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Thursday, July 30, 2015

SAGE: Why We Need Elders to Take the #USTransSurvey

Pony Knowles is the Program Manager at Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, the country's largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults. SAGE Center Midtown will host a Trans Coffeehouse Social on Saturday, Sept. 12th, from 2-5 pm. The Cyber Center will be open to anyone who wants to complete the survey. Volunteers and staff will be on hand to assist; the space is accessible and designated for trans-identified members participants and guests all day. Please call (646) 576-8669 for more information.

I was one of perhaps three trans people at the small liberal arts college I attended. One stayed stealth throughout all four years, and the other chose not to transition medically. I was out. Very out. You can well imagine the kinds of questions I found myself asked by my fellow cisgender (non-transgender) classmates. Aside from all of the more terrifying or rewarding aspects of being visibly trans—and those are, for many of us, manifold—the most tiresome is the bombardment of inappropriate questions from well-intentioned cis people. Worse yet, there is a temptation to translate the responses they hear from any one trans person into a kind of 'official' trans narrative, applicable to all trans people, of all walks of life. 

Back on that college campus, the answers I gave varied from day to day, depending upon my exhaustion at serving as a public fount of knowledge, especially when I myself was still discovering my community and my place in it. Suffice it to say, my answers, I’m sure, differed significantly from the hypothetical responses I can imagine my fellow trans classmates issuing—and those would likely differ greatly from each other as well. I couldn't speak for other trans people then. I can't speak for them now, but I remember them always. In the decades since, I have found myself thinking often of a woman who knew that she must remain stealth in order to get her education, particularly as an older nontraditional student. And I think of a young transmasculine student of mixed race and from a rural town in Georgia, who was not closeted and who was asked different questions than I was. And then there's me– a white, college-educated, middle-aged trans guy, who lives in a bustling metropolis– the questions that I am asked and the answers that I can give must not define an entire nation full of trans experiences, trans joys, and trans dangers.

The temptation to designate exemplars who appease the most normative standards of what trans can look like weighs heavy upon those of us who meet with the double bind of being marginalized within our own communities. Silence too often is meted out to those who are transgender and older, or not white, or poor, or geographically isolated. Particularly as the trans rights movement gains momentum and begins to focus itself upon the political goal that will unite and define us in the eyes of the nation, all voices must be raised and counted, safely, and with great compassion and intention. If we focus solely on our trans youth who are bullied in schools, who commit suicide, who don't have enough trans role models to support them— we must not risk losing sight of all of our trans foremothers and forefathers who have already spent their entire lives in the shadows of the LGBT community. 

“We as older trans people need to engage and to educate younger generations of our experiences decades ago. As someone who transitioned in the 1970s, we had fewer resources, but we more readily made lemonade out of lemons.  Transitioning as an older adult means having a tougher battle than younger trans people. We need to address the issues we face, and we need to be visible, to show how we can also find happiness—whether one achieves ‘the surgery’ or not.”
-Frances, SAGE Constituent

The diversity of lived experience is striking when you speak to a trans youth in their teens or 20s, and to an older trans adult and their 60s or beyond. The dangers faced are very different, and the social realities are remarkably disparate. Transition dates also change everything: an older adult transitioning today will meet with a different set of challenges than someone of the exact same age who transitioned decades prior. That said, it is almost always the case that those of us who transition at any time and at any age need, more than anything else, to find ourselves in a legacy of support created by other transgender trailblazers, who light our path of discovery at every turn. Our genders are never created or sustained in isolation, and we owe our deepest debts of gratitude to those who have come before us. Too often do we overlook older voices, and too often are older members of our community less likely to step forward and make themselves vulnerable. 

The wealth of narratives available to trans people about our history and our present remains enormously restricted— on one hand, by a simple lack of unified knowledge and, on the other, by a lack of access to the voices that must strain most to be heard. This is why the National Center for Transgender Equality has put together the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, the follow-up to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey that was completed by nearly 6,500 people across the United States. It is imperative that this survey, conceived as a broad effort to outline information about the lives and experiences of trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary identified people, reach as far as possible into the most silenced pockets of our community. The fact that the survey can be completed anonymously, and that it is conducted by a trans-led organization, are the greatest guarantors that the information gathered by us will be used for us— to inform systems of support and public education, and to better the lives of trans people across the country.

Without a collection of pure data that seeks to weave together all of the constraints and desires and lived experiences of the trans community at large, we will continue to see a lack of services tailored to the needs of our communities. We will continue to see trans voices coming from the most diverse regions of our communities pushed out again and again. If, as they say, knowing is half the battle, then let us engage. 

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