Last September, around my sixty-fifth birthday, I went to my mailbox and found an envelope from the Social Security Administration. When I opened it up, I saw a brand-new red, white, and blue Medicare card. My first thought was: Am I really that old? I sure don’t feel like it.
In 1999, I finally transitioned to my female self. I was forty-two years old. The joy that came into my life at that moment, when the little girl who had shown up so long ago was released, still fills my heart today.
In just the past ten years in the US, same-sex marriage has been legalized, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed, and in 2014, Laverne Cox, a trans woman, appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a headline proclaiming transgender rights as the next civil rights frontier.
But as I think back on my life, it is hard at times to grasp the advances that have been made. On one hand, these advances have been followed by an increased backlash, seen in nationwide efforts to block transgender youth from accessing medical care or reading books that reflect their identities. And on the other hand, during the early days of my transgender journey, there was so little acceptance at all.
I was around five years old when I slowly realized that who I thought I was didn’t quite line up with the world’s view of me as a little boy. I could not for the life of me figure out what I had done to deserve this. But there it was, a deep knowing that I was a little girl inside. When I looked in the mirror, I always hoped I could catch a glimpse of her, but she was as hidden to me as the explanations for why my life was this way.
Those explanations were hard to find in the 1960s. It was eons before the internet, and the only links I had to the outside world were the three channels of television that barely made it to our mountain ridge home by way of a tall steel antenna with space-age-looking arms. When I looked up at it all alone on our roof, I always wondered if it felt as lonely as I did.
My days back then disintegrated into an internal storm of confusion and anxiety that overwhelmed my small body and mind. The thought that there was something inherently wrong with me had begun to imprint on me, and I carried that idea around for many years. Eventually I came to a place where I fully believed that I was just doomed, destined to be burdened by this inward knowledge, as if it were an extra appendage that couldn’t help me but constantly got in the way.
In the summer of 1967, however, at a roadside motel in the depths of Oklahoma, comfort finally found me. It was there that I had a vision. Not quite in the biblical way that my Southern Baptist Sunday-school teachers had talked about—but there was an angel, and she did bring good tidings, or at least great relief.
My family and I had been traveling for days, headed west from our home in the North Carolina mountains to see family in Albuquerque. It was late in the afternoon when we pulled off the highway into a small town, baking in the July heat. We drove slowly down the main drag, looking for a place to stay for the night. We eventually found a motel and parked under the white corrugated aluminum roof just outside the office door. Walking inside, my eyes were dazzled by row upon row of colorful brochures on display, each one telling of a local roadside attraction not to be missed, just a few miles ahead.
After dinner we settled into our room and gathered around the ancient black-and-white television that was tucked away in the corner. I was elbow deep in my new brochures, daydreaming about what place would be cool to see next, when I heard the words that changed my life.
I looked up at the television, and there in front of me appeared an exceptionally stylish woman with brownish-blonde, perfectly coiffed hair. She wore a black satin skirt suit and a flashy lapel pin in the shape of an oversized heart and a miniature, bejeweled Eiffel Tower. Across from her sat an older man.
“Ever since I was a little boy,” she told him, “I knew that I was actually a little girl inside.” My breath left me as I heard those words. I had never before contemplated that there was someone else like me.
Her name was Christine Jorgensen, though I wouldn’t find out the details about her journey until many years later. She had served in the army during World War II before traveling to Denmark in the early 1950s, where she found doctors who performed gender-confirming surgery. Shortly after her return to the US, she was outed by the New York Daily News when they published a front-page story about her with photographs from before and after her transition.
I slowly looked around the room at my dad, mom, and brother, scanning their faces for any sign that they had seen my reaction. Or maybe more importantly, searching for a hint of interest or a twinge of recognition, something that said, “Why yes, our oldest son is just like this woman.” Instead, I saw nothing but blank faces staring at the screen, and no one said a word.
I struggled with what to do with this information as we continued to make our way to Albuquerque. Every part of me wanted to shout my discovery from the roof of our wood-paneled Ford station wagon: The woman on television last night is just like me!
Yet as the miles clicked by, I realized that I could not summon the strength or the courage to say anything about it. I didn’t say a word on that trip or during the many years that followed.
The lengths I went to try to hide the little girl—and later, the woman—inside of me took more energy than I had most days. But there was no way I could emotionally or mentally face the potential loss of my family, my close friends, my job—everything that made up my life—by revealing who I really was. So, I became an amazing actor. Sometimes I think that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should have given me an Oscar for outstanding performance in a male role, because I nailed it. And while they’re at it, maybe another one for costume design, because of how well I hid myself behind the big black beard that I grew and wore for years. No one could see the woman behind that disguise.
There was so little around me then that showed the way to my soul’s freedom. The little bits of information that did trickle into my life seemed more like cosmic nudges that had somehow found their way to me through all the stardust.
One of these came while I was visiting Europe with my high school French class in the summer of 1975. Somehow my parents found the money to send me on this trip, a twelve-day whirlwind bus tour, as a graduation gift. The first stop was Paris. In the late afternoon, our bus dropped us off in front of a brown stuccoed hotel in the middle of an older residential neighborhood. I was given the key to my room and rode the micro-sized elevator to the third floor.
As I walked into my room, I glanced toward the neatly made bed and saw a magazine lying in the middle of it. I picked it up and thumbed through the pages, stopping cold at an article that I understood, even with my limited French, was about a person who had undergone a sex-change operation. The photos showed her living daily life in a way that I could have hardly imagined. She became the second transgender person I had ever seen.
In the mid-1980s, I lived in a small city that had a newsstand. It was an intimate space crowded with stacks upon stacks of alternative magazines and newspapers. It became my weekly ritual to roam the aisles and pick up a copy of the Sunday New York Times, which served as the vehicle that took me far away, to places and ideas that were hard to find where I lived.
This was where I first found a magazine titled Transgender Tapestry, full of photos and articles about transgender people and their lives. Many of the pages contained advertisements for female clothing, shoes and wigs, videos on how to feminize your voice, and so many other things that were exotic to my closeted life.
I somehow found the courage to walk up to the counter and buy the magazine, and every month after, I made a pilgrimage back to buy the latest issue.
These nudges were utterly important to my survival during those years. But I still needed answers to important questions, like: How do I tell my family? How do I find other transgender people where I live? Was there a therapist out there who would understand? Do I need to move to a larger city and start over? Where would I find doctors who could help me? I would have almost sold my soul for the internet back then.
As my despondency grew, there were decisions to be made. I felt like I had only two viable choices. I could either miraculously find my way forward with transitioning, or I could end my life. It was as simple as that. I hadn’t had a single moment of peace in my mind or soul since 1962, when I first realized who I was. The thought of ending my life, and as a result, finding peace—sweet, blessed peace—washed over me, and, my God, did that feel amazing. I would finally be free.
However, in 1997 I moved from my small hometown in the mountains to another small town in the flatter part of the state. It wasn’t your typical Southern town. There was an openly gay mayor and, right next door, a large university town that was known to be full of accepting people.
And it was there, thanks to the blossoming internet, that I found a monthly transgender support group in a city not too far away. It was there that I finally found my community.
I met trans women who were in the midst of transitioning or had already transitioned. They shared their doctors, therapists, those who were accepting and those who were open to helping with the documentation needed to start hormonal therapy. They recommended electrologists who would help rid you of the beard that was a constant, unsightly reminder of the male body you were encased in—and that female hormones would not take away. They shared their journeys, all the hard times, and the incredible joy that came from being true to who you really are.
Soon it was time for me to transition to living full-time as my female self. I applied to the county court to have my name changed from the male name I had carried around for the first forty-two years of my life. Around two months later, my attorney called to say that the change had been approved, and I went by her office to pick it up. As I held this piece of paper in my hands, I read it over and over again just to make sure it was real. It was like I had a brand-new birthday to celebrate.
I had to overcome so many challenges to hold that piece of paper. Those of us in the LGBTQ+ older-adult community have faced plenty of difficult struggles to find our place in the world, struggles against devastating circumstances that seem barbaric today.
In every state up until 1962, anti-sodomy laws made it illegal to be homosexual, and LGBTQ+ people were harassed, arrested, and otherwise forced to spend their lives with this threat hanging over them. Being gay was widely considered a mental illness, and in 1952, the American Psychiatric Association formally classified homosexuality as a mental disorder and a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”
And tragically the AIDS epidemic, which started in the 1980s, disproportionately affected the gay population and decimated communities where gay men had found family and belonging when there was otherwise none to turn to.
There are many other difficult things we have lived through: leading double lives, the very good chance of losing your biological family if you came out, struggling to find community, and a real threat of violence nearly everywhere you went. At times it feels like a miracle that any of us in this community made it to the present day. There are so many who didn’t.
I worked for a number of years at Q Center, an LGBTQ+ community center in Portland. One day as I was walking down the hall from my office, I glanced into our conference room, where a support group for ten-to-twelve-year-old trans kids was meeting. I looked at those kids, remembered myself at that age, and started weeping—weeping with joy, because these young kids had help and they had each other. I felt overwhelmed by the thought that they would not have to go through what I did.
Younger LGBTQ+ folks are now experiencing major threats to who they are, some of them for the first time in their lives. Those who have come before have an intimate understanding of these struggles. The history of our movement has always been one of fighting for our rights. Regardless of our identities or ages, we have all had to find the courage to listen to our hearts and become who we truly are.
As difficult as our journeys have been, there are gifts that I, and probably many others in this community, have received from our struggle: the realization that we possess strength and courage far beyond what we could have ever imagined. This resiliency is one of our superpowers.
On the day I received my Medicare card, I started thinking about how lovely a passage my life has been, even with all I’ve gone through. And I thought back to that small, overwhelmed five-year-old child who had somehow made it through all the struggles, confusion, and seemingly insurmountable odds to make it to this day, standing at this mailbox. The whole journey was laid out right there for me to see. I had made it after all.
Published in the Spring 2023 issue of Oregon Humanities Magazine