I Gotta’ Be Me
Coming out as transgender later in life
By Jean Lang
Myka Levy was riding a train in Englewood, a rough Chicago neighborhood, to get the estrogen patches she’s using to transition from man to woman when an obnoxious passenger grumbled about a white woman with dreadlocks on the train. Someone muttered that she was a he. The rider made even louder comments about Levy and whether or not his cock had been cut off.
“The whole carriage was traumatized,” says Levy, who turned 60 in July, with more than a hint of her English accent. She says she got off the train, and a man asked if she was all right, and commented that he thought she was beautiful. “I felt like crying,” says Levy, appreciative for the compassion.
Levy, who goes by Myka England on Quora, a question and answer site, says that’s the kind of experience – the up and down journey – of coming out later in life. But, she says, even the risk to her of dangerous blood clots, are not deterring her from being who she believes she is meant to be. She told her doctor she would rather go out in a coffin as a woman, than continue on as a man.
The American Psychological Association estimates that more than 39 million people in the United States are age 65 years or older, including 2.4 million who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Its website states that as the baby boomer generation ages, the older adult population will increase from 12.8 percent to an estimated 19 percent in 2030. The APA has an Office on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity to help address the needs of older LGBT people, including social isolation.
Carla Ernst, 67, author of “Life Without Pockets, My Long Journey Into Womanhood,” a twice-divorced parent of two, says she too could no longer deny who she was. Her book was written in response to a brother who said he couldn’t accept her “choice” and thought she was perverted. The two grew up part of a large Catholic family outside of Chicago.
“As you mature, you start to realize what’s important and become who you are. A more authentic life is more important.”
The book is dedicated to a friend who took her life after being bullied because of her sexual orientation. “It hit me and others very hard,” Ernst says. “As you mature, you start to realize what’s important and become who you are. A more authentic life is more important.”
For a dissertation titled “Gender Transitions in Later Life: The Significance of Time in Queer Aging,” published in 2014, Vanessa D. Fabbre, Ph.D. interviewed nearly two dozen people who contemplated or pursued a gender transition after age 50. She found that “time left to live” and a feeling of “time served” played a significant role in later life development.
“Constraints on people’s gender identities in earlier life heighten the significance and immediacy of these time horizons and the opportunity to experience an authentic gender identity before one dies,” she writes. One of the people she refers to as “Katherine” says she heard a radio commercial for the state of Michigan which said the average person has 25,000 days in their life. It made the pitch that some of those days should be spent in Michigan. She became obsessed with the number. She divided it by 365 and felt she did not have much time left. “I’m not afraid of dying, but I got a lot of stuff to do,” she says.
Those coming out as gay or transgender also include more widely-known personalities, including Jess Herbst, who served from 2016-2018 as mayor of the town of New Hope, Texas. Before being voted out, she wrote an open letter to her constituents about her decision to come out as transgender and go from Jeff to Jess during her late fifties. In it, she pointed to celebrities like Olympic gold medalist and television personality Caitlyn Jenner and actress Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black,” with helping society to see and learn “who we are.”
And, in Boston, radio listeners get traffic reports in the deep voice of Kristen Eck, who for decades was Scott Eck.
Michael Hendricks, Ph.D., a D.C.- area clinical psychologist and fellow in the Society for the Psychological Study of LGBT Issues, says older people come out for various reasons. In some cases, they wait until their children are grown, so as to not disrupt their lives. “There are other people who didn’t figure it out,’’ he says. `They were in their lane, and were doing what they were told they were supposed to be doing.’’ He says that is particularly true with people who are transgender.
Levy, who has a grown daughter and was married three times, says technology had a role in her coming out. She – he at the time – worked in the “Mad Men” world of advertising in London, where she says towering egos and aggression were mixed with alcohol; a time before the Internet offered information about transgender issues and communities. People had mostly just heard of transvestites, which implied a fetishism, often with clothes of the opposite sex.
Decades later, the digital revolution allowed Levy to work from home, which led to more contemplation. Therapy helped her to find her true self and she was compelled to make a change. “It’s taken over my life,” she says, in a phone interview.
Asked if she is happy she came out and would recommend it to others, she says she felt she had no choice, but that people should realize the negatives when making that decision for themselves. She has been fortunate enough to have the support of her girlfriend and her daughter, who recently bought her a handbag, that she told her father she was going “to fucking love.” Levy’s brother, whom she doesn’t speak with much, has not embraced the news. “It’s a mixed bag,” she says of coming out.
A study, “Out and Visible: The Experiences and Attitudes of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Old Adults, Ages 45-75” done for SAGE, a New York City-based organization which provides advocacy and services for LGBT elders, says when it comes to aging, LGBT older people are more concerned about personal finances, attractiveness, physical decline and remaining independent. “LGBT older people are more likely than their non-LGBT peers to live alone, have smaller support networks over time and are less satisfied with the information they receive related to support systems,” states the 2014 report based on Harris Poll research.
The report also notes that more than a third of the LGBT older people surveyed said they did not disclose their identities to healthcare providers for fear of being judged or receiving substandard care.
“When you are closeted, it’s harder for that community to find you. They can’t find you.”
Hendricks says that studies have shown health disparities among gay and transgender, in part because they often have a constant level of stress. “What alleviates that is being able to find your tribe,” he says. But, for older people, particularly those not out, that can be difficult. “When you are closeted, it’s harder for that community to find you. They can’t find you,” he says.
It’s easier for young people, such as college students, who are surrounded by hundreds of people their age, to find connections through sports teams, clubs and other groups than it is for older people. He says older people may also have concerns about disrupting the lives of their families or be concerned about how it will affect their employment if they came out as gay or transgender. It may be less of a problem in the future, as society becomes more accepting and more people come out earlier.
Retired teacher Howard Selekman, in The Daily Beast and to CNN a few years back, says he had been attracted to men from an early age, but, in part because he wanted to be a schoolteacher and have children, married a woman when he was in his twenties and stayed married to her for more than 30 years. He was named Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year in 1989 and was asked by the governor to chair a committee, prompting him to stay firmly in the closet.
But, he told CNN in 2009, the breaking point came earlier that year, after he was retired, when one of his gay brothers died, and he told his remaining two brothers that he too was gay.
In one of the questions put to her on Quora, “Myka England” is asked “Why would somebody at the age of 38 or older all of a sudden decide that they’re transgender?” Levy relayed her experiences as a teen, wanting to wear makeup and present as a woman, but after getting a job in advertising, feeling like she had to “toughen up or quit.” Later, she says, the feelings came back and she decided to start taking hormones.
“Anyhoo – that’s why someone might want to transition in later life,” she writes. And if someone wants to understand a friend or relative’s situation, she advises a cup of British tea (“BOILING water over the teabag or leaves!”) and a quiet moment to hear their story. “You may have to make more tea.” And she adds, “Make sure you have a box of tissues handy.”
About the Writer
Jean Lang is a freelance writer and a former Boston-based Associated Press reporter. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, AARP Bulletin, and other publications. Jean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Made in Bangkok (2015)
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