On Visibility and My Choice To Live As An Out Trans Woman

I hadn’t even started estrogen the first time someone told me that I don’t “look trans.” As the years have worn on, and the hormones have worked their magic, the backhanded compliment of “I would have never known!” has become a regular part of my interactions with the cisgender population. Even my mother, who still views my transition as an embarrassing family secret, has asked me why I don’t simply stop telling people I’m trans and “just blend in.” When I started graduate school, I spent the 9 months of it living as functionally stealth. The fact that I’m transsexual just never really came up, and it reached a point where it felt awkward. On Trans Day Of Visibility last year, I finally got fed up, wrote the word “trans” on both wrists in sharpie, marched into school, and broke a lot of brains.

When the gay rights movement first started to gain real traction in the 1990s, visibility had a lot to do with their success. As more and more gay and lesbian folks made their sexual orientations public, it put a very human face on concept that was largely nebulous, scary, and “other” to the heterosexual world. It became a lot harder to denigrate queer folks as perverts unworthy of rights or consideration once they realized we were their neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family. Back in 2010, a poll indicated that nearly 80% of Americans knew at least one gay person, and that number has almost certainly risen since. The trans community is currently experiencing a meteoric rise in social awareness, but that awareness is largely driven by the news media and entertainment. You see, when it comes to the kind of personal-interaction visibility that was so successful for the gay community, it’s a numbers game. While we still don’t have super reliable estimates of how many gay people are in the US, we do know that somewhere around 3.5% of population is openly not heterosexual. While it’s more difficult to get an accurate estimate of how many trans people are in the US, current data seems to indicate that we’re probably only a tenth the size of the LGB population. Just in sheer personpower, that’s a hell of a deficit.

When I made the first moves toward transition, I didn’t think I’d have much of a choice about my visibility as a trans woman. I assumed I wouldn’t look terribly cis-normative, that I’d always stick out because of my trans-ness. I’ll admit that, once I was finally completely out and through the worst parts of transition, the idea of just fading into the background was really appealing. Transition made me feel very hypervisible, like all eyes were on me all the time, and it was effing exhausting. I also spent a whole lot of time and energy educating the people around me about transgender issues. While that was certainly as much for my own comfort as anything, it still burned me out eventually. But then, a funny thing happened — my friends started to become advocates. I started seeing posts about trans rights in my Facebook feed. I started seeing and hearing my friends call out on transphobia. When I later asked a few folks why they had suddenly taken up the cause, they told me that having a trans friend suddenly made those issues feel personal.

All too often, the vitriol spewed by the transphobic bigots focuses on dehumanizing us. When you can get people to see us as less than human, it’s much easier to fear us, to exclude us, to do violence against us, to hate us. When we’re nameless and faceless, it’s much easier to turn us into scary bathroom-peeping monsters instead of just nice folks who occasionally need to go pee someplace other than our homes. Othering people is easy when those people only exist as a concept. When trans people choose to live visibly, even just to those in our close circles, suddenly there’s a living, breathing person being attached to those discussions, a very human target all that hate is directed at. And, despite all the shitty subconscious biases people hold, most are pretty unwilling to tolerate hateful attacks on people they care about.

Some of the strangest conversations I have with people center around how poorly I fit into people’s preconceived notions of what trans people are like. First and foremost, I’m queer. It’s astonishing how many people are still quite convinced that trans women are all straight. I also met my lovely queer cisgender partner after I transitioned, which seems to absolutely blow people’s mind. Add to that my relatively unfeminine presentation, and that I don’t “look trans,” and folk’s brains just start to melt. I’ve come to really enjoy those moments. I view every single one of them as tiny bit of progress, as a one more swift blow against the hordes of ridiculous stereotypes about my community that still plague us.

We all know what the image is conjured the public’s mind’s eye when someone says “transgender.” Ugly stereotypes perpetuated by years of exploitative media portrayals. Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Even discussion of our community in the news media often seem to characterize us as some kind of homogeneous, monolithic entity. One of the coolest things about being very connected to the trans community is getting to see just how untrue that notion is. Trans people are a damn diverse bunch! We span just about every variation of presentation, sexual orientation, size, shape, color, faith, interest, career, talent, education, and economic background. We’re defined only by our indefinability. When we allow the world to see us, to meet us, to know us in all our infinite variation, we help destroy those stereotypes.

For me, one of the most beautiful and empowering parts about choosing to live as an out trans woman is knowing that I’m helping to dismantle the deeply fucked up power structures that have plagued us since we first gained access to transition in the middle of the 20th century. The concept of “passing” is largely a construct of the patriarchal cisgender medical world that has controlled our access to hormones and surgery for more than 50 years. When Harry Benjamin first began treating transgender women, he limited his concern to a very specific subset of our population, namely those who were attracted to men, and who could blend into the cisgender world without bringing attention to themselves and making cisgender people uncomfortable. These women were advised to completely destroy any connection to their pre-transition life, and never mention the fact that they were transgender. This was the birth of “stealth,” and those who have controlled our access to medical transition (along with certain factions within our own community) have long stressed it as the preferred end goal. That bias persisted for many decades, and undercurrents of it remain to this day. In essence, the long-standing expectation of trans people has been that our access to the kinds of interventions that make our lives livable and our bodies tolerable is only acceptable so long as it doesn’t offend sensibilities of cis people. By rejecting stealth and the “passing” narrative, I’m taking control of the narrative of my transition, and I’m centering it on my own happiness and comfort. The end-goal of transition for me wasn’t to blend into the cisgender background — it was to reach a personal harmony between my body and mind. I have that now (mostly), and cisgender people’s feelings on the matter is irrelevant. If we, as a community, can reject the concept of stealth as the most desirable of transition outcomes, we start to dismantle some of the historical oppression wrought on us by the medical profession.

The most touching, tear-inducing encounters I have with readers are when someone says “you made me feel like it was going to be okay.” Being trans, especially when you’re first coming out, can feel pretty lonely, and transition often feels like this huge, imposing mountain to climb. I remember how much inspiration I drew from two close friends who started transition just a few months before I did, how seeing them take those first steps made it feel far less intimidating for me to do so. I also remember the blogs I read and videos I watched from other young trans women going through transition that made the process feel survivable, like maybe I was going to be okay. Those women’s visibility and openness basically saved my life, as I’m not entirely sure I’d have ever had the courage to take that first step without them. When I first started blogging almost exactly two years ago, it was largely with the hope that maybe my experiences might strike a chord with someone else and give them the hope or strength they needed to survive their own transition, or just feel a little bit less lost and alone. I treasure every single email, comment, and tweet from other trans people, and it inspires me to push on as a writer and speaker. As much as my decision to live with my trans identity out in the open is about me, it’s just as much about hopefully making the world feel a little less intimidating and little less lonely for other trans people.

At this point in trans history, we have a huge opportunity to smooth the path for those will follow behind us. Because of the socially and medically enforced stealth that persisted for so many years, every new generation of trans people was in many ways stumbling blindly through the dark without a hand to guide them, every lesson having to be learned anew. With the advent of the internet, information about transition become more readily available than it ever had before, but the biases towards stealth and blending in still limited the degree to which trans communities were built, especially outside of the big cities. But now, with more and more trans people choosing to be and live out, and our unprecedented connection to one another through social media, we have a chance to make young trans people (and trans people of any age finally finding the strength to come out) feel that there’s a community waiting to support them, to protect them, to mentor and guide them, to care for them, and to love them. To be visible is sometimes to be a beacon when things otherwise seem dark, a shining light to safe shores for those who feel lost. With the still terrifyingly-high levels of suicide among trans people, we need all the beacons we can get.

There’s definitely a temptation in our community to fall into the trap of giving preference to certain kinds of visibility, out of a desire to “put our best face forward.” Because our community is given so few opportunities to represent ourselves in the dominant media spheres, we instinctively want to give those opportunities to those we feel will do the most good with those limited opportunities. But, too often, that means largely promoting the voices and visibility of white, cisnormative-appearing, conventionally attractive binary-identified folks, almost to the complete exclusion of others. We do our community a disservice when we present such a myopic view of community. It limits the ability of the cisgender population to grasp the depth and diversity of our community, and it destroys an opportunity for those who are at the greatest risk — trans people of color and especially black trans women — to see a face they can connect with and see themselves in. We similarly often end up discouraging the visibility of those perceived as less socially acceptable, particularly sex workers and those who are less educated, out of fear of that this might somehow reflect badly on the rest of our community. This is the worst kind of respectability politics. All trans people have the right to live genuinely and visibly without being shamed or hidden for their occupation, their education, their non-cisnormative appearance, or the color of their skin.

Lastly, we need to remain mindful that visibility is choice, not an obligation. While living out can be incredibly empowering and rewarding, it also has its share of hardships and drawbacks. Living visibly as a trans person, especially a trans person of color, opens you up to the risk of not just discrimination, but also violence and even murder, so there are very good reasons why someone might want to be stealth. Not all trans people are called to be writers, activists, advocates, or educators, nor all those who choose to live visibly required do any of those things. Life as a trans person is difficult regardless. Trans people who desire to simply live their lives after transition have absolutely earned the right to do, and we cannot and should not shame them if they elect to not openly identify as trans. Stealth is a perfectly valid choice for those desire it. As well, as much as we should embrace our trans siblings who do not seek a cis-normative appearance, it’s critical that we not disparage those who do. Those who chose not to live visibly, and/or to seek a cisnormative appearance are not any less trans than those who do, and deserve the exact same love, acceptance, support, and advocacy.

When I give talks about my experiences as a trans woman, as a writer, advocate, and activist, one of the most frequent questions people ask me is “Why?” Why do I choose do this for a living over a better paying, less stressful jobs? Why choose to out myself instead of going stealth? Why share so much of myself and my life through my writing? The answer is always the same. Because someone needs to, because I have the strength for it, because I want to, and because it means maybe someone will have the choice not to.

Mari is a queer lady scientist and educator from Detroit, who skillfully avoids working on her genetics dissertation by writing about queer and trans life, nerd culture, feminism, and science. You can frequently find her running around at science-fiction conventions giving panels on consent culture and LGBT topics or DJing at fantastically strange parties. She is a contributing writer for TransAdvocate, maintains a personal blog at TransNerdFeminist, and can frequently be found stirring up trouble (and posting selfies) on Twitter.

Mari has written 36 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. I’ll say it: this helps me believe that it’s going to be OK. I’m struggling with some of these questions today, and feeling frustrated and scared at being in a workplace where it’s almost certainly not safe to be out, or even vocally queer-positive. This piece is helping me to calm down a bit and, as I say, to believe that yes, it really is going to be OK.

    Thanks for this.

  2. “Visibility is a choice”

    Not for lots of trans people. They have zero choice about their visibility. From what you’ve said, you still situationally choose to be trans ID’d depending on the context. I can imagine you don’t go into a supermarket and tell people you’re trans. There are many trans people (some of the most vulnerable to harassment) who have zero choice in that matter. Yes, I agree with you about you being out has helped normalize trans people in cis people’s minds (at least with regard to you), but it doesn’t necessarily normalize their comfort with trans people in all their interactions. IMO, there is still way too much emphasis on presenting cisnormativity as the face of the trans community. As long as the emphasis is placed on “how normal we look,” cisnormativity will equal authenticity, and that is an assumption which has and will continue to oppress the trans community.

    • My thoughts exactly. I’m more than happy to be openly trans, I think being openly trans is great, but let’s face it – it’s a lot easier if you can choose who you’re out to. As a non-binary person, if I transition in the ways I want(/need) to, I will be visibly trans 100% of the time, whether I like it or not. And that means that I have to choose between feeling at home in my body and feeling safe around other people, because I don’t think I can have both.
      I think things are a bit harder for people who aren’t lucky enough not to “look” trans, no?

    • I really struggle with this on a personal level. I’m non-binary, but I have no desire or need for physical transition. I can easily go through life passing as a woman, especially when I’m in femme-mode. So how can I stand in solidarity with people who are noticeably trans in their everyday lives?

      • I also wonder about how best to stand in solidarity. My wife is trans* and is not out for several very personal reasons. One day we were at the grocery store and there was a woman who I believe had a trans* history. We live in a relatively small, rural town and I wanted to say hi to build community, but my wife said not to, that you never ask if someone is trans*. And so I didn’t but wish that I had.

      • Dina, I feel like you about, and I hope that the world should realize that being non-binary does not require us to physically transition to be accepted as we identify…..that gender is inside, not on the surface. The surface is only an appearance. Thank you for affirming what I think.

      • I really appreciate your comment Dina… we need more people asking that. I wouldn’t presume to answer your question for you, but I might mention something I’ve seen in the wider trans community along these lines. In my experience, I’ve seen many “queer ID’ing/presenting” trans people who refuse to be in proximity of non-passing, not queer/cool trans women… especially those over 40 (I mean like, within 25 feet). I’ve seen numerous trans events where non-passing trans women who, yes, didn’t look terribly queer-up-to-date, literally standing by themselves in a corner while entire groups of younger, genderqueer or ‘passing’ persons ignored them and even gave them sideways looks smelling of judgement. That has to stop and it needs to be called out when it happens. No one is saying you have to be BFFs with someone you don’t connect with, but the ageist, non-passing, not-cool-enough segregation needs to end. There are many events where isolated trans people don’t attend because 1) they aren’t invited and 2) they don’t feel even vaguely welcome.

        • Ah, Gina…. thanks for this….. as a Transwoman who discovered later in life that I have always been female, and cannot transition physically with success, being older is a real issue in being accepted as a female, especially as a lesbian. But the members here at AS, being mainly younger, seem to be more accepting than older lesbians who have more difficulty being able to sense our sincere female identity. Usually, conclusions are jumped to and communication does not develop. If a person identifies as female.. no matter their age or physical appearance, please know that identifying that you are not the gender assigned at birth is a huge emotional revelation in a person who is later in life than most of the members here.
          Thanks for bringing ageism up for comment.

  3. I am at this moment starting HRT and doubt that I will “Pass” so to speak,
    but, am altogether comfortable with the idea that I’m Transgender and I don’t see why I should have to “Pass” to keep the Cisgender majority from feeling uncomfortable in my presence ,We are all human !
    Beautiful writing on your part, a truly lovely piece.
    Go Girl.

  4. I think the article is a bit ridiculing, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of vibe. This woman has made impressive strides in her life as told by her narrative (and by all means, I agree with putting it out there because let’s face it, a successful transwoman is nothing short of miraculous in today’s hyper trans-misogynist social psyche), but there is a certain tone in her article conflating outing oneself is somehow congruent with grassroots change in regards to cis/heteronormativity othering trans/gnc folk. Not to discredit her anecdotal experience, because it is moving (in the very least) that she has been able to spark awareness in her cis friend’s lives just by being her. But I digress.

    Intersectionality, the term we so love as queer and trans folk is not to be overlooked here. If we are going to be jousting the terms or nomenclature of engagement to ourselves (i.e. “passing” as a concept), I think terms such as “stealth” ought to be removed or redefined somehow. Lest not the term for what it is etymologically but the implication being that “being under the radar” is somehow an objective modality.

    Of course people have the “right” to be “stealth”. This goes without saying. It is problematic to arbitrate trans folk’s lives and further dissect, or politicize an already unjustly radicalized minority. It is up to the majority at large-namely cis/hetero world-to catch up to us. What we do (or not) shouldn’t even be part of the situation.

    Age, race, socio-economic status and so forth play a big part. Echoing other comments so far, “passing” is much a hierarchy within the interplay or culmination of all relevant experiences. Being out is not a choice to some. I know it is mentioned (albeit briefly) but again, the emphasis on our collective paths towards equality from a personal standpoint is problematic and shouldn’t be discussed in the tone it is. We are who we are, and discussing the individual’s agency to self-identify only loans itself to the notion of the “reveal” or aka “drawing the curtain” on our deceptive lives. It’s also an incredibly huge privilege to “pass” even if the term or concept is absolutely horrendous. I feel the article could do better in stating how a “passing” transwoman decides to undertake outing herself, because the quality of life between that line [passing] is substantive, to say the least.

    I think it’s awesome she has put herself out there, lord knows this is a time when we need strong transwomen more than ever entering the public foray. For that I am grateful, and wanted to express that even in my disagreement to some of the sentiments in the article.

    My point is navigating life as a transwoman of color (me) is already painted politically enough against my will. Putting or discussing the politics or being fatalist of my decisions in some sort of “butterfly effect” idealogy only pulls against the fact that we are just like anyone else. This discussion will probably be going on for as long as we are existing in the world anyway.

    But all in all, I applaud the writer of this article for being fierce (to say one of many positive things). Autostraddle has continually dropped the ball for transwomen of color, so I don’t go here anymore. Though, this article got me to visit this site once more, and I’m genuinely happy you (Mari) are holding it down for the experience of certain women (trans). So you have my gratitude on that as well too <3

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  6. I’m late, but this is great.

    I applaud your strength, and love reading your work.

    I totally identify with people thinking I would be attracted to men. I was on a road trip with some trans men relatively recently, and THEY were shocked to learn I identified as a lesbian. Yes, I present very in a very feminine manner, but that is when I feel the most like myself. It has nothing to do with who I’m attracted to. (I know, preaching to the choir.)

    Right now, I’m super out and visible. I’m at thirteen months on HRT. I don’t honestly know if stealth will ever be an option for me, and I’m a poor judge of my assistance regarding “passibility.” Being early in transition, I feel like I’ll always want to try and share my story, be visible and try and educate others. But it’s entirely possible that I will get burned out and wish to just fade into cis normativity.

    Anyway, I’m done rambling. Excellent piece!

  7. I’m even late-r, but I also wanted to thank you for writing this piece. I’m doing the whole “hush and read and Google” part of educating myself about trans* issues, and I appreciate all your pieces here. I also loved that you emphasized the importance of each person’s choices being their own and valid, I feel like that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of “doing-it-right”-ness.

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