mind their own business and leave Hank alone. And that was simply it.
Hank: It was a lot like in the olden days, you know, there were a lot of people around like me and people just expected us to become “unmarried aunts” or “fancy boys” and nobody ever confronted you with it. My father would say things like, “Oh, this one will never get married.” If I heard him say that today I would say, “Oh, he’s telling them I am gay.” Only I didn’t have those words for it back then.
But when I was twelve, my parents decided that it was time for me to be a girl. This was a very strenuous thing for me because, of course, I didn’t want to be a girl. They started trying to work me into being a girl but by then my identity was already set. I was totally me. I always say, “I’m just Hank. I’m not he, I’m not she, I’m just Hank. I’m who I’ve always been.” But my father and mother decided that for my birthday they should give me some girl perfume. Perfume wasn’t something that I was familiar with. Of course, my sisters had perfume but that was for girls! And so, I was broken hearted. I mean, they could have cut me with a knife and hurt me less than saying, “Okay, now you are going to be like a girl.” Later on, when I was twenty-one, I went into the military, which took me away from them and everybody.
Samm: But there were points in the military that were very difficult. She ended up being investigated for homosexuality and examined psychiatrically, and the army ended up putting it in writing that “while she had a pretty face, she was very masculine.”
Hank: I loved the military, but I thought there was no future there for me because of the stress of the investigation. I finally went to my superior and said, “Either you are going to stop the investigation on me or you are going to charge me on something, because I can’t go on like this.” It was a very traumatic experience for me.
Samm: Eventually they brought it to conclusion and they added up all of their evidence to find that they didn’t have a thing on her.
Hank and I have been together forty-four years. We met after her time in the military, through some Chicago lesbians I had met. They threw a party every Friday night and one of those nights someone said, “There are some really fine dykes up in Western Michigan.” And then somebody said, “Road trip!” And thirty hours later, there we were in Kalamazoo. And so I found this one in Western Michigan. She was different from anybody I have ever met in my whole life and I knew that she would be in my life for the rest of my life. There was this immediate connection that would always be there. The way we are today, we started out that way.
Miss Major, 74, Oakland, CA, 2015
The baby boomers have finally gotten here, and now that we are here, it’s clear we didn’t all take the same path. I would have liked to have had a job, gone to college, had a degree, a 401K, but it wasn’t in the cards. People are like, “Yeah, honey, we discovered something about you we don’t like so you are fired.” And nobody is going to let you live somewhere for free, food is always going to cost, so you have to figure out what to do to survive. For a lot of black transgender girls and fellows, we had to survive off of our wits. And I think that we came out earlier than most of our contemporaries, not like Caitlyn Jenner at sixty-five. I couldn’t have waited until sixty-five to transition. I’d be a mess. And I probably would have been in jail for forty years and not even get out to transition anyway. You know, we are twelve and we say, “I’ll do whatever it takes,” but then you get out there and you realize it takes a lot more than what you are prepared to give up at the time. Then you do whatever it is that you need to do. For me the test is that you need to survive. I did. And after this fucking shit is all done, I’m still here.
I was involved in Stonewall when all that happened, but they have been whitewashing Stonewall for years. What do they know about the girls that were there? What about the trans men who were there? The police had been hassling our bars for years, the lights would go up, and it was like last call with no call. So, you just bowed out and went home. But it just wasn’t happening that Sunday. That’s just what came down, there was just this general consciousness in the air. It was like everybody was with everybody else and we all just knew that none of us were doing it. Some did go out to the paddy wagon, but then a crowd started to gather. All I remember is that the shit hit the fan and we were all in it.
I never really wanted to pass. I always wanted people to look at me and know who I am and go, “Oh, well she’s lovely,” and she can be whatever the hell she is and let that go. I don’t want to have to pretend to be something I am not. As I get older, maybe because of my grey hair, people at least stop for a minute and look at me and think, “Oh, she can’t be one of them. They don’t live past thirty!” So at least they will pause and think for a minute. As far as my community goes, my girls and my trans fellows are wonderful to me. Without them I cannot imagine if I would be here. I select and pick and choose to be around people who care about me and who want me to be all right. And if I stumble, they will reach out a hand to hold me and not let me fall.
Freya, 51, Minneapolis, MN, 2015
I’ve been lobbying lately to my family that for my birthday, I want my name. I was saying, “We can have this party, but it’ll bum me out if we sing ‘Happy Birthday’ with my old name. I just don’t want to hear that.” Early on it was hard because they had no reference at all, but all the media coverage of trans people has been helpful. It gives me a way to make the reference. Now, when someone will address me by my old name, I’ll say "You haven’t heard? I go by Freya now. Caitlyn was on the top of my list, but somebody got to it firs
We go to a reform congregation that’s just about the most liberal and inclusive group that you can imagine. We’re very involved in social action, and this year, my rabbi has been extremely supportive. If my wife and I need a sounding board, his door is open. After I changed my name, and did so publicly, he invited me to have a small ceremonial role in one of the high holiday services. There’s a moment in the service, where after the Torah is read, it’s open so it’s three columns wide and they take it up off the table and hold it up. Then they rotate it around to display it to the congregation, and close it up and put the cover back on. It’s a ceremonial role, and for some reason that’s printed in thse program, who does the Hagbah. I think that the rabbi was looking for a way to print my name in the program and that’s what he did, and a lot of people were like “Hey, congratulations! You changed your name!” and “Oh, that’s wonderful.” It’s been so affirming that they've been so willing to accept me and who I want to be. So our faith community has been huge for all of us in the family.
Right now, for me, everything is filtered through gender. For example, I feel very female when I’m cooking. Of course, there’s nothing about cooking that’s inherently male or female. Everybody knows this. But I feel it when I’m in my kitchen, that's for me. Maybe I’m connecting with Jewish mother thinking, “I want to feed you.”
I’ve thought a lot about what happens when you’re not transitioning anymore, but you’ve just “arrived.” Part of me thinks that you can never really “arrive,” but part of me also wants to get “there,” wherever that is. But to use a math analogy, it’s probably more like asymptotic progression. You get closer to something, but you never really get “there.”
Aidan, 52, Burien, WA, 2016
At the time of contemplating my gender and the trans element of it, I had been solidly entrenched in the dyke community. And I loved that. I felt really looked after and mentored and cared for. What they had brought into my world was a celebration of masculinity rather than a dismissal. It was like, bring it. It looks beautiful. We love it. We celebrate it. And that felt really good to me.
But what does it mean to have a trans man in lesbian space? As I would have conversations with folks I would be a little confused because I’d think, “You led me to this door and now you don’t want me to open it? You don’t want me to step through it? You brought me right here and now I’m just supposed to stare at this shut door? That doesn’t make sense. Why don’t I crack it open a little bit?” So ultimately that’s what I did. It made complete sense to me that somebody might do a gender transition, and it moved forward in what would seem to me like a trajectory. What I didn’t quite realize is that it wasn’t that way for them. My sheer presence was disruptive, and I started to push back and challenge that. I’m so impressed with so many of them because we would duke it out. We would sit there for three hours and there would be anger and tears and confusion and laughter and love.
And here I am, you know, almost twenty years later still thinking and talking about gender. You know, what is my gender? I don’t have an answer to that and I don’t need an answer. I’ve never felt fully female and I’ll never feel fully male and that’s really just fine. I feel pretty good about how I move through the world. The challenges are trying to be fully seen and received because others, of course, decide who you are. I move through the world and I don’t get a second glance. I live in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac with people who have no idea about my history. My partner has primarily identified as a lesbian in her adult life and now she’s not visible to the segment of the population that we both considered community. Not just the lesbian community, but even the broader queer community, because my transition is now a couple of decades old. You know, I continue to look more and more male. I’m older. I’m not a young pup anymore, but I still am in my heart.
Andrea, 54, Minneapolis, MN, 2016
I think all of us are in some state of transition, no matter who you are, but particularly if you are a trans person. Overcoming the social challenges of being trans can sometimes be even more challenging than overcoming the physical struggles. Nobody knows what's going on between your legs except for the people who you want to know, and so what people are really dealing with is how you present, how you act, and how you are in the world. That’s where people experience a lot of the pushback for being trans, in those daily interactions. It was certainly a challenge for me.
I’ve always been politically-minded. I was concerned with broader social justice issues, particularly as they relate to African American people, but I was not necessarily activated around LGBT issues until they became even more personal. But once I came out, I started getting involved with activism because I was trying to build support for my own journey. I’m thinking to myself, “I’m coming out. I need people who are going to be supportive of me, and so in order for me to gain that support I need to give support.” This process helped me understand a lot of issues that trans people face, and that's when my activism really took off. It was an immediate response of self-preservation. And, to a large extent, it is still why I want to create a better world, because I’ve got to live in this world and now I have grandchildren who need to live in this world.
Another important aspect of my journey is being bisexual and being trans. I actually hid my bisexual identity for a long time after I came out. I thought, “You know, if I’m going to be a good trans person I have to be heterosexual.” Everybody assumes that I'm going to be with a man. Otherwise, why would I transition and do all of this stuff if I’m going to continue to date women, right? So, coming out about my sexuality in the African American community was the most dramatic coming out. There's this saying, “strictly dickly,” that’s what you should be about. You know, finding a man, but some of these guys are full of shit. They want to hang out at two o’clock in the morning and not be seen with you in the daytime and then they are the main people out here actually murdering trans women because they still can’t deal with their own internal attraction to beautiful trans-identified women. It’s so caught up in the patriarchal, machismo kind of thing.
What advice would I give to young people? Go to school. Understand yourself. Be authentic with yourself. And love yourself. Try to be a productive, contributing member of our society. And guess what? That comes back to you. Get engaged in politics, if for no other reason than your own survival. That's what we have to do at this point in time. I can appreciate that some people just don’t want to be on the front lines, but support those of us who are, because that's what's going to get us our liberation.
Greyson, 61, Albany, CA, 2015
I was born in Missouri. My father's Mexican and my mother's white. The reason they moved to California is because of the racial stuff. They were considered interracial. We got to Los Angeles when I was two years old. I’m so grateful I grew up there because, as people who didn't really have money, I still got to live in a large metropolitan area and the world came to us. I met people from all over the world, and when I got older, I realized I wasn't the only queer.
I got clean and sober at twenty-eight years old. Back in L.A. in those days AA was huge. So it was quite a support system, you could meet a lot of dates and all that kind of stuff. I mean we still had all the drama and everything, we just weren’t drinking. We’re not stupid, we know who started AA. It was some white Christian old guys. And I’m grateful that they did, but there are still some nuances needed. So we started a people of color meeting and then people of color meetings started popping up everywhere. I also got a job working at the Los Angeles gay and lesbian center, right before the AIDS stuff, and I became a case worker at the center. The issues I saw during that time really galvanized me as an activist.
But, I also remember, when I was working at the L.A. center, that there was a space across the hall from my office called Lesbian Central. One day I went in there in what I usually wore to work, which was khakis, button down shirt, maybe a tie. I went in there on my lunch break to eat and read a book because it was a quiet space. Just as I was eating my lunch, the director of the program came to me and said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She took me in her office and said, “You know, I’m going to have to ask you to leave because one of the lesbians felt uncomfortable because you are too ‘male identified’ and she feels like this isn’t a safe space.” So here I was quietly eating lunch and reading a book but this lesbian didn't feel safe. And that was supposed to be my community. But when I hung out and went to the clubs, when I hung out with other Latinos or African Americans, there was not this big drama about being a butch and somebody assuming you think you’re a guy. I'm not going to say that there wasn't misogyny and sexism, but back then I did appreciate fitting in in that community.
My mother has been very supportive of who I am throughout the years. She made the switch to “mijo,” instead of “mija.” And actually, when I changed my name she said, “You are my ‘grey son’ and I was like “Huh?” And she said, “You are in a grey area. You’re not all woman, you’re not all guy, you’re not all Mexican, you’re not all White. You really are one of those in the grey area and you are my grey son. And I love you and I'm proud of you.” Even my father now is calling me his son. Not long ago, I got a haircut at the military base where I’m doing my chaplain training and I was thinking when I got it, “I wonder if my dad’s going to like this because he's all military.” And he did notice my haircut when I saw him the other day. He said, “Hey, mijo, I really like your haircut!”
Amy, 77, Seattle, WA, 2016
I identify as a trans woman, or just plain woman. In everyday life, of course, it’s woman, but if people ask, I tell them I’m trans. I don’t hide it exactly, but I don’t wear it on my forehead either. The first time I realized there was something fishy going on was in second grade and we were having a school play and doing Heidi. I wanted the lead part and the teacher said, “No, that’s only for girls.” And of course I knew I was a boy, but I didn’t realize that boys couldn’t do things like that. At the age of fourteen, I was left alone in the house for a summer and went up in the attic and found some of my mother’s old clothes and discovered I enjoyed dressing in them. After college, I went abroad to Denmark and decided to try denial. You just get busy with other things and then you don’t have to worry about your identity.
I met a woman that summer, Edith, that I eventually married. After we were married for about a year and a half, I realized, “This is not working, I need to be who I am.” So I outed myself to her. In those days, of course, the only label we had for it was transvestism. By 1980, when I was forty years old, I knew I wanted to transition, but I didn’t tell Edith. Somehow I got wind, I think through a television show, that if you wanted to transition you are required to get a divorce first. They didn’t want to foster lesbian couples being married legally. So, I wasn’t going to do that. I was too much in love. The two of us were married altogether forty-six years. So I waited, and then in 1993, she found out she had cancer. Of course, then I knew that this was not a time to transition. She died in 2008. I came out publically as transgender in 2012.
After Edith died, I was alone here in the house. It just got empty, very empty, very fast. And so I knew I needed to do something. I met Stephanie, a transgender woman, at the Emerald City Social Club. She was homeless at the time, so I said, “Why don’t you move in?” And then we started taking in other girls, too. Since then, I’ve had over thirty girls go through the house at one time or another, some for shorter periods, others for longer periods. I think it’s a worthwhile effort. I’m trying to give people a little bit of safe space and respite from the anxieties of homelessness.
As you grow old, you fear the unknown. You can end up needing care. By inviting people to come stay with me, I have someone to at least look after me on a daily basis and make sure that I’m not falling through the cracks. This whole house has served in some ways as a model because, as far as I know, it’s the first trans house. The model is simple: if you can, open your house to others. As I say, we don’t have a homeless problem, we have a hospitality problem. We can still be effective doing what we can even if we regret it’s not enough.
Preston, 52, East Haven, CT, 2016
As far back as I could remember, I've always felt like a boy. I'm the oldest of three siblings, and for a lot of years I identified as a lesbian. Back then I didn't know the word “transgender," you know. And then when I explained how I felt to somebody, they said, "Oh, transgender," and I'm like, "What does that mean?" So that's how I got to identify as transgender. When I was younger and I looked in the mirror, I saw a boy. And I remember when I came out to my parents, my mother was like, "I always knew that there was something a little different," but she didn't know what. I was born in 1964, so my parents, being born and raised down south, they had no idea whether it was transgender or gay or lesbian or anything. And so now we know what it is.
In fact, I never thought that I would actually transition while my parents were alive. I thought, “Well, it's gonna break their hearts.” That was what I was putting on myself. Even though they’ve always been the most open-minded people. But there was something about coming out as transgender to them, I was like, “Shoot, what's my mother gonna say to this?” And so I remember my partner and I, we went up and I had made an appointment with my mom and dad. I said, "I'm coming up on Saturday, please be around.” It was like two weeks prior to me coming. So for two weeks my mother was a wreck, like, "What, are you dying? What's going on? You never call and say, ‘Well, I’m coming,’ you know, you just appear.” So, we get up there, and I start crying before I can even say any words. My mother's like, “Oh my God, what's going on?” As soon as I finally got it out, then I started apologizing, you know. But my father gets up, and he comes down and kneels on the floor in front of me. He said, “That is the bravest thing that anybody could ever do.” And, of course, now I’m crying all over again, and that's when my mother said, "I knew that there was something, but I never could quite put my finger on it.”
It was fairly easy coming out to family members. I mean, most family members were like, “Well we were just waiting for you to tell us.” My mother had made a similar comment to me, and I remember feeling angry for a little bit because I was like, “But if you knew, why didn’t you say something?” I was feeling like I went through all this heartache, all these years of trying to figure it out and people knew? Like, nobody gave me a clue. Everybody was waiting for me to tell them, you know. It was crazy. It was a crazy moment, but a good one.
Renee, 68, Chicago, IL, 2014
I think, first of all, that I'm more bi-gender than purely transgender. I enjoy both genders, and I miss the one I'm not. And it's been like that for as long as I've been able to peel away the layers and get to it. So, most of my life, I denied it. I just kept it buried. One of the things that’s been frustrating for my wife is it's come out by one struggling inch after another. I, like many of my generation, buried it deep and wrapped it in subterfuge.
My wife has been very supportive, and that helps immensely. I mean, there are not very many wives that stay with male-to-female transgender people who come out, and yet she's encouraged me to investigate who I am and what I am. And even going back years when I first came out to her, neither of us really knew where I was, what I was. It could have been the end of our marriage. I can't imagine a life without her; I try to be worthy of her every day.
As I've thought about transitioning over all the years, I've come to realize that really what I want is not female plumbing. It's not even necessarily a female body. It is simply an opportunity to express who I am at any given time. After I came out to my wife, I did a lot more exploration, and truthfully, it's still going on. I have a pretty good idea that I am never gonna transition. That was when I also realized that I didn't hate being masculine. The only sense of deprivation I felt was that I couldn't also be feminine. And it was around that time I started going to functions in Chicago that involved younger trans people, and they were using "genderqueer" as an expression. I'm probably more genderqueer than I am one or the other. I'm me. I'm who I am, and I can do what I want. I can wear what I want. I can look how I want. I can act how I want. I think everybody should have that freedom.
Looking toward the future, I think about our grandchildren, and I wonder where they'll be in four or five years, and I hope that I can be here to be a part of that. And I hope that we can stay healthy, and I hope that when my time comes, it's like – I remember seeing a 60 Minutes profile many years ago of this aging baseball team in Florida where the guy playing first base was like 90 years old, and they interview him, and he was talking about the guy he replaced who was in his 90s when he reached out to grab a throw and before the ball got there he died. I said, "Boy, what a great way to go."
Tyra, 64, Milwaukee, WI, 2015
My first cousin, she was a dyke, but she was femme. I loved her so much. I used to go over to her house all the time. When I was seventeen, I had just been jumped at North Division High School and beaten severely in the boys’ bathroom. I was in the shower and they was trying to have sex with me. I dropped out of high school because I didn’t want to go to high school no more. When that incident happened, I really just needed someone who could talk to me and help me out, and that was my cousin. She showed me some books of transsexuals. So that’s how I came out; she showed me the books and told me I could do it. I first got dressed over at her house.
In 1973, my mom and dad agreed for me to start seeing a doctor and to help get my name changed. The State of Wisconsin didn’t want to allow my name change because I didn’t have a sex change, but we fought it. I had good lawyers. The judge asked my mother and father, “What do you think about your daughter changing her life like this?” They said, “She’s our first born and we are 100-percent behind her.” I’ve been blessed, baby. My mother and father accepted me, their mother and father accepted me. There was people in my family, aunties and uncles, and it took time for them to accept me, but eventually they did. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was telling them, “He’s still the same inside, he is just different on the outside, so y’all just gonna have to accept this because he is the same sweet boy.”
I’ve never been one to work the streets and I never thought I was pretty enough to be on stage. My mother and father was working people, factory inclined. I wanted to make some money so I chose factory work. I didn’t care how hard it was going to be. I got hired at Stroh Die Casting and I worked there twenty-five years. I had a partner for nineteen years. He was a white guy. He said he fell in love with me because I had a nice soul and heart, and he saw that. It was a wonderful thing, meeting him. We was together for nineteen years and he passed in 2009. I can truly say he helped me to get my life together, to be a better person. But now, I don’t have nobody. I have a little sickness, I have hepatitis C, and I’m trying to take care of myself so I can take care of my momma. Don’t get me wrong, there’ll be times I’m wanting to hold somebody or somebody to hold me, but I have so many people that do love me and that means the world to me.
I’m not looking for too much, baby. I’m just looking to live right now. Trying to continue staying on this road that I am on and not to get off of it. My daddy, he told me one thing before he passed, he said, “Don’t let those drugs take you down.” He said, “You get your life together.” I used to carry a Bible to work and he said, “You keep that Bible in your hand.” When my Daddy died, my family died. He was the glue that held the family together. They say they love me but they don’t show it. I don’t get no phone calls. I love my family, and I’ll always love them, but I’m not gonna let them take care of my funeral arrangements. I don’t trust them. That’s why I made arrangements with Pitts funeral home. They gonna take care of me.
Jude, 75, Yuba City, CA, 2015
Well, I identify to myself as a trans man. I do that rather than saying I'm simply a man because I figure I got here in another way and that's important to me to have that in front of people. I also identify as heterosexual. My parents supported who I was. If I wanted to behave in a masculine way, they supported that, but they didn't know what it was. In those days, I was just simply thought to be a tomboy. And you have to appreciate the fact that I'm seventy-five, so I was born in 1940. In school, we were forced to wear dresses. Even if the snow was two feet deep, you couldn't come to school in pants. I was mortified on a daily basis that I had to dress the way I did. In high school, other adults began to pick at me and be cruel. When I was a junior, the teacher gave me an F in gym. I was a straight-A student and an excellent athlete. She gave me an F in gym because I wouldn't take showers, but I wouldn't take showers because I didn't want to expose myself publically with the body I had.
I started hormones in 1971, when I was thirty-one, and they worked pretty quickly. Within six weeks, I was shaving and my voice had dropped. I had been working as a dog groomer in the same shop for about six years. One of my customers asked, "Where did Judy go?" And my employer said, "She went to have a sex change." And he said, "Oh, no, not sweet little Judy. She wouldn't do anything like that." So my temperament to other people was this sweet, kind, gentle soul, and I think I'm still a sweet, kind, gentle soul, but it's hard to see under the layers of what we think of as traditional masculinity.
This has been a very difficult two years for me personally. My wife of twenty-six years died in 2014, and she had been ill for ten years. I’m in a relationship now with a woman who I’ve known for a long time, but was friends with previously. Both of us thought we would spend the rest of our lives alone. Not that we wouldn't have a life, or continue and go on and have meaningful experiences, but that we wouldn't do it in a partnership, and this partnership is so wonderful. Now we have an opportunity where we're just both opening up, and exploring, and so excited for each other, and so supportive of each other. I'm just hoping there is something else after this and that that something else goes on and on because I've got a lot to do yet. I told her, “Let's work on recognizing each other in our next life, whatever that may be. Let's have a signal so that we'll recognize each other in our next life.”
Linda, 60, Chicago, IL, 2016
I identify as a trans woman. I'm fairly open about my status, but unless there’s a good reason, I won’t disclose it. Somewhere in grade school I had the first feeling that I was a trans female. I researched it more in high school. That was back before the internet, so, I’m that old. I didn’t do anything because I knew it would be cost, time, and trouble. I wasn’t really worried about people's reactions, but just about all the practical stuff. I never thought I was gay. I just wished I was female. Then, in 2010, it just clicked that I needed to transition. And then, oddly enough, or maybe appropriately enough, it seemed that everything kind of fell into place and confirmed my decision.
At work, everyone who knew my status got it right. I asked about using the restroom and they were unclear, but I just started using women’s restrooms and there was no issue. I tell people, I've had the smoothest transition of anyone I know. I haven’t lost any friends or family. I made lots of friends as Linda. I can’t say I actually lost any job opportunities because of it.
My parents immigrated from China. They came here to study before the communists took over, so even if they wanted to go back, the FBI would not let them. And, of course, if they had me and my brother while in mainland China, my life would’ve been totally different. My dad was pretty much deaf and blind for the last couple of years, so it was hard to communicate with him. I figured I wouldn't tell him until I had to. I wasn’t surprised when he finally died because he was outliving everyone, all his friends and classmates. So, it turned out, I never did tell him. I do regret that he didn’t know his daughter, but on the other hand, to try to explain this when it was already hard to talk with him about normal stuff would be too much trouble.
I actually wrote a letter to my brother and mom, and I mostly had to explain it for mom, who has senior dementia. But she was accepting. She actually offered to pay for my surgeries if I could continue to stay here and help her. Sometimes, out of habit, she would use my old name, but I knew it wasn’t deliberate. It would puzzle other people because they were seeing me as Linda. So sometimes I’d say, “Oh, that's my brother's name,” or I’d just make something up. My brother really didn't have much to say, but he did have trouble using the right name and pronouns. He took a long time, but I think he's finally getting it right.
I've been happily single, but a few years ago I started looking for a long-term partner. My experience with online dating is, boy, it's a minefield! I've communicated with so many fakes, flakes, and lookers that I wonder who's real now. And forget being transsexual, just finding a solid relationship is hard. Because of helping my parents, I don’t want to be a nurse to a partner. I’m still in pretty good shape and active, so, if anything, I want someone younger than me. I’ve had enough of taking care of someone. I want someone to take care of me. I guess I may also be a little bit curious about what I’ve been missing all these years. And the thing is, I’m pretty open. I’m equal opportunity. I don’t discriminate based on whether you’re pre- or post-op, or if you’re cis or trans, or whatever your gender identity or presentation is. I'm open to pretty much anyone.
Kate, 69, New York, NY, 2017
Gender is a continuum. I’m still the boy I was when I was born. I’m still the young man, I’m still the heterosexual guy. I’m still the woman that I became. I’m still the not-man, not-woman that I finally understood myself to be. None of these identities stop and then start. That’s just not the way it is anymore or ever has been.
I’ve spent most of my life suicidal. It’s only been in the last decade or so that I’ve come to terms with that, and gone “Nah, nah, I’ll stay alive, because who knows what the fuck is around the corner.” I certainly don’t know enough yet about life to be satisfied. But, in all that time of being suicidal, that’s a lot of fascination with death. So I’m still fascinated with death. When I was ten or eleven years old, my mom said “Albert, when I go to sleep every night, I try to be aware of the moment I fall asleep. Never happens. I’m always falling asleep, or I’m waking up, or I’m having a dream, but the moment in between that divides awake from asleep – never, never, never. I think if I can actually experience that, I’ll have a better idea of what death is.” That stayed with me all my life. I’m trying to make myself more aware, and able to focus, so that when that time comes, I might be able to get a glimpse at the space that exists between supposedly opposite phenomena: awake and asleep, life and death, woman and man.
The perspective I’ve got now, I wouldn’t trade for a pain-free, youthful body and mind, not at all. This is the happiest time of my life and I see no reason why it’s gonna stop being that. Are there sad times? Yes, there are terrible sad things going on. People are suffering everywhere. The world’s fucking mad. But I don’t have to get embroiled in it. I can be passionate about it, and I often am, but anger doesn’t enter into the equation anymore. I’ve got a good handle on that one now, and that’s such a peaceful feeling, not getting angry.
When it comes to gender and sexuality, we age out, and it’s just not that big of a deal anymore. There’s no way I’m gonna be a Betsey Johnson girl at my age. But, I can be a crone – that’s something I never thought I’d grow into. You can grow into that sort of thing yourself, and if you identify more closely as male, you can grow into a delightful old curmudgeon. Crone, curmudgeon, wise person, elder; you’ve got that to look forward to. All the stuff that’s flying around now that you’re trying to get a hold of in terms of identity, desire, and power, you will come to terms with it sooner or later… and then it’ll leave you. That’s the way it goes. There’s no need to fight it. Enjoy the ride. I promise you there’s no bad identity. There are no bad desires, no bad power. There’s only mean thoughts, mean words, mean actions. Don’t do any of that. That will rebound on you quicker than you can spit. I spent decades being mean. It’s nice not being mean anymore. Practice that. Other than that, you do whatever the fuck you want.
Debbie, 61, and Danny, 66, St. Joseph, MO, 2015
Well, having been female for almost sixty-seven years, I feel a little funny calling myself a man, although it is the way I have always felt inside. When I was young, I wore boys’ clothes all the time. The only time I had to wear dresses was when we went to church, which I always thought was strange. Why should I wear a dress when I was obviously a boy? When I was seven, our school was going to start a Boy Scout troop. We were all excited, me and the other boys I played with all the time. My best friend turned to me and said, “You can’t join, you’re a girl.” My life started to fall apart that day, when it was finally said to me once and for all that I was always going to be seen as different.
My dad raped me when I was five. He was drunk, it was one time, and he spent the rest of his life paying for it. But, he would never touch me again, wouldn’t get close to me. I thought I must have done something wrong because Daddy didn’t love me anymore. My mother knew. She had to clean me up, but she blamed me. I finally shot myself when I was fifteen. I had to shoot three times because it was an antique gun with antique bullets. The first time I pulled the trigger, it just clicked, and so I did it again, got another click, and almost gave up. I did it the third time and the bullet hit me in the shoulder instead of the heart. So I was sitting on the floor in a pool of blood laughing because I fucked that one up, too. I couldn’t do anything right, could never please my mother. I even tried to commit suicide and she acted like I did it to her.
I started to transition at the age of sixty-four. My cardiologist was reluctant to start me on testosterone because of my age. I was also overweight and my blood pressure was high. I finally went on a half dose, but after three months increased to a full dose. It was great. I was getting facial and body hair really fast and my voice dropped almost immediately. But then I had a stroke, which screwed everything up. The testosterone almost certainly caused my stroke, so I had to stop taking it. All the masculinization that I got, I’ve lost in the last year and a half without testosterone. I really try not to think about it too much. I had the chance to finally, after sixty-four years, be happy and be who I was. To look in the mirror and see the guy I should have been all these years. And now it’s not going to happen. No chance.
When I had the stroke, the nurses in the hospital treated me badly because I was transgender. They just pretty much ignored me and let me lay for eight hours before they even did a test. The second day, I had another stroke that caused the majority of the damage. But, I have to believe everything happens exactly the way it is supposed to, so there is some reason I had this stroke. I would like to be able to walk again. I am getting a little stronger every week.
I want to do whatever I can to still be an activist. I want to help younger trans people find themselves and find their answers. I tell them, “Have courage. Keep hanging in there and never give up. You cannot kill yourself, God damn it, because you have to find out what happens next.” I have felt like killing myself so many times, but I want to know what happens next.
Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, Atlanta, GA, 2016
My middle name is Ngozi, which means God’s blessing. I was speaking on HIV and my journey with HIV in the church one night and this African minister just jumped up and said, “You’re Ngozi!” I said, “Uh, what do that mean?” and he said, “It means God’s blessing. You have God’s blessing.” So I adopted that name when I sent my name change in and then I had my last name changed to my husband’s and then we was married. I served collard greens, and ham hock, and baked cakes and he’s just as happy as a lark after the twenty-five years we’ve been together.
This coming into my real, real fullness of knowing why I was different is because I was expressing my spirit to this world. And I didn’t know how God felt about it but I believe in God and I have a deep spiritual background and I talk with the Holy Spirit constantly who’s taken me from the Lower West Side doing sex work to being at the White House.
We created the first trans ministry in our church and I sat on the “mother board” with the other mothers. One day, mother Gladys asked me to come and sit down there with them. And after we had our little meeting, after church, Miss Gladys went to do something in the office and then they surrounded me and said, “What gives you the right to be here on this mothers’ board? We don’t understand it.” I said, “Because I’m a mother to the ones you can’t love. The ones that you cannot be a mother to, that you throw out on the street every day. Those are my children. The ones you throw away.” I said, “That’s why I’m here.” You could hear a pin drop, nobody said nothing. They went on and accepted me and said, “Come on girl, sit down.”
I’d go the clinic for my HIV, I would do stuff. I’d push patients, walk them to the car, sing church songs. I was just having a ball while I was waiting for my appointment. And a guy saw me one day that had an agency, and he said, “Miss Dee Dee, you work down here?” I said, “No.” He said, “I got a job for you.” And that was God just setting me in right there in that clinic with my own desk and I was my own boss. I could go to work as myself. The first day I got on the train with my little briefcase and my little suit on with the other people that were going to work. And when I got to the front door of the clinic, the Spirit stopped me and said, “Look across the street.” I said, “Look across the street?” So I looked. Then I saw flashes of me jumping in and out of cars on that corner, and I remembered I used to run girls off that corner. That was my corner. He said, “Now look how long it took for you to cross the street.” I could have lapsed right there on that sidewalk. This had come full circle now.
Ben, 64, Northampton, MA, 2014
I identify as an FTM, non-hormone, non-op, transsexual heterosexual man. That’s the whole string of it. I was in the lesbian community when I was younger, but I never really fit. That was the 1970s and there really wasn’t the language then about transmen or FTMs or any of that. I didn’t have that accessible to me as an identity. I thought, “I’m the only one on the planet like me,” but then in 1985, Lou Sullivan sent his little booklet through the mail to the archives I was working on. It was “Information for the Female-to-male Crossdresser and Transsexual,” a little booklet that he self-published with a little handwritten note that said, “Maybe some people in your archive would want to read this.” Even though he didn’t know me, he didn’t know who he was sending this to, I read it. I read it and within two hours I called him and I said, “I gotta meet you, because now there’s two of us, you know, on the planet.” And I flew to San Francisco to meet him.
When I got there, I dressed up super masculine. I even wore temporary facial hair, because I wanted to demonstrate to him that I was a man. So, he opens the door and he is this little frail ninety-eight pound gay guy with a t-shirt on and I thought, “Well, he’s a man and he’s kinda like me, but he’s kinda not like me.” We ended up talking for five hours straight in his kitchen. In the middle of it, he told me he had to get up and take his AZT. I hadn’t known that he had HIV/AIDS, but I realized then that I was making the closest friend of my entire life, the most pivotal individual for me, and that I was losing him at the same time. We corresponded until he died and when he died, I started the East Coast FTM Group because I had nobody and he had asked me to head up his group in San Francisco, which I couldn’t do.
I always felt some resistance to the fact that I didn’t transition medically, but over time I started to find transsexuals who had not transitioned medically, or who had transitioned partially and then stopped, like my friend Leslie Feinberg. Eventually I found more people with the idea that, “I’m already me, I don’t need any medical intervention to become me.” It took a ten-year journey with a gender counselor to give myself permission around this, because it is not popular, even in our community.
I’ve done a lot of organizing, much of it pre-internet. I did it the way Lou did it at first, all by mail. I remember the first big conference I went to, a True Spirit Conference, and I think there were 300 guys, FTMs, from all over the country and Canada, and I remember thinking, “It’s starting. The movement for FTMs is really starting, big time.” Now I have a vision for making the Sexual Minorities Archives a national comprehensive LGBTQ educational resource center with a museum and an art gallery with many rooms to show the collections, to have a youth room, to have a meeting room, to have a community room, and to be the preeminent LGBTQ archive on the East Coast. That’s what I’m most looking forward to as I age and that’s what I want to accomplish before I die.
Rachel, 86, St. Louis, MO, 2015
I was born in 1928. When I was twelve, I remember my mother catching me in her dress at home. She took me to a psychiatrist or something like that, and he scared the hell out of me, but that didn’t stop me feeling the way I felt. I grew up and married my first wife. I got by. It was not anything terrible, but things were not right. My second marriage lasted thirty-nine years and actually, during that time, I did not want to be a woman. But then my wonderful wife died, and it came back.
Four years after she died, I was just beside myself and I didn’t know what to do, so I went to a psychiatrist and said, “Hey, what’s with me?” He told me there was nothing wrong with me and that I was transgender. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep because I would wake up and think “What can I do? How can I do this?” But one night I woke up and said, “Why can’t I? What is stopping me?” And I realized nothing was. So, I changed my name and sold my home and long story short, ended up living here in St. Louis.
I still get a lot of “sir” when I’m out, but I get “ma’am” also and it makes me feel good. The other day, I was putting up a shelf at home and the anchors I was putting into the drywall were not splitting. So I went to the hardware store at the corner and said, “What’s the problem? This one has been in the wall and it is not split.” And the guy just said flippantly, “It shouldn’t do that,” and turns around and just goes on his way! Like I’m some stupid woman, I guess.
I want to be accepted as a woman, but if I am not, I don’t mind. One of the neighbors won’t have anything to do with me, but I don’t care, because who is she? She doesn’t know me. She doesn’t know why I am doing this or what I am like or anything. I do not want to be directed by anybody. I want to do what I want to do and that is really the end of it. When I finally decided to do this I thought, “You’d better do it now, because you are eighty-four and how long are you going to last? And do you want to finish it that way or do you want to finish as Rachel?”
Louis, 54, Springfield, MA, 2014
In the last few years I have seen tremendous growth in the transmasculine community. Keep in mind that in my generation, the notion of community was almost an intentional causality to the process. You were supposed to move away, never let anyone know your history, and move into isolation in order to exist. You needed to be heteronormative and have a specific way of being that fit the criteria of what this diagnosis is supposed to look like. So the notion of building community in that way… how could you if you don’t meet the standards? The notion that community is available to us is a relatively new phenomenon.
That being said, I find that the majority of trans men of color choose to live non-disclosed, low- or no-disclosure for economic reasons, for safety reasons, and for family reasons. That is a perfectly viable choice, but it does make it difficult to build community, so some of us who are fully disclosed have to serve as the conduits to connect us to each other. We have a black trans men’s advocacy site on Facebook that has almost 500 members. There is a group that just started called My Brother’s Keeper in Atlanta. When I meet other men in transition, we have a discussion about whether they want to live out and open or low- or no-disclosure. It allows me to direct them to others. I think that is critical to build community, specifically among trans men of color. There are so many other oppressions and variables that trans men and trans women of color face that it’s not as easy as hanging a rainbow flag out your window. Well, how’s that gonna work? You gonna pay my bills? Are you going to walk with me everywhere I go and be my personal bodyguard? So the notion that “out” is always better assumes a safety that many of us, especially trans women of color, cannot count on.
I’m so excited that in a relatively short slice of history, a community has grown up around me of vibrant, creative, amazing people: men, women, and others who are doing such amazing work in the realm of spirituality, sciences, art, and politics. It’s like having a gazillion nieces and nephews and other kids and being really proud of all of them.
Years and years ago when I was tiny kid I just wanted to grow up to be a husband and a father, but in that time and place it was completely impossible. So the notion that I have those things in my life now is nothing short of miraculous. And how many people in the world can say that the dream they had that was impossible, they are now living it? It is an amazing and surreal and awe-inspiring dream come true. So I am extremely grateful more than anything else, and I will continue to seek that gratitude in ways that I can and continue to be an example to people who are really struggling. The impossible is possible. Likely, maybe not. Easy, most defiantly not. But possible. So that is a joy and I will continue doing that until I kick the bucket.
Rachel, 52, Denver, CO, 2017
I identify as a male to female transsexual, post-operative, just living my life. I’m fully happy with where I am. From a sexuality stand point, I call myself a singleton.
My dad was in the army, my parents were both very Catholic. I was the fifth of six kids. I remember, very hazily, as a young child, being myself and playing with dolls, and doing all these things that felt very natural to me. But I realized as some point that what I thought I should do and what felt natural wasn’t what was expected from me. So at a very young age, I got really good at paying attention to what people expected, figuring that out, and giving it to them. My main defense mechanism throughout my whole life was just to disappear. So, I made it through my childhood that way.
As I was getting a little bit older, in high school and college, these feelings I had pushed down started coming out. When my family was away, I would sneak into my sisters’ room, or my mother’s room and try on some stuff, and see myself for the first time in a way that I told myself I wasn’t. But I still fought quite a bit against it. I knew it wasn’t something that was acceptable, and I didn’t really even understand it. I thought I was alone. I tried very, very hard to tell myself that I was a cross-dresser, but it never really fulfilled the needs that I had. I went to a makeup specialist in Boston, I think in ’95, and she completely redid me. And that was the first time I ever saw myself. It was a revelation. But then again, it terrified me. I continued to struggle.
I transitioned in July of 2004. Knowing that my parents were still pretty Catholic, my dad very military, my plan to tell them was a staged approach. I called up my oldest sister first and told her, then moved through my oldest brother, my youngest sister. I knew that telling my parents would be the hardest. We had gotten into the cycle of having a weekly call every Sunday morning. So for several Sundays in a row, my plan was to tell them. But I couldn’t do it. Sunday after Sunday, I chickened out. Finally, it was June. Pride month. At that point, I was living three blocks from the start of the pride parade. I’m on the phone with them, and every once in a while, I would hear this big yell as a particularly wonderful float would come through. So it really was hearing the pride parade outside my windows that gave me the courage to finally say, “Okay, I need to tell you something about me.” It was a very tough conversation. They didn’t understand, they didn’t want to believe it. But at the very end they said, “No matter what, we still love you.”
Sometimes I lay in bed at night and think “What would it have been like if I had transitioned earlier? Should I have done that?” But I try not to have any regrets. I think I got myself to a place where I was emotionally and financially able to transition the way I wanted to. Yeah, I wish I could have gone to the prom in a nice little prom dress, I think about that at times, but I don’t regret the way my life went, because it got me to where I am, and I really enjoy where I am. I celebrate it.
Joanne, 90, Long Island, NY, 2016
I always felt on the outside, different from everyone. But I was a very hard believer in reality, in what’s possible. I was born in 1925 and being a woman was not possible. I never felt I was female; I felt I wanted to be female. When I hit puberty, I knew I wanted to be a girl, but I kept it a secret. I didn’t know I could leave the house as a woman until I was in my eighties! But once I did, there was no stopping me. I was in therapy for a year, and I found out my big problem was shame. I was afraid to go out in the street as Joanne, so one time I went out at two o’clock in the morning to mail a letter. I couldn’t get back in the car fast enough! I thought I used up all the heartbeats for my whole life right then and there. Once I got home, I said I’d never do that again. But I had to. It was something that was burning in me for years. I didn’t know there was a whole community out there. I didn’t know anything!
This was fourteen years after my wife died. I had a wonderful relationship with my wife. We were made for each other. I can’t say I transitioned because of my wife passing. She died and I was still drawing the blinds every time I put on women’s clothes in the house. It was fourteen more years before I found out it is possible to do what I'm doing, that there are other people doing it. I mean, I read books and stuff, but I thought it was all fiction. I never thought it was possible to be anything but a man.
I have a son and a daughter. They both have their own families. It wasn’t easy telling my daughter, but it was the hardest to tell my son. I’m rather methodical in the way that I think. An important step like that, I contemplated it for two weeks. I might have cried every time that I thought about it, but I planned for two weeks what I’d say, when I’d say it, where I’d say it. And I also wrote down what I feared. I feared I’d lose his respect. He reacted very much like his father would: no reaction. He read what my fears were and said, “I didn’t lose my respect for you.” When I told my daughter, my eyes were watering, the tears were running, and she hugged and kissed me. She could see the pain.
It would have been nice to transition when I was very young and not have had to hide and sneak and lie. But then again, I wouldn’t have had my life as a guy, and I wouldn’t have been married to a super wonderful woman and have terrific kids and wonderful grandchildren. Some trans women have a very bitter experience and they want to forget they were ever a man, but I enjoyed my life as a man. I don't want to forget that. If you want to know what a ninety-year-old thinks of life and what keeps her going, it’s fun and happiness. Everything has a humorous side to it. All you have to do is be creative enough to see it. I tell myself jokes all the time. Sometimes I tell them out loud, and even though I’m home alone, I burst out into laughter!
Daniel, 53, Jacksonville Beach, FL, 2015
I identify as a straight male. I’ve always identified as male as far as I can remember. I grew up in a very rural Appalachian setting in the smoky mountains in East Tennessee. So, the word transgender was not something that I heard growing up. Girls were supposed to act in certain ways. Boys were supposed to act in certain ways. I knew that area was not for me, so I left East Tennessee and became a wild child. I didn’t realize at that time how tough life was really going to be.
I dealt with abuse as a child, a lot of times verbal and physical and sexual abuse. But I didn’t realize until a decade later that the transgender part was really what was causing the turmoil. I always knew that I wasn’t a woman. I just always thought, “Well, something happened somewhere along the line that didn't click right for me.” Once I was introduced years later to the concept of transgenderism, in the mid ’80s, and the fact that it existed and I was not the only person in the world like that, it was a huge relief. You gotta remember this is still way before the internet. By that time, I had moved back home. I started taking testosterone in East Tennessee, and everyone that knew me there said, “Someone will kill you here.” So I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I officially started my transition. I started hormone replacement therapy in the early 1990s and had my chest surgery a year later. I was so excited the first time I could take my shirt off outside. To me it was a real freedom. I finally felt like I had come into being.
There was a big division in the way I felt like I should be and the way my life had been. It was a very gradual process, but I became a spiritual person and had a deep experience with the Lord, with Jesus. And I became a born-again Christian. I’m an ordained Christian minister. My main focus is on the trans community, but I also do prison ministry. I got the name of one prisoner, this man on death row, and I started writing to him about two years ago. He and I still write, but now I write to thirty-eight people a month. I send them cards and bibles. About half of the people are incarcerated for a long period of time, and most of the trans people are in solitary confinement. I make sure I keep up with the cards and I send one letter, say one three to four page letter a month. You know, it doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you’re writing to thirty-eight people a month it adds up. I also have an addiction ministry. More so than a lot of communities, the LGBT community struggles with addiction. It’s very rampant, and there’s a lot of shame for individuals to come forward and say they need help. And the money is not there for many people to get the help they need.
Especially in the trans community, there is such a disconnect from main society. As young people, we are told, “You’re a freak, that’s ungodly what you’re doing, this is wrong, you’re a sinner.” And that’s driven in to so many people, including myself, at a young age. That’s not right. There comes a point that each one of us has a reckoning, a very big conversation with God. You will find your peace when you find your peace with God. And there’s many people of different faiths. I’m not telling anyone that one way is better than another to get to that place where you’re at peace with your creator, your higher power, whether you choose call it God or not. I’m saying get to that place where you can have that conversation and you can be spiritually at peace and then the blessings will start to flow.
Sukie, 59, New York, NY, 2016
I was first aware of my identity when I was like six or seven years old. I always liked girls, but I never liked wearing any girls’ clothes. At that time, they used to say “lesbian” because they had no idea about trans. But ever since I was six or seven years old I lived as a boy. They used to dress me in girls’ clothes but I would go to school and change them downstairs. I grew up right here in the Bronx. We weren’t a big family, we weren’t that tight. I grew up with my mom and great-grandmother, but my great-grandmother was my caretaker. She just went along with everything. And when I finally came out, nobody said anything. That was the one thing I’m lucky about. I didn’t have a problem with that. And about ten years ago when I started hanging out with other trans people, I learned about it more. I went to my doctor, and even though my doctor didn’t know much about it, we both did research and I started testosterone, and ever since then I go to a transgender clinic. It’s really good.
In the Hispanic community, you know, a lot of cisgender men, they don’t take trans very easy. So that’s why I just make sure I’m careful. It’s really a safety issue. I don’t trust too much. Being Hispanic, I have to be more masculine. You know, like I gotta really make sure, you can’t be that soft or whatever. It’s like, “Boom, masculinity!” with some Hispanics. I was married for fifteen years, but she passed away ten years ago. Her family didn't know I’m trans. When they found out, they wanted us to break up. It was kind of rocky, but we worked it out for fifteen years. Now I’m in a relationship for the first time in ten years. We’ve been going out for three years now. Talking about marriage, but I don’t know yet.
When I first got an apartment, I moved everything in, and for some reason the landlord went through my stuff and saw a pamphlet on HIV and trans. When I came back that night, they’d changed the lock. That was a whole big deal. I called the cops, they couldn’t do anything. I took it to the Human Rights Commission, they said because it was a private house of two families, they couldn’t do anything. That was like the most horrible day, I had the two kids with me. Now I volunteer at Housing Works that has a program for people who are HIV positive. I go there like four times a week. I’ve been doing that for the past twelve years. My main occupation is outreach and peer-educator. I’m also doing the HIV Stops With Me campaign, because a lot of people don’t think trans men can get HIV. I’m about the only trans man in that campaign. I did it to let it be known. I have nothing to be ashamed of with HIV. It is what it is and if I can help other people, it’s all good.
Nicole, 56, Boulder, CO, 2016
I was born the oldest son in a Roman Catholic family. We were Latino, and my family has been in Colorado about 150 years. Being born into a large family, it felt like I had a certain place I had to fill. I was the oldest son of my father who died, and so I felt like I had to carry on his legacy. When I got married to a woman I thought, “Well, I’m married now, I have to be the man of the family.” At that time, one of my best friends was a police officer, and so before I knew it, I was working for the Colorado Department of Corrections. My uniforms were perfect, and my shoes were polished to a high-buff shine. But the problem is that it was a facade. So within a couple of years of working at the prison, I started drinking again. After a year, one day I came out of my room and my wife said, “I want a divorce.” And I just said, “Okay.” And ninety days later we were divorced.
Later on, drunk and sitting alone in my living room, I remember trying to decide if I’m going to shoot myself under the chin or in the side of the head. I couldn’t understand what I had done. I had achieved everything I was supposed to achieve: I had married a beautiful woman, we had a beautiful house in downtown Denver, we both had new cars, I was a respected officer. And that’s when I had my “come back to Jesus” moment. But it wasn’t one of these “Please Jesus, help me, help me!” It was: “All right, ya son of a bitch, if I’m going to come back, you’re going to have to put out. You're going to have to be there this time, and something’s going to happen, because I can’t keep living life the way I’ve been living, so help.”
After that, an announcement came across my computer from the state employee assistance program that said, “If you’re stressed, if you’re depressed, if you’re suicidal, give us a call, you get six free sessions.” I’m like “Crap, you work fast!” I eventually told my therapist, “A lot of the problems I have stem around the fact that I like to wear women’s clothes.” And the next time I came in, she gave me a referral to go see the Gender Identity Center of Colorado. Soon after at a trans conference, I went to a workshop on transsexuals. I didn’t think I was transsexual, but then I just heard my story told over and over again… always feeling uncomfortable, always trying to fit into a society and not knowing how to do it. I think everybody in there was male-to-female. Not knowing how to be a man, trying to learn how to do it, not doing very well, always being chastised for not being male enough. It was in that session that I had an epiphany. I knew I had to transition. I knew I was a woman. That was the first time in my life that I felt peace.
So now I work primarily as a gender specialist in pastoral care. I do this because it’s part of my ministry. It’s part of loving the people around me and providing a service, being someone in their corner. Ten percent of the work I do with people is helping them figure out who they are. Ninety percent of what I do is allowing people to let that out.
Chris, 52, Boston, MA, 2013
I feel like I was always punished for my masculinity when I was female-designated by both straight people and lesbians. I was not the kind of woman that either women or men wanted to be around. I was way too scary, and people didn't know what to do with me. I was always a fish out of water in terms of my gender presentation. In a huge way, my transition has been like nirvana for it to get all aligned with me, and then have the world treat me well while I'm aligned has been amazing. I mean, just really amazing. So I lived in that lesbian world even as it was difficult to do.
I actually gave birth to both of our children, which was never inconsistent with my sense of still being a man and being pregnant, and I know that many people can't understand that, or they might have some understanding. But it was not inconsistent for me to be with my male identity and want to have children.
Integrating all of our identities as a family has been a journey. So my spouse and former spouse identify as lesbians, my kids identified as part of a lesbian family, so applying to colleges, how do you explain on the FAFSA forms for the federal government that somebody's a biological mother and at the same time they're legally a man and what's their legal relationship, and how do you explain that I am legally a man that was never married to my former spouse who is legally their mother because we were a lesbian couple?
So there's layer upon layer upon layer of complication when interfacing in the world, even as it was not very much of a blip in terms of my family's experience of me and didn't change a whole lot the way our family life ran, was not really that big of a deal. And yet, this interface out in the world became a pretty big deal.
David, 63, Hull, MA, 2015
When I was five years old, I found my older brother’s first communion suit. It was a very cool looking suit, white and double-breasted, and it fit me perfectly. I wouldn’t take it off. I wore it every day. Day in and day out, until my parents got so tired of seeing it on me, they turned it into a Halloween costume as a way to get rid of it. When I was older, I played in this little rock band and one time when I was over at my friend’s house I heard his mother mention a story about a person named Christine Jorgenson who had “changed sex.” I couldn’t keep my mind on practice after that! I wanted to find out more about this person, but you couldn’t Google it, of course, and so it took me months to find it. I was finally able to piece together that this was a person who knew their gender and went somewhere and there were people who could help.
A little after my eighteenth birthday, I was thinking I was gonna have to go to Denmark or Sweden or who knows where, but I found out there was a gender identity clinic right in Cleveland, Ohio. My transition took about three years, and at that time it was very regimented with the Harry Benjamin standards of care. I worked with a wonderful group of people. They wanted to learn from me and it felt mutual. Of course, it was all still their call, everything.
I ended up finding my way to ministry years later, and I had hoped I could share my story, but that was the early ’80s with Reagan, Anita Bryant, you know, all of those wonderful souls. After I was ordained, I moved to Idaho and had two little churches. Later I moved to a church in Portland, and after many years of being terrified that my church was going to find out and throw me out into the cold, I began to break something open in myself. It just continued to grow and once that crack happened, I felt like it was time.
I was not out to my children yet, but Deborah, my wife, and I knew we wanted our children to know before it was public. So we had to figure out how to do that, and that opened the door to everything else. At this point, three of our children are very supportive and very proud of us, but two of our children have decided the stigma is too much and don’t want to be around us. It’s very painful. We’re still reeling from that.
Last year I hosted a one-day retreat specifically for transgender and genderqueer people about spiritual practices and sources of strength. I want to continue to do these retreats as a source of community building and spiritual empowerment. It was wonderful. There was one person who grew up Methodist and hadn’t been in a church in over ten years, and he reflected on how wonderful it was for him to be back in that environment. It was a really positive experience, seeing people feel welcome in that space. I am looking forward to continuing this work.
Charley, 53, Richmond, VA, 2014
I've lived in Charlottesville, Virginia all my life. I identify as male, and I've been on hormones now for almost three years. I lived as a male before the hormones for a year. I've struggled all my life with my identity, and was working with a therapist, and finally realized what was going on, and decided that the only way that I was going to be truly happy was to be able to transition. I've also been in recovery from drugs and alcohol. I'll pick up an eight-year medallion on May 22nd. So that's a major accomplishment in my life.
I think the hardest part was – and still is – trying to get my family to accept. They still use the female pronouns. And I don't think I'll ever get them to that point. A few years ago, that would have really bothered me, that they have not accepted it. But I've got to realize that they're on their own path, whatever path they're on, and I'm on mine.
In the beginning, when I started transitioning, when my features started changing, when it got to the point where I was totally male, I wondered why people were treating me differently. Other races were treating me differently. And I realized, I'm a black male now, and so when I step on the elevator, the woman's going to clutch her pocketbook, or she's going to move to the other side of the elevator, or I get doors slammed in my face. You know?
But I will say that being a male – not so much just because I'm a black male, but being a male – I believe I have gotten better jobs because of being a male. Because I don't have to sit across that table with somebody interviewing me as a butch lesbian, and they're trying to figure out, "Okay. Is this a male? Is this a female? Do we want this person with this large question working for us?" But I have gotten more jobs, and as time goes on, better jobs because of being a male. I really believe that.
Going to therapy was probably one of the most freeing things that ever happened in my life. And transitioning at fifty probably saved my life. Because at the rate I was going, I was going to start drinking again, and if I started drinking again, I was probably going to hurt myself. That was the way I drank, I was so miserable being inside this body. I had not been able to hold down a relationship, because I was such an angry person. I had a lot of anger issues. I had a lot of self-esteem issues. My confidence level was very low. I had some intense therapy to really get to know who I was before I started into any of the transition. I am such a whole person now, for going through this. I'm more happy with life. I'm not dating anyone right now, but I know the next relationship that I go into, that person's going to be damn lucky. Because I've got my shit together. I've got my game on.
Emma, 68, Fresno, CA, 2016
One of my earliest recollections of realizing something was different about me was watching the Shirley Temple show on TV with my family and thinking, “I wanna be like her, I wanna be like her.” I didn’t really understand what that was back then. I also remember going swimming at the YMCA. This was in the 1950s and you swam naked, and I remember I couldn’t quite figure out why I was so uncomfortable with my body. I never felt included.
I got married and we had two kids. I loved my kids, but I never felt comfortable with myself, comfortable in my own skin. Then my first marriage ended in 1989 and everything kind of came out. It all came out that I cross-dressed and that I felt different and that I was never really that happy. I found a publication around that time about a cross-dressing group right where I lived, so I went to that support group where I befriended a trans woman who was starting her transition and I realized, this is probably who I am, so I started hormones.
But then I met my current wife. I really wanted a relationship and I couldn’t understand how I could be attracted to a woman and still feel the way that I did. So I stopped taking hormones, and I put it off by saying, “You know, I want to have this relationship. It’s more important than this other stuff.” So we continued the relationship, but the feelings that I had didn’t change. I was depressed a lot, I couldn’t get out of bed to go and do my job. I was in a bad place. And finally my wife said, “You need to find a therapist here who can help you figure all this out.” And so I did, and that helped a lot. The light bulb came on and I realized that my identity is female but I am also attracted to a woman. My wife and I went through a lot during that time, but we made it. She decided to stay and I think we’ve gotten closer.
About eight years ago I found out I have a blood clotting disorder, which means that I won’t be able to do a lot of medical things around transitioning. So I have had to accept that fact. But this has turned out to be an opportunity for me to finally ask, “Okay, so I can’t do any of this stuff, but how important is it? How critical is it to how I feel about myself and my well-being?” Once I came to grips with that and got all that settled, I think I’ve blossomed. I feel very good in my skin now. I also had to get to the point where I knew I’d be strong enough, even if I lost everything. Luckily, I didn’t lose everything, but I had to get to the point where I could say, “This is who I am, and that’s not going to change, and I’m going to live and be happy.” That’s not an easy place to get to. It took me sixty-four years. But you know, I’m here and I’m really thankful for that.
Alexis, 64, Chicago, IL, 2014
I remember I was four years old when I first told my mother – well, no, it was actually my grandmother – that I was a girl. My heritage is Mexican and Apache, and they have very rigid binaries for gender. I mean, they just yanked away anything that they thought might be feminine. It was devastating to me. And the fact that I was Apache meant that this was never talked about in my house, because back in those days social service agencies would yank the kids and put them in Indian schools.
As I grew up, I guess you would say I was genderqueer or gender nonconforming. But when you're twenty-something and you've been on hormones – and I was 115 pounds and five foot four with hair down to my butt – it was real hard to not get attention. And men were real strange to me. On the one hand, they would call me a fag and a pervert and everything else, but then they would come on to me. And when I would tell them no, that would enrage them. They were like, "You're gonna deny me? I'm giving you a gift."
So to me, those experiences started really connecting me to women's oppression. That's when I began my feminism thing. I started to see that my oppression was similar to what my mother and my sisters were going through. I began to connect it. To this day, I still preach that women's oppression is my oppression. In terms of trans activism, I was recently talking to some of the girls that were at Stonewall back then. They're old timers like me. They look at the word "tranny" the way I do. We empower ourselves rather than let that trigger us. It's like the Dyke March. “Dyke” was also a word we took back. To me, if you're out on the battlefield, you have to be able to take the booms and the bangs and everything else and keep pushing forward.
The activism keeps me young. It really does. But I love my age, and I love when I can mentor somebody else. I love it because – and I never thought I'd say this – my age gives me a perspective that youth denied me. Because when I was seventeen, I knew everything. By the time I was thirty-five, I started figuring out that, "Well, you know just about everything." And I think by the time you get to be sixty-five, you realize how little you really know and how precious those things are that you do know.
John, 69, Mt. Ida, AR, 2016
I identify as male. And very binary, much more binary than I ever thought when I started this process. I grew up in the south. You didn’t even hear of it. When I was in college I went into an extreme depression and I went to a psychologist who gave me a test that took about three hours. And they went through that with me and the psychologist said, “I never seen anything like this.” So, I saw him once or twice a week for the rest of the year and at the end of the year he said, “you have a male mind and personality in a female body.” He said, “I think it’s innate. I don’t think you will be able to change it. And it’s going to make your life difficult and you need to be aware of this.”
I feel very lucky that he gave me that bit of information because it could explain to me why I didn’t fit in the world. And I never did. I was great with working with people as a job. I was a great social worker. I did children’s protective work. But personally, one on one, I just never fit. I used to say all the time, “It’s like everybody got an instruction book to life and I didn’t get one.” You know, everything was so easy for other people.
Just sitting down and talking wouldn’t work for me. I had to work at it. I’d leave a situation and turn later to my daughter and ask, “Did I say the right thing? Did I sound okay? How was that?” Because it was always an illusion. It was always trying to be something I wasn’t and couldn’t be and so this went on until I was sixty-three. I woke up at 1:28 in the morning. I sat up in bed, and said, “I am transgender.” What is that? I had to go look it up on the internet. Then I realized there had been a program on TV a couple of weeks before and I didn’t think I was watching, but apparently subconsciously I was.
It’s like my life had been a scattered puzzle and suddenly the frame was there and everything fit and I understood the picture. I thought at that time that it was too late, as far as doing anything with my life. I have a bad heart valve and I was 350 pounds and my heart was failing. I’ve never heard of anyone my age losing one hundred pounds, much less two hundred. I had never heard of anybody my age transitioning. I couldn’t find anybody online. You know, I found people in their forties transitioning, but to transition at sixty-three!
When I am out there hiking I have to look out for snakes. I’ve trained myself to watch three feet in front. And so I’ve learned to look closely now and I see the most incredible things in the woods. The patterns and the leaves, the different leaves, the different mushrooms, the different insects. I didn’t know there were that many insects in the world! I give thanks for every single day. There is not a day that I am hiking and not thinking, “What a gift this is.” The woods change every day. There is always something new and it’s exciting. So many people my age are giving up. They are slowing down. They are settling. But life for me is just still so exciting. There is still so much more to see and do and experience. And that’s what I want to do. I want to experience everything I can, as fully as I can.
Bobbi, 83, Detroit, MI, 2014
I have traveled extensively. It started out when I was in the Air Force. I was the “grandfather,” or whatever you'd call it, of the drone program. I mean, I played golf with presidents, with Jerry Ford and whatnot, and I certainly have met the older Bush and younger Bush and Reagan a couple of times. I've been in the White House. I've been up and down the Pentagon, all levels. And I've also worked extensively with the CIA.
Eleven years ago was my surgery, to this date almost, and I started hormones over twelve years ago. And I really have been in the cross-dressing business or the transgender business since I was probably four or five years old. I mean, I've got that history. But I didn't know some of that history until I tracked back later in life, when I saw this more obviously in front of me. I said, "Oh, my God, this is what I was doing when I was four and five years old." And of course, it all fits into a channel. But in that day – I'm talking about being born in 1930 – that was the Great Depression. There were no words for any of this. Except that I think my mother knew, because when I asked her to teach me to knit, she did, and she'd teach me some other things that I asked if I could do, like cross-stitch and whatnot. So all the basic clues were there all along.
I think people talk in either/or terms, right? Before transition and after. But to me, it’s really development. I'm proud of both lives. I'm proud of both me’s, if you see what I'm saying. And I feel it has been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person. I’m grateful. You can't just become a woman with a knife or a pill or anything like that. It takes a whole combination in a sequence, in a formation. You've got this time span, it's a learning experience, it's a little bit of everything. It's what I call going through the internship phase, stumbling through the adolescent phase, then going through the maturity phase.
I have gone through the dating routine. That was my internship. I had to go through the Internet, go out and stumble with it and flirt, and I got pretty good at it. I kinda worked at it. I'm not bad with words. And I could play peek-a-boo on Skype. Then I finally picked up Frank. I kidnapped him from the local bar up here one afternoon, an ex-Marine. And we dated for a long time. Finally one day, it was so nice that Sunday morning with our head on the pillows, I said, "Oh, I got something to tell you." And after I told him he says, "You're better than any woman I've ever met. Now, come on, Bobbi, we can drop that." Didn't care a damn. Where I live now, I think some people know for sure who I am and don't really care. But I also don't have it written on my forehead, so there are those that don't. They just take me as another old lady, a nice old lady.
Mickey, 60, Chicago, IL, 2014
I have an older sister, who's four years older than I am, and my dad raised me as his son. I was his son except for those times when I had to present as a little girl. I mean, you knew when those were. No one told me, "That's bad. You can't be a boy." They didn't say that. There was just this given, "You will dress like this for this occasion." It was really uncomfortable for me to be in a dress, but I would do that, if my family went to the relatives’ house. But I mostly dressed then like I do now. I like to wear T-shirts and jeans. And that's what I wore when I was kid. I identified as a boy. But there came a time when I went to school and kindergarten, where I had to wear a dress. I mean, this was a long time ago, and little girls had to wear dresses, and so that's what I did. I didn't resist. That's what I was supposed to do.
I remember the times when I realized I was different from the neighbor boys. I think I was about ten or eleven, and I was boxing. My dad was a boxer in high school, and we were boxing, play boxing or real boxing, or whatever we were doing, and the boys in the neighborhood told me I had to take my shirt off, because that's how you box. And it was that moment when I realized, "No, I'm not supposed to do that." They could, but I couldn't. And it was really disheartening. It made me angry that I couldn't do what I wanted to do and be who I was. Suddenly puberty was setting in, and that changed everything.
As an adult I did drag with the Chicago Kings for several years, and it was really exciting for me because it gave me permission to wear really nice men’s clothing. I would find these vintage jackets that I always wanted to wear, but unlike some of my friends, I hadn’t felt comfortable doing it. I have friends who had been wearing suits and ties forever, and some have transitioned and some have not, but it's the suit and tie that made them feel comfortable. So, it was great to perform with the Kings because it was this community that allowed me to explore so many things around gender, and allowed my colleagues at school to see me perform and to wear this male attire. That was the beginning of me being really okay with my gender nonconformity, my gender variance.
I think that this is a wonderful time to be trans. It's not perfect, for sure. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. But I'm doing it, and lots of people are doing it. I love that Laverne Cox is on the cover of Time magazine. I have to go buy one today. I feel lucky to be living in this time.
Helena, 63, Chicago, IL, 2013
I feel very isolated. I don’t feel whole. There’s still that hole in my middle, the stomach is not filled, I’m not fed completely. And I wonder whether or not I will ever have that feeling of being embraced. When I pretended to be a gay male I could pretend to be a part of the gay community, and it looked good on paper and on the surface. Sometimes it worked. But as trans it doesn’t work. You have to find a collection of trans friends that you can depend on.
My roommate warned me. She said, “Let me get this straight. You want to be a middle-aged, black woman. Oh yeah? Really?” And I said, “Yeah. Look out world, here I come.” You have to have a sense of humor and choose your battles very carefully, because they do have emotional ramifications that produce stress. I try to cut down on stress. It’s not productive. One of the reasons I switched over to the Afrocentric clothing and the hair and all of that is I don’t like where the mainstream puts women, visually. And it’s all visual. It’s like we don’t have any insides. So I thought, “Well, okay. I’m already isolated.” The advantage to being isolated, it gives you permission to really be who you are, because you think nobody really cares. And I’m tired of trying to prove something. So I’m just gonna be.
Every day I try to do one thing for someone else that I don’t necessarily know. That helps me not feel isolated. They say you’re not really giving until you can feel it. So if you’ve got five dollars and you give four of them away you feel it. I heard some kids saying, “Ma, can we have some fruit? We haven’t had fruit in a long time. We haven’t had fruit since you got that check from the IRS.” I thought, “My God, it’s June.” When did she get that check? And they really wanted this fruit. I could see the pain on her face, a mother having to say no. And there were four of them. So, I went up to the register, because they know me in Joe’s on 95th Street. And I said, “When they come up, all this fruit that I brought to you is for them. And I’m gonna pay for it. And you better not tell them. Just put it in their cart. And if they say anything, say, ‘Somebody wanted the kids to have the fruit.’ That’s it.” One nice thing a day.
Bobbie, 60, Hanford, CA, 2016
I identify as a transgender female, but it took an entire lifetime to get to that point. There was always something, as far back as I can remember. Being from a Hispanic family, there are certain roles that everybody plays, and if you want to be part of the family you play that role or else you will be left behind. So I grew up playing that gender role. I was molested at a young age by my brother, and that incident caused me to bury my feelings and go hyper male. My brother and I have not spoken in over ten years. The entire family sides with him, and I'm the black sheep. I don't speak to my side of the family anymore.
One of the best things I ever did was finding my wife Yolanda. We have had a lot of tough times, but she's always stuck right by me. About five or six years ago, we were going through some really tough marital times and I was trying to figure out why. We were close to getting a divorce. I needed to get away, and I said, “we're going to take a vacation, I want to go to Vegas.” I took off early on my own. It was Vegas Pride. I went to all the gay bars to try to find out if I was gay. When Yolanda arrived a few days later, we had a long, tough conversation. She is transitioning just as much as I am. Everything is changing for me constantly, but I know somewhere in there that I'm happier. A lot of the anger is starting to go away. All I know is that I feel so much better about myself and our marriage than I did six years ago. We’ve got almost thirty years in now, and we're not giving up on that.
We have two sons. I’m not out to them yet, and I have a lot of fears about telling them. My oldest and I had a very volatile past, but over the last few years, we’ve started to communicate and have a relationship again. I’m worried about losing that. I have a feeling that it's going to be a big nonissue in the end, but I can’t rush it. It has to come naturally. Yolanda and I, we do our own little thing. We are buying a farm and we want to homestead the property. We want to eventually open up a fruit stand to peddle off our wares. Yolanda makes a lot of jams and jellies and preserves. We also cure olives, different types. We want to start raising bees and making honey, and I want to start making soaps. Plus, I used to throw pots and would like to build my own kiln out there. This is going to be my opportunity to finally transition, to just be who I am and not have to worry anymore. It's almost like a clean start.
We never really considered growing old, we just considered the future. To be honest with you, I'm sixty going on seventeen. People talk about a “reset,” and by gosh, I went through it. When I first came out, I felt like I was fourteen or fifteen. I was stumbling on everything socially. I didn't know what to do or how to react. I always thought I wasn't going to make it past forty-five. When I was forty-four, I bought a motorcycle. When forty-six hit, well, I realized I was wrong on that one. But that's around the time when I started realizing who I was and everything came about. I see a future now with a growing family and I don't know what shape that will take. That's the beauty of it, is that I don’t know how it’s going to unfold. I know where our past has been. I'm looking forward to our future.
Kendrah, 72, Boston, MA, 2015
In 1952, when Christine Jorgensen appeared, I was ten. She was there on television and my mother and grandmother were looking at me like she was Satan, and I thought, “Yes, that is what I want to be.” I started changing over when I was forty-eight, I guess a child by comparison to some other people, though I must confess, I wish I could have started sooner. I have been on hormones since May of 1990. When you change over, you go through hell.
I tell you, when a person goes through all of that they have to be sincere. You lose. I didn’t have the good luck to be like some Ts that were able to have their spouse be with them after the change. And, of course, the income. Everything took a nosedive. There wasn’t any money coming in. All I had was unemployment. So I ended up being evicted from this place and, before that, there were times when I would go a week or two without eating.
It is so funny, when I first started on hormones, I was saying, “God, give me breasts!” I was as flat as the wall. And like a year later they came out. I first started out by getting things at Filene’s Basement. Through Mass Rehab Commission I was sent to this place called Vocational Readjustment Center and I met this woman there who gave me all these clothes. I mean, she just gave me tons of clothes, clothes I couldn’t afford, couldn’t buy in a million years. I had a Neiman Marcus coatdress and that was so nice.
When I decided to change over I just jumped in the water to try to learn swimming. It can be very demanding on your soul. I think the most important thing is your presentation. If your main goal in life is only to pass, it is like you are just at the foot of the mountain. I have a number of books over there on Ts. One really good book is by a woman that changed over and she said, “I knew I was a woman the day someone opened the door for me.” I went through so much and it finally took me a while to realize they were talking about me when someone said, “Here ma’am, do you want to sit here?”
Sky, 64, and Mike, 55, Palm Springs, CA
Mike: Well, it’s not terribly complicated. I have always identified on the masculine spectrum and have used the words FTM, trans man, gay man, and male to identify myself. Before I transitioned, I was with a woman in a butch/femme lesbian relationship. I identified as a leather dyke back then, and was definitely butch. In October of 1990, I went to a conference, heard of female-to-male, which I didn’t even know was possible, and went through an identity crisis. I started testosterone in February of 1991. I did not lose a lot of friends, but in the beginning it was a little rocky. It was different back then. There was no internet. You found out about groups through the back of magazines. For a while, I refused to identify as either/or. I identified as sort of both, what we would call “queer” these days. For all intents and purposes, I still identify as queer, but my identity doesn’t come up for the most part. I get seen as male. I spend most of my time, in terms of sexualized spaces, with other gay men.
I have a unique situation wherein I have a long-term relationship with Sky, a long-term relationship with a woman who identifies as queer, and an SM relationship with another man, who I’ve been with for ten years. Sky and I have been together for twenty-five years, and my girlfriend and I have been together for fifteen years. Sky’s the first person I met who I could see growing old with, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve stayed together. We’re able to talk to each other and confide in each other. And the fact that we’re polyamorous; the freedom to have other relationships has made our relationship stronger.
One of the hardest things in terms of transitioning was the difference in personal space. When I was perceived as female, there wasn’t a lot of touching . Women don’t get into each other’s space. When two women are attracted to each other they don’t immediately put their hands on the other woman’s body. It’s not considered appropriate. Whereas the way men cruise, there’s about two seconds of eye contact, and then an approach, and either hands on your chest or hands in your crotch or some other type of immediate physical contact. I started out with a lot of insecurity in terms of my body, insecure about myself, and it has taken time to build confidence. Part of it is I lucked out: I wanted body hair, I wanted facial hair. I got it in abundance! I fit right in to the bear community; I’m short, bald, chubby, and hairy. It’s a niche for me. Realizing that someone was attracted to me, that I deserved positive interaction, that I deserved being seen that way, has taken some work. So getting used to or comfortable with that dynamic, getting comfortable with myself, was what this journey was mostly about.
I don’t have any concerns about aging, per se, because I don’t think our issues are terribly different from anybody else who’s aging. I think the greatest fear for me is the greatest fear for anybody who’s in a couple, that my partner will pass away. I’m also worried about the lack of nursing homes and long term care facilities geared toward our community. Right now, if something happened and I needed to be in a home, finding a place where I would be comfortable would be a challenge. I’m hopeful that in the next twenty years, something will change, preferably sooner rather than later.
Gloria, 70, Chicago, IL, 2016
I identify myself as a female. I’ve always identified myself as a female. From a little tot, I knew who I was then, you know? And people say, “How do you, at an early age, know who you are?” I’ve always felt that way so that’s who I am. The men in my family, they were sort of apprehensive about me, but the women were strong. They wore the pants in my family. My mother would tell them, “This is your child, this is our baby, and you’re going to love my baby because you love me.” And that’s the way it was.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, that woman was amazing. She was there for me all the time. And my mother. My mother was a Jet centerfold model, and a dancer, and she was beautiful. I came up in a household with beautiful women. My great aunt Fannie lived to be 103. She taught school in slavery days when they weren’t supposed to learn how to read. But she went on and she taught school, she became a teacher, and I would go to her house and sit up in her house and we would talk. She would give me words of wisdom. She would tell me, “Baby, you are you and don’t let nobody change you.” And I would sit there and look at her in amazement.
The inspiration for the charm school, I would have to say, was between my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt Fannie. All these women were amazing. They wore gloves, slips up under their dresses. My grandmother would teach me how to sit down at a table, how to break bread. Being raised by these amazing women and learning the techniques to life, that gave me the inspiration when I went to the Center on Halsted and saw these wild women, you know, trans young people, acting a fool and cutting up, and I thought, “Well, maybe they need some help.” And they appreciated me so they came up with the name Momma Gloria. And I said, “Ok, I accept that.” That was them being respectful, calling me their mother. They’ll say, “Oh yeah, this is my gay mother, Momma Gloria.”
I’m a senior citizen. I made it to seventy and a lot of them won’t make it, they won’t make it at all. Because most of them die from drugs, from sexual disease or they’re murdered. They ask me questions like, “Well, Momma Gloria, how did you get through?” I say, “I got through with love from my family and the grace of God.” That’s how I got through. You have to have some stability and you have to have some kind of class, some charm about yourself. I never was in the closet. The only time I was in the closet was to go in there and pick out a dress and come out of the closet and put it on.
Stephanie, 64, St. Louis, MO, 2014
I identify primarily as a woman and secondarily as transgender. And some days I feel rather genderless, actually. Even though I’ve transitioned, I can’t deny or completely separate myself from the past because it did happen and those memories are with me. It wasn’t until I got into my 50s that, through internet research, I discovered there was a name for all this. It was a great relief. And then, for me, it was like, “Push the throttles all the way up, we’re going full speed!” Because, you know, it was a matter of life and death at that point.
But the transition was also pretty costly in other ways. My oldest son doesn’t speak to me anymore, and he hasn’t for over five years. He’s married, and they had my grandchild almost three years ago. I’ve never been able to see the grandchild. There’s no communication, but I try to keep the door open. It’s probably the saddest part in my life. You know, there is a lot of discrimination that happens with transgender people, but the worst discrimination to me is what families do. I am just astounded by what people can do to each other, when your own family runs a sword through you.
I also experienced losses in my work life. I was a strategic account manager at a major corporation. I had big accounts like Walmart and Boeing. I was in the big leagues. When I decided to transition, I did it very carefully through Human Resources. I had it all planned out with management and thought I’d be supported. But even though I did it by the book, not long after I transitioned, there was a great deal of movement away from me. Almost immediately the people in my group, who were all men except for one, formed this wall. I remember one day very specifically when we were sitting in a morning meeting and the VP was looking around and said, “Does anyone want any bagels, donuts?” And, of course, everybody raises their hand. Then he goes, “Stephanie, how about you run over to Einstein’s and pick us up some?” And there I was, a high-level manager, being treated totally differently after I transitioned.
They eventually terminated me for lack of performance, saying I wasn’t working enough even though in reality, I was burning the candle at both ends. And they wouldn’t allow me to take a demotion, they wouldn’t help me to find a position within the company doing something else, no accommodations at all. So, I took a year off to get my head on right and to fully become Stephanie as much as I could. After a year trying to find a job I realized that my entire industry had blackballed me. I mean, literally thousands of people across the country knew what I had done. It was the talk of the industry and I was devastated that I didn’t get more support. I was crushed that I did not get job offers when I started looking. I eventually had to spend all my savings, 401K, everything, and wound up getting some little jobs here and there. I had to start doing home healthcare to make ends meet. It has been an eye-opening experience to see how you can go from making six figures to living on ten dollars an hour, all because of your gender.
Tavis, 55, Bremerton, WA, 2016
As a physician, a lot of our discussions are based around physical issues, but I have a very strong spiritual base. We all have our spiritual journey. There are lessons you can learn by being male or female. In this generation, many have come to bring awareness through transgender issues. So, we’re spirits and our bodies are here as a vehicle to help us to have a certain experience, to learn, and to grow. And what people are hopefully starting to understand is that we are more than our bodies. I think the transgender experience highlights that. You’re still the same individual in this body, and this body is actually mutable. It can be changed. But you are still you.
I’m mixed blood Hispanic and American Indian. Twenty years ago, I started a journey with my native community. What some people call a shaman, we call ceremonial elders. I spent a decade on that path, learning their ways. It was through that process that I became in touch with who I am: my Spirit self, my Higher self. Because of discrimination, my father wasn’t raised with his American Indian side, but that resonated most with me, and that’s actually how I decided to become a physician. One of the ceremonial elders came through my home town and she explained the need for Native physicians to provide medical care to Native people, and I was naive and said “I can do that!” I didn’t know all the steps you had to take, which is probably good, because it would have been overwhelming. So, I followed that path and have provided care to Native people all along in some manner or another.
Entering into the sweat lodge and fasting in the spiritual realm in the late ’90s gave me my awakening to myself as male. But I also have this whole other side of having gone through pregnancy and childbirth and being a mother, so there is that female side as well. There’s a two-spirit element in many Native communities. The kids’ dad, my ex-husband, is also Native American and had already identified me as two-spirit when we met. When I was going to transition, I called him up and said “We’ve never had this conversation, but I’m going to transition and I need you to talk to the kids so they see that it’s part of our culture and I’m not crazy.” He was wonderful. He got on the speaker phone and said, “Your mother is what we call two-spirit, and needs to transition. It’s not that she wants to, it’s that she needs to, and we’re going to love and support her 100%.” He’s never used my birth name or female pronouns since then. He’s been very supportive. My kids are doing really well with it now. We agreed several years ago that I’m their mom and I’ll always be their mom, so they still call me mom, but with male pronouns. Their mom is a guy.
I see each transgender person who chooses to transition as an ambassador, hopefully putting our best foot forward. For those that can make that journey in a positive manner and be that positive role model for people, I think it gives people the opportunity to learn and think about who we are as humans. Beyond our bodies, we’re beings, here to learn and grow. The ultimate journey is to learn to love each other unconditionally. We’re spiritual beings having this human experience for a variety of reasons, each of us on our own journey. I’m hoping people can make that link that you are who you are regardless of this body and, beyond gender, there is this whole spiritual person. Meet the spirit of the person.
Tracie, 65, San Diego, CA, 2017
I identify as female and ever since I can remember, I felt female. When I was a teenager I found a gay coffee house where I felt nurtured, you know, as opposed to not being acknowledged at home as my true self. At nineteen, I came out in the underground LGBT community in San Francisco. It was the early ’70s. There was this whole society of people trying to get along and be free and be part of something. All of us were trying to survive and it was very gender expansive in the beginning; the labels weren’t really important.
I went underground, but I carried a burden of nonacceptance, self-loathing, and self-hate for almost twenty years. Drugs and alcohol were where I found peace. Then a string of events happened in 1989. I went to jail and I thought I was going to prison and I thought I might have HIV. I had a lengthy record of prostitution and petty theft, so I thought I was going to the penitentiary. But in the end, I only got six months. It was then that I was like, “Bing bing bing!” and I realized I had a chance to turn in another direction. Another girl had been to Stepping Stone, an LGBT recovery program, and so I started calling them every week before I got out, asking if I could come when I was released. I’ll never forget, it was Christmas Eve 1990 when I was released and Stepping Stone was there waiting for me.
I was at Stepping Stone for twenty-one months. I was the longest resident ever there. And that was my journey. One day I remember taking all my clothes off, and looking at myself in the mirror with boobs and male genitalia and I really began to look at myself and say, “This is it, this is who I am. I accept my skinny body, I accept my size thirteen feet, I accept my genitalia. I accept everything.” I needed that acceptance to heal myself. I went to school, became a counselor, and I worked there for six years. This was during the early transgender movement, and we were building support systems for people. I’m very proud of that.
I still work at the Family Health Center and still do support services. For me to be a part of that process, it just warms my heart and makes me really, really happy. That I can do that before I die, that’s the shit right here. That’s it. Looking forward, I hope for good health and peace. As an African American trans woman, I have beaten the odds. It’s awful that there are data that show that African American trans women’s life expectancy is thirty-five; well, I’ll be sixty-six in a couple of months! I’m going to be eight-five and I’m going to still be here, giving presents, sharing history, educating, and loving those who come behind me.
D'Santi, 54, Santa Fe, NM, 2017
I identify as a straight male, and I’ve always known. My first memory was saying, “I am not a girl. I don't want to be a girl.” All the games we played, I always played a boy. Didn’t wear dresses. Fast forward about fifty years. I meet my partner, CC, which stands for Cuauhtli Cihuatl, Eagle Woman, and she asks me, "How do I honor you? What do I call you?" She said she could see it in me. The more we talked, the more it was like, "Oh, I should be transitioning." It changed my life. She's the one that helped me realize I can be authentic and be okay with it.
I knew I was different, but I could never figure out how. I self-medicated, a lot of alcohol. I drank until I blacked out. I liked that altered state, because then I didn't have to be me. I was just one of the guys. Just identified as being gay, which I could handle, but it still wasn’t enough. I tried to date, because that's what society said we had to do, and I just couldn't do it. I could never see myself in that role, as a wife, as a mother. It just didn't fit me.
Music was big in my family. Aunts and uncles playing guitars, mandolins. We were at somebody's house every weekend, playing music. So as soon as I got old enough, I was like, "I want to learn, too." My cousins were playing, my brother was playing. It was my escape. I could just get lost in music and say anything I wanted.
In 2010, I had a nervous breakdown. I knew I was searching for something, but I had no idea what. And then I found the Aztec tradition, the Native American tradition, and I was drawn to that, so that's what I follow now. I'm a curandero. I'm a fire guardian. I embrace the two-spirit. This tattoo here is for my Mexican name, which is Ome Xiucoatl. And it translates to "The Two-Spirit Fire Serpent." I embraced the indigenous side of my bloodline and the spirituality there really speaks to me. Because to me, spirit is everywhere. It's in the plants, it's in the trees, it's in the air. The creator is everywhere. The creator is in music. I don't have to go to a building on Sundays. And the message is not about how much money you give to the church, it's not about how you identify, it's just that you be the best person you can be. That's the bottom line. My spirituality has totally shifted and I'm much happier.
People need to know they're not alone. Because that was my battle. For fifty years. I was in it by myself. I told my mom, because I didn't know how to tell her, I said, "You know I’ve never been the girly girl. Well, I just decided to embrace the maleness in me." She was like, "Okay." I go, "You're gonna see some changes in me." And she's like, "You are who you are. You don't need to change who you are, because you are who you are. But if that's what you need to do, then do it." Yeah. My Catholic mom. So I said, "Wow." Because the bottom line is she wants us happy.
I’m really excited to live my life. I just want to play more music. Spend time with my wife, the grandkids, my family. Be authentic. CC and I were talking last night because our anniversary is coming up. We've known each other for six years, so I told her I'm six years old, because that's when my life started. She helped me realize who I am. So, I am six years old. I missed the first fifty years of my life, but I'm not missing the second fifty.
Justin Vivian, 54, New York, NY, 2017
Well, I guess I identify as trans non-binary. And I say “I guess” because those seem to be the most applicable terms in the current list of options. The thing that made me really start questioning gender was when I was a kid, and I was wearing my grandmother's clothes, and my father told me that boys don't wear those kinds of clothes, and I'm like, “Well, I'm wearing these types of clothes so either I'm not a boy or he's wrong.” At that time, I thought it was an either/or question, but now I realize he was wrong on both counts.
In my family, people seem to live a long time. My mom is eighty-three, my grandmother was ninety-two when she died, my grandfather was ninety-one. On my father's side, my grandfather was eighty-eight. So I'm prepared to live a very long life. I'm also prepared to die tomorrow. I'm not concerned about dying or whatever, it doesn't really scare me. I've seen so many people die, that process has been demystified to a certain extent.
I always knew I was trans, and I always knew that I was femme. On the gender spectrum, I am much closer to female. I didn't start taking estrogen, or as I call them, “lady vitamins,” until I was in my late forties. Part of the reason I did that was so I would have a physical and medical record of being trans. So many older LGBT people, when they become ill or if they start to deteriorate mentally and aren't able to articulate things as well, end up involuntarily, just by the assumptions of the people who care for them, being relegated back into the closet. My fear was that I would become incapacitated in some way and then be stuck in a room full of old men and I never, ever want to be an old man. That is not my jam.
I'm happy now. I have a good relationship with what's left of my family. I wish I had known when I was younger that I wasn't doing anybody in my family or my circle of friends – or myself – any favors by not being aggressive and asserting who I was from the get-go. I felt like I could be fluid enough to drift in and drift out of other peoples’ lives, and be who they were comfortable with me being, and then leave them and go somewhere else and be myself. I think that was a mistake. I felt isolated as a child because there were only certain people I could be myself around, and I feel like I carried that with me through adulthood. So, I can be myself when I'm by myself, or with a few close friends, but I feel like I should've been able to be myself with my family a little bit more and with a larger group of people, but I just didn't trust them enough to do it. It wasn't a risk that I felt like taking and I wish I had.
Caprice, 55, Chicago, IL, 2015
I’m a fifty-five year old woman of trans experience and I’m a woman of color. And my life is amazing. I am the eighth child of twenty-three. I remember back, starting at the age of three, my mother used to buy these Tonka trucks. Santa Claus would bring all the little toys and I always got the boy toys and I was not fond of them. I always played with the teapots and the baby dolls, and so she always knew, always had an inclination, and she just waited for confirmation. I had sisters that were older than me and they had birth control pills that they never took. As early as twelve, I swallowed the pills and got my little baby bruises.
I remember coming out the bathroom with the little booster bra that the girls taught me how to wear. You know, you cut the insides out so that your boobs could just grow out perky and what have you. I had the stereo up real loud, and my mother had left for work, and I came out spinning around with my bra on and I hadn’t noticed that she had come back in. She noticed the boobs and I said, “Oh Ma, I didn’t know you were here.” She says, “You’ve got raisins. I’ll see you when I get home.” And I was terrified. But when she got home from work she says, “We need to have a conversation.” She says, “Are you gay?” I said, “I think I’m attracted to guys.” She said, “You don’t like girls? And where did you get those raisins?” And I told her I took my sister’s pills.
Before trans was even labeled as trans, it was sissy. I was a sissy. But my mother knew enough to be supportive. And anything that was major that disrupted our family dynamics was brought to the dining room table. We had one of those big tables where you had to add a leaf and add chairs around it because we had twenty-three in one household. I was terrified because I had to reveal my truth to my family. A lot of them were younger than me. You know, the older ones, they had a general idea. My twin always knew and I didn’t know how to verbalize it. And I was like, “Well, you know, I’m living as a girl now.” And my mother said, “We are not going to say living ‘as’ a girl. We are going to say you are living in your womanhood, your sisterhood. It gives you power, it gives you authenticity.” It was amazing for me. And just her saying that boosted my whole confidence level.
Experience is the greatest teacher. You have to give back. I have been working in the field of social service for seventeen years. I have been an activist and advocate for trans women of color and trans-identified individuals for the majority of my life. My sisters are dying. My sisters are not being connected. And I am connected. I got connected through community. I remember when I was getting food stamps and no Medicaid, and I was buying black market hormones. But once you have it smooth, it is important you grab one of your girlfriends, one of your boyfriends, and tell them “Look baby, somebody showed me how to get through this block here, come with me and let me show you how to do it too.” My life relies upon me being able to give to my community, and my reward is when I see people take what I have given to them and do something constructive with it. I want people to say, “She showed me how to do this. She taught me how to do that.” That is my gift. My mom taught me how to open my eyes to this particular gift. God blessed me with the whole thing. I am the greatest gift I have to offer.
Leon, 55, St. Louis, MO, 2016
I found out I was intersex quite by accident. I was going to the doctor to start on a diet and she wanted to run bloodwork. She took bloodwork, then two weeks later she called me and she was like, “Is there something you need to tell me?” and I said, “I don’t think so, what are you talking about?” She said, “There’s just something that I saw in your bloodwork. I need to do more bloodwork.” And I was like, “Oh my God, am I dying?” and she said, “No, you’re not dying, I just want to run a karyotype.” So then, of course, like everybody, you run home, you get on Web MD, and… I gave myself so many diseases!!! So, a week later I went back to her and she said, “We did your bloodwork, and we found out that you are intersex.” And I said, “Bing!” It was like a big lightbulb went off and from that moment on, everything seemed to fall into place.
At first when I found out, I didn’t want to tell anybody. But I took my good friend with me and on the way home I was like, “I don’t know what to do. What am I gonna tell people?” You know? People don’t understand this. And I’ve never been ashamed of myself. I’ve always done what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, and how I wanted to do it, and damn what everybody else thought. But now I was like, “I don’t know what to say.” So when we got back to the office – I worked at Vital Voice at the time – the whole staff asked “What’s going on? What happened?” So I told them and they were like, “Ok.” I said “So, we’re gonna take this journey together if I decide to do this.” Because I really wasn’t sure. And I was talking to another friend, and he’s like, “Bitch, you’ve gotta talk about this. You’ve got to tell your story, because you have to remember, God or the Universe gave you this for a reason.” So we decided to write an article for the December 2011 issue of Vital Voice and it took off from there.
I try to talk about intersex and educate people as much as I can and let families know that, if your baby’s born intersex, just let it be. Leave it alone. There’s no need to rush off, no need for doctors to lie, because in the past doctors have lied or didn’t even tell the parents sometimes. I just hope that one day society will understand intersex and won’t be so ashamed of it. That’s my mission, is to educate. If people ask me questions when I’m out and about, I always answer them, because I feel like that may be the only time I get to have that teachable moment with them. If they’re brave enough to ask, they’re brave enough to hear what I have to tell them.
Michelle-Marie, 62, Williamsburg, VA, 2013
I had an older sister, a younger sister and a younger brother. And I just identified more with my sisters than I did my brother. I just wasn’t a boy. Growing up, I really knew nothing. The only person I knew was when I took my mother’s Life magazine of Christine Jorgenson and hid it. Later on, I found Renee Richards’ book, Second Serve, and kept it. Those are the only people I knew about.
My mother always told me when I got beat up, “If you weren’t that way, it wouldn’t happen.” I left home two weeks after high school graduation. I was scared of getting drafted into the Army, so I joined the Navy. But I had some bad experiences in the Navy, so I managed to get out early. Then I did everything you’re supposed to do. At twenty-two years old, I got married. I had three kids. I had a career. I was a program administrator. And I just never learned how to be a man. I never took on male socialization skills. And in 1990, I had a massive breakdown. I didn’t know who I was. I hated myself.
So then, over the next twelve years, I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. I attempted suicide fourteen times. I was in a basement apartment and I was ready to do it again. Nobody was going to find me that time. But that time, I sat and thought about things. I drove home to California, talked to my sister, and my sister said, “It’s about time.”
Then, my father passed away in ’98 and he had told me before he passed away, he said I had to make some decisions in my life and only when I made them was I going to be happy. You know, it was the first time in my life he said he was proud of me. I just thought he meant I had to get over my depression. But my sister told me that he knew all those years what was the problem. So I came home and I literally left “Mike” in every trash can along Interstate 40. And I came back and started my transition.
Later on, I remember my therapist asking me, “What kind of a woman do you want to be after you transition?” And she made me go home and think about it, and I went back and I said, “I don’t have to think about that. I’ve always been that woman.” It’s only now the outside matches.
Juli, 62, New York, NY, 2016
I was the oldest of four kids, so I became the built-in babysitter. My parents would go out, and the first thing I would do was go to my mother's closet. I'd put on her makeup, put on her clothes, and try to make sure she didn't know I was in it. At age fourteen I met a girl who would eventually become my wife. At twenty, I came out to her as a cross-dresser. It was hard for her, but she dealt with it. We got married when I was thirty, and five years later, we decided to have a child. I still lived and worked as a male. Our life was great, but I was starting to feel stifled because there was never any private time to dress, to go out and be me.
In 1999, my father came to live with us because he was very sick with emphysema. It was the best year of my life, taking care of him and spending time with him. Unfortunately, within a year, he passed away, and that rocked my world. He had me when he was twenty-three and he passed when he was almost seventy. I remember thinking, “Well, I have twenty-three years until I'm seventy. I'm pretty healthy. Assuming I have a longer life than he does, well, how long could it be? Let's say it's eighty, that means I have thirty-three years left. Well, I can reach back and look at thirty-three years ago and it just seems like last week, so that means I don't have a whole lot of time left.” That really pushed me towards wanting to get out and do more things. One of the first things I did was to start electrolysis, but it freaked my wife out because now I was starting to change my body. Once I started electrolysis, I started going to transgender events around the country. As the process continued, it got harder and harder for my wife. She basically couldn't deal with who I really was and we finally separated and divorced. We had been together thirty-eight years.
I started going to a Unitarian Universalist church as Juli, and while there I met a cisgender, heterosexual woman who I became “girl” friends with. I started having feelings for her, and I thought I was totally crazy, but it turns out that she was starting to get feelings for me as well. In the summer of 2008 I asked her out on a date, suggesting she meet “Terry,” my male persona. We had a really nice time. We went to dinner and took a drive along the beach. We continued to go out, sometimes I would be Terry, but more and more often I was Juli. A few months later, I moved in with her. Three years later we got married and have been married for five years. She still identifies as heterosexual and cisgender, but we laugh because when we go on vacation now, people think we're two old, crazy lesbians.
One important thing I've learned is that I was blessed with a certain set of circumstances and privileges that allowed me the opportunity to accomplish things and be successful. First of all, being born male, right away you've got three steps ahead. Second, being born white gives you another five steps. It's one thing to have to walk through a door and do whatever it is through that door, but there are some people who don’t have any doors, there’s only a wall. And I was constantly allowed a door. Whether I went through that door is one thing. Yes, great, I did and I'm proud of that, but the fact that I had doors that were there and not walls was a big thing.
Connor, 61, San Diego, CA, 2014
I identify as male. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been male my entire life. I wasn’t a girl who became a boy. I’ve always been a boy. I knew it when I was three years old. I grew up in an era when we didn’t know anything about anything. I spent my life trying to figure out what was wrong with me. You know, “Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel boy and not girl?”
My mom spent so much of her time and energy trying to fix me and make me behave more like a girl. It didn’t work, but it made me feel horrible. I had no self-esteem. My depression started when I was around ten or eleven. I learned not to talk to anybody about anything because every time I mentioned that I felt like a boy, my mother would tell me I was crazy and to never say that again. So I gave it up. But, you know, it comes back, and it keeps coming back. I tried to force myself to be somebody I wasn’t. I got married and had babies because that’s what girls do. My marriage was horrible because I had my issues and he had his. I started drinking badly in my late twenties and I drank for the next twenty-something years until I just imploded. After twenty-five years, I finally had enough and got a divorce. I thought my world was going to end.
I came out as a lesbian because that’s what I thought I was. I did all the lesbian stuff and met lesbians at AA. I eventually met somebody online in a chat room. He came out to me as FTM and he said, “I don’t think you’re a lesbian, I think you’re like me” and then he told me his story and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s me, that’s who I am.” I moved to California and started going to FTM International meetings in San Francisco. The first time I walked into a room and saw another trans guy, it blew my socks off! In this meeting, there were about twenty guys and there were about three that I picked out that were trans and I thought, “Why are all these cisgender guys at this meeting?” I thought they must be friends or brothers or whatever, but they were all trans guys! I had never seen someone further into their transition and I didn’t have a concept yet of how much testosterone could do. And that just blew me away. At fifty, I started to transition and it changed my whole world. It changed everything I felt about myself. I could now interact with the world being completely comfortable in my own skin. I can’t even describe to people how amazing it feels to suddenly, after all those years, to just be yourself, to wake up every morning and like who you see in the mirror.
Having lived my whole life not being ok and not having anyone, I wanted to help others not have to go through that crap, so I started getting involved in community activism. I work with youth and young kids. We have a group at the LGBT center for young trans kids, and I’m getting to watch these kids grow up being themselves and that just amazes me. I don’t think I will ever stop working in my community because it’s so much a part of my life now, making sure that things keep moving and people are being taken care of and helped. You know, it feeds me, it makes me feel happy that I can help. I love being part of that because I spent so much of my life without a community, with nobody, and it’s like this is my other family.
Jamie, 69, and Sherry, 60, Boulder, CO, 2016
I identify as more female than male, and I like it when I’m in the world and I get accepted as “she.” I’m not a girly-girl, and that’s just the way it is. There’s a lot of me that’s still pretty masculine. I’m an architect and also a rock climber. I mostly hang around with women now. Almost all of my climbing partners are women and I really feel privileged to be accepted into the female part of the gender spectrum.
Since I was a teenager, I always really liked wearing women’s clothes. As a kid, growing up in west Texas in the ’50s, I saw some magazine articles about people who had transitioned. I still have a very, very clear picture of them. But you know, there was no internet. And so, it actually made me feel pretty bad about myself and my life. Like, “What’s wrong with me that I want this?” And I never really told anybody. It was just my deep, dark secret. And I was always terribly afraid of getting caught, like if I got caught, then my life would just end somehow, that nobody would talk to me or climb with me or love me. I eventually told my first wife. We weren’t really getting along then anyway, but we got divorced shortly after that.
I told my current wife, Sherry, about fifteen years ago. She actually bought me some clothes and I would wear clothes around our house some. Five or six years ago, she said, “You have to deal with this. You have to go therapy.” I started going to therapy, but I didn’t know that I wanted to transition. I just knew that I had this secret and that I had to figure it out. And then at some point, I figured it out, which was terrifying. I started going to more therapy and began electrolysis to get rid of my beard, but in all of this, Sherry was a bit uncomfortable. She sort of freaked out, like, “If you’re going to live as a woman, can I be married to you?” She didn’t know. She identifies as quite heterosexual. She doesn’t really have a lesbian bone in her body. We’ve been together for a long time, we’ve been in love for a long time. We had a rough patch where she asked me to leave, and I moved out. We were both still going to therapy, and I was totally devastated. I was considering, “Can I just move to San Francisco and start my life over in stealth mode?” And I knew I didn’t really want to do that. I have deep connections in this community. I’ve been here a really long time. And I’m part of the national climbing community. So then I came back, and she and I worked it out. I moved back in downstairs, and a few months later she said, “You might want to sleep upstairs.” So we got through that.
I think this is the best thing I ever did. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I feel like I have better social relationships than I ever have. I have been told, by more than one person, that they like me much better as Jamie. That they felt that I always had a little bit of an angry edge as Jim, which I think is true, probably. It feels pretty great to not have any secrets, to just be me. I think I’m a better me.
Lee Anne, 64, McClellanville, SC, 2016
I was living in Wando, South Carolina, and one day at an environmental group meeting a friend told me she had someone she wanted me to meet. She introduced me to this petite, Southern school teacher who had never met a transgender person before. We sat down, we talked, we ate together, but then we went our separate ways. We didn’t exchange phone numbers, didn’t exchange addresses, nothing. Three days later, my phone rang. It was the school teacher, she’d tracked me down. About eight months later, we were married. Neither of us was looking and she considers herself to be a heterosexual. I consider myself to be a lesbian. But it works!
Unfortunately, I had to go back in the closet, because I had to get work. And so I went back into construction. That almost destroyed the marriage. I began drinking again, and overeating, and I was miserable. And I made her miserable. But the turning point came... well, it took me three days to work up the courage. I had two drinks, and we sat on the edge of our pond and I told her, “I can’t do this any more. I cannot live this life. I cannot be like this anymore.” And I found a support group and started going, and I slowly started expressing myself more and more. Now we’re coming up on our nineteenth wedding anniversary.
I’m related to all the locals in our village. All the people who come from here, I am kin to them. My wife taught school here for over thirty years, so everybody knows her and loves her. She’s very well respected in the village. Would I have been as well received if I had not been married to her, or if I was not related to everybody? I don’t know. I am amazed that I have been accepted as well as I have. But are things going to change now that we’ve had an election that has empowered people to hate? I don’t know.
You have to have a thick skin to survive in the South being transgender. Unfortunately, I know too many who don’t. And most of them are young. I think that over the years, I’ve developed this thick skin because it’s either that or die. I actually considered suicide twice. I came very close both times. I remember one time when this feeling came over me that just said, “No. Be who you are.” And so I didn’t go through with it. I also find that I’ve become more empowered the older I get. You know those little memes on Facebook about the old people not giving a damn? Well, that’s basically how I am, “Accept me or get out of my way.” I’m not going to sit here and be silent for the rest of my life. What can you do to me that I didn’t already do to myself for most of my life? I beat myself down enough. I just want people not to give up hope. South Carolina’s state motto is, “While I breathe, I hope.” I used to think it was silly. I don’t any more. I’m not going to give up hope. I’ve gotta fight, and to fight, you have to have hope!
Tasha, 65, Birmingham, AL, 2013
I was born in Childersburg, Alabama. When I was growing up, I knew that something about me was different. I knew that I liked the guys. I pretty much today live as a gay man that lives just like a woman, because I see from Day One, from that day to this day, I've always felt like a woman born in a man's body. And that's the way I live. I live as a woman today. I didn't get to the place of where I'm so all right with this until later in life – at a young age I would’ve had a sex change. But today, I'm so all right with me it doesn't even cross my mind.
I have never been a case of being in the closet. I've always been wide open. And back in that time of the civil rights movement, I still didn't have any problem. I was still wide open. I participated in the marches and stuff. I was arrested, wet up with the hoses, all that stuff.
Whether you say, "Yes, ma'am," or "Yes, sir," I'm all right. I don't let nothing like that bother me. At times it was kinda rough growing up when you had to hear guys call you all kinda names, such as freaking fag and all this kinda stuff. It used to hurt me and make me angry. But as I got into the church and started letting the verse of John 3:16 register in me, a whole lot of stuff changed.
It said, "For God so loved the world that whosoever will, let them come." And after that, I felt like I was one of the "whosoevers." And knowing that I was gay and knowing what people were saying, I stopped getting mad. I stopped fighting and just be who I am – and just be me. Now, I am real respected in my neighborhood as Tasha because a lot of people don't even know my real name. I'm Tasha to everybody. And most of the children say, "Miss Tasha." But when I come upon situations where children are curious and ask, "Are you a man or a lady?" I don't lie to them. I just tell them I'm a man that lives as a woman. And then I have no problems with them. If you don't say anything to me, I'm not going to say anything to you, although I have some eyes that can talk to you where I won't have to say anything. But, all in all, I feel that I done had a good life. I'm just happy with me today, real happy.
Willy, 52, Oakland, CA, 2015
I’m mixed heritage. My mom is Chinese from Hawaii. My dad is English, Irish, and Scottish from Oakland, and I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco. I changed my name to Willy when I was nine, in 1972. It was a different time. There was no awareness of transgender issues, and of course there was no structural support in the school system or resources to help my family understand me. So it was a long process of getting people to recognize the authenticity of my name change and to call me Willy. Some people came along quicker than others, some family members and friends. A couple of teachers were able to get with it, but many people resisted. It took my mother fifteen years, but she did finally come around. So that’s my story of being trans in the ’70s. I was really on my own and didn’t know anyone who was trans until years later.
I went to college in 1980 and I came out as a lesbian. It wasn’t really an option yet to come out as trans, so I got involved in the women’s movement and the lesbian movement and the women of color movement of the ’80s, which was an amazing experience. But then, the transgender movement started and it exploded in San Francisco in 1994, when we won legal protections in the City and County of San Francisco. I really connected with the movement and I started my process of coming out as trans. For a long time, I had lived as this – we didn’t say “nonbinary” – but I had a third gender identity. I was circling around medical transition for so many years, but I kept deciding not to medically transition and to navigate this third gender identity. Now it’s a cool thing, but back then it was not a thing you saw. As a mixed heritage person, I felt that my third gender identity was inextricably linked to my mixed heritage, and I lived in this complicated place of gender and race for many, many years, until ultimately, I medically transitioned in 2012.
I’m a parent of three young kids, and I’m part of the early wave of trans-identified people who’ve gone into parenting with a trans identity. The vast majority of trans parents with older kids came out as trans after having kids. I remember the wave of lesbians who started having kids in the ’80s, and ’90s and how there was a whole process of reproductive rights and justice around that. Now, we’re in the early days of the reproductive justice movement for trans parents, and there are so many more trans people who are preparing themselves and getting their lives ready so they can become parents. It’s great to see!
This progress is amazing, but even though we have more visibility and awareness, education, and resources now, there are so many young trans people who still don’t feel good about themselves. I hope that trans people, especially young trans people, coming up in the world can see that they’re beautiful and they’re brilliant and they’re amazing and unique in a special way, and that’s a good thing! It saddens me that trans youth are still struggling, that people are still ending their lives. We have so much more work to do, but we’re going to get there. I’m an optimist. And I’m an old-ass motherfucker, too, so I'm like, “Hey! Look how far we’ve come!”
Cassandra, 50, San Diego, CA, 2017
I identify as Cassandra. I'm a trans woman. I’ve always identified as female, but it took a while to get to that point, because I am originally from the Caribbean and the church is very strong there. I always knew that I was different. I remember going through puberty and asking my mom, "How come I don't have breasts?" and she said, "Well, it's because you're a boy." That didn’t seem right to me. It just didn't match. So that's how I identify. I identify as female. And that's how I live my life. I have always felt that way, but I never truly expressed it until I left the islands, just before my twenty-first birthday.
I needed to leave the Caribbean. All through school I was bullied and picked on. I had been attacked a few times, beaten up, and had people throw stones at me because of who I was. I knew that if I stayed there, I would not survive. So, I had to flee. I went to immigration and filed for political asylum. Two or three weeks later, I got a call to come up to the office. I’d never ever been in one of those offices, one of those waiting rooms with a sea of people sitting there. They were calling people up. There were lots of families coming from the Middle East and different countries, trying to stay together. One by one, their cases were being denied, so I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m going to have to go home.” I started to get all sweaty and scared. And then when I came up, she said, "Well, good news, your application has been approved." I almost hit the floor.
One of the biggest struggles is the discrimination we face of not being able to walk into a place and get a job. A lot of times, even in this day and age, a lot of girls are still being forced into sex work because they have to survive, you know what I’m saying? And I don’t want to say I am lucky, but I didn’t have to do that. I was able to transition on the job, which was good for me. That's the path my life took. But I’ve been out there in the street walking and being stopped by the police because they thought I was a prostitute. They see a person of color and assume they’re a prostitute, you know. A day that I’d like to see is a day when we're not judged by the color of our skin, but by our character. People say they don’t see color, but that's an insult. Because I’m a woman of color, so if you don’t see my skin color, then you don’t see me.
Last year more than twenty trans women of color were murdered, but nothing has been done about that. We have to stand up and say something and do something about it. You see all these things happening with gay rights and marriage equality. Ok, well that’s fine, that's you, but as a trans woman, what's in that brown bag for me? There's nothing. At the end of the day, they still slam the door in my face. At the end of the day, we're still forced to go stand on the corner to make ends meet. And possibly, probably, be murdered. That's very upsetting, when you look at that and say, "Wow, that could have been me." Some people just don't seem to care. Because if they did care, they would do something about it. Whenever there is a fundraiser and they want to have somebody perform, they reach out to the girls because we’re entertainers. But then when my sisters are dying in the street, I don’t see you marching in the street to help me, to bring attention to it. See, I know what it's like, and that's why I live openly, because I know that by my keeping the door open, and conversation open, it’s going to make it easier and better for the next generation.
Diego, 59, Washington, DC 2016
I have one of those kaleidoscopic identities. I identify as an openly transsexual man who’s Latino, who’s Southern, and is a New Englander who lives in Washington, DC and Boston, MA. I’m an immigrant. I was born in Germany and adopted as a baby. When I was adopted, I was the sickest child. My father, a decorated World War II veteran for the United States as a Mexican American, told my mother that she could adopt a child but it had to be the one closest to death. For my mother, who was a concentration camp survivor, it really just meant that she got to bring back to life something that almost didn’t have that. I never had to struggle inside my family but only had to face external barriers. I always had a nest at home, and I realize that’s a privilege because not everyone has that safety at home.
My earliest memory of feeling like a boy was when I was two. I made up a name for myself, Diego Sanchez. Between age four and five, I realized that bodies were different because all my friends were little boys. I grew up in the Panama Canal Zone so kids were naked three quarters of the time. We were getting in ponds or we were getting in creeks or we were getting in the ocean. It was always hot. So, I realized that our bodies were different and it was distressing. I knew I was missing things. I told my parents at age five that I was born wrong. I told my mom first. My mother left the room and I thought, “I’m gonna get a whipping. It’s going to be a belt, it’s going be a wooden spoon.” She walked back in with a magazine and it had a picture of Christine Jorgensen on the cover. And she said “I don’t know if there are other people like you, who are born a girl and see themselves as a boy, but this woman was born a boy, grew up to be a man and finally became herself, a woman. And I think that if it’s ok for her now, by the time you grow up it’ll be ok.”
In Latino culture, if everyone’s at home, the guys are hanging out. The women are doing a lot of the work and the men are being served. And somehow, since I was a kid, I was always granted that guy access by my uncles, aunts, and grandmother. I don’t know why. But I was always granted this place. At home in the core nuclear status of my family, my mother taught me things that girls had to know and my dad taught me things that guys needed to know. I was taught a lot of work and career and business and military things from my father that most daughters would not have been taught.
Having been raised as a Latina created a lot of expectations. As a Latina, you’re able to do certain things but you’re required to do others. And as a Latino, there are things you can’t do that you used to do, such as if somebody’s got a kid, and it’s cute, I can’t go over and say what a cute kid. That’s true for most guys, but for guys of color it’s even more harsh. I am straight. I love women. I’m trying to learn to be more emotionally available. You have to be 100% emotionally there to expect someone else to be. I try to show love, whatever that is, but I try to find it and show it. As a Latino, I have to check myself because there are things that I expect in relationships. I honor women in ways that some women appreciate and some find demeaning. I will pull a chair, I will open a door, but it’s just part of my cultural nature and training and observation for life. You know, when you spend your life watching people who are what you want to be, you’ll learn a lot more than if you aren’t paying attention. So I learned a lot about being a Latino from being a Latina.
Rhyannon, 57, Santa Fe, NM, 2017
I’ve always felt that I was really female. I grew up Catholic and I was the oldest in a family of four. My dad was an Air Force officer. Both of my parents were from Kansas, so that gives you an idea of what kind of background I have. I went to Catholic seminary, for a year, and my spiritual director tried to correct how I walked ’cause I did not walk like a guy. I think people picked up on it, that I was different.
I got married to a woman. I was always attracted to men, and so it was really a stretch for me to be in a relationship with a woman. I did care about her, but I wasn’t romantically madly in love with her. I had those kinds of feelings for guys that I knew, but I always felt like I had to hide them. At the time, I didn’t have any trans role models, really, except Christine Jorgenson and Renee Richards. Every time those stories would come on the news I would be glued to the TV, thinking, “There are people that do this!" But then I thought, “No, it's not gonna be me. I'll never do that."
We were married for 18 years, but I was still wrestling with my feelings and I finally had a breakdown. I was depressed for several years, was barely functioning. My wife suspected something, but she wasn’t sure what it was. She'd ask me if I was gay and of course I would say no, because I wasn't. I was mad at God. I was mad about a lot of stuff. I thought, "Okay, well this is just going to ruin my life.” But I finally decided that this is why we’re here, this is what life's about, discovering who you are and being the best person that you can be. I finally couldn’t take it anymore and decided, “Enough's enough.” But we did have two kids, and I’m very thankful for that. Unfortunately I don’t hear a lot from my kids anymore. My daughter was initially supportive, but I haven’t heard from her in five years. My son calls every once in a while. They live together now, so I know their phone number and address and I send them presents at Christmas.
I’m a medical social worker, and I’ve been doing hospice social work for ten years. I mean, how awesome is that to help somebody in the last stage of their life? You should be able to tie a knot on things, hopefully, and to die peacefully. One of my sisters died last October. We were all there with her and it was the most beautiful, peaceful death. I’ve seen many, many deaths over the years, doing hospice, but that was another one of those times when I felt like I was extremely privileged to be part of somebody's life and to be there with them at the end. After my sister's funeral, everybody came back to the house, and I said, "Okay, I need everybody to come in here and sit down. I’ve got something to say." And of course, some of them were getting a little panicked about this, because I think they were afraid I was going to say I had cancer like my sister did. And I said, "No, no, no, no, no. Don't even worry. It's nothing bad.” So I told them I was trans, and my nephew – whose mom we had just buried – asked me, "So can I call you Aunt Rhya?" And I said, "Of course you can." All my nieces and nephews call me Aunt Rhya now. I just love that.
Monica, 62, Baltimore, MD, 2016
When I was four years old, I tried to tell my mother I was a girl. It was 1957. It went over her head. I told her, “Mother, I think I’m like Rosemary Clooney.” She said, “Child, you can’t be like Rosemary... Rosemary’s white!” And so I never thought that she understood. Now looking back at it, there are a lot of things in my life that give me clues that maybe she did understand and did what she could in her own way. My mother died before I transitioned, but when I came out to my aunt she told me she had had conversations with my mother, but back then in 1955 they didn’t have the language. By the time I had a conversation with a professional, I was an adult. This doctor asked me if I was “truly” trans. And my response was, “Why are you asking me that? Because I don’t fit some criteria in your book?” It bothered me that somebody who wasn’t trans had criteria for someone who is trans, to measure my transness. All I knew was that I had a sense of myself, and it was based on my lived reality.
I struggled with drugs and alcohol for years, and kept abandoning but then coming back to this part of myself. In 2002, I had a heart attack and almost died. I was three years clean by then and started having this recurring dream. In this dream, there was this big booming voice, like the voice of God, and it said, “If that’s who you’ve believed you are your whole life, then why did you lie to everybody your whole life? Why did you continue to deceive everybody and why continue to deny yourself?” The first night, I shook it off, it was just a dream. But then I had the same dream the second night, and it disturbed the hell out of me. When I had it the third night, I just couldn’t believe I kept having the same dream. There was something about it that gnawed at me, something very real. And I couldn’t shake it.
When I told people about the heart attack, the only thing I could tell them was that there was something in me that knew I was dying. Right after, I wrote a poem called “One Minute” because I remember asking God for one more minute. And I felt like the rest of my life was about “What am I going to do with one more minute”? At some point, I don’t remember what day, I just made the decision that I couldn’t lie any more, and if I was going to die, at least I needed to know who I was.
When I finally came out to my father, I went over to see him and he said, “This is a shock, but on the other hand I guess I’m not really surprised.” What he was more interested in was if I was still drug and alcohol free. And then he wanted to know if I still loved baseball and football, because we were a baseball and football family. Then, we had conversations that reminded me that I come from a family of activists, and that’s something that over the years has helped me to get a deeper realization of who I am and where I come from. My family came up here during the migration. My grandmother was homeschooled and well-educated. And my great-grandmother came from slavery, so they were radical as well, because they had to hide books in order to be able to read. They passed that strength down through the family, and they passed it down to me.
Jay, 69, Albuquerque, NM, 2017
I identify as a trans guy, not a trans man. I don’t feel I’m completely on the binary. I probably feel closer to male than to female, but I embrace my femininity as well as my masculinity. I’ve always thought that something was different. I told my mother when I was seven that I was a boy. I transitioned at sixty-five. I’m taking testosterone, a moderate level, and I had top surgery. I’m not really interested in doing anything else.
I had an easy time transitioning in Albuquerque. I lost three friends, but everyone else has been really supportive. I’m fairly out, but I don’t necessarily go and say, “Hello, I’m Jay, I’m transgender.” But, you know, I go to the same stores, interact with the same business people, the plumber, whatever. They’ve all sort of transitioned with me. Everybody has been very accepting. It has been interesting to transition with other people who have seen me throughout the process. I’m considering it a sociological experiment.
In some ways, I think being older made it easier to transition. I don’t have a job to worry about, because I'm retired. My parents are deceased, because of my age. I only have one sister, who is accepting. I don’t have a family, so I didn’t have to wonder if my wife or husband would be accepting. And I’m middle class. I’m not wealthy, but I have enough. I had top surgery before it was covered by insurance companies, but I was able to afford it. I didn’t have years of binding to go through. The thing that’s been good for me is my feeling of being whole in my own body, which I’ve never felt before. Transition has been an improvement, but it hasn't been this big struggle.
I haven’t had a lot of relationships. I’m asexual, which I think complicates things. I’m also on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, so that makes it more complicated, too. I’ve known about being on the spectrum for about thirty years. I think there’s something about trans guys on the autism spectrum, but I don’t know exactly what the correlation is. My personal theory is that it’s much more common to be trans than people realize, and when you’re autistic, you’re less restricted by social norms. So it becomes easier for you to think “I can do this” because you’re less worried about what other people will think.
Everybody goes through a lot of transitions, and maybe this one is less socially acceptable, but we all go from being babies to being children, children to adolescents, adolescents to adulthood, working to retired. I taught special education for thirty-five years. In some ways, I’m having more trouble with transitioning to retirement than I am with my transitioning my gender.
Rosalind, 65, New York, NY, 2016
I always knew there was something different about me, but I didn’t know what it was.
As I was going through school I found out there was other people like me. One of my best friends said to me, “You are a woman.” And I was like, “Okay! I know that.” She was actually the first one to take me to a doctor, with my mother and father’s consent, to have my first hormones when I was fifteen. Which is amazing. Everybody always asks me, “How did you do that at fifteen?” You know, considering the way things are today, that’s something in the extreme. But I did it. And I wouldn't change anything. I just wanted to be me.
My mother was my rock. She was the one that said, “Listen, that is my daughter, that’s who she is, and that’s that. You’re going to give her respect just like you give me respect.” So, unbeknownst to me, the family little by little did. After my mother died, my whole family kept looking at me, and I kept saying, “Why are you all looking at me like that?” And they said “Because you are the spitting image of your mother." And I am. The older I get, I look at myself and I be like, “Ooooh, it’s like looking at her all over again.” Like she’s here, you know, and I know she’s proud of me. I’ve done everything I have to do and I’m happy. That’s all she ever wanted for me.
Everybody’s journey is different. You know, some of us have good journeys and some of us have bad. I had a good one. Which is totally out of the norm. Most of us, you know, we’re thrown to the wayside, our families don’t want us, so we create extended families. I'm out, and if I didn't tell you, you wouldn't know and that's been my experience my whole entire life. I've always put my cards on the table, always. And some people accept it, some people don't. You're putting your life out there, which can be dangerous. You have to be mindful of your safety because people can be cruel. I've gotten to the point now where I don't like to put myself in certain situations. I really don't like riding the trains and buses if I can help it, but I do. There's so many women of color of trans experience. They're killing us like its nothing, and they don't care. It's like "Oh, it's just another transgender person who got killed, so what?" The humanity is not there. We're human, first of all. You bleed, I bleed.
I want the younger people of trans experience to live in their truth as best as they can and that's it. If you feel that it's for you, it's for you. You should pursue whatever needs to be to get you to where you need to be. Somebody was telling me "Ever since you've had this surgery you seem like you've got this little glow about you." I was like, “What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to look sad or upset?” My medical transition is done and I'm happy. I'm finally complete in being me. Through this whole entire transition I've lived my life, I've enjoyed it. It's had its ups and downs, but I'm grateful for it because I was finally able to be who I needed to be.
Tony, 67, San Diego, CA, 2014
I was a teenager back in the ’60s. Especially in high school and around other kids, I always had a gender problem. I was born female, I lived as a female, but I’m really a man. I always knew that I was a boy growing up, but I had to keep my male side separate.
Let's see, my son was born in 1972. I was married twice, had a bad lesbian relationship because, you know, she was one of these lesbians that didn’t want to see a female becoming a man. It was when I was first married that I still had to be this female in public, but I just didn’t want to be. I hardly identified with it and I was pretending. But when everyone was out of the house, there I was in men's suits, acting out, privately.
Being diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder has helped a great deal, but I’m still fighting off the people, especially my family. I said to myself, “You know, I’m sixty-three and this has to stop. I’m going to go for it.” So at the age of sixty-three I decided that I just wasn't gonna go on living this way, living female. I was more comfortable living male and I wanted to do the whole total package. Tell the young people going through transitions to never give up. If they want the total package, never give up. I went through periods of giving up, but I had to push myself.
They say that when you go through the testosterone one of the symptoms is that you’re an adult and an adolescent at the same time. I feel that I’m still going through adolescence. I just want to do everything now as a man. This is who I am and I just want to get in everything, you know, like bungee jumping, like going on a rollercoaster again! I want to take care of and appreciate what life is offering me as a man. I’m living the life that I lost.
Grace, 56, Boston, MA, 2013
I always felt more like girls, like women. Even when I was watching movies or television shows or reading books, the female characters were the ones that I identified with just sort of instinctively. So I knew I was born male, but I certainly was a feminine boy growing up, a gender queer boy, and was harassed and bullied and got a lot of negative attention because of that. I was assumed to be gay from the earliest get go as well, even though it wasn't talked about then in the ’60s. So, I was called all the names associated with that: sissy, faggot, fairy, all of that.
I didn't feel like I was transsexual. I didn't have that profound sense of body dysphoria that lots of transsexuals report, even though there were things that I wanted to change. So the way I understood that and was able to express that in the ’80s was maybe what we would now call gender queer. That term wasn't used then, but I lived in another gender space. I just was living in this third gender space. I didn't see it as on my way to anything. I've been lucky to have people in my life who have been supportive of me and my journey, wherever that would lead me. So it was less about giving me guidance on a specific path and more about people who have said, "Your identity's evolving, and that's a wonderful thing, and we encourage you to explore that and go with that."
I still see myself as on a journey. When I received an award a few years ago at a conference I said, "In the ’60s they called me a sissy. In the ’70s they called me a faggot. In the ’80s I was a queen. In the ’90s I was transgender. In the 2000s I was a woman, and now I'm just Grace."