This article is not about whether “stealth” is good or bad. “Stealth” is a personal choice. Go for it if you want. This post is a condemnation of women who attack and denigrate “out” transwomen from the safety of “stealth”. Remember, “Reading is Fundamental!”
I’ve received emails from a very small handful of transsexual women over the years, dispatched from the deep closeted secrecy of whatever their version of stealth is, telling me that it would be better for “all of us” if I would just “keep quiet”. That being “out” as someone who has transitioned means that I’m not “really” a woman. This isn’t the very widespread and debatable feeling of embarrassment over people identifying themselves as trans who relish being spectacles of trash television or genderqueer self-identified “trannies”. With me, it’s usually more of a “sister to sister” chiding, like one old conservative church lady telling another one that she “really should reconsider that gaudy lawn ornament of the lady bending over and showing her bloomers… what will the other parishioners think?!” You know… kind of polite and sweet, yet still sticking their nose in where it doesn’t belong?
But I don’t think we’re in need of being shushed anymore. And I’m not even talking about being “loud and proud” in a gay pride parade. It’s the quieter daily-life things that a basically assimilated trans woman encounters all the time. For example, I refuse to make up lies about my first Sunday dress and my years as a Girl Scout when a stranger asks me about my past in order to spare them any discomfort with the facts of my history. I hate the fact that I had to transition, and would rather have been born with a female body. I don’t plan to bring it up as a conversational topic with every stranger I meet. But I will not be pressured to make up stories and lies by the Shush Brigade. I personally and internally claim my full history, including the torturous years of growing up forced into the male social role and having to transition my body to match my soul. And I still claim unqualified womanhood. How’s that for a brain twister? Trust me, in twenty years it won’t cause anyone to bat an eye.
I wrote a very short essay containing my feelings toward the Shush Brigade, which I’ve edited a little and posted below. I know that everyone will have their own feelings on this topic. Just remember, this is a response to being told how to live. I’m not telling you how to live. There’s a difference.
To Transsexuals Who Are Ashamed of Transsexuals
Living in stealth can be comfortable, and I can’t deny that I would have tried if I hadn’t been outed so publicly in 1999. But ultimately the facts still exist that most trans women were assigned the male gender at birth, grew up being pushed toward the male social role, and had to undertake a colossally difficult transition to align their bodies and social roles with their hearts. You, I and every other trans woman born before 1990 or so has been through some version of that process.
I am simply living my life with a selective openness about my history. While my soul has always been female, it is simply a lie to say that I did not have to go through some major struggles to attain the physical body and social situation of a woman. I’m just tired of lying about my history. I do not feel that saying “I am a woman” is a lie. But saying or implying that “I never transitioned. I have always lived in the female social role, in a female body” is a lie to me. You may somehow feel differently, but this is how I feel.
I’m not thrilled about having had to transition. I still roll my eyes when people use my old name or photos to chip away at this true version of myself that you see now, finally achieved after so many years of struggle. I never plan to revel in the more hurtful details of my history wherein I struggled within the constraints of living in the wrong body and social role. But I won’t build my life around a lie that says those moments never happened.
I offer the radical idea that I can be both honest about my past and still claim full womanhood. In the minds of many older trans people and conservatives, a history of transition disproves their womanhood so they lie about this history to everyone in their lives. Sometimes even to themselves. “I’m not trans- anything.” Rejecting labels is understandable. Claiming unqualified womanhood is understandable. But if you attack my selective openness about my history, I will remind you that you also grew up for some part of your life forced into the male social role. You also underwent medical, legal and social transition steps. This doesn’t mean you’re not female, but it is a fact of your history. The difference between us is choosing to lie, or to incorporate the truth into our identities somewhere.
And to the smaller set of self-diagnosis fans, unless you’ve been genetically tested, or reliably diagnosed by a doctor, you are probably not intersexed. I’ve seen so many of these Shush Brigade members insult real intersex people by reading a page or two on Klinefelter Syndrome, circling “overweight” and “short attention span” on the symptoms list and suddenly self diagnosing themselves as “intersex”, and so even further away from their hated label of “transsexual”. Co-opting IS identity in this specific way is pathetic, and an insult to people really dealing with IS issues. Get a reliable diagnosis if you really think this is the case, otherwise… save it.
Some conservative gays say they don’t mind other gays as long as they are “quiet” about who they date, what they think and what they feel. “Why can’t you just keep your private life private?” they say. At the same time, heterosexual people freely place photos of their boyfriends and spouses on their desk at work, discuss romance with friends openly and perform their socio-sexual rituals such as dating and marriage with much pomp and circumstance.
Similar sentiments come from some transsexuals who are ashamed of transsexuals (TWAATs, for short), who in my experience usually belong to the old guard who had to transition in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Am I saying that all older transitioners hate me for my philosophy? No.
Am I saying all transitioners who hate me for this philosophy appear to have transitioned in those early years? So far, yes.
All yellow things are not bananas, but all bananas are yellow.
Pretending I never achieved the incredible accomplishment of transition is just not my thing. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you don’t get this at all, and you’re over 30, you never will and we should just agree to disagree right now. And especially, if you don’t like what my visibility is doing for (or “to”) the community, but you won’t leave the safety of invisibility to counter it, then I guess you’re just out of luck.
I do enjoy being able to walk down the street without being called names, and being able to flirt with a handsome man at a party without dealing with the prejudices that usually come from him knowing I’m trans. I don’t wear it like a tattoo on my forehead. But if that handsome guy asks what I do, I will find a way to tactfully explain to him as much as he needs to know, with consideration of how closely we might interact in the future. If Mr. I’ve-just-met-you says, “You must’ve been a very cute little girl” I will probably reply something along the lines of, “Well, I certainly wanted to be” or deflect with “Oh, you’re sweet to say so!” until I choose to discuss my deeper history with him.
A big contention centers around my career as an entertainer. I have always been an entertainer, both before and after transition. There are plenty of women in entertainment who embrace femininity, sexuality and glamour as I do: Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Mae West, Barbara Eden, Bernadette Peters, Rusty Moore, Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr… the list goes on. Those women are indeed emulated by drag queens (the ultimate anaethema to TWAATs) because of their combination of overt femininity and talent for performing. If I were a gay man embodying those qualities, I would be a drag queen: A man dressing like a woman for entertainment purposes. Although I am a woman embodying those qualities, some TWAATs would use my entertainment work to call me a “drag queen”. Obviously, I disagree and say that I simply share the qualities that also drive women like those I mention above.
Can an activity, an action, determine gender or transform someone from being a woman to being a drag queen? Does involvement in gay culture negate my womanhood? I simply answer with: Do women not sing and dance? Do women not wear beautiful clothes and costumes for performances? Do women not wear theatrical makeup and wigs for performances? If doing those things makes someone a “drag queen”, then Britney Spears, Madonna, Diana Ross, Christina Aguilera, Cher, Rita Hayworth, Carmen Miranda and Dolly Parton are drag queens. (Well, Ok Dolly Parton is a drag queen, but in the most wonderful way!)
I wish everyone the best in their choices of stealth or varying degrees of openness. But if people like me don’t work to make the general public more comfortable with transsexuals, people like you will face losing your job, your legal rights, your spouse, your access to medical care and maybe even violence from phobic idiots if you ever slip up even the tiniest bit one single time and out yourselves.
Being out is not for everyone, but remember that it was at one time illegal for someone who was “legally male” to even wear female clothing in public. Your identification papers were quietly changed to say female (and stay that way) because out trans women were willing to fight that legal battle years ago. You can quietly get hormones and surgery from legitimate doctors because out trans women fought for that right years ago. Your neighbor is probably not going to assume you are a child molesting Satanist if you ever were outed because women like me were willing to go on television and show a likeable girl-next-door image.
Update July 1st, 2010: At one time I said this:
I still believe that in many ways, because even the stealthiest hater of out trans women was able to get her medical care in legitimate hospitals instead of back-alley butchers in Cairo or Mexico thanks to the mainstreaming of trans issues. But it’s not 100% correct in all cases. I will clarify with this:
I’m not advocating that every transsexual person be out about their history. It’s a colossally individual choice, and one that was made for me years ago so I’ve never had the luxury of considering it. Living in stealth allows you to avoid most of the stupid, ignorant prejudices that stupid, ignorant people still carry around, and that’s a wonderful freedom. But never forget who walks the line and maintains the integrity of the medical, legal and social safety wall that surrounds your Shangri-la of comfortable privacy.
Your bubble may pop someday, and it will be our work that means the difference between some social embarrassment vs. complete ruin for you when that happens.
Feel free to share this note with anyone who has similar questions. It’s an important idea to get out there to those women who live comfortably in the stealth bought with years of risk and battle by women who were not so comfortable.