In Middle Age, They Realized They Were Trans: ‘A Lightbulb Went Off’

The Washington Post

Ray Gibson spent half a century living as a woman before realizing he might be a man.

Growing up in Omaha in the 1960s and ’70s as the child of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, he always felt something was off. At age 6, “I thought, ‘Gee, I’m the son my dad doesn’t know he has.'” When he got his period at age 13, he locked himself in the bathroom, screaming and crying.

“My mom came to the door – ‘What’s the matter? What’s the matter?'” he said. “I said, ‘I want a sex change.’ . . . I’d never heard of such a thing. So I don’t even know where it came from. It came from my soul.”

For people with gender dysphoria, 20th-century America was a lonely place to grow up. Terms like “transgender” and “nonbinary” had not entered the common lexicon, and if transgender people appeared in popular culture at all, they were often portrayed as murderers, sex workers or homicide victims. There was no internet where people could seek out expertise or find community. The local library was the main source of information, and it often came up short.

Many came out as gay or lesbian, or hewed to a cisgender heterosexual presentation, but the sense of disharmony persisted. Only later in life, as awareness about transgender identity increased, did some recognize that what they were hearing from younger generations also fit them.

Americans who identify as trans today skew young. More than 4 in 10, or 43 percent, are ages 13 to 24, according to a 2022 report by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. Teenagers identify as trans at nearly triple the rate of all adults, and nearly five times the rate of people 65 and older. They are growing up at a time when trans role models abound, from classroom teachers to pop stars to government officials.

Their parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced none of this. “You’ll hear of people who felt different and they thought they were the only one in the world,” said Aaron Tax, managing director of government affairs and policy advocacy at SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ elders. “Must be a world of difference today, for people who have all kinds of access to trans stories or trans joy.”

While some older trans people readily embrace new names, pronouns and communities, as a group they are more closeted, according to a Washington Post-KFF poll conducted late last year. Roughly one-fifth, or 19 percent, of trans people 45 and older have not told anyone they are trans, compared with just 7 percent of those 18 to 34.

Some who spoke with The Washington Post said they were wistful that they had not felt free to be their authentic selves earlier. Some said they were grateful to have had time to process their gender awakening outside the cauldron of social media and culture wars. Several said younger trans people had inspired them to come out, while others expressed unease at the speed at which some young people transition. All said they felt relief once they made their transition, and all said they were disturbed by the political rhetoric and legislation targeting transgender people.

Gibson liked girls as a teenager and figured he must be a lesbian. But that didn’t feel right either. “I conducted my life like a man,” he said. “I went into the military at age 20. I didn’t want to train with the girls, though.” It didn’t occur to him that he might be trans until he was 54 and watched an episode of “Dancing With the Stars” with Chaz Bono, the trans son of singers Cher and Sonny Bono, whom Gibson remembered seeing on their TV show as a child.

“A lightbulb went off,” he said. “Everything started clicking in my head.”

Still, the idea took months, if not years, to process. “I couldn’t even say the word ‘transgender,'” Gibson said. “I was intimidated, scared of what I was seeing, scared of testosterone, scared of the surgeries.” Trans voices were growing louder, but Gibson wasn’t sure the umbrella was wide enough for him. “I thought, maybe I’m too old.”

Even when older people do decide they are trans, many find it daunting to change their public presentation after so long.

“I’ve heard from older people [that] they’ve built their whole life around their previous identity – their college network, their work network – and how difficult it can be to turn that whole world upside down,” Tax said. Some decide, “Let me get through my lucrative working life or raising my family” before coming out.

When Jennifer Janzen, 56, came out as a trans woman in midlife, her world fell apart. Raised in a religious family in central California, she used to slip into the bathroom at age 6 or 7 to “try on my sister’s clothes and look at myself, and I would see myself as someone real,” she said. “I didn’t have a name for it. I buried it.”

She married and had children, disclosing only to her wife “my deep, dark secret, which was that I was a cross-dresser.” When Janzen’s wife asked whether she thought she was a woman, “my walls of fear would go up, and I would go, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ But inside my mind it sounded hollow to me.”

It wasn’t until her wife was studying for a master’s in family counseling that she recognized that Janzen, by then in her early 40s, was depressed. A therapist told her about gender dysphoria.

When she came out, some family and friends stopped talking to her, and three churches asked her to leave. A work colleague opted to retire rather than work alongside her. She went through an acrimonious divorce and is estranged from her grown children.

But coming out provided relief from depression and suicidal ideations. “I’m pretty certain if I hadn’t transitioned, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “I’m here and I love my life. When you finally accept who you are, it’s . . . a sense of joy and peace. It’s sort of like the colors all suddenly become colors, or the smells become more intense.” Coming out also changed the way she relates to others. “I have an amazing ability to make more deep friendships with people, because I’m so much more who I am.”

Janzen, an education consultant, lives in liberal Silicon Valley. Even so, she has faced harassment and death threats. She takes estrogen and has had gender-affirmation surgery, but with her 6-foot-4 frame, “most people clock me as being transgender,” she said. “Young men in a gang surrounded me and spit on me and called me names.”

The news about states restricting rights of transgender people “really makes me angry and also scared,” she said. “I have been seriously thinking about, ‘Do I need to leave, do I need to relocate, do I need to move out of the United States because it’s more closed to people like us?'”

Like Janzen, K.R., 54, knew from early childhood that there was “something not quite right.” At 9, he saw Renée Richards, the former pro tennis player and transgender pioneer, on “The Phil Donahue Show.”

“I remember looking at my mom and saying, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a little boy.’ I got the worst beating of my life. My mom was saying ‘I don’t make mistakes’ and ‘This is how God made you.’ So I tucked that away.”

In adolescence, he made several suicide attempts, was hospitalized and went into foster care. He lived as a lesbian for several decades before transitioning in 2011.

K.R. now lives with his girlfriend and her teenage son in a conservative Republican town in central Michigan, where people don’t know him as anything other than a cisgender heterosexual man and small-business owner; he spoke with The Post on the condition that he be identified by his initials, to avoid outing him to his community. He does testosterone injections and has had a hysterectomy and chest reconstruction. But even so, he said, “I never focus on the trans part of it. I’m a guy.”

K.R. sees his journey as materially different from that of many younger people who transition now. He was in therapy for childhood abuse when the idea came up that he could be trans. But initially, he resisted it.

“I was like, ‘Prove to me that this is who I am,'” he said. “Having [had] the years of assessment and the years of processing the trauma, I know for a fact that this was what it was.” But he has “serious concerns with the number of trans-identified people coming around today, that things aren’t being assessed by a professional.”

Trans people with this viewpoint risk criticism from other trans people, he said. But Gibson said he shares it.

“I’m an old guy, I’ve made my life, I know who I am,” he said. “These young people [are] having to deal with not even knowing who they are, [and] transitioning, which is huge.”

But one generation’s transition experiences may not apply to a different generation, said Paul Willis, associate professor of social work and social gerontology at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol in England.

“While younger people may reach the decision points more quickly than older people, they’ve also had greater access to information, to be able to process in much more rapid ways than older people would have done,” said Willis, author of a 2020 study of transgender people ages 50 to 74.

Willis’s subjects expressed worries particular to aging, such as transphobic responses from caregivers or family members. “There were concerns . . . that really important routines such as taking prescribed hormones regularly would be denied,” he said. “As well as wider concerns about transphobic responses from staff members [who] may see surgical scars that aren’t familiar to them and may react in the moment in a negative way.”

Different exposure to information may help explain why older trans people are also far less likely than younger ones to identify as nonbinary. The term was not in wide use until recently; Merriam-Webster only in 2019 added “they” as a pronoun for a nonbinary person. In the Post-KFF poll, nearly half, or 47 percent, of trans people ages 18 to 44 identified as nonbinary, compared with 24 percent of those 45 and older. (Older respondents identified as trans women at twice the rate of younger people; rates for trans men were similar across age groups.)

But some older people say they were relieved to finally encounter an option other than male or female. Mark Ing, 64, an academic research director who lives in Manhattan, came out as a gay man at 18. “But there was always something in the background I couldn’t put my finger on,” Ing said.

Even having worked with the trans community, “I never thought of myself as trans, because I thought of my gender identity in a very binary way,” until 2018, while watching a panel on nonbinary identity.

“My whole world came into focus at that moment, and I think, ‘Gee, this guy’s talking about me.’ Me trying to live a life as a cisgender man, even as a cisgender gay man, just didn’t fit,” Ing said.

Ing, whose father was a Marine, thought of “times in my life when I acted in ways that I thought could have been better. I tie a lot of that to feeling like I needed to act like a man.”

For Ing, coming out as nonbinary has been more internal than external. They are not out to everybody. “I’ve done this already when I was a young adult – I don’t feel like I need to be the center of conversation or like I need other people’s validation of my identity,” they said.

Julie, 51, of Valley Stream, N.Y., credits younger people for showing them the way to a nonbinary identity. A second cousin and a friend’s child started identifying as nonbinary. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s really cool for them.'”

At first Julie didn’t feel entitled to use the term. “It seemed almost attention-getting; did I really need to define it?” they said. “I felt like I was treading into someone else’s space.”

They eventually decided the term worked for them, too. But Julie does not share their nonbinary identity with everyone; they agreed to speak with The Post on the condition that only their first name be used, to avoid being outed at work. “I’m 51 years old; I don’t expect my mom to start changing my pronouns now,” they said; it was hard enough to come out to her as a lesbian three decades ago. And they leave their pronouns off work email. “Gender is a different thing, and I don’t know if people are going to accept it.”

Age has a lot to do with these calculations, they said. “My nephew – he has two lesbian moms – he literally rolled up on his bike and said, ‘By the way, I’m trans, bye.’ He’s grown up with that language and a level of acceptance.”

Julie thinks often about how it would have been to grow up in an era of more openness.

“I would have come out at a much younger age, I would have known who I was sooner, and I wouldn’t have spent so much wasted time trying to conform and being isolated,” they said. “I feel like my whole life would have been different.”