An Unprecedented Attack

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The Trump administration has relentlessly targeted the transgender community since its inauguration in 2017—and SAGE is fighting back

It has been a deeply challenging two years for transgender people, whose rights and livelihoods have been continually threatened under the Trump administration. Early on, the administration sought to erase transgender elders from a key federal aging survey. More recently, they indicated their intent to roll back the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act guidance protecting transgender people from discrimination. And now, per a bombshell report from the New York Times, the administration aims to advance a starkly narrow definition of gender as official public policy with the goal of effectively writing transgender people out of existence when it comes to the federal government.

SAGE has fought back against these ongoing attacks, successfully leading a nationwide campaign that forced the Trump administration to restore transgender elders to the National Survey on Older Americans Act. We are working closely with the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO) against the Affordable Care Act rollback and gearing up to vigorously oppose the extreme redefining of gender for federal purposes.

These relentless assaults are particularly dangerous for transgender older people, who already face profound challenges and experience striking obstacles to accessing culturally competent health care, services, and housing. The economic and personal impact of this prejudice can accumulate over a lifetime to severely impact financial security.

Several years ago, SAGE joined forces with the National Center for Transgender Equality to release a first-of-its-kind report that outlines these challenges and recommends a comprehensive agenda to improve the quality of life for transgender older people. The report underlines not only the obstacles, but also the resiliencies of transgender elders, who have demonstrated a profound ability to forge ahead even in the face of such stark challenges.

Much of that resiliency comes from the wisdom developed and shared across generations of transgender people. To get a firsthand take on the current moment, SAGE spoke with 20-year-old Robin Bauldwin of California and 61-year-old Leland Koble of Florida to get a firsthand perspective.

SAGE: Robin and Leland, how long have you known about your gender identity, and when did you begin your transition? What were the major challenges you faced in doing so?

Robin: I first knew when I was around 8. I would be in my mom’s room trying on her dresses, her skirts, and her shoes. As I got older I found out what it meant to be transgender, and I felt that I just fit into that category. I didn’t come out as transgender until my junior year of high school, when I felt comfortable in my own skin. I grew up in a very Christian home. My brothers and my mother were very confused, because all of their lives I had been gay. It took them a year to start calling me Robin and using the right pronouns. Even at school, teachers would call me by the wrong name. I would tell them to say Robin, but they would still say Robert. My classmates would be snickering and laughing. That was, and still is, a very challenging aspect of it.

Leland: I never felt feminine, but we didn’t question it back then. You were just gay. You didn’t get to say, “I think I’m a boy,” because you just didn’t do that then. I lived my life as a lesbian, but there was always a stopping point, because I never felt like a lesbian. I realized something was wrong in kindergarten. I was playing dodgeball, and the teachers said, “All the little boys line up over here, and all the little girls line up over there.” I was 5 years old, jumping up and down all excited, and ran over to the little boys. I’ll never forget—it was the first time I had any recognition that I was different, because the teacher grabbed me by the shirt and said, “Cathy, you belong over here.” It was my first realization of gender identity. They called my dad in and said, “Your daughter’s going to have to conform to the dress code.” When this was happening, of course, I didn’t realize the gravity of what my parents did for me. My dad just looked at the principal and said, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.” I was very fortunate to always be able to live my life authentically with no pressures from my friends, family, or school. I transitioned when I was 54 years old.

Q: We’ve made real progress on transgender issues, with society starting to become more accepting of people who are transgender. But with that acceptance has also come a strong backlash—by states, and now by the federal government. What is your reaction to this?

Robin: One of the main things that concerned me most was when the Trump administration rescinded an Obama administration policy that allowed students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. I remember the first day I went into the girls’ locker room, all the girls were like, “Oh, my God, Robin. You’re finally here.” They were hugging me, and they were so excited. To have a presidency that doesn’t see the need for such an order is just mind-blowing to me.

Leland: As scary as this administration is, I think that it’s a positive thing in some ways. There is always a terrible resistance before a huge change. I think that’s where the transgender community is right now. Because of all the outrageous things that are happening, people are starting to say, “I can’t sit back and wait anymore. I need to stand up and be a part of a change.” We’re banding together more and realizing that the only way we’re going to get this to stop is to join together. We can’t sit silently. People are looking at what it means to be a man much differently. I know, because when I put a suit and tie on and go out, I’m treated completely different than when I dress in a way that makes it questionable whether I’m male or female. I think that change is going to come, and I pray it will in my lifetime.

Q: Transgender people are often reluctant to discuss their gender identity with healthcare providers for fear of being judged, receiving poor care, or outright being denied medical treatment. Have you experienced discrimination or challenges in accessing health care?

Robin: I live in a very, very small town in California. When I first came out, I Googled how to get hormones without having to travel all the way to LA or San Francisco. My search led me to a small little clinic here in town. I went up to the receptionist desk, and asked if they had a nurse who does hormone treatment. At the time, I didn’t have access to a razor. I had a full-grown beard on my face. All these people were staring at me. I was wearing heels and a dress. I was walking in there trying to own it, trying to present myself as this beautiful, young woman. But the person at the front desk said there was no one there who could help me. She looked at me and she said, “Are you trying to get hormones to remove all that hair?” The way she said it was so demoralizing. It was one of those moments in life where you feel like you need to run away and hide. I went back again, and that day it was a different lady at the front desk. She told me she was sorry that happened to me, and that there was someone who could help with hormone therapy. They prescribed my first estrogen pills.

Leland: I really haven’t faced a lot of challenges. I think one of the things that we really need to focus on, especially my generation, is helping the younger generation find their power. I’m not saying that they don’t deserve to feel victimized, but I think that we need to be really proud of who we are, and the older generation can help with that. If I am going somewhere, like a doctor’s office for example, and they aren’t aware of what’s going on, I start by saying to them, “Okay, I’m transgender. Let’s just get any questions you have out of the way, because I just want to get the best possible care I can.” I’m 61. I see the stares. I feel like my mission is to try to teach anyone who wants to listen about what it means to live as your authentic self. I consider myself powerful. I feel bad for the other person, more than myself, to find that they’re so uneducated. If they’re working in a place of medical treatment, it’s their responsibility to educate themselves on the changes that are happening in the world. If they can’t, and they’re not educated, then I try to take that opportunity to educate them.

Q: There are more than 3 million LGBTQ+ older people in the U.S., and this number will double in the next two decades with the Baby Boomer generation. When it comes to transgender rights and social acceptance, are you hopeful for future generations?

Robin: Yes. I feel like a lot of transgender people are seeing what’s going on and they’re putting on their running shoes. They’re running toward the idea of not wanting the next generation to end up how we are, you know? I feel like a lot of that is owed to the older generation of transgender people who fought for rights that I, as a young transgender person, now have. They’ve been through things that I’ve never been through. I feel hopeful about young and old transgender people coming together and building on the past to help with the present.

Leland: I think that there are a lot more people stepping forward. I know that in South Florida, we’re seeing more being done for the transgender community. As far as people retiring, I am now seeing LGBTQ+-focused retirement homes. I have great hope for the transgender community, and for the future. I believe there will come a point where there won’t be criticism. There will be freedom. It’s just like any other change. It’s always an uphill battle until it’s not. It’s going to be a struggle, but we’re a strong community. We’ll persevere.

Q: At SAGE, we’ve seen the power of intergenerational conversations and the impact that they can have on both younger and older transgender people. Do you feel there is a need for more connection, particularly between the younger and older members of transgender communities?

Robin: A lot of younger LGBTQ+ people can learn from older LGBTQ+ people because they’ve gone through so much. They can teach us lessons about how to get through the trials that we’re going through. There is a need for that connectivity between young and old, because I can learn things from Leland that I won’t learn from my 19-year-old classmate. I want that, because I can take those lessons with me throughout life. Then, when I reach that trial, or when I reach that bridge, I can remember those moments of growth that I learned from someone older. As a young transgender woman, I’ve encountered older transgender women and men who have taught me so many things about life—about being strong, about not letting what’s happening in this administration affect what’s happening in my life and in my heart as a human being.

Leland: We have to appreciate where we come from. Elder transgender people have been putting in work for a really long time, and we didn’t have the privileges that the younger generation has. We couldn’t just go have surgery or take hormones or anything. We just stayed closeted. But we can’t change the past, and we can’t be bitter about the way it was. We just have to keep on thinking, from here on out, “What can we do to help this next generation?” I think that’s what we have to focus on.

Q: Despite your differences, you have had some shared experiences from being transgender. What have you learned from each other during this conversation?

Robin: I love hearing the stories of people who have been trailblazers for me. It’s beautiful, because without your story I wouldn’t be here. I’ve learned from you, Leland, a new sense of what it means to be inspired, because your story did really touch me.

Leland: I think that I’ve learned we still have a lot of work to do to educate the world about how important it is for our children and our youth to be able to live authentically. Listening to you makes me realize that we have a lot more work to accomplish.

Read our fact sheet about the unique issues of aging while transgender. This article originally appeared in SAGEMatters, Fall 2018.