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Transitioning later in life can feel isolating. One social group wants to change that

(From left to right) Portrait of Nicole Brownstein, Bernie Wagenblast, and Patrick Buenaventura at Wagenblast's home in Cranford, NJ, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.
Gabby Jones for NPR
(From left to right) Portrait of Nicole Brownstein, Bernie Wagenblast, and Patrick Buenaventura at Wagenblast's home in Cranford, NJ, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.

When Bernie Wagenblast went to her first PROUDLY Me! meeting, she had no plans to transition.

She was in her late 50s, working as a radio announcer and using what she calls her "guy voice." Then, she found the New Jersey-based support group for trans and nonbinary people of all ages. "I started it with the hope that it would be enough," says Wagenblast, "and I wouldn't have to go any further."

At the time, her biggest fear with fully, publicly coming out was losing her life partner.

It's a big fear for many older trans people who aren't out, says Leigh Mann, a gender-affirming voice therapist and the former co-facilitator of PROUDLY Me!. Mann says that when people weigh the risks of coming out, "there's a calculus that happens – and it's unique for every person." Personal safety, for example, is part of everyone's calculus. When you pair that with the jeopardy of losing your spouse, contact with your children, or even your job, "it just gets exponentially more complicated."

A night she calls 'her Cinderella Story'

Wagenblast's personal calculus shifted the night of the PROUDLY Me! semi-formal annual award ceremony. "In years past, I had always gone in a jacket and tie, but I didn't feel comfortable doing that this time." So she reached out to her older trans mentor, another PROUDLY Me! member.

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Her mentor instructed her to stop by a Halloween store and buy a cheap wig and a pair of heels. "You come down to my house with the wig and the heels, I've got a dress for you, I'll do your makeup, and you'll go to this event as your true self."

Nicole Brownstein adds a necklace to Bernie's Wagenblast's outfit.
/ Gabby Jones for NPR
/
Gabby Jones for NPR
Nicole Brownstein adds a necklace to Bernie's Wagenblast's outfit.

Mentor Nicole Brownstein has done many of these makeovers for other trans women who've come to her in the same position. She's helped all of them. "It's like a big movie production," says Brownstein. "I have them sit in a chair facing away from the mirror and then have them turn around." In that moment when they first look at themselves, Brownstein sees the same expression that she saw in herself all those years ago: "to finally be able to see yourself as you've always envisioned yourself."

That night, Wagenblast decided that she could and would socially transition. In the process, her greatest fear came true. Her marriage of 42 years came to an end.

"This person who was and is my best friend is no longer part of my daily life. That's terribly difficult," she says. "But friendships have become far more important in my life."

Friendships like the one she has with Brownstein, who's 77. Wagenblast and Brownstein belong to a close group of trans women who will regularly get together for dinner and drinks. "Just a group of girls going out to spend a nice evening together," says Brownstein.

A chance for intergenerational friendships

While the PROUDLY Me! support group does have members of all ages, many love it specifically because of Wagenblast and Brownstein – and the others navigating this later in life.

This is especially true for Patrick Buenaventura. When they went to their first meeting, they lamented starting their journey at the age of 53. Until Brownstein shared that she began transitioning in her 60s – and then other members followed suit.

Portrait of Patrick Buenaventura wearing their award ceremony attire at Bernie's house in Cranford, NJ, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.
/ Gabby Jones for NPR
/
Gabby Jones for NPR
Portrait of Patrick Buenaventura wearing their award ceremony attire at Bernie's house in Cranford, NJ, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.

That's when it clicked for Buenaventura. "We all have our own journeys and we have our own timelines. This just happens to be mine – and I'm right on time. When I was supposed to transition is now."

PROUDLY Me! also creates a space for younger and older trans people to come together in unexpected ways. Buenaventura remembers one college-aged person who came up to them and said that it was nice to see older trans folks, "because they couldn't imagine their life when they were older."

On the flipside, they've also learned from younger members to be less concerned with passing. "They're like, 'I will dress how I want. If I want to be a trans man or transmasculine, it doesn't mean I have to wear a suit and tie. If I want to wear a skirt, I'll wear a skirt.' They're defining themselves, and not letting the world tell them who to be or how to be."

Without a community like PROUDLY Me!, it's easier to feel isolated at any age. Kristi, who's 65, requested anonymity since she's not out as trans to friends and family.

She longs for closer connections to other trans women, but says she hesitates to join support groups since she hasn't taken certain steps – like socially transitioning, starting hormone therapy or getting gender-affirming surgery. "I don't present myself fully as a woman," says Kristi. "And I don't want people to say, 'well, let's ignore her. She's not part of us, really.' "

Currently, Kristi has no plans to socially transition. And she wishes there was a stronger community for people like her – people who don't know when they'll take those steps, or if they'll ever take them. "Am I not going far enough? Am I not courageous enough to come out and be a woman?" Kristi routinely asks herself these questions. But then she'll tell herself: "there are people who don't feel compelled to do that. And that doesn't make the journey any less real."

(From left to right) Portrait of Patrick Buenaventura, Bernie Wagenblast, and Nicole Brownstein, wearing their award ceremony attire at Wagenblast's house in Cranford, NJ, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.
/ Gabby Jones for NPR
/
Gabby Jones for NPR
(From left to right) Portrait of Patrick Buenaventura, Bernie Wagenblast, and Nicole Brownstein, wearing their award ceremony attire at Wagenblast's house in Cranford, NJ, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.

It's been about a year since Bernie Wagenblast socially transitioned. And she's still reveling in her new life. "To finally be living it for the first four or five months, it was like, 'Pinch me. I'm afraid this is a dream, and that I'm going to wake up.' "

Wagenblast is 67 now. Sometimes, she thinks about what it would've been like to come out earlier. To be a teenage girl, or a woman in her 20s.

But mostly, she's just glad to be out now.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margaret Cirino
Margaret Cirino (she/her) is an assistant producer on the Life Kit team. She was formerly a production assistant at Short Wave, NPR's science podcast, involving pitching, producing and forcing her virtual and in-person co-workers to play board games with her. She has a soft spot for reporting on cute critters and outer space (not at the same time, of course).