It was another snowy Friday morning, and I met my son and eight-month-old grandson at the mall. I always treasure these walks on the rainy, cold or snowy days where we can chat about almost anything.
My son started telling me that the afternoon before, he had ESPN radio on in the background, as he is a stay-at-home Dad taking care of the eight-month-old and his three-year-old sister. He said he had heard the guys on the radio talking about the latest stories about Bruce Jenner possibly transitioning genders at the age of 65. He said that, normally, he would have ignored it, except for the fact that I, his father, am a transgender woman. He went on about how the guys on the radio were ranting about how they don't understand how, or why, a 65-year-old man would ever want to become a woman. Since I transitioned at the age of 64, I told my son that instead of whining that they didn't understand -- why they didn't try to find out?
My son responded to me that even though I transitioned, and he accepts me completely, there are still so many things about transgender people that he does not understand. I know he is not alone, so perhaps I can help.
My name is Grace Anne Stevens, and even one decade ago, I did not have the words to understand all the deep feelings inside of me that kept fighting the outward "reality" that I was a man. I was in my mid-50s, and had three adult children trying to figure out their own lives, while I -- the loving and supportive father, was battling a personal turmoil that no one could see. I was divorced and on my own after 25 years of marriage, and at the age of 58, returned to school to get my master's degree in Counseling Psychology. Four years later, at age 62, I graduated having learned, among other things, that many of my classmates were trying to figure themselves out too.
This was a crucial time for me. I was finally able to come to terms with the reality that I was transgender, in fact, transsexual, and made my decision to transition. Not only did I find community, but I became a leader in the community. Over the past six years, I've met and become a trusted resource of hope and knowledge for many people on similar journeys, but that was not my only transition. I no longer work full-time in the engineering field. I now work as a mental health clinician in a substance abuse clinic. I do transition training in the corporate world and speak in schools. My work is dedicated to increasing transgender awareness, and helping others to support those in their groups who transition.
You'd be surprised by how busy I am. I devote many hours trying to find the words to help people understand what they don't know about the transgender journey. As a transgender woman, father, mental health counselor and author, I've devoted myself to shedding light on what it's like to come out as transgender. My book, No! Maybe? Yes! Living My Truth, is my story. I wrote it to defy the conventional wisdom that roots transitioning in secrecy and shame. The reality is confusing, and the words, for anyone, are hard to find. But those words must be found, because the decision to transition deserves understanding and respect.
So, that brings me to Bruce Jenner. We don't know, but if the reports are, in fact, true, his own journey will be unique to him as mine was to me. I know it was challenging enough for me at age 64 to transition as a private person. For Jenner, a famous and beloved Olympic athlete living in the very public and over-exposed world of the Kardashians, we can only imagine his challenges. So, for those tempted to feed off of what will surely be sensationalized speculation, I offer three points of firsthand knowledge to help understand being transgender:
• Sex is not the same as gender: Sex refers to biology and anatomy, while gender is both a psychological sense of self, and a set of cultural defined norms that are expected to be adhered to.
• Being transgender is not a choice: We are just beginning to understand that, like sexual orientation, our gender identity is pre-wired in our brains.
• Transgender people have appeared in all cultures throughout our history, with some cultures accepting and honoring them and others rejecting them.
In our culture, the typical norm is: sex = gender = sexual orientation. When one is young and realizes their sense of self does not fit the norm, they often go in to hiding, and they find ways to overcompensate to keep their "secret." The fear of not belonging and abandonment overshadow the inner need to be authentic. However, for many people, the hiding cannot last forever.
Most are often surprised, or even shocked to hear of someone transitioning gender in their 50s, 60s, 70s or even 80s. What we see is just the tip of the iceberg, not the lifelong internal struggle, or the decades of hiding and denial, or the lying to oneself about an unquestionable personal reality. We must go deep enough to understand, because only then can we have compassion for a transgender person who has been carrying such a heavy burden in isolation for so long.
What many don't see is that for many transgender people the act of "coming out" and transitioning means to realize the loss of everyone and everything achieved in life, knowing you cannot go on living a lie. It is a conscious decision to live your authentic life after the years of hiding. It is knowing that to become visible is to accept your personal truth, because it outweighs the risk of losing what has mattered most in life until now. This is what is crucial to understand.
Reality is that, too often, editorial decisions are made to debate personal choices on the national stage. The game is to generate heat, not light, so the transgender conversation typically begins and ends with: "I don't understand." There is no acknowledgement of how difficult it is to make the choice to live as one's authentic self. I can only hope that by telling my story, I can help shape an informative conversation grounded in knowledge and compassion. Our words have power, and when we find the right ones, understanding might not be so difficult. Let that be our goal.
Grace Stevens is a transgender woman who transitioned at the age of 64. She is a father of three, grandparent of two, athlete, advocate and author of No! Maybe! Yes! Living My Truth, an intimate memoir of her personal struggle to transition and live her true life authentically as a woman.