16 October 2010

Growing Old As We're Starting To Live

I've been asked to co-facilitate a transgender forum on aging at a conference for LGBT older adults next month.  I've agreed to do it, knowing that my qualifications to do it consist of the following:
  • I am trangendered
  • I am aging.  (Then again, I guess we all are.)
The invitation got me to thinking, though, about what aging means for us in the LGBT community, and for transgenders in particular.

So far, the most trenchant thought that has emenated from my pretty little head (ha!) is this:  Aging in the LGBT community has everything to do with its youth-centeredness.  In fact, the way we age is the very reason why the LGBT world is as youth-centered as it is.  It's not so much that we're trying to avoid or fight back our aging; it's the fact that we--most of us, anyway--only get to live as who and what we are at a realtively late age that causes us to live in such a youth-centered milieu.

Even with the increased acceptance of LGBT people (the recent hate crimes notwithstanding), very few bisexuals, fewer gays and lesbians , and even fewer transgenders, have the opportunity to spend our adolescence and early adulthood as the people we actually are.   Most gays and lesbians live closeted lives until they are old enough to move out of their families' homes, and some continue to deny their need to love and be loved in their own ways long after they have become independent of the families, communities  and schools that gave birth to and reared them and inculcated them with their communities' and cultures' values about families and other sorts of relationships--including the kinds of relationships people should have with themselves.  

Even gays and lesbians raised in the most loving of families and in the most accepting communities face hostility somewhere, some time. The result is something I've seen in those students of mine who grew up with violence, whether it was physical, verbal, mental, emotional or spiritual, and whether it came from their peers, members of their families or communities, or their governments and their agencies of enforcement.  Some people come out of those experiences shell-shocked; others are very canny or what people would call "street-smart", and still others are formed or deformed by their anger and resentments.  But nearly all of them do not have the opportunity to learn how to develop or maintain relationships in ways that their peers from more secure and stable environments learn.  And, because so many of them also come from homes that are dysfunctional in one way or another, they may know that they want something different but have not had any models from whom they can learn how to build it in their own lives.

Most gays and lesbians don't grow up with any models of how they can build their relationships and their lives.  All most of them see when they're growing up are heterosexual relationships, and some of those aren't very nurturing of the spirits of the people in them.  And, of course, nearly all of the love and familial relationships depicted in popular, and even higher, culture, are of that variety.

What happens, then, is that gays and lesbians start to learn how to express love and build relationships that suit them later--sometimes much later--than heterosexuals do those things.  Most teenagers have some experience of dating members of the other gender; many (I won't venture a guess as to how many) have sex and some actually learn what it means to love, and be loved, in an intimate way by a member of the "opposite" gender.  Most gay teens and adolescents don't have those experiences; those who do almost never have the opportunity to have those experiences publicly.  If you are a boy dating a girl or vice-versa, even if your family, friends and others in your community don't like whomever you're dating, they still support your urge to date members of the "opposite" gender, mainly because they're seen as stepping stones to marriage and family.

So, what a straight sixteen-year-old experiences is not a part of a gay person's life until he or she is in her twenties, thirties or even later.  And for transgenders--and, interestingly enough, bisexuals--that sort of experience may come later still.  I began to live as the woman I am in middle age, and I have been living my life only for seven years now.  That means I am just beginning to learn how to relate to people, and express love (which includes, but is not limited to, sexuality) as a woman, rather than as a female who had to channel herself through a filter of maleness.  

That, by the way, is the reason--I think--why one can't predict the sexuality of a person who transitions.  One of the reasons, along with finances, why I didn't start my transition earlier in my life was that I thought, as most people thought, that a true male-to-female transsexual was attracted to men.  It happened that the first male-to-females who had sexual reassignment surgery did indeed date, and in some cases married, men.  Christine Jorgensen comes immediately to mind, and it's hard to imagine how she, not to mention society, might have been different if she didn't fit into the roles that were considered acceptable for women in the 1950's, when she made her transition.

So I had to spend  a lot of years, not only alienated from my own sense of who I am, but also of how to relate to anyone else, whether in a sexual or more platonic way.  The sense of myself I could and would have formed in my teen years, and the kinds of relationships I might have developed as a result, are parts of my life I'm only beginning to discover--at an age when my parents were already grandparents.  

Of course, there are many other issues involved in aging for LGBT people, and transgenders in particular.  But I never realized until now that the youth-orientedness of our community was really a manifestation of the fact that we, in essence, start our lives later than straight people and cisgenders.