The dam that bursts: On becoming a woman later in life

The public speculation surrounding former Olympian Bruce Jenner, who’s widely expected to come out as transgender tonight, has hit a fever pitch.

Now Jenner’s age has been a talking point. On Thursday, daytime TV host Dr. Phil questioned whether the 65-year-old Jenner was “past his prime.”


Dr. Vanessa Fabbre, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has spent her career exploring issues at the intersection of gender, identity, and aging. Dr. Fabbre, is also currently working on a photography series that captures portraits and stories of trans people who have transitioned over the age of 50. She talked to Fusion about the unique risks and realities for people who make the journey late in life.

Fusion: You've interviewed many people who have transitioned from male to female after 50. Is there a feeling or an issue that your subjects often spoke about?

Kendrah, age 72, lives in Boston and started transitioning in 1990. She is an avid reader and a member of Mensa International, a society for people whose IQ is in the top 2 percent of the population. (Photo courtesy of

Dr. Fabbre: Several people surprised me by talking about their lives before transition in prison metaphors.  One person said she wanted to write her memoir and call it “Forty to Life” so that people could understand how limited her identity was before coming out and transitioning in later life.   In my research, I call this “time served” to capture the feeling one has when they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do, followed all the rules, and still feel as though society is limiting their freedom.


Another feeling that was very common was experiencing “the dam bursting”—- almost every person I interviewed talks about a point in which years (decades really) of pent up frustration and shame build up and overflow, like a dam bursting.  It’s important to learn from this experience when people “break through” and confront forces that have been holding them back, because these are usually both societal and internal.  We have to address both the “outside” and the “inside” to help people thrive as they grow older.


With the recent headlines surrounding Bruce Jenner's transition, what do you wish was also part of the conversation?

While I understand people’s fascination with a transition story, I really wish the conversation would expand to address the broader social justice issues that affect so many gender non-conforming people around the world.  Bruce Jenner has resources and privileges in society afforded to very few and it is important to realize that there are additional challenges for people who are marginalized because of their gender expression or identity.  In this country, these challenges often reflect the pervasive effects of racism and poverty.  I hope that people hearing Bruce Jenner’s story will begin to ask whether this is typical and what we can do to help others who face additional barriers.


Most transgender people begin transitioning before the age of 44, according widely cited research. But the reality is that there are many people who transition later in life.

You’re also a licensed clinical social worker. Are there issues or concerns that people over the age of 50 who are transitioning face that younger people don't experience?

Helena, age 63, lives in Chicago and says one of the reasons she wears Afro-centric clothing and hair is because she doesn't like "where the mainstream puts women, visually." "It’s all visual. It’s like we don’t have any insides." (Photo courtesy of

Older adults who are contemplating transition must often consider health issues and potential social and financial consequences that reflect the fact that they have simply been living longer in the world.  Some people may already be struggling with chronic health conditions that might complicate a desire to start hormone therapy or pursue gender-affirming surgeries.  If someone is still working, they have very legitimate fears that they will lose their job or have trouble finding a new one as an older trans person.  Very often, people have waited until later life to transition because they don’t want to disrupt their family lives.  Many people told me they waited until their children were grown, or their own parents had passed, before really contemplating transition.


In one of your articles you mention that "the field of gerontology has yet to explore health and wellbeing with respect to gender transitions in later life." Where are people over the age of 50 who are transitioning finding resources and community?

Michelle-Marie, 62, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., joined the Navy soon after high school. "Then I did everything you’re supposed to do. At 22 years old, I got married. I had three kids. I had a career. I was a program administrator. And I just never learned – I never took on male socialization skills." (Photo courtesy of

Luckily, some people are out in front of this issue.  The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging has resources available on transgender aging, for example.  The National Center for Transgender Equality has increased their attention to aging issues recently and even more broadly offers people a lot of information and strategies for securing their rights as trans people.  SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) has affiliates around the country serving transgender older adults directly.  There are also a lot of local LGBT oriented agencies that have realized how important aging issues are in the community and are now providing information, services and advocacy.

You’re working on a project photographing people over the age of 50 who are transitioning. Why was it important for you to launch the project?


Since I’m a social worker who has now entered the world of academia, I’m aware of the potential to get stuck in the “ivory tower.”  I wanted to work on a project that blurred the lines between research and practice and allowed as many people as possible to learn from the stories of older transgender persons.  It’s been really fulfilling to work on a project that’s not limited by any one discipline or approach, and I think the combination of photographs with interviews works really well for introducing people to identities and stories that may be very new to them.

(All photos courtesy of Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre /

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