The Bribe for Safety: Being Visible on Trans Day of Visibility
Today is the Transgender Day of Visibility. Today is crucial to bring attention to the many transgender and gender-nonconforming people around us and to draw attention to the rich complexity, beauty and struggles of our lives, experiences and communities. This day is also crucial to combat real damage that the lack of trans visibility can create. Trans people suffer discrimination as the result of hyper-visibility that can lead to violence (consider targeted attacks on trans women, particularly trans women of color), and invisibility that leads to isolation and despair.
So, to honor Trans Day of Visibility as I try to do every year, I will be as plain as possible: I am transgender. I am a gender-nonconforming (meaning I don’t ascribe to or identify with traditional gender designations or roles) trans man (meaning I was assigned female at birth and now pass as a man).
In my experience, trans men more commonly experience lack of visibility over hyper-visibility. Even with the big influx of media’s focus on transgender people over the past few years, I’m still confronted with people who are surprised to learn that transmasculine people exist at all. When I come out as trans in professional spaces, many people take that to believe that I actually identify as female and wear women’s clothing outside my work.
Because of the way that testosterone can affect a person’s body, and the ways we communicate and read maleness and masculinity, it is often easier for trans men to pass as cismen than trans women to pass as ciswomen. For me, my most vulnerable days were when I was first presenting as male but before the testosterone I was injecting weekly into my thigh had started to do its work on my body. When people could see that my gender presentation somehow did not match their expectation of me, that’s when I was most easily targeted. And, considering I lived this part of my life in Omaha, Nebraska, the bigotry I experienced was more intense.
Now I sport a beard and I’ve had chest reconstruction surgery. I have lived in New York City for over a decade and in person people most commonly call me Mr. or Sir (except in medical spaces, but that’s a whole other bag of worms). My driver’s license has a big fat M on it and I pass as male, which means in public I don’t suffer the same scrutiny that women do. And I don’t identify as just male. I identify as trans first. But I hide aspects of my trans, gender-nonconforming identity in most spaces for my safety and comfort. I let people believe I’m just “a guy” in order to move through my life without considerable fear.
These afford me some security. So it’d be easy to settle into obscurity, to dismiss my transness, stay safe, hidden. But safety in exchange for invisibility is a bribe I do not want to continue to take. My transness is an important part of who I am and how I pass through the world. I understand my gender as a person who lived on this planet as a woman until I was 26. I grew up being fed the belief that as a person assigned female I was worse then men. That my body would always be inadequate, and yet still desired as a sexual object. That I was not smart or qualified and should stay quiet. These lessons still live inside me. The outward sexism that I experienced in that time, and the sexism I continue to face—as a person who has gestated and delivered a baby and lives with body parts that are ignored and vilified and over-legislated—deeply impacts the way that I move through the world.
I am not willing to give this history or these experiences up; they are part of me, I fought hard to survive them, and I deserve to hold the victories. All people should be able to be proud of their beautiful, unique selves, and should not be expected to stay hidden, lie about our pasts or ignore our histories. Today is the Transgender Day of Visibility. I’m choosing to be out, to be visible, and work to shape a world that can someday embrace my fully authentic trans self.
S. Leigh Thompson