Despite the commonly-held notion that “coming out” is a singular event (whether you’re trans-identified, gay, queer, whatever), it’s an ongoing process—one that never really ends. After all, one’s sense of identity depends on literally everything that happens in life, and so it evolves so long as we’re living.
Here’s a question: what happens if you come out as transgender later in life? I can tell you a personal answer, because I know from experience.
Trans folks who come out later in their lives must confront and re-assess every one of their long-standing belief systems, as well as all other thoughts about who they are. Then, of course, there are the inevitable “transitions” that all aspects of their lives must undergo: relationships with family, friends, partners and careers become destabilized, and often reinvented as a result.
Coming out as trans can feel like a risk no matter what our age. But my hunch is that it tends to be even more difficult for those of us who come out after already having established parts of our lives in what felt like an inauthentic identity. I have heard of folks who get kicked out of their homes suddenly, or who find themselves completely rejected by spouses or romantic partners.
Dramatic and painful changes such as these are not always the result of coming out as trans later in life. But for many older trans folks, friends and family simply cannot deal with the seemingly “surprising” change, or need an extended period of time to understand the decision to “wait” on coming out. (Of course, the decision is not terribly deliberate for most.)
When I came out as a trans man at the age of 54, I was not in a long-term relationship, nor do I have any children. In many ways, this was lucky: coming out was probably easier for me than for others my age. I had a handful of family and friends I needed to tell, and it all went relatively smoothly.
Unlike many trans people, I also didn’t grow up knowing I was transgender at all. Born female, I felt myself drawn to girls as a teen, and I soon formed intimate relationships with women as I got older. I managed to live quite comfortably as a lesbian. Now I can say that I always knew there was something missing—I just didn’t know what exactly. In some ways I felt like an imposter and that if people got too close they would discover my elusive secret, which I was keeping even from myself.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I was aware of a few transgender people who were out—though I didn’t necessarily think of them as role models at the time. There was the legendary Christine Jorgensen and tennis champion, Rene Richards. But those were the only two people I was aware of, and I actually didn’t even know of any transgender men until Chaz Bono came out in 2009. But even as I celebrated these courageous figures earlier in my life, I was still living relatively happily as a cis-gender female, lesbian.
Then, a few years ago, as if out of the blue, it hit me. I was playing road hockey with a bunch of my colleagues at work for a media tournament. I put on the shoulder and knee pads, face mask, and held the stick in my hands for the first time. The realization that I was male coursed through my veins, and I felt transported to another place and time. It was like I had been swept up in the eye of a tornado, and laid out somewhere else in another body. I knew I needed to take action.
In that moment, I remember saying to myself, “I am a man.” Just allowing those words to come to me propelled me forward. I turned to the internet for local resources and found a number to call. The LGBTQ organizations gave me some names of trans-friendly doctors in my city and I got started, first with hormones and then with assessments for future surgeries.
While it hasn’t been an easy journey (especially dealing with doctors, health care authorities and licensing departments), I have had a relatively problem-free ride.
That said, there are some things I learned about coming out as trans that I’d like to share with you—specifically related to transitioning later on in life...
1. You’re never too old to transition.
It really worried me in the beginning that I was too old to start taking hormones and prepare for major surgeries, but after consulting my doctor, and other trans people, I soon realized there is no time like the present to become your true, authentic self. The deciding factor for me was picturing myself as an old person. I didn’t see myself aging as a woman, but I could see myself as an elderly gentleman.
2. Don’t discount information coming from younger trans folks.
You may be an elder in your community, but you may not be the most experienced person at transitioning. I often ask and receive great information from younger trans people. Many of them have been in transition longer than I have and know more about the process than I do.
3. Keep in touch with your goals, no matter how disillusioned you feel.
It’s so easy to become disillusioned with doctors and the health care system. Many professionals can be insensitive to trans issues. Many of us get tired and angry about constantly being misgendered, or having our needs ignored. I have found that persistence pays off. For example when waiting for a surgery date and you are sitting at home waiting for word from the surgeon’s office. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. It’s your body and your future. If you are not getting the information you need, keep asking.
4. Share information—freely and widely.
You may not think you know much, but you probably do. Even in this information age, there is little information for people transitioning in their own communities and we often depend on word of mouth for referrals and important information. Sometimes a simple tip can provide another trans person with a life-changing connection.
5. Join a support group in your area—or start one if there’s not already a group in existence.
It’s as easy as creating a Facebook page. Invite others from your area to join and then find a place to meet regularly. When I first moved to my city, there were no groups for trans men that I was aware of, so I started one. Four years later we still meet monthly. Social media is great, and meeting face-to-face to share information is even better.
Transitioning is fraught with challenges no matter your age, so take some initiative and seek out what you need. While there is no single transition roadmap to follow, it’s important to remember the power of emotional support, and the knowledge that we are the captains of our destiny.
James is a newscaster in British Columbia who made a very public transition while working at a radio station in Victoria. He simply signed on one day as James. When listeners asked what happened to Sheila they were told that Sheila is now James. James says the support he received was overwhelmingly positive. You can learn more about James at thetransgenderproject.com.