Not to be discussed

The cold fluid ran down my shin as I lay on my back on the examination table, my foot drawn back and my right knee raised. Having chilled my knee to numbness with the liquid, the doctor made no effort to dry the drips. Instead he lapsed into a patter of small talk – something about his upcoming holiday plans for Portugal – as he readied the needle. His distraction drew me back to fond memories of my one time in Lisbon, almost 40 years ago; the sharp prick of the needle entering my knee interrupted those musings, but it wasn’t so bad. The pain was already subsiding as he slapped the Band-Aid over my kneecap. “See you next Friday”, he said, already on his way down the vinyl tiled corridor to his next patient.

I’d been through this routine once before, two years earlier. Injections of some magical gel into my right knee, spaced out over three weeks, thereby attaining full and relatively pain-free movement of my right leg. It would do for now; although I was keenly aware that there would come a time when more complicated measures would be needed to keep this body’s aging at bay. Despite my disciplined dedication to staying fit and healthy, enjoying continued unfettered mobility was no longer a given. I took a modicum of comfort knowing that it could all be much worse; I’m approaching 70 but I’m far more active and able than many people my age. Hell, I’m more fit than many people far younger than me – or so I like to think. Yet despite my relatively good fortune with my health, and the benefits of all those years of being a regular at the gym, there’s one painful reality that we cannot assuage with a visit to the clinic: getting old in America isn’t for the fainthearted.  

Hey, I’m tough, resilient, and generally upbeat too. Still, finding myself balancing on the precipice of “elderly” as a single woman, and a transgender woman at that, has given me pause. Even the best cared-for bodies and minds will gradually wear out, although so far I’ve held the worst at bay. What most occupies me now isn’t physical – it’s how difficult it’s become to push back effectively against the tightening encirclement of three overlapping powerful social biases: ageism, sexism, and transphobia. In my combat against all three, my once robust counterpunches now appear more like pointless flailing; I am feeling this battle slipping away from me. Yes, I’ve always known that the inexorable forces of aging will prevail against me, but succumbing to social stigma and discrimination is another thing altogether.

What will it mean for me to lose this struggle – how will I keep my spirits up, my rent paid, and both me and my cat fed? What would my surrender to any or all three of these biases mean to my own dignity and purpose? Am I deluded in clinging to the notion that I have so much more to give, and do, and be in this world?

Years ago, when I first returned home briefly after two years of what was ultimately to become fifteen years living and working in sub-Saharan Africa, I had so much to talk about. Africa had changed me. My unsolicited lessons in life had sprung from seeing firsthand and all around me the juxtaposition of intense opportunity and grinding poverty, from the warmth and sparkle of the Kenyans I had come to know, and from sensing firsthand the corrosive weight of systemic corruption, exploitation, and ignorance. Africa had opened my eyes and transformed my entire worldview, and I was so eager to share my perspective with friends and family back home. I was quick to learn, however, that very few in the States really wanted to know. My life in Africa wasn’t where they were at. I soon stopped trying to share.

Getting old isn’t where most Americans are at either. Younger America isn’t inviting our perspectives; economic and social survival for elderly Americans certainly isn’t something the general public wants us to discuss. We have our Social Security and Medicare, don’t we? Even if those entitlements barely keep us alive, the message isn’t ambiguous. “Stop your complaining”, say those who are burdened with severe student loan debt, mortgage payments, and the cost and multiple demands of young families to raise. So, wise to the knowledge that they have a good point, we shut up. We’ve had our chance at life; we’re expected now to quietly find our peace with the consequences of our lives and our past choices. We must play the cards that we’ve been dealt, even if we now hold only a few cards. Society wants us out of the spotlight, to give the next generations some space. Our time is past; our turn is over. Deal with it. We’re on our own.

No.

What if I refuse to see myself as irrelevant, as no longer worthy? What if I remain engaged in mind and spirit, and in body too as much as my joints will allow? What if I consider my experiences and capabilities as still being of value – perhaps even essential – to solving some of the challenges that we all share within our current environment? What if I still have hopes and dreams? Spunk and grit, idealism and energy? I’m not ready to take that step back into the shadows. Yes, I recognize that it’s a step whose time inevitably will come, and I do hope to meet that time with grace and awareness. But not now. Not yet.

You see, some of us have a little problem. It’s a problem guaranteed to attract negligible attention from policy makers or the public, from potential employers, and from those who are immersed in the affairs, adventures, challenges, and prospects of youth and middle age. But for us, our problem is very real; we are failing in our efforts to solve it on our own. Such failure is undignified; it’s best not to speak of it.

But I will speak.

You see, some of us actually want to work. We delight in work. And some of us also have to work. I have to work, and since it’s about my survival, I guess it’s important. I know; you have other pressing concerns to attend to, but…

It’s not written down anywhere (that would be illegal), yet I’ve learned to my chagrin that I’m no longer “positioned” to apply for most jobs that are advertised – even jobs I’m imminently qualified for. The HR office at any employer, by coincidence or conspiracy, has quietly come to function as an effective gatekeeper against resumes that are too long, graduation dates too far back, and publications written back in the 1980s (even if some of them are still a damn good read). Unless someone well placed within an organization is acting as our champion and taking strong measures to get our candidacies reviewed fairly, applying for jobs is now nearly always a waste of time. The unwritten message is all too clear: applications are not welcome from men over 60, women over 50, or from anyone over 40 who is transgender.

Were it only a waste of time, that might be countenanced. My problem is more personal. When I see a job posted that I know I would do exceptionally well at – for an employer whose important mission I know would truly benefit from the deep resources of experience, networks, and wisdom that these years have earned me – I get invested. I can’t resist placing myself in the picture: there I am doing that job, and everyone is delighted with my performance, my sharp wit, and my congeniality.  And I am enjoying their engagement, and the sense of community in a vibrant workplace that embraces diversity of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. So, I sit down and write my heart out – well, in a properly reserved manner. After all, I know how to write those cover letters. For years I’ve been the one reading them at the other end.

Still, my investment is fruitless; my cover letter will go unread, and my resume will be placed in the “other” stack (a digital stack, these days). No one will be moved, or impressed, or intrigued. They won’t even write back. Nothing, silence; the door is closed. At my age all the doors are closing around me, and those whom we have relied upon on the inside to keep those doors slightly ajar for “that remarkably experienced and capable applicant” are rapidly leaving the workforce.  Who is left to advocate for someone “old” like me?

Fair enough. We know that patience among those of younger generations for listening to the woes or more gritty interjections of elders is very limited. We confront all those closed and closing doors mostly on our own, wondering with increasing anxiety how we’re supposed to pay our bills and survive into whatever our futures hold for us. For those like me – and I suspect many transgender people of my generation – the notion of a comfortable retirement just around the corner is a tantalizing yet unreachable prospect. We watch our more affluent but similarly aged cohort of friends and siblings plan their cruises and move to their comfortable, sunny retirement villas, secure in the coverage of their extended-care old age insurance policies. There’s nothing for us to say about it all, and no one to listen were we to do so. We’re left to wish them well in their hard-earned retirements. God bless them.

Transgender lives like mine are almost never characterized by such affluence and security. We’ve had to pay and pay for our “condition”; my transition took place when all health insurance providers routinely and expressly excluded transition-related services. I paid for my womanhood, in costs that drained any savings I had ever accumulated, and which left me indebted for years to come. My expensive new body saved my life and brought me untold meaning and peace (if not a boyfriend), but I am still shouldering that very high price tag for that physical, psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual transformation.

The medical, practical, and counseling costs of a gender transition aside, transgender lives are also frequently marked by disruption. It’s not just the big and often messy splash of coming out and reconfiguring one’s personal, family, bureaucratic, and intimate arrangements; transgender people face a nearly unscalable wall of discrimination in employment and in so many other aspects of our lives. Our resumes are replete with periods of “consulting”, if we are even that lucky. Finding and keeping a job is frequently a monumental challenge in the midst of such pervasive transphobia and bias, and getting older exacerbates this challenge exponentially. For us, the prospect of easing into a comfortable retirement is the bittersweet stuff of fantasy.

With doors closing, the bank balance diminishing, and the face in the mirror acquiring ever more wrinkles, our options are few. Often there isn’t really anywhere or anyone to turn to. Being old and without substantial means of support in America is rough. Our personal narratives do not attract a caring readership. Not only do old people’s complaints generate little sympathy or action, but who among the young and middle-aged demographics want to entertain the future prospect of their own aging? Who wants to think through our journeys to form conjectures about their own possibly dim pathway ahead?  We’re therefore expected to stay quiet, to soldier on somehow, and find a way to pay our bills and retain our dignity. How? That’s our problem. And we’ll do our best, often isolated and alone.

But know this much: this is really, really hard.

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