For seven decades, Penny Noah was known to the world as David Noah, a teacher, an academic, an artist, a photographer, a husband, a father of two boys. Two years ago, Penny decided to share her new identity through Facebook and an art exhibit at Tiny ATH gallery, and recently, a public presentation at Rabbit Box. Now she’s written about it for Boom.
Here is her beautifully expressed, insightful essay, followed by an interview she graciously did with me. The interview has been edited for space and readability. Betsy Bean, publisher.
In 2020, when America was tearing itself apart over COVID masks, when civility was a mask many were rushing to remove, and when the truth felt more important than ever, I woke one morning and realized that in my own life I wore a mask that I could no longer endure. I was transgender.
I was also 70 years old.
This wasn’t the first time I’d thought that I was trans, or the first time I’d expressed it. I knew, as anyone close to me knew, that the male gender had never been a good fit for me. The roles, the rules, the rituals–nothing about being male had ever made sense. Playing for the girl’s team had always seemed the better option. And now, at this late date, I felt compelled to act.
What does it mean to be trans? There are too many synonyms: trans, transgender, non-binary, transexual, trans-femme, two-spirits, the T in LGBT. Whatever labels we apply, it means that you don’t feel at home in the world of gender binaries. And that you’re going to take whatever steps are needed to live more authentically.
What is it like? Something like a religious conversion –everything’s the same but the meaning of everything has changed. How you look, how you feel, what you wear and what you’re allowed to wear, your status in the world, your vocabulary, the food you eat, your haircut, posture, and movement, your relations with others, your emotions – the list can seem endless because gender expectations shape our lives in the most intimate and the most public ways. But in another sense, nothing really important changes. The awareness that you’re alive right now, in this place, at this moment, mortal in the transient world, is still there. Transitioning, for some of us, is crucial to mental health but it isn’t a panacea for the human condition.
It’s both easier and harder for the elderly to transition. We face the same challenges that anyone faces, young or old: Will my birth family accept me? Will my marriage or romantic life survive? Will I still have friends? Will I be fired from my job? Will my doctor continue to treat me? Will I ‘pass’ in my new gender?
I follow many online trans communities, and while they are full of newly happy people, that happiness often comes at a steep price. The familiar walk through the world when one was masquerading as cisgender turns into a dangerous obstacle course for transgendered people – sometimes literally life-threatening.
However much we feel ourselves to be a man or a woman inside, expressing that feeling puts us at the mercy of the patriarchal cartoons that shape our judgements of each other. And one’s persona has had a lifetime to solidify, so that now the unmasked persona perhaps needs extra effort to open up. Imagine being in a cell all your life, with bars over the window. If released at age 70, you might find yourself carrying some portable window bars to better recognize the world. While one might imagine the transition as an opportunity to spring forth fully realized into the extremes of the new gender, the experience is more akin to exploring a hitherto forbidden room in your house.
But being both elderly and trans makes some issues easier. My parents died many years ago; that would have been a difficult passage to navigate. I retired a decade ago, so no need to worry about professional acceptance. I’m happily married to a supportive spouse (for forty years), and can gratefully avoid the dating scene for septuagenarians. Most of my friends have been warmly positive. And I enjoy a broad community of local online support, built up over many years.
Older bodies, surprisingly, respond to hormone therapy as readily as younger bodies–a second puberty in one’s seventies is, ah, entertaining, to say the least. We fall too readily into defining gender based on an idealized version of young males and females; at my age, though, I’m not expected to ‘pass’ as an attractive woman. Few of us of any gender look like we’re 25 when we’re 70. I had already achieved resting geezer face before my transition.
Old age is meant to be a time when we look at life anew and retreat from getting and spending. We want to rise above the individual battles of youth and adulthood, and blossom into whatever universal wisdom we’ve found in life. If we’re lucky, we learn to age out of the simple and confining ideas we’ve lived in –among them, ideas about self, identity, ego.
I’ve spent the last three years transitioning from the two-dimensional concept of gender that this culture and others demand and, at least a little, into a broader and more open view of what sex, sexuality, and gender can be. I’ve come to see that those last three are only loosely related to each other. I’m still finding a new home where my center of gravity has shifted to the fem side of the continuum. It’s more process than leap, but if I could find the rapidly disappearing line between male and female gender expressions, I’d say I’ve crossed it.
In public spaces I’m as likely to be ma’amed as I am sirred. I can’t deny that this affirmation pleases me. Gender may be in large part a social construct, but it’s also a social contract – we need to be seen to believe in ourselves. I don’t, exactly, consider myself a woman. There’s too much biology and history, large and small, that makes me reluctant to defend that claim. Though, like gender studies writer and philosopher Judith Butler, I think it’s time to reconsider what we mean by ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ We don’t mean the same things by the words ‘woman’ and ‘female.’ Would you say: Our brave males and females in the armed services? For now, I’m most comfortable in calling myself a trans woman, or just trans.
As difficult and challenging as the transition has sometimes been (and as liberating and joyous), I can offer this: when you get that last call, pick up the phone.
Q. What’s the first question people ask you?
How did my wife take it? And the answer is: Really very well. It wasn’t a big surprise…I follow a lot of online transitions and there’s a lot of misery out there, so I feel fortunate Sandy is supportive.
Q. When did you decide to transition?
I decided in 2020 to do it. I had met a woman who transitioned to male. I had thought about it before but after that, I did wake up one morning and decide I was trans and that if I didn’t do it now, I never would.
Q. But there must have been thoughts prior to that time?
I never felt at home in my gender. Males always felt like the other. I was never into sports, hunting, anything stereotypical. Men always seemed to me like dangerous creatures. As a kid I was more at home with the girls. I was bullied a little but not much. Although going into a locker room always felt fraught with danger.
Maleness for me was hardly being able to breathe because of the pressures. Males are aways trying to figure out where they are in the hierarchy.
Q. In the years leading up, were you trying to figure yourself out?
My whole life – I explored a men’s rights group in the early 70s. Early on, I think I tried to convince myself I was gay. That didn’t seem right either. I explored it but it wasn’t the emotional center of gravity for me.
Q. Did you deal with depression or ever seek help?
There wasn’t much available years ago – it’s better now. I just seemed unhappy all the time. It’s just who I was.
It’s hard to define gender – you have to go through a lot of stuff before you define yourself as trans. Should I understand it in medical terms? Psychological terms? Is it society and the way it socializes males – does that play a role in causing this?
Q. How do you keep your sanity?
I think a sense of humor is key – transitioning late in life, it’s funny. I also have found a sense of liberation. Hormone therapy has had some powerful effects. For one thing, I’m moved to tears more often, and that was not something I had done much before. It was an expansion of my emotional responses.
It’s been amazing to me what creatures of our hormones we are. Changing the hormones changes your reality. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.
Q. What are some other things you’ve negotiated in your marriage?
The defensiveness has dropped away. The bad parts of being male can poison a relationship. It’s made communication easier. I’m calmer, a little more able to have it be less about my status.
Having transitioned now, I see males differently, first in terms of identifying testosterone poisoning behavior. But, I’m more forgiving. I don’t have to try to pretend to be one of those people.
Q. Did you have close male friends?
I had male friendships as a young man but they didn’t endure over the decades. Currently, my male friends and acquaintances have attitudes that seem to run the gamut of bemused to openly curious to disapproving but polite. The effort is there and the good will.
Q. Do you seek counseling currently?
I don’t. I don’t want to see it as a pathological thing. You hear it said gender is a social construct – it’s the culture. I don’t quite believe that – I think it’s more a social contract. Your identity as a male or female has a lot to do with how other people perceive you and relate to you. That’s why passing is important. You want that response from other people based on your new understanding of who you are as a person.
Q. Do you think there will be a time when you don’t have to think about it – when you just are?
I don’t think I’m in that spot yet. I’d like to think it’s coming. There are times when I go out in the world and don’t make any effort to do anything to persuade the world by way of my clothes or hair, and I still get ma’amed and responded to as a woman. There’s something in my inner self identification that people pick up on. I find it happening more often. It’s less about my appearance and more about my sense of myself.
Penny’s writing of her journey answers and asks so many questions in my own life. I love it and am so thankful for her sharing so clearly. My life is larger as a result of her decisions.
This is a very moving, honest, and articulate description of Penny’s experience. I think it may help others who can’t find the words to express how they feel. It made me think about how much I take my gender for granted. I thought of how most white people walk around unaware of their race while people of color have said their race is constantly in the top of their consciousness.
I fully agree, Bonnie. I also appreciate Penny’s recounting of her experiences so far in this archetypal journey, one that many of us will never travel. But I’m sure it’s one that will resonate with other pilgrims and other good-hearted souls.
Penny was a High School classmate of mine and I do remember a casual relationship. I’m pleased about how much we have in common right now, though not in the trans experience. I’m proud to be her friend.