Navigating age and ageism within trans communities

Sam Hope explores the complexity of a type of oppression that time is constantly changing


Ageism is one of the oddest forms of oppression that exists. We start life by default in a vulnerable and powerless, but well protected group. In our teens we move into a stigmatised group that is relatively powerless, much bullied, exploited and mistreated and rarely protected by the older population. Then slowly we grow into an age where we command increasing authority and respect, just by virtue of our length of service in this thing called life. Then, just as we have finally got ourselves somewhat established, we start to be marginalised again as we head towards old age.

Other oppressions, of course, complicate our experiences of age. While children are more vulnerable to abuse than adults due to how little they are listened to, children that are easily isolated experience more abuse – trans, disabled and autistic kids, for instance, experience elevated levels of abuse. Girls experience more sexual abuse than boys. At the other end of the age spectrum, women start to experience ageism earlier than men, and there is such a particular stigma to being an “old woman” that the term exists as a put-down.

Holding this two-way nature of age oppression is complicated in trans organising. Add in the way trans rights and trans and LGB culture have transformed over the last fifty years, and this can complicate the picture even further.

slowly we grow into an age where we command increasing authority and respect, just by virtue of our length of service in this thing called life

It’s not hard to see how much more difficult and isolating it was to transition 50 years ago than it is today. American campaigner Joanne Keatley, revealed in the Daily Beast what it has been like to be someone who transitioned very early in her life. Keatley has lived as a woman for fifty years, and says  “I didn’t share my surgical path or gender history with anyone. I was alienated from the community, and was led down that path by my doctors, who encouraged me to live and function outside the trans community.”

62 year old Professor Stephen Whittle began his transition when he was a teenager, and has lived most of his life as a man. Whittle went on to help transgender people gain legal gender recognition. In an interview with the Guardian, Whittle stated “At one time, we transsexuals were what other people wiped off the bottom of their shoes”. Thankfully, due to campaigners like Stephen, things are improving for trans people, though not as much as many of us would like.

Then there are the people who did not feel able to transition until they reached their sixties – Caitlyn Jenner, Kellie Maloney, Richard O’Brien are famous examples of this. O’ Brien is a particularly interesting case, bringing home the stigma that older closeted trans people have faced, particularly if they are non-binary. At age 31, O’Brien wrote the famous words “don’t dream it, be it” in his problematic but overtly genderqueer The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And yet O’Brien was unable to come out as a non-binary trans person until the age of 67. In an interview, O Brien said: “All my life, I’ve been fighting never belonging, never being male or female, and it got to the stage where I couldn’t deal with it any longer.”

It seems like the case might be closed: older trans people have had it tougher, and young trans people are lucky.

“At one time, we transsexuals were what other people wiped off the bottom of their shoes”

But wait. I’m going to throw in a few complications. The first might be evident when you realise that Jenner, Maloney and O’Brien are all quite problematic people for their failure to listen to and respect the experiences of other (younger?) trans people. They are also some of the most prominent trans people in the public eye. Why are there no prominent older trans people who transitioned young (that we know of)? Could there be a gap between the fate of younger transitioners and older transitioners? Could it be that Jenner, Maloney and O’Brien occupy a particular subset of trans people that have managed to establish themselves prior to transition? This, of course, is not true for many later transitioners, who have socially and financially as well as emotionally struggled their whole lives, but Jenner et al seem to occupy an unusual position where their seniority, their established lives, as well as the changing times have given them a cushion, and this has also cushioned them from needing to reach out to the rest of the trans community and listen to them.

Older trans people often look down on younger trans people and assume they “have it easy”, but my experience as a therapist working with younger trans people is that transphobia and ageism combine in a particularly nasty way. To illustrate this, look at the way the media is beginning to accept transitioning in older people, but is all-out against trans youth.

Trans young people are routinely disbelieved and disrespected. They are not yet established in the world, so are particularly affected by housing issues, estrangement, and barriers in jobs and education. Young people are also much more likely to experience hate crime than older people. Older trans people can sometimes be guilty of tutting and judging younger trans people and considering their problems to be less serious than they actually are, requiring a mere adjustment in attitude. Older trans people can also feel jealous of trans people if they are transitioning younger – it can tap into the grief they feel over loss of time, but this can cause them to miss the enormous struggle it can be in any era to transition at a young age.

Just the difficulty I had finding the voices of young people to quote in this article highlights how voiceless trans youth can still be – endlessly talked about, rarely listened to. In a powerful article from the US, trans teen Katherine sums it up: “Today, I’m ostracized. I don’t have a voice. But that is my life.”

Things are far from perfect now. The internet has enabled trans people to organise and develop a stronger sense of community, but with this has come an increased visibility that has actually ramped up the amount of hate our community receives. Fifty years ago, there would not have been three anti trans articles in one newspaper in one week. Most people had barely even heard of us. Times are still tough.

The flip side of the internet trans generation organising is that we have created a language around transness that is a long way from the NHS language that an isolated transitioner may be using. Coming into the trans community can be difficult for people who are not internet savvy and “keeping up with the lingo”. In this way, there is certainly a privileged class of trans people who can confidently hold a conversation on trans issues with the kind of awareness we could not have imagined pre world wide web. It may be that much older and very young trans people suffer from an increased lack of access to these online spaces. There is also such a thing as being older but considered a “junior” in trans spaces for being new to the community. Strange heirarchies can exist based on whether you are part of a LiveJournal, Facebook or Tumblr trans generation.

“Today, I’m ostracized. I don’t have a voice. But that is my life.”

I certainly feel privileged to be able to access the new trans movement and also to have had access to information that helped me see through the anti-trans rhetoric of the generation of LGB people who systematically distanced themselves from the trans community post-Stonewall. Certainly some LGB people employ ageism in their trans exclusion, citing transness as some new and trendy thing and ignoring how trans emergence and increased LGB rights have always gone hand in hand, right back to the coincident timing of the legalisation of homosexuality and the first trans surgery in pre-WW2 Germany.

As a non-binary trans person, I find a similar scoffing attitude within the older trans community towards these “trendy young enbies”. I’m 46, but please tell me again how my non-binariness is just a youthful experiment.

But wait, again. Because it is very easy to exclude older trans people for sometimes having old-fashioned ideas and for ageism towards youth, but we need to not forget that while younger people can grow and establish themselves (eventually), older people can feel like the ground is slowly giving way as the authority and respect they once had crumbles. Being older can isolate you from community, and ageism towards the elderly is every bit as oppressive as it is towards youth. Teens are growing into power and we slap them down repeatedly. Our elders are fading from power and we treat them appallingly. There are no winners here, as each oppression has its own pain.

When trans people think of ageing, we often fear it. We think of the disrespect and abuse sometimes afforded older, and particularly frail or sick, people. A kind of oppression that is intimately connected to disableism. We think of how our trans status might compound this. We think of how our sometimes unusual bodies may be treated and responded to if we have to be given personal care. We wonder how we will fare – whether we will be treated, housed and clothed according to our gender when we lose the freedom to make our own decisions, and we wonder if anyone will understand the vital importance of this. Most of all, we wonder if we will be alone.

Older people can fade, through illness, frailty and a sense of marginalisation away from the support of the community. Younger people can flounder before they even find a community. We need to not let this happen. So many of us have no family but our trans family, and it’s important to build and strengthen those intergenerational links on a foundation of two-way respect and kindness.

Follow Sam on Twitter (@sam_r_hope)

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