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Bernie Wagenblast
Courtesy Bernie Wagenblast

Bernie Wagenblast, the voice of the New York subway, came out as a trans woman last year. Now, she's sharing what it's like living her authentic life.

Behind every voice we hear in our lives lies a story. Some remain secrets out of fear, embarrassment, or because no one asks to hear them. When someone steps forward, shrugs off the trepidation, and has the courage to tell their story, we should listen.

Bernie Wagenblast, the voice of the New York City subway, had a metaphorical burning splinter in her finger for over 60 years, and through constant pain, loneliness, and heartache, she had to live another life. Now that life is finally hers.

Last year, when she came out publicly, I wrote a column about Wagenblast. I wrote, “That voice is poetry, like balm on a dreary excursion. The voice is reassurance that we are headed in the right direction. Our reminder of how far we have to go. Our reality check that says it’s time to go to work. It welcomes us home.”

At 67, Wagenblast is finally home now after a lifetime of feeling so far away from who she really was. The voice inside her head about who she really was was as constant as Bernie’s voice in the everyday life of New York city commuters.

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The New York Times recentlywrote a lovely pieceabout Bernie. In it, you can read about Wagenblast's life growing up in New Jersey, where she still lives, her dream of being on the radio. You can also learn about her long career in the transportation industry as a communications professional, traffic reporter, and the voice for a variety of systems in and around NYC that also include the AirTrains at Newark and JFK airports. She also talks frankly about her family and somewhat about her journey.

What she went through is incredibly difficult. And her coming-out is also incredibly courageous. Wagenblast told me one of the reasons she came out was to help educate people, and after our heartfelt conversation, I can say that Wagenblast had a profound effect on my ongoing attempt to better understand what it’s like to be transgender.

I wanted to start our conversation metaphorically, and I asked her if even after all these years, when she walks into the NYC subway and hears her voice, does she still recognize it and take notice? “There's still that sense of wonder that when I hear my voice on the train, that I can't believe that I am in some way such a part of New York City,” she said during our video call. Bernie was lovely, in appearance, demeanor and voice.

Wagenblast also had the same reaction when she first heard her voice on the radio, and decades later she still marvels at the sound. “The sense of accomplishment far exceeded my expectations, and the same thing has been true of my gender transition,” she said.

While we were talking, Bernie caught her reflection on her computer. “To see this image of myself up in the corner of the screen with the longer hair and a feminine top is still a pinch-me moment. Is this real? That’s really me.” Wagenblast is absolutely real.

For a long time, New Yorkers, without knowing it, have been interacting with a different Wagenblast every day while traveling through the city’s underground stations and tunnels. But now they are becoming familiar with the real Bernie.

Since she came out as trans, she’s been a media sensation. Yet, despite all the exposure, did she think New Yorkers knew her any better? “Can you really know a person from an article or from hearing their voice?” Wagenblast asked. “You know, there are so many nuances to every individual. So there are a lot of things that people don't know, but I would certainly say they know me far better than they did before I came out.”

But will they ever really understand Wagenblast? She paused. “I think again, only other trans people can fully understand what that struggle is like. Yes, there are people I've told, but nobody other than a transgender person, whether they have or haven't transitioned, truly understands what it's like to not feel comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth, and only a trans person, I think, can really understand that.”

And no one, other than a trans person, would understand the enormous pain. “I liken it to having a splinter in your finger. You will always know it's there. It's uncomfortable, but you figure out how to go on and live with it. And that was what my life was like. I knew it was always there. I was always aware of it. But I had to live my life.”

For Wagenblast that meant pursuing her dream career in radio and communications. It also meant getting married, having children, buying a house, paying the bills, and taking care of her family. “All the things that go into anybody's life, I had to do, but that splinter was always present. You're aware of it, but you go on despite the pain.”

There were times when the pain was more prevalent, Wagenblast recalled. “I can't explain why there were moments when it would increase in intensity, versus other times, but there was never a time where I said, ‘Oh, I don't have to worry about this anymore. I'm over this.’ It never went away.”

Was that ever-present pain as intense at 13 years old as it was at 60? “I think it stayed constant, from the time I was a teenager and for the rest of my life. I think what changed was the fear. The 13-year-old Bernie was very afraid of this ever getting out, and the 60-year-old Bernie was still afraid but had reached the point where she was ready to stop denying who she was and less afraid of coming out or however you want to phrase it.”

During all that time, did Wagenblast ever think that there would come a day when that nagging, aching splinter, so to speak, would go away? “I think I hoped it would, but I really did not expect it. I remember thinking, not that many years ago, when I die, would I be seen by the world as a man or as a woman? And I was pretty convinced it would be as a man.”

What was it like for Bernie to see the reflection of that man in a mirror every morning? Did it exacerbate the sharpness of the splinter? Wagenblast said that she never looked away in disgust at her image in the mirror or in any photos.

“Let me start by saying that transgender people experience this dysphoria in different ways. I never experienced body dysphoria in the sense of being uncomfortable with who I saw in the mirror. What I experienced, I would call, and I don't know if this is a real term or not, or I just made it up, but I went through social dysphoria. I did not feel comfortable or, better still, I wanted to be seen by other people as a woman and to be seen by women in particular as one of them.”

For Wagenblast, there was only a doom-and-gloom consequence if she ever wanted to live freely as a woman. “I exaggerated the struggle and fear in my own mind as to what it would take to be a woman. I imagined a worst-case scenario of not looking very good, of being a laughingstock, of being rejected by almost everyone. And it turned out that none of that was true.”

When she began to see herself as a woman, Wagenblast's social dysphoria dissolved into a completely different experience. “The gender euphoria I felt when I was seen as female was wonderful, and that still amazes me, and I wonder if that's ever going to go away. I hope it doesn't because I really enjoy it, and I really and truly feel it.”

That euphoria rises in so many subtle ways and could be something as simple as hearing people use she and her pronouns when they are referring to her. “I had a friend that visited me the other night who is contemplating transitioning but still presents as a man. And when I referred to her as she, she just felt butterflies, because it's the first time she had heard somebody using that pronoun when referring to her. I think she felt seen, in a sense, for the first time when I said that.”

What does Wagenblast think about all those who are not seen, out of fear, hate or rejection? Or those who are young and see their gender-affirming care being thwarted by extreme-right legislation? “I would talk about how much pain could be avoided. For me, I lived in a time when I could not have had my real gender affirmed as a young person. I've known my real gender since I was at least 4 years old. That's my first memory of it. And you know, I certainly would not have said that that 4-year-old was ready to make a life-changing decision, but at 4 I knew who she was, and that only was confirmed more and more as I went on through life. And that was a lonely feeling.”

Especially for those who are young, who often feel like they are the only person in the world who feels the way they do. “That's a scary, lonely feeling. I thought there was nobody else that was uncomfortable in their gender. It’s very scary to think you are so different from everyone else that there is no one else like you.”

And regarding all the atrocious bills that are proliferating in red – and some blue – state legislatures around the country, Wagenblast said people can see right through the intent. “I truly believe that much of what we're seeing around the country is a way that politicians feel they can score political points," she said. "It’s just dirty politics. I don't know that many of these politicians truly believe what they're saying about these bills. I think a lot of it is driven by religion, unfortunately. And I would say hatred is driving them, and hate is not something that is religious.”

Wagenblast feels for the children and recognizes that these politicians and these bills are denying not just the children but their parents as well, who know their children better than anyone else. “They're also denying medical professionals who are the only ones who know how these people should be treated,” she said.

“I think if there’s one positive thing about what’s going on is the fact that kids today, at the very least, know there are others like them through the stories of others who are sharing their stories, particularly on social media,” she continued.

“I hope by telling my story that I can help others feel less isolated, and also educate those who hate or don’t understand or are willing to learn about what life is like for us,” she said. “It's a lot more difficult because we're a much smaller percent of the population, especially those of us who are out. But if I can make a small contribution by being out and to have people see a trans person as someone who's part of their everyday life, who is doing the same things that everybody else is doing, then that's my contribution.”

Wagenblast added: “I’m proud to be a part of so many millions of New Yorkers’ everyday life, just by being a voice that they hear in the subway station. And now that they know this aspect of my life, they perhaps will see trans people somewhat differently.”

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.