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Lucy Sante on her memoir 'I Heard Her Call My Name'

DON GONYEA, HOST:

The writer Lucy Sante, author of the books "Low Life," "The Other Paris" and other nonfiction works, lived most of her life as a man. In her mid-60s, though, she realized she had been suppressing her gender identity all those years and finally began the process of transitioning to a woman. It was not an easy decision - fraught with self-doubt and concerns for what it would do to her career as a writer, but she knew it was the right one. Lucy Sante recounts that process in her new memoir, "I Heard Her Call My Name," and she joins us now from NPR's New York City studios. Welcome to the program, Lucy.

LUCY SANTE: Hi. Thanks.

GONYEA: A smartphone app, of all things, played a pivotal role in convincing you to come out as trans. How did that happen?

SANTE: Well, I had a new phone. I had heard about this thing called Face App. I knew there was a gender swap function, and I decided to give it a go to see what I'd look like. I had never, except in my mind's eye, seen what I look like as a woman. And to my surprise or whatever, I saw a picture of an attractive woman in late middle age with my features, and it shook me.

GONYEA: It sounds too like it gave your imagination a nudge almost.

SANTE: Yeah, well, what I did then was start feeding every picture of myself I could find scattered all over my house. Suddenly, it just opened the floodgates. I mean, I had to realize that I was seeing a graphic representation of the life that had been going on in my head for all these decades.

GONYEA: You write that you spent much of your life in - this is a quote - "a complex dance of knowledge and denial" about your gender identity. Explain what you mean by that.

SANTE: On one level, I knew perfectly well that I was trans. On the other hand, for a variety of reasons that shifted over the years, I couldn't do anything about it. When I first thought I wanted to be a girl, I thought I was the only person in the world had ever felt this way. There were no models at all. Knowledge gradually trickled in when I was a teenager. But then there were my parents. There was my society. And then, you know, as years went by, I moved to New York City. I ran with crowds that sometimes included trans women, but I was terrified of them. And I was still terrified to do that because I was ambitious. And if I'd come out any time in the 20th century, I might not have suffered, but I would have been the trans writer assigned to the trans desk. And I didn't want to be - you know, do that for a living.

GONYEA: Can you tell us about some of the challenges and the advantages of transitioning in your 60s, as opposed to, say, your teens or your 20s?

SANTE: Well, you know, I will - no matter how hard I try, I will never be a young woman or even a middle-aged woman. It's kind of heartbreaking. I've done this, and, you know, how far away am I from death, even if I'm very healthy, maybe only 15 years or so. At the same time, I'm in pretty invisible because I'm old, so I benefit from this very harsh thing. Frankly, I'm able to do this with an ordered life. I just retired last year after 27 years teaching college. I have a writing career that's pretty well established. I'm not anywhere near rich, but I can buy myself clothes every now and again. So, you know, it's much easier for me to do this than it is for younger people in general.

GONYEA: Given your own experience, what is your reaction when you see this becoming a political issue?

SANTE: Oh, it's grotesque. I mean, it's under - I mean, it's not surprising. We are an ideal scapegoat. We're an ideal folk devil because we don't have, like, major legal foundations backing us. We are vulnerable. We are weak. The other thing is, you know, if you really think about blurring gender lines or defecting from the ranks, that makes nonsense of male supremacy. Male supremacy cannot stand. That is the thing that people are trying to protect, not protecting women. They're not protecting children. They are protecting the male.

GONYEA: That's interesting. Near the end of the book, you say your story is not the typical trans story. Certainly you're referring to your age as part of that. But I think you're talking about more than that, aren't you?

SANTE: Well, I mean, I don't know if there is a typical trans story. It's partly me speaking here as, among other things, an only child, child of isolated immigrants, etc. I've always been the exception in any room. I've always felt like, you know, I'm the only one. Never looked from somebody reminding me of me in novels or movies, because I always figured there was only one of me, for better or worse. That leads to a statement like mine is not a typical trans story, because really, the outline is what unites us. The fact is that we all feel a discordance between our assigned biological sex and our inner gender.

GONYEA: Lucy Sante is the author of, most recently, "I Heard Her Call My Name: A Memoir Of Transition." Thank you so much for talking to us today.

SANTE: Well thank you. It was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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