By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
Here at Bloomers Blazing we are inspired by people who come face to face with their muse and discover l’objet de leur passion—after the age of 40. For some of them, this happy occasion can lead to a lifestyle change. They may move, or change careers, or surround themselves with all new friends… And with a bit of luck—which always seems to be at play in the equation—they may get to live the rest of their lives knowing that they have closed the gap between who they have appeared to be and who they know themselves to be at the core. Meet Grace Stevens, another Blazing Bloomer. For 64 years Grace went along with conventional thinking (and the dictates of her biology) and presented herself to the world as a male. Then, in 2011, she began her transition into womanhood. Grace’s story is Part One in a three-part series featuring transgender bloomers.
Joan Schweighardt: When did you first realize your biological body was not the right one for you? Did it come in the form of an epiphany or was it kind of lurking there in the back of your mind over all those early years?
Grace Stevens: You ask an interesting question, but the reality is, for me, and for many of the people I know, it is not the correct question. It is much more complicated than that, as we learn by listening to the trans kids these days.
By the time I was somewhere between six and eight, I had a sense, or as I say and teach now, a “knowing,” that there was something wrong with the idea of being a boy. There were internal voices and even battles—all well described in my book, No! Maybe? Yes! Living My Truth—as I tried to “belong” and be socialized as a boy, while all the time knowing this was not right, and living in fear of expressing to anyone the truth about how I felt.
JS: How many children do you have and how have they handled your transition?
GS: I have three grown children and two grandkids. I didn’t have any major issues with any of them. In the case of my youngest son Elie, I had to set up a time to talk to him because he and his wife were going on vacation during the time I planned to tell my other kids. That scared him; I wasn’t one to make appointments. So while he was away, he was imagining, and worrying a little, that something was wrong. When I called him at the designated time and blurted out that I was transgender, his reaction was, “That’s great. Be who you are.” He remembers quizzing himself in that moment about how he was really feeling, and the answer was, Oh, okay, we can deal with that! He’d been anticipating a health issue or something like that.
A few weeks ago, I was at the mall with my son and grandkids, Sonny (three) and Maya (six). Before we went to the food court for lunch, Maya said she had to use the bathroom. My son usually takes her to the men’s room, but this time she said, no, that she wanted Grace to take her to the women’s room. This was a first for me. I thought, my family has really accepted me.
Unfortunately, acceptance like this is not there for everyone. I feel for kids who experience awkwardness in saying that their parent is transgender. They may worry that accepting a parent who is trans means rejection by their peers. It’s a tough choice for them to make.
JS: Did you always know in the back of your mind that you would one day transition?
GS: For many years I didn’t know it was possible to transition. In 2001, after 25 years of marriage, my wife and I divorced. Thereafter I was living alone in an apartment: I was lonely; I was wondering how I would go forward, how I would even meet anyone after being married for so long.
At some point I signed up for an Insight Seminar. Insight is an international nonprofit that offers techniques to help people achieve personal transformation. The seminar was three or four days and very intensive. Each person was assigned a “buddy” to keep in touch with post- seminar. The woman I buddied with was a skier, like me. And once a year, beginning in 2002, we skied together. Out on the chairlift we would talk about the class we’d taken and the various ways our lives had changed since. Each year I mentioned that I was thinking about returning to school.
In 2004 I told my buddy once again that I wanted to study psychology. She said, “You’re full of shit! Every year you say it and you never do it!” That got me going. I didn’t know if I could get through my first course. I had no idea I could write papers. Where’d that skill come from? I went to school at night and worked during the day. Once I graduated, I stayed on at the substance-abuse clinic where I had done my internship. I was dual-careered from 2009-2013, until I left the engineering company to work full-time at the clinic.
I went to my first trans conference in 2009, and I didn’t take along any male clothes, but I didn’t run out and transition right after that either. What I learned at the first conference is that nothing is impossible. One does not choose to be transgender. One can only choose what to do about it. It took me a few years to acknowledge and accept my truth, and then to act on it, with the risk possible losses.
JS: In 2011, the year you transitioned, you told the people at work that you were taking a four-week leave and returned as a woman. How did that go over?
GS: As a mid-level manager in an engineering company, I understood that transitions are best handled from the top down. First, I talked to the Chief Diversity Officer and the Senior VP of HR of my company’s parent company, and they agreed that getting the president of my division on board would ensure a smoother transition. We held a meeting and I said, “I’m a transgender woman,” and they said, “We will support you.”
I was going to be away for four weeks, to have facial surgery (surgeries for sexual reassignment wouldn’t begin for another year), and would return as Grace. I asked everyone to keep it quiet until I returned. What was amazing was that they did keep it quiet, and as a result a lot of people were worried about me. They thought I had to be really sick to be gone so long. When I got back we had a training session, with some 200 people. Most people were fantastic.
JS: Was it difficult making the transition from engineering management to psychological counseling?
GS: Yes, switching genders was nothing compared to going from a type A engineering manager to a counselor. As a manager I would say, You do it my way, the right way. A counselor holds a safe space for the client, but may never know what is right for the client. It took me time to learn that people heal from within, and a good counselor is at best a fellow traveler on the client’s journey.
Sometimes the two parts of my personality leak over, but that’s part of my amazing journey. Mostly as a counselor I listened to people talk about their relationships with themselves. I was teaching love of oneself.
JS: You’re not working any longer at the clinic?
GS: When No! Maybe? Yes! Living My Truth came out in 2015, I quit the clinic. I was well into my 60s, I’d transitioned, and I was running groups. I’d come to realize by then that I loved psycho-education more than one-on-one counseling. I love teaching and speaking, and that was a surprise to me. Over the past few years I have become comfortable speaking to groups of all sizes with a hope to inspire them to live their true and authentic lives. I talk about the relationship they have with themselves first. Are you living your true life? Or are you living the life someone else is expecting? This can apply to gender but it is much bigger than that, and really just a part of being human.
I also do a lot of political education. In 2016, Massachusetts finally passed and signed a law saying people who are transgender can’t be discriminated against in public accommodations, the bathroom bill. A month after the bill was passed, opposition groups got it onto the ballot in an effort to repeal it. The vote will be in November 2018. Because I have a platform, and because I was voted New England Pride TV’s person of the year, it was easy for me to become part of the effort.
JS: You were making all these decisions—to return to school, to transition—at a time when lots of other people are thinking about retirement. What is your take on aging?
GS: You’re never too old to make changes. I was 58 when I went back to school. After that, I transitioned, and after that I became an author and a speaker. I learned that my story can inspire others no matter what age they may be. You can find the truth in your heart and run with it at any age. I just turned 70, and I’m still finding more truths. I have a YA novel stewing in me, about coming from a mixed-up family and how that can affect you as a teen. I am pretty sure most of us have a story like that. Another book I want to write will be called Carrier. I’m a Tay-Sachs carrier. Tay Sachs is a genetic disease that is found in about 1 in 900 people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. It can mean infant death for the carrier’s offspring. That’s one burden I carried with me through my life. Being transgender was another. We all carry burdens. I have enough thoughts on the subject for at least five or six essays.
JS: What have you been doing for the trans community?
GS: I have been a co-leader for the First Event Conference for the last eight years. First Event is an annual gathering that takes place in Massachusetts every January in support of gender variant people, their families, and anyone with questions about gender variations. This past January we had over 900 people at the event. It was mind-blowing. I handled registration, oversaw 144 workshops, oversaw all the vendors, gathered the team for the youth and family program for some 200 people, and presented the “welcome” speech for them. I told the parents there, “We Baby Boomers could only have wished we had parents like you.” Back when I was a kid there was no place to go with gender concerns.
JS: I notice that some transgender women (present company excluded, which I can safely say because I know you from your FB posts) tend to dress up more than biological women. Do you think this is true?
GS: For many, before you transition you’re looking for validation, for confirmation that you pass, that you can fit in. But after some time, validation becomes internalized. For me today, it is not the clothes or makeup that validate me. Before I transitioned, I was in a class where the professor asked what it meant to be feminine. I listened to all my female classmates’ various responses. The professor finally shared her own view, that it means whatever you want it to mean. I now understand this.
But you are not the first person to have a preconceived notion about “most trans women.” In one chapter in my book, I asked my son what surprised him about my transition. He said, “I feel that Grace is not as feminine as I expected her to be. You wear a ball cap, and your hair is pretty short. And you still wear T-shirts. You switched all your blue jackets to pink jackets, but they are still like North Face ski jackets…and I think that probably in the long run it helps, because I expected you to be really over the top. I was worried that Grace would be so vastly different from Larnie that there would be a loss, but I don’t feel that you are that different.” (Larnie is my old name. Although many trans people will not use their original name, which they call a “dead name,” I do not have any issue with my past name or history.)
JS: Do you think of yourself as a transgender woman now that it’s been some years since you transitioned?
GS: This is complicated. I am a woman. I am trans. I am also just me, authentically me. People look for labels and boxes, but that is often not a way to really understand who a person is.
JS: Being just a woman out in the world, do you feel the necessity of telling people you once presented as male?
GS: There’s no one way to be transgender. Some people totally walk away from the transgender community once they’ve transitioned. Some experience a dilemma about whether or not to tell other people they were once another gender. For me personally, I don’t think about whether or not to tell people because, being an author who writes about transgender issues, anyone who wants to know more about me can Google me and learn about my transition. I am a professional transgender speaker. So I’ve got nothing to hide. I don’t go around saying, HI, I’m Grace Stevens and I’m transgender. I don’t have strict rules about it one way or another. I’m just publicly out there.
It is so different for kids today. Going back to Maya, my granddaughter again, there’s a kid in her class who is gender ambiguous. My son asked her, “Is that a boy or a girl?” She said, “Maybe both.” It doesn’t matter to her. The other day she came into the room with an old photo and said, “Oh, is this when you used to be Larnie?”
JS: Are you working on any new projects along those lines?
GS: Thanks for asking. I am creating a new membership group that is building community for people to be inspired and inspire others for their Personal Growth.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, The Accidental Art Thief and other novels. Her newest novel, Before We Died, will be published later this year.