Sacramento County resident among the first to have gender reassignment surgery covered by Medicare insurance

Law and culture changes, but LGBT baby boomers experience more isolation than younger generations

Jordan Reece is a 67-year-old bus driver in Sacramento County. He’s also among the first Californians to get medically-insured gender-reassignment surgery.

Jordan Reece is a 67-year-old bus driver in Sacramento County. He’s also among the first Californians to get medically-insured gender-reassignment surgery.

Photo by Lisa baetz

Walking into the hospital last month, Jordan Reece took a few steps closer to becoming the man he always envisioned.

Born into a female body 67 years ago, Reece is one of the first—if not the first—in California to have gender-reassignment surgery covered by medical insurance. That August day in the hospital, his surgeon removed breast tissue and sculpted Reece’s chest into a masculine-looking torso.

A longtime school-bus driver in the small farming community of Galt, Reece is navigating this long-awaited transformation at a time when others his age are checking off retirement bucket lists. “Once I realized I could transition … it was just like I had opened a big package with a bow on it and everything I wanted was in it,” he said.

But it hasn’t been easy. And Reece’s remarkable awakening is indicative of the issues facing a generation of LGBT baby boomers that came of age during a fraught political and social era.

AIDS. “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Defense of Marriage Act. General intolerance. The list goes on.

As the younger LGBT generation finds its footing in a more accepting society, Reece and his late-in-life peers are, in many ways, still fighting to be seen.

LGBT and suicide

Fresh out of college and feeling pressure from his family, Reece got married. But he soon regretted the decision, and grew despondent over the notion that the whole of his life could be defined by a lie. “I didn’t know how to get out of it,” he said.

One day, he went to a nearby overpass and stood there for some time, thinking about his brother, who had been hit and killed by a car years earlier. If Reece jumped, he thought, he would die the same way his brother had, and he’d be free. But Reece didn’t jump.

Not everyone has stepped back from the abyss. An astonishing 39 percent of transgender Californians have attempted suicide at least once during their lifetimes, according to the 2013 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. That compares to 1.6 percent of the general population.

A separate study of Bay Area residents found that roughly 15 percent of LGBT seniors had considered suicide in the previous year.

For older LGBT adults, isolation and poverty are even more prevalent than they are for the general population of seniors. “I’ve seen the suicide rate increase with age,” said Ben Hudson, executive director of the Gender Health Center in Sacramento.

Cathy Perry, programs development director for Servant Hearts, an LGBT organization in Sacramento, says several of her older clients lost their friends and families when they came out.

For Kitty Rosales, an avid dancer in her 60s, the frustration is that there are so few public places where she feels comfortable holding hands or dancing with someone of her gender. She fears being partnered with men at typical senior center dance functions. “I would rather have a woman in my arms,” she said.

Gary Voytek feels the lack of connection in another way. An affluent Sacramentan with an otherwise fulfilling life, the 65-year-old says he feels invisible to a younger generation of gay men he believes are overly concerned with youth and appearance. “I did begin to feel a bit transparent,” Voytek said. “Like no one even saw me.”

This past January, Perry helped develop Wisdom Project, a support group for older LGBT adults that meets monthly. The goal is to address the concerns of a generation that often lacks the support to carry them through their later years.

But formal support groups like these are just now getting underway in cities like Sacramento, and haven’t yet extended to smaller, rural communities where LGBT seniors have to feel around in the dark for friends and allies.

Small town, big dreams

Reece knew discrimination even before addressing his gender identity. As a member of what he said was only one of two black families in Galt during the 1950s, Reece remembers bricks sailing through his window, accompanied by shouts of “Go back where you came from!”

He knew he didn’t identify with his birth gender even as a preschooler, but couldn’t articulate those feelings as a child of the Norman Rockwell era. Talk of sex was short and sweet in his strictly religious household.

While many members of the LGBT community feel rejected by organized religion, Reece claims it saved his life. He said that, while deciding whether to jump from that overpass, “I was calling out to God inside … to show me something else.”

It was only after he glimpsed the lives of other transgender men—from Chaz Bono to LGBT pride-parade participants—that Reece realized this was something he could do, too.

Hudson of the Gender Health Center says it’s common for older people to delay their transitions, in part because they don’t see it as an accessible option the way younger trans individuals do. “When you see a reflection of yourself in society, it’s far easier to find a pathway to express yourself authentically,” he said.

Once Reece made that decision, he didn’t dawdle. The legal process of changing his name and gender took less than a year. When the ruling came down on May 30 that Medicare could no longer automatically deny coverage for sex-reassignment surgery, Reece called Kaiser to get the ball rolling. That day.

With the chest surgery behind him, Reece is saving his money for liposuction to remove the remaining fat that nearly four years of hormone therapy couldn’t completely erase from his “side saddles.” He will eventually undergo “bottom surgery” to complete the transition.

He resides on family property, where he cares for two mentally disabled adult twins he believes are cousins. His 86-year-old mother lives next door. She and his younger sister cared for him after surgery. Yet, even with that support, Reece sees himself as a solo project. And he fears he’ll live the rest of his life without a partner.

Most sexagenarian women Reece meets are married or lesbian, so he tried connecting with women online. He struggled with whether he should wait until a relationship develops before disclosing his gender identity, or just come out with it at the start. In the end, he said, he just gave up.

“Who’s going to want a relationship with a transgender attracted to straight women?” he said. “I don’t really want to be alone, but I don’t know what to do about it.”

For now, Reece keeps social. On Saturday mornings, he plays the piano for his congregation. People, for the most part, accept him. His mother and fellow congregants still occasionally refer to him by the wrong gender. Reece understands. He spent six decades as a woman. “I accept that I am who I am,” he said.

The kids on his bus route have adapted better, addressing him as “sir.”

He’s earned it.