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Transitioning for older adults can be more isolating. A social group can change that

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For some older adults in the U.S., coming out publicly as trans seems impossible. They are nearly three times less likely to come out than adults between 18 and 34. But for the older adults who find each other, transitioning can feel within reach. NPR's Margaret Cirino reports.

MARGARET CIRINO, BYLINE: Bernie Wagenblast first began exploring her gender about six years ago, when she joined a New Jersey support group called Proudly Me. It's meant for trans people of all ages. At the time, she was in her late 50s, working as a radio announcer and using what she calls her guy voice. And in that first Proudly Me meeting, she just remembers repeating...

BERNIE WAGENBLAST: I have no plans to transition, but it's nice to be able to talk with other people.

CIRINO: For a while, that was true. She just hoped that attending the meetings would be enough. But then other people joined after her.

WAGENBLAST: And I would watch them move further in their transition, and I would feel intense jealousy that they're able to do this, and I can't.

CIRINO: At the time, Wagenblast's biggest fear with fully, publicly coming out was losing her life partner. It's a big fear for a lot of older trans people who aren't out. There was this one moment, though - the night of the Proudly Me annual award ceremony.

WAGENBLAST: In years past, I'd always gone in a jacket and tie, but I didn't really feel comfortable doing that this time, at least not fully.

CIRINO: So Wagenblast reached out to her older trans mentor, and she remembers her mentor telling her...

WAGENBLAST: I've got a dress for you, and I'll do your makeup, and we'll get you set up, and you'll go to this event as your true self.

CIRINO: Mentor Nicole Brownstein has done a lot of these makeovers on people who've come to her in the exact same position. She's helped all of them.

NICOLE BROWNSTEIN: In that moment, when they look in the mirror, I see the same thing that I saw myself all those years ago - to finally be able to see yourself as you've always envisioned yourself.

CIRINO: That night, Wagenblast decided she could and would socially transition. In the process, her greatest fear came true. Her marriage of 42 years came to an end.

WAGENBLAST: So this person who was and is my best friend is no longer part of my daily life, so that's terribly difficult. But on the positive side, friendships have become far more important in my life.

CIRINO: Friendships like the one she has with Brownstein, who's 77. They have a whole friend group of trans women now that will regularly get together.

BROWNSTEIN: Go out for dinner and drinks and just - group of girls going out to spend a nice evening together.

CIRINO: So while the Proudly Me support group does have members of all ages, many love it specifically because of Wagenblast and Brownstein and the others who are navigating this later in life. When Patrick Buenaventura went to their first meeting, they lamented starting their transition at 53 until Buenaventura heard that Brownstein had begun transitioning in her 60s.

PATRICK BUENAVENTURA: And then other people pointed out how old they were, and I was like, oh, you know, it's OK, you know? We all have our own journeys, and we have our own timelines. And this just happens to be mine, and I'm right on time. When I was supposed to transition is now.

CIRINO: On the flip side, Proudly Me helps younger members in an unexpected way. Buenaventura remembers one college-aged person who came up to them and said....

BUENAVENTURA: It was nice to see older trans folks because they couldn't imagine their life when they were older.

CIRINO: It's been about a year since Wagenblast socially transitioned, and she says that she's still reveling in her new life.

WAGENBLAST: To finally be living it, for the first 4 or 5 months, it was, like, pinch me. I - I'm afraid that this is a dream and that I'm going to wake up from this.

CIRINO: Bernie Wagenblast is 67 now. Sometimes, she thinks about what it would have been like to come out earlier - to be a teenage girl or a woman in her 20s. But mostly, she's just glad to be out now. Margaret Cirino, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "FATHER BIRD, MOTHER BIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Margaret Cirino
Margaret Cirino (she/her) is a production assistant at Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. Her job involves pitching, producing and forcing her virtual and in-person co-workers to play board games with her. She has a soft spot for reporting on cute critters and outer space (not at the same time, of course).
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