About ten years ago, I was in the lobby of Barnes-Jewish Hospital going to my car from a visit with my spouse, Stephen, who was recovering from an operation. Crossing my path on his way into the hospital for tests was an old friend and former colleague of mine and his wife. We exchanged greetings, brief “catchings up,” and the reasons for our presence there in the lobby. I’ll call this colleague “Roy.” He says to me, “Well, old age isn’t for sissies.” Irrepressible as I am, I stepped back slightly and turned my hand in a gesture of self-display and said, “Oh, yes it is.” And I laughed. He and his wife did, too. Perhaps for each of us, it was a bit of a nervous laugh. I mean, a couple of decades before that, my gay activism had been on display at the campus on which Roy and I then taught. I was known to Roy as a gay activist, a hard-working and competent university professor, and also a man in a long-term same-sex relationshp.
Years have passed, and I have aged and now even have joined an independent living retirement community. I hear that expression, “Old age isn’t for sissies” almost weekly. And while I don’t always make a smartass joke about it, it always takes me aback. I think my hesitation requires reflection and explanation.
Now we all know exactly what this expression means in the context in which it is used. It’s a situation greaser. While every season has its benefits and challenges, the fact is that old age can be a real pain in the ass for many people. Our bodies begin to fail us, because at age 80, we are on a fast track to the Great Recycling Bin. One of the bonding aspects of the senior community is that we’re all challenged by this loss of function. Of course I know that when I hear “Old age ain’t for sissies” from a senior citizen, I am being invited to laugh with them about our relatively sorry situation. And at one level, I am ok with that. Old age isn’t hell, but it’s right next to it, and if we codgers can cajole or comfort each other about our common challenges, so much the better.
Back when Roy was cajoling me about our common waning woes, I was only vaguely aware that I might be a transgendered soul. I had just come out as a gay man in my 30s, lived it up for a while, and then Stephen and I settled down and lived our lives. And then I came out again. I am not exactly the person that Dr. Labarre gendered me to be 79 years ago. I am in solidarity with the female gender. I don’t fully understand it yet, but that’s the way it is. I don’t want to cross-dress. This is way more subtle. I just like the way women and their allies think. I have a real hard time with guy-talk. I can fake it for a while, but sooner or later, I am found out. And see, this is where this “Old age isn’t for sissies.” stuff rakes me the wrong way. People look at me; they see a guy. But sooner or later, they figure out that my guy status is phony. I’m sorry, people, but sports scores bore me. No, I don’t like fishing. No, I don’t want to beat the hell out of my buddy at racket ball.
The fact is, I am a sissie, always have been. This is a guy who loved playing canasta with his mom, her mom, and her mom’s mom, back in 1950. This is a guy whose best and most faithful friends are female. This is a guy who developed a bad case of piano bench butt in his teens. He loved his studies. This guy does counted cross stitch like you wouldn’t believe. So why am I insisting that I am a guy, then? But I am a guy, a guy named “Sue.” Or maybe “Jym.”
So on another level, what happens when you innocently say to someone you’ve identified as an old guy, “Old age ain’t for sissies,” and that guy turns out to be a sissie. Are we just supposed to grin and bear it, “be understanding?” Are we supposed to nervously make a little joke back, as I did to Roy years ago?
It’s not an unrelated fact that today, November 20, is the International Transgendered Day of Remembrance. Its purpose is to memorialize those who have been murdered as a result of transphobia. I have several trangendered friends for whom this is a bitter day, because they have lost friends because of transphobia. And it’s always men who do the killing. It’s a complex phenomenon, and I don’t want to overgeneralize, but it has something to do with the fact that for many men, they go through a ritual of becoming men by proving that they are men and not women. Part of that ritual involves policing their ranks by bullying “sissies” and generally making it very difficult for a person to openly enact ambiguous gender. It also many times is paired with a pattern of using their stronger bodies to control and manipulate women as they desire to. A high proportion of the transgendered women who are murdered are people of color and are relatively poor. The motive often involves hatred for any man who would “masquerade” as a woman. And there are transgendered murders where the murderer first had sex with the victim. And why was that, do you suppose? Perhaps to “prove” that the perpetrator wasn’t gay or bisexual?
A brief look at the numbers shows that there have been around 25 of these murders of transgendered women per year for several years now. That’s about two murders a month. How significant is that? Well, no murder is insignificant, to start with. But consider this metaphor. This hatred/distaste/distrust of ambiguous gender status is like an enormous cultural iceberg. Only a small part of that iceberg is actually visible in our culture. The rest of this transphobia remains submerged. I assert that for all its good intents and purposes, the sentence, “Old age is not for sissies.” is a submerged facet of the cultural iceberg of transphobia, for it rests on a gendered image of weakness. Women are weak, the image says, but that is understandable, but what is really not understandable is men who are weak, i.e., sissies. Before you protest my analysis, read this dictionary definition of the word
1.a person regarded as effeminate or cowardly.
synonyms: coward, weakling, milksop, namby-pamby, baby, wimp;
1.feeble and cowardly.
synonyms: effeminate, effete, unmanly“sissy manners”
There is a moral to this reflection. Suppose you were out in space, but you could hear things that were going on back on Earth. And let’s suppose that every time one elder citizen said “Old age isn’t for sissies.” to another one, there was a little “pop.” Well, this planet would sound like a geiger counter in a uranium mine. Because that sentence is said hundreds or even thousands or tens of thousands of times a day. And more to the point, it’s being said to sissies like myself without the sayer having the slightest awareness that there’s anything phobic about it. It’s meant well.
People, we are the ocean in which this iceberg of transphobia floats. What we say and do, right down to the most subtle of our words and actions, matters. But I don’t mean this in a mean way. The same hate that kills transgendered women keeps sissies like me in the closet. The more “uppity” we become, the more at risk we are of being “taken out” at some level of violence. When I speak up, whether in a humorous way, as with Roy, or a blunt way, as now, I am fighting for my very existence. And in so fighting, I am striking a blow for my trans community.
If you haven’t struggled with your own gender assignment, and especially if you’ve never been close to anyone that has had such a struggle, it’s difficult, I’m sure, to grasp what the ruckus is all about. But this I think is clear. If your picture of gender contains only two boxes, male and female, and if these boxes are mutually exclusive, so that each person must choose one or the other, then you have work to do. This binary picture just does not work for many, many people. And they struggle to find a place to stand in this world. Take my word for it, the struggle to establish a non-binary gender identity is enormous, but for those that can’t be crammed into one box or another, the work is worth it.
Let us join together and shatter this iceberg of transphobia. We are people, too, every one of us.