Text and photos by Clément Bürge, New York, for Le Temps, June 26, 2015.
Translated from the French by Angus B. Grieve-Smith, New York, July 4, 2015.
In the United States, the transition of 65 year old former Olympic champion and current reality TV star Bruce Jenner has cast a spotlight on transgender seniors. But his case is far from unique: a growing number of people in their fifties, sixties and seventies are changing their sex. Contrasting portraits.
One day, Michael’s nine-year-old son looked up from his homework towards his father sitting on the couch. For several months Michael and his wife had been in crisis. “What you feel is never going to go away, Papa,” the son said, calmly. “It will always be in you.” That is the moment when Michael, stunned by his son’s words, understood that he would have to cross the abyss. The next day he announced to his wife that, shortly before he turned fifty, he would become a woman.
This choice was all the more difficult because, unlike people who change their sex in their twenties, Michael already had established a life for himself. “My career, my family, my friends, I was running the risk of losing everything I had gained up to that point,” explains Stephanie, the charming blonde that he has become.
Born Michael Battaglino in 1958, she knew from childhood that she was not supposed to be a boy. “I grew up in a very religious Italian family,” she says. “I did not know how to understand what I was feeling.” So Michael decided to get rid of Stephanie, becoming as masculine as he could. “I played football. I weighed 236 pounds.” With his college diploma in hand, Michael got married. And then got married again, and then a third time. “Each marriage ended in divorce after several years,” Stephanie explains. “My life was a lie.”
Today, the insurance vice-president feels better. Her bleached blond hair, purple dress and bracelets stacked on her right arm give the 56-year-old woman a youthful air. “For the first time in my life I feel like myself,” she says, grinding a salad with her square jaw.
In the United States, transsexual seniors are finding themselves in the spotlight for the first time. The sex change of Bruce Jenner, husband of the reality TV star Kris Jenner, made headlines. The Amazon series Transparent, which tells the transition story of a seventy-year-old, won several Golden Globes. In total, it is estimated that around 700,000 people in the United States suffer from what doctors call “gender dysphoria,” including a growing number of elderly people.
“Trans, gay and lesbian culture has always been oriented around young people,” says Vanessa Fabbre, an assistant professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, who has just finished her doctoral dissertation on the subject. “But today, people between fifty and seventy are also joining the movement.” These seniors often have not had any other choice than to wait for the twenty-first century to imagine a transition like this. For them, changing sex at a younger age was impossible. Growing up in a more conservative society than today, their condition was not accepted.
Since then, the internet has arrived and popular culture has evolved. Transitions are easier. Very often, retirement marks the beginning of the process, because the fear of being unemployed has been lifted. “Sometimes a health glitch like a heart attack can remind a person that they are mortal,” notes Vanessa Fabbre. “They begin to count the years they have left and decide to stop hiding.”
Bobbi Swan, a blonde with a sepulchral voice, was born in 1930 in Buffalo, in the north of New York State. “In that era there was not even a word to describe what I was,” the 84-year-old woman remembers.
After finishing school, Bobbi Swan enlisted in the American army. She served in the Korean War and then built a career at Ryan Aeronautical. She worked there her whole life. “I would have ruined my career if I had changed sex earlier,” she explains. “Our main client was the U.S. Department of Defense.” Once she retired, she met people who found themselves in the same situation. She made her decision at the age of 71, traveling to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery.
But even after making their decisions, transsexual seniors face different challenges from their younger peers. Socially, the pressure may be heavier. “My friends all knew me as a woman for fifty years,” explains Dominic Don Gatto, a 63-year-old woman who became a man in his late fifties. “It was hard for some people to accept my transition after having known me for so long. Many of my lesbian friends didn’t want to see me any more once I became a man.” Strangers are quick to make judgmental remarks on the street. “The other day, some teenagers pointed at me and burst out laughing,” says Dominic Don Gatto, his arms covered with tattoos. “People already squint when they see a young trans person; imagine when they come across an old one.”
Physically, an older man or woman is also less able to handle a sex change. The body has become used to inhabiting a gender over the course of decades. For men, the shoulders will have widened and the voice deepened from years of exposure to testosterone. “They also lose hair on their heads and have more body hair,” explains Vanessa Fabbre. “It is more difficult for them to pass as women after a certain age.”
Monica Prata, a trained makeup artist, has made this challenge her career, as a consultant for men wanting to become women. “One of the biggest challenges is teaching them to wear clothing appropriate for their age,” she says. “You can’t wear a miniskirt or too much makeup when you’re seventy years old.”
The medical risks are also higher. “An older person will take longer to recover from an operation,” says Marci Bowers, a surgeon who specializes in sex changes. “Once the genitals are modified, a senior patient will have more difficulty regaining sensation in their sexual organs. It is not impossible for them to have orgasms after the operation, but it is more complicated.” Many patients are also wary of the effects of hormones at that age: “I recently decided to lower my testosterone dose,” explains Dominic Don Gatto, who sports a light beard on his smooth cheeks. “I worry too much about getting cancer or high blood pressure.”
The combined cost of cosmetic surgery, electrolysis, sex reassignment surgery, hormones and clothing changes can also take a toll on older people’s finances. Patricia Harrington, a tall blonde 63-year-old woman with laughing eyes, was ruined by her transition. “I used all my savings to pay for my operations,” says the former programmer. “I have no money left for retirement. I will work to the end of my life.” In contrast, a young trans person will have more time to restore their financial health.
The same bell tolls for Lorna, a 72 year old former piano teacher who underwent her final operation a year ago. “In total, it cost me $400,000,” explains this thin, chic grande dame. “I saved for fifty years for this.”
Little by little the situation improves. Today, ten states in the U.S. require health insurance companies to cover costs related to transition. When celebrities like Bruce Jenner discuss the issue, that may draw public attention to the problem. “What she did is fantastic,” says Stephanie Battaglino. “She has become a spokesperson for all transgender seniors.”