Trans people have always been here, but the surgical means to physically transition have rapidly advanced in recent times. Now, trans elders are taking to TikTok to teach today’s youth about what it was like before
“I’ve always tried to be teachable because I believe that’s what has kept me alive for so long,” Mardi Pieronek says. Based on Vancouver Island and known as @MardiPantz on TikTok, she’s only 61 years old – but it’s a number that trans women rarely reach. While there are no official life expectancy figures for trans women (numbers float between 35 and 45 online, and it’s even lower for women of colour), research shows that they’re more likely than cisgender women to face mental health problems, HIV-related illnesses, and physical and sexual violence.
On top of this, in recent years trans people around the world have been dealing with a tsunami of transphobic discourse, legislation and ultimately, erasure. It’s this that led Mardi to TikTok, where she’s amassed 230,000 followers since 2021 through sharing the memories and wisdom she’s picked up over the decades, from funding her gender-affirming surgeries through sex work in the 80s to love stories. She believes that by doing so, she’s helping a new generation of trans women make decisions with safety and confidence. “It’s crucial for us to scream from the mountaintops about these stories and normalise these conversations,” she says. “There are so many kids dying to obtain this kind of information.”
At the request of her friends and followers, Sophia Voines (also 61) uses TikTok to share anecdotes from her colourful life, which has seen her shapeshift from a New York punk performer to the first trans VP of an Estee Lauder-owned business. Now based in rural Vermont, the hair stylist’s videos tell stories of ordering hormones from the black market, losing friends during the AIDS crisis, and the cosmetic procedures she’s received.
A stark contrast to the advanced gender-affirming treatments available to trans women today, and with most (if not all) doctors and surgeons refusing to perform on trans people at the time, Sophia – who began transitioning at 15 – regularly recounts her visits to a Harlem backstreet doctor known as ‘Joanne’. “Being trans back then was like joining a club of vampires… There was a hierarchy and everyone started at the bottom. Once the queens at the top liked you, then they would share Joanne’s details,” Sophia says. “But at times it felt impossible to get there.”
Over the 80s and 90s, Joanne injected Sophia with “at least 20lbs” of silicone in her lips, hips and buttocks. “I was desperate to get it done and so happy when I did, because back then you couldn’t be viewed as masculine in any form,” she explains. For part of that time, Sophia’s then-boyfriend of seven years (who never saw her fully naked) kept a note on her refrigerator with reasons why she should have gender confirmation surgery. “He kept adding reasons every day, and I just thought, ‘Where am I going to get the money? Who would even look after me?’... I was busy taking care of my own friends, who were coming back from Joanne and soaking their beds with blood.”
In addition to dealing with the painful aftercare of her own injections – like having her skin superglued back together and painfully smoothing her skin with a rolling pin to prevent lumps – decades later Sophia lives with the risks of having free-floating silicone in her body, which can cause life-threatening infections, strokes and block blood vessels. “Planning for old age wasn’t an option for us at the time. I’ve seen so many of my friends die from complications – it’s like it’s a ticking time bomb.”
While TikTok has been criticised for censoring LGBTQ+ content in the past, for older trans women like Mardi and Sophia it now provides a space to share their experiences authentically – and thanks to its algorithm – with the people who need it most. As well as offering them a safe place to interact with a new generation of trans women and debunk myths about the existence of older trans people, their accounts are a powerful reminder of how far transitioning – especially physically – has come in the last 40 years.
“I’m thrilled that today’s generation doesn’t have to risk their lives to align with who they really are,” Sophia says of facial feminisation surgery (FFS), which offers trans women anything from hairline lowering to chin and brow bone shaving. “It’s amazing that you never hear revision stories, because decades ago nobody got it right the first time. Girls would go all over the country to get something fixed again.”
“So many of my friends would be alive if they had the chance to have FFS,” Mardi adds. “A nose job and lip work were the furthest you could go before. If your secondary characteristics kicked in and you couldn’t pass as cis, doctors wouldn’t even recommend you to transition.” Although Mardi admits she initially resented people fortunate enough to receive FFS and similar procedures, she marvels at how much things have changed. “There’s so much that can be done to make you feel comfortable now… Whether you can afford surgery, or if you can’t but you have a support network around you who can champion you to live how you want to live.”
Forming a sisterhood themselves after coming across each other’s channels, TikTok has also enabled Mardi and Sophia to meet other older trans creators including Alexandra Billings and Tranma – whose videos have helped Sophia remember the times when she was a “fearless, unstoppable” person. “It was such a special time – by the middle of my transition I’d get on a crowded subway with the plastic and cream that numbed my face on my way to my electrolysis appointment. I really didn’t give a fuck,” she says. “Seeing them feels validating, and gives me peace to know that another person survived,” Mardi says. “It brings me to tears every time I come across another one on my feed, because we’re so rare.”
@mardipantz Replying to @ronnie420x My 2nd SRS Cancelation Story #1980s #trans #women #mtf #recovery #transandproud #lgbtq #fy #foryoupage ♬ Beethoven-Symphony No.3 in E-Eroica-1
Reading the comments left underneath all of these women’s videos, it’s clear the visibility of trans elders is indispensable. “When I started, there were so many people saying that they’ve never seen an older trans person before,” Sophia, who has earned the nickname of ‘mother’ from her followers, says. “People didn’t know we existed… now they thank me for being on TikTok every day.” For Mardi, the relationships she’s formed with her following and the act of sharing her truth have proven cathartic. “It’s the kind of representation I needed to see when I was a kid. My relationships with these people are healing a wound inside of me,” she says. “It makes me emotional because I can live vicariously through them and watch them do what I couldn’t, like go to school or prom. It fills my heart every single time.”
But the trans youth of today aren’t the only ones that benefit from Mardi and Sophia’s presence on TikTok. “One of the biggest pay-offs for me is the older trans women who live in stealth and message me privately,” Mardi says. Honoured to have reached them, both women feel that by using their voice and sharing their experiences, they’re also honouring their trans sisters that didn’t make it to their age. “A whole generation of trans and queer people that helped me so much when I needed it, died – whether it was AIDS or they were killed during sex work. I feel like I have to speak for them,” Sophia says.
“The most important thing I can do is show that, no matter what, I’m still here.”