The Mobius Strip Of Trans Elders – We’ve Always Got Someone To Learn From

To be trans is to constantly be learning from those around you. I want to talk about how we all become each other’s “elders” in the trans community.

The view from my hometown (Kingston, NY) LGBT center. Photo by Todd Martin.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cyclical nature of transgender community support.

When I came out, I didn’t know a lot of trans folks. I knew plenty of gay folk of all varieties. We played a lot with gender presentation, whether it was for drag shows, theatre, cosplay, or simply having fun with bowties and make-up on a Wednesday night. I felt very at home in my understanding of queerness in relation to my sexuality and to the commonly understood (read: stereotypical) relationships between sexuality and gender presentation…but my knowledge of actual trans people were limited to a rousing one.

Until I started going to my local support group.

I attended a very small group hosted, as they always are, by my local LGBTQ center. Most days there were only a handful of people in attendance. The small community made there felt like a local hand-me-down – a traveling gift between the trans folk in the area. As we quietly found each other we started to come out to one another and, in turn, were subsequently bequeathed the date and times the group met.

The first time I visited the group – I came on the wrong date. I had somehow mixed up the meeting schedule and was devastated when I reached the locked center doors. I peered inside the quiet, empty building and as I did I felt my hands begin to shake with the beginnings of an anxiety attack. My simple mistake felt like a metaphor. I was alone in my feelings and my journey. I would have to plot this course alone – a daunting and harrowing prospect.

I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t mustered up the courage to go back on the right date. The other attendees understood what I was going through and for as many scared newbies like me that attended there were just as many older trans folks who had wisdom to share. These folks had done so much of the navigating and happily handed us a map they’d been plotting out long before I even knew what the word “transgender” meant.

These people became my elders – the wizened folk I came to because I knew they knew what my next step was going to look like. Our individual identities and goals might have varied, but their experience emboldened my own and made my transition possible. It was the doctor they recommended me that became the woman who prescribed me my first vial of testosterone and continued to be my trusted physician until I left the state. It was their therapist recommendation that provided me with a trans therapist who wrote me my coveted “letter” that would become the key that unlocked the rest of my medical journey.  When I began my HRT (hormone replacement therapy), I asked them question after question and without hesitation, they answered each one, complete with advise that I would then start passing down to those who transitioned after me.

The help they afforded me was life-saving. Sometimes “life-saving” meant simply lending an ear as I parsed through my own challenges or emotions – and trusting them with my vulnerability because they shared their own similar stories. I trusted them to steer me in the directions that would be best for me. My trans elders made the most horrifying and exciting time in my life manageable. I had people to both look up to and fall back on. I had experts that I could learn from and trust who I could also have a coffee with at the diner after the official meeting was over. I had people that validated my existence and educated me, tutored me, loved me.

Myself at drag charity ball with an anti-hate performance art piece after The Pulse Orlando shooting. Photo by Tracey Buzzanco.

It was because of their communal love and efforts in “raising” not only me but every other scared trans kid that found themselves in that little library that I felt like I had to become this for others. When I became public with my transition I was determined to transform myself into the same fount of love and wisdom – to become an “elder” myself.  I often – half a decade later – find myself spurting the same advice and words of wisdom I first heard from my elders in that group (“You’re going to go through the 3 H’s – Hungry, Horny, and Hairy”), coupling it with helpful tips I’ve learned along the way (take biotin to keep your hair healthy, always drink plenty of water the day before and the day of your shot so the needle hurts less). I worked hard to be seen and let myself become a sounding board for my community as I blossomed into somebody comfortable enough to do so. I became the first trans person to medical transition some people knew and spoke honestly and openly about the fact that yes, I experienced and do experience transphobia, but that I am surviving and thriving regardless. I tried to grow up and become the trans elder I had so desperately needed when I was young – a compulsion I couldn’t shake the minute I started to feel the feet of my new identity hit the ground – as a continued honoring to those who paved the way before me.

Something miraculous has happened recently.

As the years go by – people who used to laud me for being so open and strong have begun budding into strong, transgender folk and deeply informative advocates themselves.

I sit back and watch as people I’ve known my whole life come out publicly as trans and share information I had never known about services now available to trans folk in the area I’ve lived in my entire life. People I’ve known since they were 16 and are now on their way to becoming college graduates are taking their hormones in ways that were not available when I was younger and I marvel. Most importantly – while I am still processing so many of the ways in which I hold myself back or feel discomfort, self-loathing, or fear because I am trans I see this next generation of trans people falling in love with themselves all over again and for the first time. This new generation of trans folk does not necessarily translate to “those who are younger than me”. There are people I know who are coming out who are years older than me as well as high school-age children. Time works a little different for us trans folk, it feels like – so it’s important to understand that my concept of what makes up a “generation” or an “elder” reflects this too.

We are not a straight line of progress – we are constantly becoming our own elders in the most radical act of communal love and preservation I’ve ever had the privilege to bear witness too. 

The fact that I am agog at the concepts and love that those who are starting their journey after me are speaking into existence is important for two specific reasons:

1) In a wistful way, watching this new generation of trans folk find themselves re-ignites that fire of love and truth in me. For a while, after a particularly defeating and tiring string of poorly trained and, in some cases, blatantly abusive, medical professionals – I’ve felt very downtrodden and insecure. I’ve let myself shrink and feel consumed by dysphoria. I’ve admittedly felt like to be trans is to lead a lesser life – something I would never admit publically because of all the work I’ve done to convince my community otherwise. Watching the joy in relearning how to love yourself and feel truth and comfort for the first time is a heart swelling reminder of how amazing it is to be trans. It’s important to have a community to remind you of all the good things when you’ve reached a dark stasis.

2) So much has changed and continues to change. Issues that I was facing when I first came out have mutated and become more nuanced. While some new laws have been passed to protect us other laws are being proposed to ban us. Name change and gender marker systems have updated. Our wider understanding of gender has expanded. I would be remiss to think that to be trans is to know everything because every day I learn about some new system we have created to help each other out. The Trans Lifeline fully funded and gave me the documents to help me through the process of changing my name legally – something I have been putting off doing for 5 years because I was afraid of the legal system and didn’t have the funds. I wouldn’t know about this life-saving project if it weren’t for these newly minted trans elders who, only a couple years ago, were asking my advice on which doctors to go to. I could go on for hours – I am constantly being taught by those who started transitioning after me.

Since I’ve moved to a new state, I go to a new support group now. I can’t explain how different the dynamic is having entered this new space as someone closer to 30 than 20, who has had many years and experiences as a trans person to share. I feel humbled as folks decades older than me thank me after session for sharing my experiences while, using the same air, I thank folks a decade younger for me for helping me unlock a new part of myself.

I think it is necessary for there to be a constantly shifting understanding of who is looking up to who in the trans community. In a world that is always coming up with new laws and boundaries to hold us down, we must consistently re-learn how to jump those fences and unite.  The idea of a “generation” is not a linear concept to us, as we all grow into our skin at different times in our lives and in slightly different ways.

Could I spend time being bitter that some of the folk in the generation after mine don’t have to go through some of the awful, dismissive, and hurtful trials I had to in order to obtain necessary supplies like hormones? I guess. Jealousy is normal, sure – but like a parent paving the way for their child to succeed – pride is a more robust use of energy. The knowledge that knowledge is being spread to keep us safer, healthier, and more protected and frankly, treated like god damn human beings who have a right to dignity and respect, is a new, raw kind of power I’ve never been able to feel before. I can’t help but wonder if those who taught me ever thought these same things as I rushed my exciting new understandings to them.

It is so wonderful to be both the teacher and the student – the burden and the bearer. It is so wonderful that we constantly reinvigorate and relearn how to love ourselves and defy the lies and inaccuracies we are constantly being refed.

To be trans is to exist in a Mobius strip of communal care.


Photo by Tracey Buzzanco. Featuring myself and drag queen Katarina Mirage.

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