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After decades of fear, some transgender elders celebrate freedom and progress

ABC

(NEW YORK) — It is hard to imagine 75-year-old Renée Imperato – the tattooed, foul-mouthed New York City trans icon dubbed “Mother” – ever putting on gloves to hide her painted nails out of fear of discrimination.


“You know what happens over the years? You just sort of get tired of that. And now, I’m probably the opposite. I’ll take my gloves off deliberately,” Imperato told ABC News.

For transgender elders like Imperato, today’s world is a stark contrast to the world they once lived in.

Acceptance of the transgender community has grown throughout Imperato’s life, and representation of the community as a whole has risen with it.

However, aging transgender elders are a rare sight – 0.3% of those ages 65 and older identify as transgender compared to 1.4% of those ages 13 to 17, according to one estimate.

Elders say the AIDs epidemic, violence, and fear have contributed to the disparity in population, leaving fewer elders for the younger generation to look up to.

Imperato recalls the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s through memories of the ridicule and violence she and others faced for being a part of the LGBTQ+ community – recollections of broken fingers from fights and echoes of slurs being yelled on the street.

“Just because you get beaten – and I’ve been beaten many times – that doesn’t mean you’ve been defeated,” Imperato said.

Imperato was constantly thinking about her survival in those days: how could she escape or defend herself if someone tried to attack her on the street?

“By the late 80s, you know what I carried in my purse? An ax. Her name was Lucille. I never used it. But I did display it,” said Imperato.

Her family feared for her safety. They’d ask: wasn’t she putting herself at risk, the way she was walking down the street? Why is she presenting herself that way? “You could be killed!” they would say.

“If I present myself as somebody I’m not, they’ve already killed me,” Imperato said.

It was the activism of the older generations that have led the way for the progress seen today, Imperato said. She rattled off names of those she admired and knew: Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Leslie Feinburg, and others who helped teach the community what they know today.

But, Imperato adds, the younger generation’s ongoing fight for equality has, in turn, freed the older trans community.

“When we talk about young people, I feel indebted to them because I think of many older trans people who – they weren’t as out as they are now and it’s because the youth liberated them,” Imperato said.

Meanwhile, some elders are still in the process of finding themselves. Meet Criss Smith, a 63-year-old transgender man, who transitioned just about seven years ago.

He calls himself a “late bloomer,” coming to terms with his identity after years of “hiding.”

Smith was born and raised in Jamaica in a traditional religious household with strict ideas of gender and gender roles.

But he said his grandma recognized early on that it appeared his identity was more aligned with the young boys he hung out with and wouldn’t force him to do things that were traditionally expected of young girls.

Since he was a child, he knew he was different. Growing older, he lived as a cisgender lesbian for many years, but he said he was “miserable” until he came to terms with and had a better understanding of his gender identity.

“Now when I look in the mirror, I see what my grandmother saw,” said Smith. “And the way she treated me then is the way that I wished that everyone treated me throughout my whole life.”

Even when he was working on Wall Street and living comfortably – buying cars, building a home of his own, having whatever material items he wanted – he said he was settling for a life that did not feel like his own.

For Smith, coming out as transgender even at an older age has made him young again.

As an out transgender man, Smith said he sits more comfortably in his chair, feels confident when he looks in the mirror and has naturally cultivated a close-knit chosen family with other LGBTQ+ elders.

“It’s a rebirth, because I almost feel like I’m a teenager most days, because I’ve lived this long life where the mirror did not reflect what I was feeling,” said Smith.

“Sometimes I actually get angry at myself that I didn’t transition earlier,” said Smith.

It’s been disheartening for Smith to watch the growing number of anti-transgender legislation that has been on the rise in recent years. He said the legislation is pushback to the progress that has been made within his lifetime.

“It shows a a pattern politically, where there’s always a group or a segment of population that’s used as a scapegoat,” said Smith.

Still, he doesn’t think the younger generations will stand by as policy continues to turn back the clock on LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S.

“It doesn’t matter how much people try to dehumanize us as a people, as a group, we always come back and say, ‘No, we’re much more than that,'” he said. “I think that’s what’s scaring a lot of people, because they see that the youth are not just laying back and not saying anything.”

For these transgender elders, aging has brought out a youthful viewpoint on life – one filled with friendship, joy and learning.

When Imperato walks into the SAGE LGBTQ elder community center in New York City, the center is filled with a rush of energy.

Imperato is bombarded with hugs, kissed and laughter, as she takes in the calendar of events for the seniors and preparations for dinner service as she chats with old friends.

Imperato – somewhat of a celebrity in the community for her activism, acting and modeling – lives life with a filled with long nights and scandalous adventures not suitable for print.

“I like to think of myself as someone who is old, but ain’t obsolete,” she said.

Smith is part of a trans social group that meets weekly on Zoom or in the SAGE centers. The crew goes out for a night on the town together at least once a month – seeing plays, hosting parties and attending other events together.

“Several times, I will pick up my phone and there’s a message ‘Hey, Chris, just just want to say I love you,'” Smith recalls, laughing.

“There are so many people to meet and have an adventure with. There’s always someone new that’s joining the group.”

Darcy Connors, executive director of the center’s SAGEServe program, said these older adults have and continue to live through challenging circumstances — AIDS, COVID-19, discrimination — and that systemic work needs to be done to give them access to services and care as they grow old.

“It’s so important to give them space and community that provides competent [care], but also the cultural safety of having similar communities, especially for our transgender elders, as they age,” said Connors.

For some trans elders, including Smith’s friend Pearl Love, the camaraderie in old age has been a lifeline.

Pearl, a transgender woman of color, told ABC News she fell into a depression during her transition due to backlash and discrimination she faced day-to-day.

But finding SAGE and the community of LGBTQ+ elders it cultivates made not just transitioning easier, but it also made aging easier, Pearl said. It’s how she met Smith.

“I met those elders over there that are aging and they are crazy! They are in their 70s and then they wear makeup and wear sequins and they’re shaking it and they are rocking it!”

She continued, “I would say SAGE sisters actually saved my life.”

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