Yes You Can
I was 52 years old when decades of pain and confusion coalesced into a single word: Transgendered. This was a new word and a new world that I had not known existed. For the first time I knew that I was not the only one in the world who felt this way. There were others and they had done something about it. I grew up in an era when public discussion of homosexuality was still rare and the concept of gender variation was all but unheard of. This was not information that could found in libraries or even doctor’s offices. Now that I had a word, and knew that it fit who I was, the next step was to find out what could be done about it. The internet was a life saver. I found websites dedicated to transgender issues. Treatment protocols and support groups were there too. Finally the answers I had looked for all my life were at my fingertips. As I found out more and more information about what it meant to be transgendered and the treatment available the big question became: “Can I actually do this?”
I had indulged in a childhood fantasy that one day I would somehow magically turn into the boy I felt I was supposed to be. As I grew up I put reluctantly put this aside, and, tried to adapt myself to the reality of my very female body. Now, at 52, perhaps it was not a hopeless fantasy after all. On line I met trans men who had done the impossible and changed their bodies and their lives. I joined support groups where there were discussions about the use of hormones and gender reassignment surgeries. I was amazed and somewhat overwhelmed. This could actually be done!
I did notice almost immediately that almost everyone involved in these discussions was under 30 years old. Perhaps it is just too late for me, I thought. I had no idea whether someone my age could safely have hormone treatment and it seemed unlikely that any surgeon would consider me a good risk for any of the surgeries I read about. I was just too old and I was diabetic as well. None the less I had to try. It was too important to just give up on now that I knew that it might just be possible. So off I went to talk with my family physician and to ask: “Can I actually do this?” By sheer happenstance I happened to have a family doctor who had helped others to transition and was highly supportive. When I asked him about the possibility of transitioning his answer was: “Yes you can!”
Now that I knew that this was medically possible there were other concerns to be considered. The young people I had met on line were talking about how they went about telling parents and teachers that they wanted to transition. I had adult children and grandchildren to tell and no idea how they would react. Then there was my career to consider. How would my co-workers react and what would my employer do? What about long established friendships? Would I loose my job, my family, and my friends? At my age I wasn’t at all sure that I was ready to face the possibility of having to start over. Maybe the risks were just too big. Maybe I couldn’t do this after all.
I went back to the internet with these questions. I knew that I needed to find out if there were others who had transitioned so late in life and if so, what there experience was like. I needed advice and support from someone in my own age bracket. It took a little while to find them but there were others out there who had transitioned at my age and older. They were able to share their experiences in dealing with adult children, employers, and friends. Some had very positive stories to tell while others were not so lucky but all of them seemed to feel that the risks were worth taking rather than living out their lives appearing female but feeling male. So “Can I do this?” became: “Am I willing to face my own fear?”
Ultimately I felt that if I spent too long thinking about it I would risk becoming paralyzed by the fear and there was a lot of fear. All the reading and research was helpful but transition remained a somewhat abstract concept. I had no clear answers about how this would change me and my life. I still did not know how important people in my life would react and, more importantly, I had no idea how I would react. “Would my personality change?” “What did it mean to be a man?” “Could I cope with potential losses?” There were so many unknowns and so much was unpredictable. One of the quotes I read on line haunted me: “You don’t know until you go.” It became a choice between living in the fear or facing the fear and taking the risks. I had to go.
I talked with my children and some close friends and a few co-workers and was surprised by universal positive responses and immediate support. Each conversation was difficult, but I found that the difficulty was really more about my talking about something that I had held as a dark secret for so many years than about fear of negative responses. When it came right down to it once I had decided to do this the opinions of others would not have stopped me. Telling the secret was empowering and only reinforced my decision.
I went back to my doctor and asked to be started on Testosterone therapy. Now my age became a serious consideration. I had to have a complete physical first and that was when I found out that my blood pressure was high and my cholesterol levels were dangerously high. Testosterone would only aggravate these conditions so I had to start treatment to get these under control before I could begin to transition. Fortunately the medications I was prescribed worked but this is one of the realities of late transition. The medical risks are higher than for a younger person.
I started testosterone about a month after I made the decision to transition. This was both exciting and terrifying. As I awaited the first signs of the effects of testosterone I was very aware that I was on a one way path. There would be no going back. When the changes happened they would be permanent. First my voice began to change and then there was the very fine facial hair coming in. I looked and sounded like a teenage boy. This stage is awkward enough for those in their twenties. To be mistaken for a high school kid at over 50 was ridiculous. There were public moments that were decidedly uncomfortable. One day I was out with my grandchild at a grocery store and when she called me “grandma” there were some puzzled looks from people around us who were clearly confused at hearing an adolescent boy referred to as “grandma.” There would be many of these uncomfortable encounters over the next few months.
As a child and even throughout my adult years I had often been addressed as a male and this served me well in early transition. I had always moved and behaved more like a male that a female so I did not have unlearn feminine mannerisms. My job, as well was male dominated and I had always worn a masculine uniform and been regarded as “one of the boys.” I already knew how to look, and move, like a man. I had never mastered a feminine appearance! I recall once being mistaken for a man while seven months pregnant. Going into male spaces was easy and comfortable right from the start.
What was not easy were the psychological changes going on inside. While living as a female I had chosen a career that was male dominated and allowed me to live somewhat androgynously. Now, as a male, I found that this career no longer “fit” who I was becoming. I felt different but did not have the language, or the understanding, to help me adapt to these altered perceptions. I needed a guide; someone who had been through this process and could help me sort things out. At that point every trans man I had met was 20 to 30 years younger than myself. I felt a little lost.
I was fortunate enough to learn about trans conferences and to attend one not too far from home. There I met a man a few years older than myself who had transitioned over ten years earlier. He became a mentor for me and was able to offer a great deal of insight into my confusion and emotional distress. Through many telephone conversations and e-mails he was able to offer guidance and endless support as I struggled to figure out who I was and who I was becoming. Now, five years into transition I suspect that I am still early in this process of becoming the man I want to be. My early mentor and I have become close friends and I will be forever grateful for his willingness to share his experience with me.
In my first year of transition I was able to have top surgery as well as a hysterectomy. There are some benefits to late transition. I never had a doctor second guess my decisions and I never had to deal with the some of the questions that younger men get from surgeons such as: “Are you sure that this isn’t just a phase?” or “What if you decide in a few years that you want to have a child?” I was taken more seriously than someone younger might have been. I was also well past child bearing years and it was just assumed that my decisions were sound.
Bottom surgery was another story. I was taken no less seriously but again my age became a negative factor. The only surgeon in my country that was doing bottom surgery for trans men would not consider me as a patient because I was over 50 as well as because I had Type II diabetes. I was able to find a surgeon who would operate but there were special precautions taken. The surgical risks would be significantly higher and my recovery would take significantly longer that that of a younger man.
I did have bottom surgery and that involved going over seas. I took the precaution of staying longer than most patients do because I knew that I was more likely to have complications than a younger man and there were some. Unfortunately there were more problems after I returned home. I healed very slowly partially due to the diabetes and partially due to my age. I had planned for a two-three month recovery period. The reality was closer to six months.
Dating as an older trans man is another arena of some difficulty. I went through my transition as a single man and have been out of the dating scene for a very long time. I identify as a gay man and my age is a real factor in terms of finding a potential partner. The gay male population was somewhat decimated by the AIDS epidemic of the 1970s and 80s. There are quite simply fewer gay men in my age group still alive. When you add that fact to the difficulty of finding someone who will be comfortable with a trans partner the odds are very different for me than those of a younger man in finding a life mate. I have not given up hope but I tend to suspect that there is a real possibility that I will remain single.
I have had many people ask me if I wish that I had transitioned years ago. The question is somewhat moot point. I could not have. I did not have the information in my younger years. Those growing up trans now have different reality than mine. The information is out there. More services are available and role models are accessible. The advent of the internet has changed things in ways that I could never have imagined when I was younger. I don’t think I had the emotional resources either as a younger person. I had other, more pressing, issues to deal with long before I was ready to seriously look at my gender questions. I will never know what it is like to be a young man and I suppose I regret that to some degree but I believe that we get there when we are ready and I just was not ready until later in life. I am grateful that I was able to transition, even though late in life, and I am quite content living as a man. Yes, it is quite different transitioning at over 50 years of age but the bottom line is “Yes you can.” You can transition late and you can create the life you want at any age.
Gavin Wyer is a 57-year-old gay identified trans man who transitioned later in life. He is a contributing author in the anthologies Manning Up and Below the Belt and has on line videos sharing his story and offering guidance to others. He hopes to begin fostering trans identified teens in the near future.
This issue of Chelsea Station was co-edited by
Mitch Kellaway, AJ Sass, and Noah Grabeel.