Trans-parency: On trans visibility

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Words || Ashton Love 

Today marks the 10th International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDoV), which is held on the 31st March each year. Founded in 2009, it is a day for transgender people to celebrate our lives and raise awareness of transphobia (discrimination against transgender people) and cissexism (the assumption that everyone is cisgender—the term for people who aren’t transgender). Before TDoV, the only internationally observed day for trans people was Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is an event held on 20th November to commemorate trans people who have been murdered. Having this as our sole day to come together as a community was a very sombre reminder of the dangers of being trans, so being able to acknowledge our existence in a more positive way was much needed.

I would consider this the first year that I have been properly visible as a member of the trans community, and that’s made me reflect a lot on my own journey. While I got close to realising I was male on several occasions throughout my childhood, it was when I was around 15 that I consciously concluded that I was trans. Visibility was not an option, as it isn’t for most people who know they are trans but can’t yet do anything about it. I was already scared enough that anyone at my “all-girls’” Catholic high school would find out that I wasn’t straight, so it was hard to tell even a few close friends that I wasn’t actually a girl because of the risk of being expelled (religious organisations are exempt from anti-discrimination laws). Finding stories and first-hand accounts from older trans people was a lifeline.

For any trans person who decides to change their appearance to better reflect their gender, forced visibility becomes inevitable. After getting my hair cut short when I was 16, I was lucky to look just androgynous enough for people to sometimes think I “looked male” if I was wearing enough layers to cover my chest and didn’t speak, and if they only briefly glanced at me. Still attending the same high school, I was in the awkward position of predominantly being seen as female, but also starting to confuse people in public, which is when life can get dangerous for trans people. One of the first things we notice about a person when we first see them is their gender, so making people question this basic assumption can upset them, even if they don’t realise why.

This is undeniably a bigger problem for trans women than for trans men. The trope of a “man in a dress” leads to harassment and violence against trans women who are starting to change their appearance but still have features that are considered masculine. At best this can lead to ridicule, but at worst it’s linked with assault and murder. This is an especially big issue for trans women of colour, who face the highest rate of murder in the entire LGBTQIA community. People who were assigned female at birth are more accepted for having non-feminine interests and appearances than people who were assigned male are for having non-masculine traits, so we tend to be seen as harmless “tomboys” rather than threatening “deviants”.

Many trans people who are at this stage of being “visibly trans” decide that once they pass (ie, once they are seen as their real gender) they will be stealth. This means not telling anyone that they’re trans and going about their lives with everyone assuming they are cis. This was the decision that I had made by the end of high school, when I was desperate to just be seen as male. Being stealth is a lot safer than coming out to people, but that doesn’t make stealth trans people cowards. There’s an idea that stealth trans people are deceitful for hiding the fact that they weren’t assigned the gender that matches their appearance, but it’s completely up to each individual to decide who gets to know that they are trans. Nobody is entitled to this information.

Of course, this doesn’t consider the people that can’t get to that point of passing 100%, either because they don’t want to or because they don’t have access to the required resources. The financial inaccessibility of medical transition is something that affects those who are already the most vulnerable because of how wealth is distributed to disadvantage groups that are already marginalised, such as people of colour and disabled people. But, on the other hand, plenty of trans people are content with how they look when people still assume they are their assigned gender or can’t tell what their gender is. This particularly applies to many nonbinary people (people who aren’t distinctly male or female), who may choose to have their appearance reflect their assigned gender, the other binary gender, or somewhere in between. The downside to living with an androgynous appearance is that there is never the safety that comes with being stealth.

By the time I started university last year, I had physically transitioned to a point where I could comfortably be stealth, and that’s what I decided to do. For the first time in my life, I could exist in a social setting and have everyone see me as a man without knowing that I was trans. It was indescribably freeing. I didn’t have to go through the exhausting process of explaining Gender Theory 101 to anyone new that I met, and I didn’t have to be scared around strangers. Spending so long trying to pass leads to a lot of anxiety about how you look and you spend all your time questioning your appearance and how other people see you. Being stealth gave me time to work on that mindset until I was comfortable being in public again.

Clearly I’m not stealth anymore, as I’m writing an article that anyone can see and it has my name on it. I’m not sure when I made the choice to start coming out to people, but I’m glad I did and it’s been a completely different experience to coming out when people assumed I was a girl. Back then, transitioning meant having to tell everyone who knew me that I was trans. Some trans people completely disconnect from their old acquaintances and start over with a new set of people in their lives, but I didn’t want to do that. On the night of my high school graduation I came out on Facebook. It was a big moment, but it felt like something I had to do, rather than something I wanted to do. This time round, coming out gets to be my choice.

Last year, Audrea Carroll wrote an article for Grapeshot about trans visibility and talked about her own experiences of being stealth and being visible. She wrote that TDoV “is a reminder that, if we have the luxury of passing reliably, it’s worth reaching out and sharing stories with those you can trust, even if it means giving up your quiet.” This is a thought that I wholeheartedly second. One of the reasons that I decided to be open about being trans was that I wanted to help other trans people who can’t speak up or who need someone to look to for support. Choosing to be out when I could otherwise pass puts me in a good position to do that. I want to be that “older trans person” who tells their story to the next generation of trans youth, like all the people I read stories from when I was first working out who I was.

So, this is the first year that I would consider myself a visible member of the trans community. This year, more than ever, trans issues need to be addressed. LGBTQIA rights don’t end with marriage equality, and trans rights have always lagged years, or even decades, behind the rights of the rest of the community. There have been huge leaps forward in the last few months with laws that allow trans children to access medical transition more easily, but other areas are moving backwards. The rise of right-wing politicians in Europe and the USA has seen an increase in transphobia in the laws of these regions, which has a huge effect on social acceptance of trans people across the world. Many gender-affirming surgery prices still aren’t covered by Medicare, despite mandatory psychiatric evaluation to prove that we need these procedures to have a decent quality of life. Nonbinary people aren’t nationally recognised on birth certificates, and are often denied medical transition for not fitting into binary trans stereotypes.

TDoV is a chance to talk about these issues. With the Senate passing a motion earlier this week to recognise TDoV, I hope that this means we’re going to be seeing more legal acceptance, which should lead to less social discrimination. When people take a break from assumptions and stereotypes and really listen to what we have to say about our own experiences, so many people can benefit, especially the young trans people who are just starting to explore their identities. Maybe they will have an easier time finding positive role models than I did. Ultimately, TDoV is a day about celebrating our lives and being unapologetically proud of who we are, and for cis people to reflect on their own behavior towards us. Happy International Transgender Day of Visibility!

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