Transition Later in Life: Ethical Questions

Posted by – February 4, 2013

Wow, the NYT’s Ethicist column is not the place I’d expect to see this question raised, but I’m glad it has been, and his answer isn’t horrible for a newbie to trans lives. I say that because the letter writer did not mention being suicidal, and in fact does seem to have a lot of other, recognized causes for happiness in his life.

(For the record, there are trans women who choose not to transition because of previous commitments who manage to live and even thrive. )

That said, not every decision should or can be made based on the ethics of a situation, in my opinion – although they should always strongly inform major life choices.

This bit in particular rang out to me:

“Now, I realize what you’re referring to is a deeper, existential version of happiness that all people crave (and which goes far beyond having a good relationship or a good job). There are, however, many people who never experience that level of happiness, regardless of how they view their sexual identities. Even if you become someone else, you may never find it. So what we’re really weighing are the ethics of taking an irreversible gamble that will potentially improve your own interior life while significantly reinventing the lives of those around you.”

“Reinventing” seems a light way to put what can happen to a family as a result of transition.

And for some trans people, not transitioning is taking an irreversible gamble as well exactly because not transitioning can lead to suicidal depression.

That said, I do think any trans person who is married with children has an ethical responsibility to make sure they care for the people whose lives will be hurt the most in a myriad of ways: financial, emotional, etc.

(There are already 57 comments, but I haven’t made my way through them yet. I’m still a little post traumatic about reading comments section in response to any articles published anywhere about trans lives, and even though many people tell me the general tone of them has gotten a lot less hateful in the past few years, I’m really always a little worried that I will have to wade through 8 tons of transphobic bullshit.)

6 Comments on Transition Later in Life: Ethical Questions

  1. laura michelle says:

    Thank you. Yes many manage to not transition, or transition partially for as much as their spouse and family can handle (my case). And many of them and me live our lives and sometimes even thrive.
    I like to tell people that my gender identity is 10% of me. It is a very important 10% for some aspects of my life, it informs and influences a lot more of my life, and is completely irrelevant for huge chunks of my life. I try to thrive in all parts of my life. Neither Transitioning nor not transitioning guarantees happiness, and neither affect even a majority of the facets of a life.
    For me, the negotiating about my gender identity and expression are informed by my realization that in addition to my own personal search for happiness and identity that my transitioning also changes my relationships with my spouse of 27 years and changes her public and private expression of her gender.

  2. Lizzy says:

    Interestingly I have run past the hypothetical older transsexual mentioned in this article as I am retired from work, my children are grown and married, and I DID seriously attempt suicide twice at an older age. Those suicide attempt events led me to decide to fully transition. I also had a wonderful profession which provided challenges and pleasures of accomplishment, while under the most oppressive conditions of my life, my gender dysphoria.

    Ethics? I was never in control of my life to the point where I could consider the ethics of what my decisions might make. Being very spiritual at that time, and a hopeless romantic, I based the actions of my life choices on religion and love, I suppose, hoping for “divine intervention” and the return of “unconditional love” when problems arose. Both of these failed me terribly.

    It wasn’t until I discovered I must stop trying to please others (and what I thought of as GOD) and had to instead take care of myself. So at age 61 I became selfish and decided to become what I really am, and transition. That decision was based on the need to continue my life, and if I had not done so, I would never have survived to age 65.

    But the question as to ethics as an older transsexual? Would I have transitioned at, say, age 34 when I had a wife and three young children? I mean if I had realized it was possible and if I had the resources? Yes I would have. I would not have been capable of NOT transitioning. For the transsexual it seems, there is almost no room for ethical considerations, sad to say.

  3. trisha in florida says:

    I’m likewise an older transsexual (55), now finally dealing head-on with a lifelong crisis that has been a source of steadily intensifying grief and anguish and self-loathing from the time i “learned” from my parents as a small boy that “God does not make mistakes, and he made you a boy, and boys wear boy clothes and act like boys”. I’ve spent most of my life since working to convince myself that if I only prayed harder, tried harder I could fix this, be the man “God wanted me to be” – “get my head on straight”.

    It was only a couple of years ago, as a result of several pretty ugly events one after another, that I finally realized the desperate place I had come to and gave myself permission to look for resources and read (and read and read and read) and to get therapy. It was only then that I finally began to understand that this IS who I am and will always be, and begin to realize that I will never experience even the chance for real fulfillment in who I AM until i ACCEPT, and make peace with and to accommodate for, who I AM.

    It also become increasingly bittersweet as I watched those I loved and others around me find achieve their dreams and find happiness – while I toiled on to hide and vilify and vanquish a core part of the essence of who I am. Of course I was truly happy for them, but increasingly despairing that I had been blessed with so many gifts of my own – loving family, success in my career and various avocations including music – but had never found inner peace as I continued to yearn for the me I didn’t believe I could have, the me I was convinced it was sinful to even desire.

    And here I am now – my four children grown, my wife with a healthy income and greater job stability than I’ll likely ever experience again. On paper, I’m in a place where ethics should allow me to attend to my own needs. But it just isn’t that easy. I love my wife and family with all my heart and soul and don’t even want to even imagine life without them as an integral and active part of it. Sadly, even now, my relationship with each may already be mortally wounded regardless of what I do from here. And still, whether to proceed with transition is a horribly torturous decision. Just a flat out horrible tragedy.

    At what point is it appropriate to say, “I’ve lived the life everyone else expected of me for 50 years and the burden of going on this way – of living a lie, a non-authentic life, is destroying me – I need this for me”. It’s difficult from my loved ones to see my suffering this way for so long as “noble” or even a sacrifice. I don’t really get any credit for time served. None of my loved ones are giving me this space, and I fear I won’t be able to take it without their approval.

    Don’t know where all of this will end up, but there is an ever present ache in my heart that regardless of the direction I take from here, there will be great pain for all involved. I hope and pray that a day awaits where we might find a workable solution that preserves a healthy dose of love and acceptance all around, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Where I sit right now, “ethics” is somehow too removed and “clinical” a consideration for me – I’m too consumed in the raw emotion and pain of it all…

  4. urmila says:

    I live a life of a housewife and wife works and is the bread winner since i dont work outside. I dress up completely in my gem dress when kids are not at home.I have kept it secret to avoid embarassement to my loved ones and not thinking of transitionong. I gont feel frustrated and am happy with the way it is going

  5. divadarya says:

    It’s a fact that trans people are easy targets for violence and hatred, especially where they, as well as their perpetrators, lack resources, education and opportunity; these are case where we truly are victims of ignorance, prejudice and circumstance.
    What troubles me is that the default position we seem to begin from in any dialogue or debate is “victim”; we always seem to characterize ourselves as the injured party, no matter what.

    We swim in a sea of patriarchy that always sees that which is more “masculine” as superior to anything that is “feminine”, and I cannot minimize the challenge that it is to change genders, especially from male to female. That said, being trans is not, and of itself, any excuse to abandon our responsibilities to others, especially those who have counted on us for their entire lives.

    There’s a recurring theme I hear when trans people try to defend the transitioning spouse from the cries of protest from wives and children; “What should I have done? Continued to suffer, or perhaps kill myself?” I would assert that’s more than a little overdramatic. Let’s compare two scenarios. First, A boy from east L.A. who is disowned by his parents and then has to find work and begin living full-time as a woman; if he doesn’t “pass” he gets beaten up or killed. Second, let’s talk about a successful executive transitioning at fifty who cleans out the IRA to pay for facial surgery with Dr. Osterhout, new breasts and a vagina from Dr. Alter, and a new wardrobe from Nordstrom.

    No one has a monopoly on emotional pain, but there’s obvious asymmetry at work. It’s hard to swallow; “I was in deep emotional pain, so I spent $100,000 on myself” Imagine how the culture would view a woman or ex-wife making that same statement. I also imagine there are women and men who dashed dreams, suppressed sexualities and kept their mouths shut to further the lives and career of successful, self-centered spouses. I’m also imagining more would be women.

    I’m not saying “Don’t do it”, when it comes to that moment of commitment; sometimes the selfish thing is the right thing on many levels. What I’m saying is this: own your actions, be responsible for them, and move on. Those of us who have made peace with less than ideal choices really don’t need to hear how much pain you are in your new body living your great fucking life.

    I would transition tomorrow if certain conditions existed; not a doubt in my mind. I’ve decided, for this moment, that now is not the time, and the rewards are not worth the risk; respect my choice, I respect yours.

    Jackie Robinson took shit. The first women executives took and continue to take, shit. I don’t hear Hilary Clinton sobbing that no one understands her. We can’t become caricatures of women that originated in our male-socialized minds.

    Women do the right thing every day with fewer tools and cultural permission than males; we should live up to being like the women around us.

  6. helenboyd says:

    WOW, Darya. that was amazing.

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