Recently the wonderful Bev Barnes wrote an article ("The Other Side of the Coin," Transgender Forum, 2003 Sep 29) which raised some excellent concerns about the risks and rewards of a trans person being "out" or in their lives, as opposed to hiding their transsexuality by living in "stealth" mode. Ultimately she questions whether the burden of out living is something most transsexual people would choose to bear over the long run.
As a fairly passable trans woman who has been living in a sort of low key out mode for almost two years, I experience both sides of Bev's coin on a day to day basis. Many people in my life and most casual acquaintances have no idea that I am trans, at least as far as I can tell. Many others do know, either because they have read me or because I have told them; or I maybe have been outed in any number of ways--like discovering my web site or that I am a Transgender Forum author, for example. The issues and concerns Bev talks about in her article ring very true in my experience. Bev's discussion sent me thinking down several paths.
At one point, Bev enumerates some of the many doubts and anxieties that plague the out trans person throughout their days. "... Do
we really know what people are saying behind our backs? Do we really know that we were denied service in a store or restaurant
because they were "really" busy or was it that no one wanted to deal with us? ... If you walk up to a group of people and they are
laughing; are they laughing because of some joke or are we that "joke?"" She goes on to state, "We will never know those answers
but I think those questions will always haunt us." I think she is exactly correct in all of this. However, I do not believe that being stealth eliminates these types of worries. When I am temporarily in stealth in given circumstances, I am still trans paranoid! I have an idea that maybe even when people don't explicitly read me, perhaps they somehow smell the queer on me and keep their distance.
And people do keep their distance. I once told my therapist that when I go out to a club en femme, I have a great time even if nobody talks to me or asks me to dance. "Just being there and being myself is enough," I said. "But when I went out as a man, I always felt bad because I thought I should be running around hitting on women; I felt like a failure whether I hit on them and got blown off, or if I just gave up and didn't hit on them at all." (Hitting on them and succeeding was never an issue I had to deal with.) My therapist informed me, "If you had been raised as a woman, you would feel bad because you would think you must not be good enough or pretty enough if no one is hitting on you." Well, I'm happy to say that I've progressed to the point where now I feel exactly like that. However, besides feeling that I'm not pretty enough or good enough, I have the additional burden of wondering if I'm being read, or smelling queer.
Consider this related situation. Suppose I am pretty enough and good enough that a fellow actually takes a liking to me and starts talking to me? Maybe he even tries to get me to come back to his place. It happens from time to time, though rarely. But then I have to worry about how he is going to react when I tell him about my sex change. So far my track record is perfect: either the guy disappears, or else he says, "I already know that; I'm a trannie chaser;" neither of which is a desirable outcome for me.
Being transsexual sucks.
As to the risks of coming out at your place of employment, that's a tough one. I realize there is no pat answer that will be good for everyone. For my part, when I came out at my workplace, I had the mindset that if I lost my job, so be it; I would deal with it. In fact, I told my bosses I would simply go away if they were at all uncomfortable about the impact I would have on their business. Bless them, they turned down my offer and were fully supportive; in fact, they didn't think it was a big deal (for the business) at all. And it seems that they right about that. But I digress. My point is, I was damn well going to confront the world as I am, a woman who happens to have been born transsexual, rather than continue with any masks and game-playing. It wasn't a matter of, as Bev puts it, "educating the world" (although I certainly do try to do that from time to time) so much as living in the world on m own terms. I'm proud of who I am and what I have overcome; I'm not going to hide my past in shame or fear. I'm here, I'm queer, get used to me! I guess if I had a wife and kids who depended on my income, I may have felt more reticent about it. But stealth is a chancy game; is it wise to gamble on it with the welfare of your loved ones?
I also have to admit that I would have a less cavalier attitude if I lived in a place or a time that was much more violently trans phobic
than the circumstances in which I am fortunate to live. The brave trans, lesbian, gay, and bisexual pioneers and activists who went before me paved the path that allows me to dare to indulge in the luxury of my self-righteousness here and now.
Bev said, "One friend told me that as new people come into her firm, they treat her just like any other woman until someone "clues
them in" about her past and then the new people treat her differently." Actually, I never had that experience at work, but I have it all
the time in the social environment. It's gotten to the point where I'm starting to try an anti-stealth strategy. I try to let people know about my sex change without making a big deal out of it, because, if I let them assume I am "normal", it is annoying waiting for the shoe to drop. It is even more annoying wondering whether the shoe has already dropped. For example, I am taking ballroom dancing lessons. Has my instructor read me? I just don't know. But I would interpret certain things he says and does a little differently depending on whether or not he knows. Is he flirting with me because he thinks I'm cute? Or because he thinks I'm a randy
trannie? I know this is all in my head and I should just forget about it--surely he's flirting with me because that's how he gets us old
dames to sign on for more lessons. But it's always buzzing, buzzing, buzzing around my brain. So now I look for opportunities to
drop, "Did you know about my sex change?" into conversations. It's kind of like getting that first scratch on your new car; then you
can stop worrying about it.
Recently I began hosting a spiritual study group (A Course In Miracles) at my
home. As I gathered all of my chairs into the living room to prepare for the first meeting, I realized that there was a picture out in clear
sight on a bookcase. It was an old family portrait from when I was five years old. Should I move it out of sight? If someone in the
group were to take a good look at it, they would be bound to point at my sister and ask, "Is that you?" I decided to leave it where it was. If that happened, I thought I would say, "No, that's my sister. To pick me out, you would probably need to know that I've had a sex change." The group has met in my living room a couple of times now, but so far no one has taken an interest in the picture on the bookcase. Damn! I'm still waiting for my first scratch!
Bev's article poetically concluded: "So I feel that the "crusaders" have a lofty quest but I also feel that they too will lose interest in
teaching the world about TG issues and will eventually go about their lives hoping their past will, like snow, melt away and become
a distant memory on some August afternoon. There is nothing wrong with that. We all can get burned out trying to be the
torchbearer." I don't see that I have a choice between educating the world versus living in feminine bliss. My choice is between
being honest, unashamed, and unafraid of who and what I am, versus spending my life futilely attempting to obliterate and hide from
my past. Being a torchbearer is wearying, but I cannot put an end to it, because the torch is not an object separate from me; it is the
bright light of my own true, beautiful self shining forth.
NOTE: I would love to hear about the experiences of other trans people with living out versus in stealth.
Please write me if you would care to share. I may even incorporate your stories into this
or another essay, if you give me permission to.