My spouse relayed to me a story that she heard from a 90-year-old acquaintance. The elderly woman, who I will call Kate, doesn’t look a day over 70 despite having retired from a long career in science nearly 25 years ago. She was eager to share a most unusual experience.
Kate has lived in the same house, with the same neighbors for decades. She had a casual, “friendly neighbor” relationship with a couple who lived directly adjacent to her, but when the wife died a couple of years ago, she lost touch with the husband.
Over time, she began to realize that she hadn’t seen the husband at all, and she began to seek him out. More than a year had passed when one day she saw him as they were pulling into their respective driveways simultaneously. She took the opportunity to get caught up. What she heard was entirely unexpected.
After some small talk, and routine answers to the questions about what he had been up to since his wife died, her neighbor drew a deep breath and explained to her why he had disappeared when his wife died. He told her that he was transgender, but never transitioned because his wife objected. She explicitly had told him, “Just wait until I’m dead and then you can do what you need to do.”
He told Kate that he had done exactly that, and now that his wife had died, despite his grieving, he had decided to transition, and to keep a low profile in the neighborhood while doing so. Kate, despite being taken by surprise, didn’t bat an eyelash. She offered congratulations and a vow to be supportive in whatever way that she could.
After finishing the story, my wife paused and then fixed her gaze on me. “I’m OK with that,” she said. “Just wait until I’m dead and then you can do what you need to do.”
I don’t know what she saw in the look on my face at that moment, and I don’t know what I had put there, but she quickly added, “Or not. Maybe you don’t have to wait. I don’t know.”
That she was willing to raise the subject is monumental enough. She has regular contact with several people who have transitioned, and is an advocate for LGBT rights as part of her professional life, but we tend to lapse into complete silence between us whenever exposed to transgender issues in the media or in our everyday lives. We recently watched a profile of a college-age transman on 60 Minutes and yet acknowledged nothing between us about our own personal closeness to the issue.
To her comment, I protested that the thought of her dying before me was a horrible thought. I would be too sad to do much of anything if that were to happen. Transition would probably be the last thing on my mind if she were to die young, and not practical if she were to die late. And anyway, I said, it’s far more likely that I will go first. (She is five years my junior.)
But her story started a short conversation between us on the subject of my gender identity. It was positive and casual. Nothing was resolved, but some built-up tension was released.
A couple of years ago we had some only very difficult conversations on the subject. She told me then that she was suffering great distress — to the point of physical nausea — at the thought of me transitioning. I resolved then never to raise the subject again, out of compassion for her. And she, I think, resolved to do the same, for the same reason. A twist on Gift of the Magi, I suppose.
But now I think time may have mellowed her reaction. Now we might have more meaningful conversations.
I think I see a light.