Respect Your Elders is a monthly column in which Lou Barrett sits down with an LGBTQ+ elder in their community and gets to know them over a cup of tea.
I first met Barbara, age 66, at a poetry reading in Akron. That night, she told the audience that she was so grateful to have found a sense of community there since she and her wife have often struggled with finding community. While I assumed this was because they were a trans lesbian couple — Barbara is trans and her wife is cis — I would soon learn that there was so much more to her story. Eager to find out more, we arranged a meeting.
I got to her beautiful home on a Sunday. It seemed like the home of a couple that has been together for 38 years; it was well-decorated and littered with photos of the two of them and their friends. Barbara and her wife, Marilyn, made me some peppermint tea. Marilyn handed Barbara a mug. She placed it under the Keurig, and then Marilyn added the tea bag. They moved together effortlessly, and had perfected their system.Then Marilyn left us alone to chat on the couch in their living room.
Barbara came out as a trans woman at the age of 63 through an article in the Akron Beacon Journal. She started cross-dressing in her teens, but never thought of it as related to her identity until she started seeing a therapist in her ’60s. For her, cross-dressing started out as a sexual thing. Once it stopped feeling overtly sexual to cross-dress, she realized how fundamental to her identity it really was.
She later met another cross-dresser on FetLife and attended an event at a “seedy dive bar” in Warren called Girl’s Night Out. A week later, Barbara and her wife got brunch with the cross-dresser she’d befriended and her wife, and they started attending Girl’s Night Out events and similar events together.
I addressed how so many relationships don’t survive transitions, and that it seemed to be such a testament to their connection and marriage that they were still so close. “Do you think bringing her in right away and having her be a part of your transition, and going to Girl’s Night Out helped?”
“It was a process,” Barbara admitted. They made a YouTube video to share their story. Barbara said it was difficult in the beginning, when she was not living as a woman full-time and was sometimes wearing men’s clothes, sometimes women’s clothes. However, the experience brought them closer to each other and they ultimately remarried as wives. Both Barbara and Marilyn now identify as lesbians.
Barbara said she’s found community in the Akron poetry scene more than anywhere else.
We continued talking about her relationship with Marilyn. She said they had to figure out, “how to relate to each other sexually.”
She said they’ve been reading a book called How to Fuck a Trans Woman. I asked if it was “fetishy,” because I didn’t realize immediately that it was written by a trans woman. She was talking about Fucking Trans Women by Mira Bellwether
“It’s not fetishy, but wouldn’t bother us at all because we spent some time in the BDSM community too.”
“Yeah I like wanna talk about that,” I laughed. She’d alluded to this earlier, and I really wanted to dig in.
We both agreed that people who are really sexual think about sex from the time they’re kids. We also both agreed that glass dildos are pieces of art. Barbara and I proceeded to have an in-depth conversation about these topics that I’m going to keep to myself out of respect for Barbara and her wife’s privacy. I just wanted to give a little tease.
Barbara got me another tea and we continued chatting.
From the talks I’ve had with older LGBTQ+ people, there seems to be controversy around people waiting until they’re older to come out.
While coming out at 63 may look different from coming out at 15 like I did, it doesn’t need to be seen as lesser than. We discussed how Barbara’s work as an attorney was so important to her, and that coming out publicly could have jeopardized her career. Her decision to have her career be what she wanted it to be makes perfect sense. We can only hope that over time people won’t feel a need to choose between having a meaningful career and living authentically.
To close, I asked Barbara what advice she had for younger trans women.
“I have a little bit of concern about these young people saying they’re trans at an early age. At the same time, I would say if you really feel that and feel that’s authentically who you are then go for it. Transitioning later in life like I did… there’s a lot of regrets. I think, ‘Could I have been as happy, and having the fun and joy in my life that I have now back then?’ Just be sure, and then move forward in a way that allows you to be yourself and allows you to live authentically. Don’t hold back. Be who you are. And don’t be afraid to embrace who you are and say who you are. It took me a long long time to learn that lesson, so don’t make the mistake that I made.” She laughed.
I left her house with a smile and a book about the basics on BDSM ethics. It was amazing getting to know her, and to discover the many ways we’re similar. We left each other agreeing that the conversation was “fucking incredible.”
I have been following this column series since the beginning because, as a transwoman in her 40’s, I was hoping to see this as a bridge between the younger and older generations of LGBT people and after this article I have to say that I’m truly disappointed. Initially I was hoping this might have some conversation between the younger writer and the older interviewees where they educate EACH OTHER but no such luck. I was cautiously hopeful about this entry but let down more than previous ones, as it hits closer to home, and reads as a loose autobiography rather than the learning tool I feel like the writer intends for it to be.
With all due respect to Barbara I feel like the question of what advice she has for younger trans women is misguided. She has a very unique life experience that I would have loved to see expounded on further in writing but as an elder of the trans community? I don’t know if she has the qualifications to be giving out advice to younger trans people, some of which might have been out for longer than her.
After she said “I have a little bit of concern about these young people saying they’re trans at an early age” this would have been a great moment for the writer to talk about the fluidity of gender and how it isn’t set in stone, especially as an non binary individual themself. I don’t know, I suppose even something as simple as this could have gone a long way for us continuing to educate each other.
Initially I was mad after reading this article but in the time that it took to write this… I just feel hurt because this feels this writer doesn’t know how to write about trans women. At least that is what it feels like from my perspective from the specific things they chose to highlight and which things they only mentioned in passing that I feel are more important to our experience.
I know what you mean! It would be great if these were written as proper interviews/actual conversations, rather than leaving the reader feeling like we only got a superficial summary of the conversation.
E.g.: “We discussed how Barbara’s work as an attorney was so important to her, and that coming out publicly could have jeopardized her career.” — it would be good to hear in more detail what Barbara said about this, rather than just having it summarised like this.
I love the concept for this series, and I continually find myself wanting more depth from it. It’s very frustrating to find out that an interviewer and their subject discussed a topic of interest to many AS readers and then be told we don’t get to hear that conversation. I understand the interviewee’s desire for privacy, but it cheats the reader to “tease” an entire facet of an interview and then pull it away from us.
I want to be moved or changed or left with a sense of someone else’s experience when I read these pieces, but the lack of detail in the subjects’ stories makes it difficult — as does the way the interviewer/interviewee discussion is glossed over with descriptions of WHAT was discussed, rather than a recounting of the conversation itself.
I understand how difficult it can be to build a story out of a conversation, but I hope to see more of that in future pieces. Like I said, I love the concept of this series and look forward to learning more about the queer elder experience every time I see one of these posts appear on the homepage.