Changing Times

After living six decades as a man, Barbara Satin’s work on LGBT issues earned her a White House appointment

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Transgender activist Barbara Satin

Photo by Ackerman + Gruber

After living six decades as a man, Barbara Satin became a transgender activist who works on LGBT issues, particularly surrounding faith and aging. In May, she was appointed by President Obama to the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“I knew from age 5 or 6 that I had something going on that was different from what other kids were experiencing. We had no word for ‘transgender’ in the 1940—‘transvestite’ was the closest thing. I instinctively knew I probably shouldn’t say anything about these feelings. My mom was a widow, and I didn’t want to dump this on her. Other resources just weren’t available. I spent most of my life hiding who I was.”

“In 1953, Christine Jorgensen became famous for being the first American to have sex-reassignment surgery. It was the first I had ever heard of someone else like me. Now with the internet, everyone has connection [to a wider world], but then there was nothing.” 

“Growing up, I wanted to be a priest. When I was a young seminarian, I was playing basketball during family visiting day and missed a pass because I was captivated by the dress a young visitor was wearing. That’s when I knew I couldn’t be a priest, and I had to leave.” 

“I finished college and went into the Air Force as a pilot. I knew I had this unnamed thing going on, but I kept pushing it all aside, doing macho things to hide from others what I was feeling.”

“When I came out of the service, I married a young woman I had fallen in love with—I thought the love of a good woman would make my feelings go away. Now I’ve been married for 58 years, and my wife and I have three children and seven grandkids. But for much of this time I was still trying to figure out what was going on with me.”

“I was an executive in a major insurance company for years and was very visible in church and civic life. But I was always hiding who I was, knowing if someone ever discovered it, my life would collapse. I’d be remembered only as a transgender person—a guy in a dress—and all of the good things I had done with my life would be forgotten.” 

“After I had been retired for a couple of years, my middle child, a psychotherapist, asked me out to lunch. He said, You’ve changed, you’re not the easygoing person we remember. I told him for the first time ever that I was transgender.  He grabbed my hand and simply said, Thank you. We’ve been waiting for you to tell us.”

“He found me a therapist, and my first session with her changed my whole life. She said, You think of this as a curse. Have you thought that this is the way God made you, and maybe it’s a blessing? I walked away from my marriage for a period of time to figure out who I really was. That’s when Barbara came out and started living her life.” 

“I stopped attending the Catholic Church, because I didn’t think there would be acceptance or a role for a trans woman. I found Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ in Minneapolis and shortly afterward was invited by the LGBT support group of the national church to come to Chicago for a conference, because they had never had any deep conversations around inclusion of trans people in the church. At the plenary session, I came on stage as my guy self, wearing a long black terry cloth robe. I began telling my story and making myself up. By the time I was done I had transformed, dropped the robe to display a fabulous gown and introduced them to Barbara Satin.” 

Six months later, a woman who had been at the conference told me that seeing me had changed her life. Her father was a cross-dresser and she had cut herself off from him years before because she didn’t want that in her life. She said, I saw him in your story and I reconnected with him. Now we have this really wonderful relationship.”

“I realized that my being out and being able to tell my story was a gift that the trans community needed but often couldn’t provide because of their fears. That’s what began my ministry of presence. I try to be Barbara—just be visible and a trans presence wherever I can. That’s why I do the work I do around trans inclusion in churches and education for senior-care providers around aging for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people.”

“Serving on the White House Advisory Council will be my opportunity to bring the issues and concerns of lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens to this important, multi-faceted group—and also offer a glimpse into the amazing yet challenging lives of trans and gender non-conforming community members.” 

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Photo by Ackerman + Gruber.