My experience during the Trans Dark Ages

This question was going unanswered on Quora:

What was it like to be transgender in the 1980s?

Did you have a vocabulary and concepts for your identity and who you were as trans? Who did you identify with? Who were your role models? How did the culture of the 1980s make your life easier or more difficult? What other aspects of the 1980s shaped your identity as trans? How do you think your experience then differed from the experience of people now who have greater internet access to support and visibility in the media?

I am intrigued that this question has been sitting here for 2–1/2 years, unanswered by any of my (1980s) trans generation…I conclude that a) there are very few of us; and/or b) we are all woodworked. Probably both…

I think of the 1980s as the latter part of the Trans Dark Ages. Perhaps someday we’ll see the present time as the Middle Ages leading to the Enlightenment. I hope so.

I cannot speak to how it was for everyone everywhere, but I can say how it was for me, as a trans woman, where I was, and what I saw happening around me. With the caveat that I was, in many ways, the exception to the rule, and I’ll summarise and contrast that at the end.

But first, here’s my story:

I began my transition in 1988 and ‘completed’ just over twelve months later, in 1989, at age 32. If this seems quick, it was: it had to be. And this kind of haste was usual in the women I knew.

I was in a larger, relatively liberal city in a western country. Nevertheless, it was bloody dangerous to be trans (and yes, it often still is). I was very fortunate, in that I achieved something like 90% passing privilege within 6 months. I was also very careful. Nonetheless, I was assaulted more than once during the early months, and escaped what could have been severe beatings.

The greatest hardship by far, then vs now, was the complete lack of information. I know for certain that I’d have transitioned 10 or 15 years earlier had basic information been available (as it is now). As it was, by the most unlikely chance I came across some printed material about gender dysphoria and treatment for same. Had that bizarre fluke not happened it could easily have been another decade or more before I learnt that transition was possible. On the unlikely chance that I survived that long (I was in bad shape, gender-wise).

Once I learnt that transition was possible, it was very, very difficult to locate caregivers and other trans people. I ended up by telephoning across several countries, tracking down people-who-knew-people, until I was finally put into contact with the tiny trans community in my city, and through them got access to an appropriate therapist and endocrinologist and, ultimately, a surgeon. It was all semi-underground.

You ask about role models — I was unaware of any role models. Prior to the above I’d never met a trans person that I knew of. Media showed ghastly caricatures which only served to discourage. There were Jorgensen and Richards, but I knew nothing about them and didn’t connect them to myself. No, there were no role models: I came out of a vacuum.

Trans people — at least those who were actively transitioning — were very rare. I was in a city of well over a million residents and in my transition year I personally met maybe a dozen trans women and one trans man; and at least half of them had come from elsewhere for access to treatment. Most of the transitioning women I saw were white and middle class; I believe medical transition of the kind we were engaged in was inaccessible to anyone without good means, considerable desperation, and the information and ability to hunt down access.

I think our age demographics were different, then to now; at least where I was located. At 32 I was one of the youngest women in our cohort — there were two or three other women near my age, and I remember only one woman who was in her 20s — the rest were older. I ascribe this, again, to the scarcity of information and the degree of desperation and financial resources required to transition.

And what about vocabulary? At best we were called ‘transsexuals’; if we were heterosexual women we were classified as ‘homosexual male transsexuals’. ‘Transgender’, ‘trans’, ‘cis’, were not terms in use. Nonbinary, genderfluid, &c weren’t known concepts. Even ‘gender identity’ wasn’t really a thing yet. ‘Gender dysphoria’ was the least stigmatising term we could hold onto. Back then, there were only ‘real’ women and men…and then there was us.

I don’t think any of us ‘identified as trans’. We saw ourselves as women in deep trouble, working under the temporary label ‘transsexual’. Once we’d had surgery (and that was the goal) we considered ourselves ‘former transsexuals’; we disappeared into cis society and left ‘trans’ behind forever. The notion of retaining ‘trans’ as part of who we were would have shocked us. I still have trouble getting my head around this concept — I’ve lived decades thinking of myself as no different to any cis woman, and the idea of moving away from that, after having struggled to get there, feels strange.

There was certainly no such thing as ‘being out’ as trans in the 1980s. If you didn’t pass you were in trouble; if you did, you were stealth. We all started out in trouble and got out of it as fast as possible. And as for those who couldn’t achieve passing privilege, I’m sorry to say I don’t know what became of them; women appeared, women disappeared, and I’ve no idea what became of any of them. That was just how it was. In 1989, just one year after starting hormones, I had surgery, got my documents, and then I too disappeared. That was just how it was.

There was a small, hard to locate, rather secretive support group that met weekly, through which I found access to caregivers. We met in the evening. Women came separately, in ones and twos, so as to be inconspicuous. Afterward, departures were staggered, with women leaving discreetly in pairs, to reduce visibility and the chances of assault. The meeting location had to be changed at one point after we were ‘discovered’ and began getting unwanted attention.

Guidance for how to deal with caregivers/gatekeepers was circulated amongst trans women at these meetings. Experiences with each doctor and therapist were shared and compared. It was understood that stereotypical hetero-, cis-normative expectations were to be met. New women were advised to be well dressed and made-up when going to appointments. A sample questionnaire with the ‘correct’ answers filled-in was passed round.

As to the availability of caregivers, then vs now, here is one measure: In the city I was in there were, at the time, three psychotherapists who offered gender transition as part of their practice. I’ve just now done an online search, and in that same city more than 200 therapists list gender transition among their services. This search took me all of a couple of minutes, compared with the weeks of determined detective work I did in 1988. The problem now would be narrowing down the choice of caregiver; the problem then was finding one at all.

Medical transition was mostly not covered by public health / medical plans (and this hasn’t changed in many places). If you (and your willing doctor) were clever, you might be able to get coverage for doctors’ appointments and hormones, maybe psychotherapy, but that still left all the rest to pay for, from hair removal to surgeries.

And you had to have ‘the surgery’ to get documents changed — that was absolute — and you needed the documents in order to have any kind of a life. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t plan on having surgery as soon as possible. I did know women who didn’t have the money, god help them.

Money was a big deal — the big deal. Once again, I was fortunate; I had a well-paying job at a mid-sized company (~4000 employees), where I was in a key position. Transitioning in public was not something that happened in the 1980s, but we did know of one case of a trans woman who had managed to transition at work in another company, in a different city. I couldn’t bear to delay my transition (my dysphoria was very severe), and I needed the money — I decided to risk a public transition. For all I know, I may have been the second ever ‘out’ transition in my country.

Upper management tried very hard to fire me, and would’ve succeeded easily had it not been that, due to my key position at a critical time in a critical project, the risk to the company was too great — I got lucky again. (You should’ve seen them going through fits trying to figure out where I should pee — there was actually a top level meeting with the CEO &c to discuss my bodily functions.)

In the end, the pressure of being ‘out’ as trans, even if only at work, was just too great. The scrutiny and hate were intense, and there would never be any future for me, not to mention that I would be up for dismissal just as soon as my utility became noncritical. I completed my transition, saw the project to completion, and left the company. I got a new job in a different city, sold my house, severed all my connections, moved, and went deep stealth, where I’ve remained. That was just how it was.

There is one other consequence of ‘how it was’: Living in stealth thereafter, I had no knowledge of the trans world and no awareness of how things were changing. I recently reencountered the trans community, once again by chance. In a very real sense, I arrived here, in 2016, directly from 1990. I wonder how many more of us remain isolated. This, I suspect, is why no one else from my trans generation has answered this question.

So I had many lucky breaks, which allowed me to transition with relative ease during the 1980s, when so few could. In summary, here are the things which set me apart from those who could not transition, and from those who did transition, but with greater hardship:

  1. Information — I happened onto an obscure booklet on gender dysphoria by the purest chance (and that is a story in itself). The other women I knew had similar miracles. The vast majority of trans people got no such break, and either succumbed to their dysphoria or waited years and decades before having their chance at life.
  2. Money — I had a ‘safe’, well-paying job in which I could transition — something essentially no one else had at the time. Women I knew transitioned as far as they could in secret, putting on the agonising man-suits to go to work, and sometimes failing and getting fired. Others saved and saved, delaying their transitions until they could afford to go undercover to transition. Still others scraped by doing menial jobs and sometimes, if they were pretty enough, sex work.

    I also had a house that I could (and did) mortgage to help cover transition costs. I estimate that my transition cost the equivalent of 60.000 € in today’s money, and I did pretty much the minimum.
  3. Privilege — Most actively-transitioning people were white, able-bodied, relatively educated, and middle class (or at least we started out middle class; for many women that changed, sometimes unexpectedly and catastrophically), in our peak-earnings years (age 30–50), often with money saved. The women who were near the lower bound of this class had a very hard time.
  4. Passing privilege — ‘Success’ was defined by ‘passing’, as were safety and one’s life options. Along with surgery, passing was a must — an inability to pass was viewed as a ‘failed transition’, leaving one without acceptable options — a brutal fate that was a great source of fear for all of us.
  5. Cisnormativity, beauty and youth — Cisnormativity was expected, and either came naturally or had to be faked; luckily for me, it did come naturally. Then, as now, hormonal transition was quicker and ‘more complete’ if one was young, and in my case, 32 was young enough. And, then as now, society gives the beautiful more access and kinder treatment than others. These three factors gave me a huge advantage unavailable to many, perhaps most.
  6. Luck — In every regard, at every step of the way, I was unbelievably lucky — where, during the 1980s and earlier, so very few were. In effect, I won the transgender lottery.

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Journalist & essayist. Reporting from Cairo.

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