On Visibility, Cisnormativity, and Stealth Lifestyle

I was 18 years old when I started transitioning, mostly out of desperation. I grew up in the rural south, long before Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox dominated headlines. The only transsexuals I found in media were caricatures of sex workers and punchlines in awful comedy skits. Now, over two years later, trans women are more visible than ever, but me? I’m the most invisible I’ve ever been. I’m read as a cisgender woman, and I’m complicit in this: I know the consequences of being openly transgender.


Y’all have got to be sisters

I was just past a year on estrogen, on a bus in Savannah with my ex-girlfriend. She was cuddled up to my side, we were holding hands. He was loud, brutish, and exactly the kind of man I’d always avoided – and feared. His words struck more like “y’all better be sisters“, and I can’t imagine what he’d have done if he knew we were both lesbians, let alone trans women. My safety is contingent on this invisibility. This is how I survive.

Cis people speak to me like I’m one of them: transphobia seems perpetually at the tip of their tongue. I wish I could say I was always quick to challenge them, using my privilege as a tool, but I’m not. Disclosure of my trans status is on a case-by-case basis. Not every battle is worth fighting, and not every transphobe is worth engaging. And I’ve found, more often than not, outing myself as a transsexual does very little to curb cis people’s transphobia, and does a lot to make my life harder.


I’ve clocked every trans person I’ve ever seen

I’ve heard these words come out the mouths of cisgender “allies” and reactionaries alike too many times. Of course, they didn’t know who they were talking to. It’s confirmation bias – based on certain assumptions about what trans people look like.

It’s an interesting position to be in. On the one hand, you’re the “respectable” type of trans woman – you meet all the bullshit standards society proscribes for women. Yet on the other hand, you’re invisible – you don’t exist. Society makes no accommodation for our existence, so we live on the fringes of society or hide our transsexual history away.


I never would have guessed

Many of us who can disappear into the shadows do disappear. I can’t blame them: there’s nothing comforting about being out in our society. Disclosing is not just uncomfortable, it’s dangerous. I fear that my friends will find out and out me to everyone; I risk discrimination and harassment.

But what happens when disclosure is required? When I dated men, I feared violence in response to disclosing my trans status, but increasingly, it’s difficult to come out to people, short of shouting “I have a penis” from the rooftops. Cisnormativity weighs hard on people’s minds. The core assumption is always that the people you meet are cis, that they should be cis, and that you’d know it if they weren’t: What do trans women look like, anyway?


Visibility & Vulnerability

Girls like me – who live up to cisnormative standards – experience conditional cissexual privilege, giving us an advantage over those in the trans community who do not “pass” as cisgender, but this privilege is precarious – and we know the stakes of losing it.

I often find myself with contradictory concerns: crippling paranoia that someone could know juxtaposed against a suffocating reality where no one knows. My decision to live stealth was never rooted in shame, but shame resulted from living in eternal limbo – disconnected from everyone, cis and trans alike. We’re a social grey area, invisible to society at-large.

Because of this, I’ve developed contradictory thoughts on visibility. I want to use my privilege to uplift all trans people, not just those who look like me, but I still don’t disclose to everyone I meet. Visibility is vulnerability – it’s a blessing and a curse. In 2016, with more trans visibility than ever, we’re still seeing an uptick in transphobic sentiments – and violence – expressed throughout society.

Visibility is not one trans lady shouting from a rooftop, but rather many trans people shouting from many rooftops, demanding to have our voices heard. The transphobia surrounding us makes this visibility dangerous, and we ought to be mindful of the type of representation we’re receiving nowadays.

But my own internalized transphobia was the worst transphobia I’ve ever faced. After the isolation of stealth lifestyle set in, I made an active effort to make new trans friends, and the world doesn’t seem so lonely anymore. Befriending other trans and queer people has normalized my own experiences – it’s pushed me to love myself and feel more at peace with my own trans experience. I long for the day when I can live openly and without consequence as a transsexual woman.

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