Transmissions: Living

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday September 7, 2022
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

Living is a funny thing. It is something we tend to take for granted. Our lungs autonomously breathe in a steady stream of oxygen, enriching our blood. Our hearts beat out a steady rhythm, sending oxygen rich blood throughout our bodies, that blood nourishes our systems, keeping our brains charged up and working. We remain alive from one moment to the next without really having to give it a lot of thought.

I talked not too long ago about my feelings as a transgender woman living 20 years past my statistically-expected death, and how it has left me in what is like uncharted territory. I realize, however, that I am a part of an increasingly grayer transgender community.

It's odd to note how many of my friends who I knew back then now sport crow's feet around their eyes. Indeed, the 1990s are a lot longer ago than one might care to consider.

There's something else that strikes me as unusual as we age: those of us may be, in effect, the first sizable group of trans elders.

Now I'm not going to tell you that there weren't transgender people before. We know that transgender people date back through times long forgotten, with one of the earliest known historical examples of trans experiences within a poem written by Enhedunna, a high priestess from the 23rd century BCE.

But in modern times, our history was sundered during World War II, when the trans-welcoming world that was Weimar Germany was brushed aside with the rise of the Nazi party. While we existed elsewhere in the world, of course, we would not again rise to prominence until Christine Jorgensen ended up on the front page of the New York Daily News in late 1952.

Yet the Jorgensen era, by and large, did not remain in the spotlight. The trans people of the 1950s, 1960s, and so on largely were taught to fade into the woodwork. Frankly, this likely was also wise in a time that viewed us, at best, as curious freaks.

While we did see pockets of community pop up, they were few and far between. For every Casa Susanna, a popular weekend destination for trans women in Jewett, New York, or California Association of Transsexuals, there were surely hundreds more who never found others who were like them.

All this began to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as transgender people began to escape the "university system" that advocated hiding in the shadows, and advances in digital tools began to open up ways of sharing information. Self-published zines, voice mailboxes, bulletin board systems, online services, and the early web led to a flashpoint, where the community could reach out to each other around the world.

On top of this, the average age of transgender people coming out has dropped. When I was first coming out, most information I could find claimed that transgender people tended to begin to "come out" in their late 30s. Today, I suspect my coming out would be astonishingly late.

I would say that many in my era are, on the top end, in their 70s. I'd say I'm near the bottom, in my 50s. A whole new generation is beginning to reach middle age.

So, the question is this: how is our community ready to face the fact that many transgender people are going to be elders?

As I've mentioned before, our community often expects to perish at a young age, or at least no older than our mid-30s. I noted the same for myself above. With that in mind, how do we consider having a community that is growing, both with younger transgender people and with an increasing number of older transgender community members?

We may well need affirming caregivers who can treat us with respect as we age in ways that are unique to our community. We will have needs that only others in our community can likely envision.

What's more, there is surely something our experiences can provide for those who come after us. When I first discovered the community, this notion was treated as something sacred, that there was a duty to try to share your knowledge with those coming behind you — bearing in mind that this was still a time when this wasn't due to your imminent passing, but because you were soon to woodwork and vanish from the community.

I'll admit, I do not have a picture of what would be the best steps. I have far more questions than answers when it comes to the shape of an aging trans community, particularly given a history focused on a fairly short — and somewhat young — period of our lives. How do we learn to share across generations in a way that is mutually beneficial to both?

Perhaps a clue is in our bodies. We breathe in, we disseminate, we nourish. We need to learn the ways we can do this to feed our own trans lives across eras. We need to learn to work together as a unit, and share what we have for the betterment of our community, no matter the age.

I fear, too, that we live in a time when we once again see the rise of fascism, and it may be necessary for some of us to once again hide, lest we be swept away.

With this in mind, it may be all the more important that we lay the groundwork, to watch over us all — young and old — and keep on living.

Gwen Smith thanks all who came before her and helped her down the path. You'll find her at

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