“Nobody Has My Fashion Sense”

Barbara Satin, age 85, on finding her name, change in the trans community, and her “ministry of presence.”

Barbara Satin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by llewellyn_chin/iStock/Getty Images Plus and courtesy of Barbara Satin.

As the LGBTQ community reflects on the 50 years since the Stonewall riots this Pride season, Outward wanted to chat with a group of queer elders about their experiences and ask what advice they have for the generations following in their footsteps. Hence, this special, weeklong LGBTQ edition of our regular series Interview With an Old Person.

Christina Cauterucci: How old are you, and how do you identify?

Barbara Satin: In a couple of weeks, I will turn 85. I identify as a trans woman. I’ve been out for probably about 23, 24 years.

Where were you born?

Born in St. Paul.

When did you first realize you were trans?

I knew I was something when I was about 5 or 6 years old. But keep in mind, I was born in 1934. We didn’t even have a vocabulary of any kind to fall back on. Transvestite was the only word in the dictionary that came close, and today that’s seen more as a pejorative term. But I knew I had something going on inside that related to and was refreshed by feminine things. I was also smart enough to know that that’s probably something I had to keep to myself because nobody else understood it or experienced the same thing.

My mother was a widow, and she was raising four kids. I knew I couldn’t burden her with more than she already had to deal with, so I couldn’t talk to her about it. I was raised and very involved in the Roman Catholic Church and knew that if I talked to the priest, I would get an answer like, “It’s a sin. Stop doing it.” I couldn’t talk to a family doctor, because I would be telling him at that time more than he knew. Like so many patient-doctor relationships among the trans community, we do more educating of the doctors than they do us.

After high school, I went into the seminary and was there for a couple of years. Then I realized that it just was not going to work well, that the yearnings that I had just were incompatible with what the expectations would be.

Was your desire to go into the seminary inspired at all by those feelings you were having, and the feeling that there was something you couldn’t express?

To some extent, but I think maybe to a larger extent I had an older brother who was in the seminary and I idolized him. I saw what a wonderful person he was, and I wanted to be like that. Maybe I also saw it as a way of—maybe if I was in that environment I wouldn’t have the feelings that I had. But I also realized that the long black cassocks that the priest wore didn’t do anything for me. I needed something more fashionable.

So I went into the business world. Worked for a major international insurance company and was there for 30 years. I thought I would do what in the ’50s and ’60 was the traditional step of getting married. I fell in love with a woman who is still my wife. We have three children and seven grandchildren.

I thought this would maybe solve my desires. But I realized relatively soon after the marriage, within five or six months, that I still had all of this going on inside—plus the fact that now I was committed to this relationship.

Were you expressing your identity as a woman at that time?

I was expressing it whenever I could, which wasn’t very often. Before the internet there was something called community bulletin boards that functioned by telephone, modem-to-modem type of connections. There were a lot of interest groups, and one of them I found was transgender, and it happened to be right in my Twin City area. I signed on to that. One of the first things they said was, “You have to have a username.” So Barbara is the name I selected, because that was the first young woman that I fell in love with. Satin I picked because that’s the fabric of my life. It’s something that always attracted me and always a part of my wardrobe.

When did you come out to the rest of the world?

About four or five years after I retired. I was 60, and my second oldest son came to me and said, “Since you’ve retired, you’ve changed. You’re no longer the easygoing, fun-loving dad that I always knew. What’s going on?” I said, “Well, Jamie, I’m transgender.” He put his hand on mine, and he said, “Thank you for telling us. We’ve been waiting for you to tell us.” As much as I thought how successful I had been in keeping this a secret, they had figured it out. He arranged for me to meet with a therapist who had a background in dealing with the trans community. And she said to me, “You have lived your life as though you have been cursed by God. Have you ever thought that this is the way that God made you, and that maybe this is a blessing rather than a curse?” I realized that living a curse hasn’t been fun. I thought, “Oh, maybe I should see what that might look like living it as a blessing.” As a result of that, I left my marriage for a time because I wanted to figure out who Barbara Satin really was. I did return to my wife, and I worked very hard to make sure that the things that I do as Barbara don’t detract from the relationship that she and I have.

What role has queer community played in your life?

Barbara Satin.
Courtesy of Barbara Satin

After I came out, I found a GLBT church in Minneapolis called the Spirit of the Lakes. It’s part of the United Church of Christ. I became active there, and I got invited to speak at the National Gathering, where LGBT people within the denomination and allies come together for a conference. So I came to Chicago, and I got on the stage at the plenary session. They’d just finished worship service, and the altar was still on the stage. I came out as David, my guy self, and with a makeup kit and a mirror, and went to the altar, and began telling my story and began making myself up. I was wearing a long, black terry-cloth bathrobe. At the end of it when I had finished, I dropped the terry-cloth robe and was wearing a stunning gown, and I put on a wig that I had on the table behind. I introduced them to Barbara Satin.

I tell that story because it was an important event for the United Church of Christ. I still get people who say, “Oh, I was there. It was marvelous.” That event has shaped my career. I realized that it was important for me to tell that story whenever I could and to represent, as long as I was able to, the trans community publicly.

What some people have called my “ministry of presence” is what drives me. I want to be a trans presence in places where people don’t expect to see it. To open myself and allow people to ask me about it, or just to take in the fact that there is a trans person in this church, this theater, this restaurant, this gathering, this concert, this program, whatever. So they understand that we are everywhere and we can be everywhere.

What changes in your trans and queer community have you witnessed since you came out?

I used to lead this group, the City of Lakes Crossgender Community. [It had] about 400 members that met once a month in great secrecy in the basement of a gay bar. All of a sudden, these meetings where 400 people showed up became meetings where 50 people showed up or 25 or 12. I realized what was happening was that the trans community had been freed. They didn’t have to come to the basement of a gay bar. They could go wherever they felt comfortable going. [Minneapolis’s] human rights protections were sort of their Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s been over a generation since those protections were passed [in the mid-1970s]. A lot of young people coming through just don’t realize what it used to be like. So while a large segment of the LGBT community understands that there’s protection in the law, within the older branch in LGBT community, it’s been much harder for them to understand or accept this protection because they lived through such horrendous times—police brutality, the idea of being able to be fired simply for being gay, or losing family, losing your access to your kids.

But the booming old, the younger people just now hitting old age, many of whom have lived for most of their out lives under the protections of Minnesota’s Human Rights Act—they’re a whole different breed. They’re expectation is that “I’m queer, I’m out, and you’d better treat me appropriately.”

Is there anything you miss about those former years? I think about how amazing it would be to have 400 trans or queer people meeting in a group—do you ever miss that solidarity built out of necessity?

I do, and I think the community needs it and misses it. One of the roles that those clubs had was education: “This is what happened to me, don’t let it happen to you” type of thing. “This is the doctor I went to.” Now there has to be quite a bit of self-educating.

It’s a mixed time right now, from my vantage point at the old end of the spectrum. There is now a growing gender nonconforming or genderqueer community, which doesn’t see themselves as trans men or trans women—they see themselves as gender-free. That has been confusing to a lot of people, both friends and foes. It makes it more difficult to try to put together an understandable explanation of what gender nonconformity includes.

When you were first coming out to yourself as trans, were there any trans people who you looked to and recognized, “This is who I am or who I might be?”

When I was a freshman in college in 1952, at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, I was walking to biology class. Somebody came running up to the group I was with and said, “Oh, did you hear that there’s this person that went to Denmark as a man and came back as a woman? She calls herself Christine Jorgensen.” A lightbulb went off in my head that said, “My God, there are other people.”

Christine Jorgensen, who I never met, is sort of a shero to me simply because she opened the conversation. But I don’t have anybody that I would say has been my role model or my mentor. Nobody has my fashion sense.

What was the first clothing you wore when you wanted to be seen as Barbara Satin?

My older sister had a black satin evening gown that a great-aunt had given to her, which I just loved. That was the first thing that, when I found an opportunity to explore, I tried on and just loved the feeling that it gave to me.

I try to be as bold as I can be. By that I don’t mean inappropriately. I mean, I try to be as flamboyant and well-dressed as possible, because I want people to pay attention to me and realize in looking at my dress, my outfit, my fashion that, oh, they’re seeing a trans person. I want to be seen as a trans person.

Within the trans community, some people have this desire to pass, to be so feminine or masculine that nobody would ever expect that you are anything but male or female. That’s not my desire. My desire is for somebody just to look at me and say, “That’s a trans person, but what a great outfit.” I want them to pay attention to me for both of those reasons. If it leads to questions, wonderful. It oftentimes does. If they don’t appreciate the fact that I’m a trans woman, they can appreciate the fact that I’ve got a lovely outfit on.

When did you first become aware of LGBTQ rights movements?

I think my first experience was St. Paul passed an LGBT human rights protection, including the T, back in the 1970s. It was one of the first cities. Anita Bryant and a pastor of Temple Baptist Church waged a referendum to eliminate it. There was a vote, and the protections were eliminated. Since I wasn’t out, it didn’t really have a direct impact on me. But I remember sitting in a restaurant in downtown St. Paul the night of the vote, and there was this parade. It was supposed to be a victory parade, but it was actually the LGBT community’s sort of funeral march after the vote. A very sad, forlorn group of people, but singing. And I realized—this is going to have an impact on me at some point, and I needed to be involved in some way.

What have your romantic and sexual relationships looked like in the context of your trans identity?

It’s been fascinating to me how that’s all played out, because as Barbara I’m attracted to men, and I want men to be attracted to me. But as David, my guy self, that is not of any interest at all. I’m strictly a straight guy but a bisexual trans woman, which boggles my mind. It doesn’t cause me any concerns. It’s just that it’s so strange, this interesting demarcation.

What have been your happiest moments as a trans woman?

Barbara Satin.
Courtesy of Barbara Satin

When I started this whole journey as Barbara, I wanted to be this quiet suburban housewife. I didn’t want to raise any fears or expectations or scandal. The experience of being invited to go to the National Gathering, I hadn’t expected that. From there, I was invited to be on the governing body of the United Church of Christ. I have had all of these serendipitous experiences that have been formative and rewarding for me.

At Spirit of the Lakes Church, with our pastor and another individual, we formed an organization called GLBT Generations to educate the queer community about what it means to age. Lesbians are very good about that: They understand and honor aging. The gay community and the trans community—that’s sort of anathema to talk about aging because their focus tends to be on youth and the beauty and vitality of younger bodies and younger personalities.

One of the things that came out of my aging work was that our church built senior housing focused on the LGBT community. We opened that building now six years ago, called Spirit on Lake.

How do you celebrate Pride?

I celebrate it by walking the Pride parade. I have been a part of so many organizations that are in the Pride parade that I will walk the Pride parade two or three times. I’ll join a group at the front end of the parade and go through, and then join another group that’s further back. And I do it in high heels, so I am dead by the time it’s over with, because we have a long Pride parade. I love it because I get such affirmation from the crowd. I’m well-known, and it’s fun.

What advice would you give to yourself at a younger age or to today’s young trans people?

If you’re in the situation where you can be open about it, do that. Use that freedom, explore that freedom and understand who you are and share it with others. We need to tell our stories. People need to understand who we are because they have their own idea of what we are rather than who we are.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.