In recent years, public understanding and support of transgender (also known as “trans”) people and the issues that impact them has generally grown. However, misconceptions still abound, and people who do not have an openly trans family member or friend may not understand the unique experiences of the community. Transphobia, or prejudice against trans people, frequently results in trans people experiencing overt and covert medical, housing, and employment discrimination, according to research conducted by Lambda Legal and SAGE USA.
Though more familiar with the needs of the trans community, younger transgender or LGB (lesbian, gay, or bisexual) people may still hold ageist beliefs or simply be ignorant about the needs of older adults. Most LGBTQ resource centers are targeted towards youth, and most advocacy groups focus on issues that impact all trans people, without a lens specifically attuned to the needs of older people. For these reasons, many trans adults encounter new obstacles and isolation as they age.
I spoke with Lupa Brandt, an Atlanta-based trans activist, who co-founded the Phoenix Transition Program with her husband, Jamil-Jack Abreu, to explore some of the unique challenges of aging while trans as well as the incredible opportunities and lessons that trans culture offers all of us.
As trans people age, they encounter new facets of society. For many older trans people, this means entering new spaces where caregivers, service providers, and peers may be less aware of trans concerns and needs. Many people mistakenly believe that only younger people identify as LGBTQ, a myth that spawns from unfamiliarity, homophobia, and transphobia, and low life expectancies for trans people.
It is true that as society becomes more accepting, more people feel comfortable exploring their sexuality and gender at a younger age. However, older LGBTQ adults are still here, and continue to advocate for their community. Lupa, who turned 60 last year, discussed how she has written training manuals for healthcare systems and delivered trainings to medical students on trans competency. She and her husband frequently advocate for each other in medical settings, and as their healthcare needs shift as they grow older, she anticipates continuing this educational work.
For older trans people looking to access services like senior housing or Medicare, personal identification documents that don’t match the applicant’s gender presentation can complicate the sign-up and verification process. In Georgia, the law requires that someone undergoes “gender reassignment surgery” to change the sex marker on their driver’s license or birth certificate, as well as a host of other documents and a doctor’s approval. This is an expensive and time-consuming process, but important if one intends to utilize any services that require government records.
Lupa, who has been “out” as trans for several years, got her driver’s license changed just last year by working with her doctor in Clayton County. This allows her to move through most record-keeping systems without having to disclose her personal medical history, and she hopes that it will make it easier to access caregiving support and resources as she ages.
Without access to services, trans adults are uniquely vulnerable to social isolation as they age. According to Lambda Legal, LGBT adults are twice as likely to live alone and four times as likely to have no children compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers.
Miss Major, a prominent trans activist, stated in a 2015 panel that “all our friends are usually gone. All that we have is the memories we have of them and hopefully somebody around that we can talk to… about things that no one can understand from back in 1963”. Most older adults can resonate with this feeling, but for trans people who have lost loved ones earlier than many others—due to physical violence, medical neglect, or economic marginalization—isolation can be especially harmful.
Despite these vulnerabilities, the trans community often maintains informal caregiving networks for those fondly referred to as “trans elders”. Though Lupa does not have any biological children, both Lupa and Jamil-Jack frequently go by “mom” and “pop” to many younger trans folks, and, she adds, she “is happy to do it.” For trans people, many of whom lack traditional family relations, these intra-community bonds are lifesaving. Lupa asks that younger trans people remember that “trans elders are already here,” and to value the wisdom and perspective they offer to the community.
Trans people have something powerful to teach us all—whether younger or older, caregiver, professional, or layperson. That is, trans people are proof that one can live authentically at any age, self-creating to craft a life that is wholly one’s own. Trans elders offer a powerful vision of a world where people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds can assert autonomy and maintain their dignity throughout their life.
For more information on providing care and best practices for transgender adults, check out this policy guide or this article with recommendations for healthcare providers. If you or a loved one are a trans elder, you might be interested in this FAQ with links to further resources.
For more information about resources for older people and people with disabilities in the Metro Atlanta area, check out our Search for Services feature, or explore the Empowerline website to be connected with services & counseling.