A celebration, an exploration, an extrapoloation. [~2,300 words.]
Today is the annual Trans Day of Visibility (TDOV), one of two holidays recognizing trans people. It’s a significant day for a lot of reasons, but the most salient significance behind TDOV is that being visibly trans is still a revolutionary act that flies in the face of the two main forms of transition that have been options historically.
Stealth mode–a lifestyle that involves moving to a new place to transition and hiding your past from your present–is maybe as common now as it was when the Golden Girls did an episode about it. The core of the idea is still appealing, especially in situations where violence is the expected result of coming out. And there’s something that runs deep about its possibilities; I can remember my own fantasies, after moving to a new school in second grade, of moving again to another district and starting over as a girl.
Conversely, life in the closet is still a reality for many. This can be an especially brutal path for the trans-feminine types who may compartmentalize their self-expression around work, marriage, family, and friends. Some of the middle-aged trans women I’ve met have hard and fast lines between two personas. But the nature of these systems is often unsustainable, and the trans identity is often the first to get the axe whenever shit hits the fan, as it’s often not there for anyone other than the individual in question anyway.
I worked for a very long time to keep my gender variance invisible, hidden in closets both proverbial and real. The clothes I secreted away, like the identity I actively hid, were strategically stashed in drawers under boxer briefs and paint-splattered t-shirts. The only time they ever left the various bedrooms I had through these early years was in dark black trash bags I’d leave on the curb as a physical monument to the shame I wanted so desperately to dump. And that act–of turning whatever affirmed me to myself into trash–is easy to read as the grand metaphor of my relationship with my gender through my teens and early 20s.
For about ten years, I toed the edge of a cliff, contemplating when a single, big step would take me over and down into an oblivion I was trying to prepare myself for. Suicide was my career goal, my life plan, my American dream. Sometimes, it was because I was too sad to continue. Sometimes, it was prompted by a pain I felt but couldn’t see or name. But mostly, it was just because I didn’t know what else I would do. Nothing made sense the way that death did.
I was hiding in the closet, flirting with a fall the foretold finality because I was convinced that my only path to happiness was as a straight boy. I’d been punished for everything else. Getting outed as bi in 8th grade brought on 5 years of Internet death threats and hallway harassment in high school. I’m not really sure it would’ve even mattered if I’d been somewhere other than an Ohio farm town, except maybe that I wouldn’t have felt so totally alone. Whatever the case, it was all more than enough to push me back into a closet whose door had been ripped open from the outside.
I stayed in the dark through college, indulging and purging a habit I conceptualized as cross-dressing. I pursued hetero relationships with cute, brainy girls while at the same time getting my rocks off alone in my dorm room to kinky Internet shit, which served as the sole source of validation I had for my feelings. I had no other way. (What I would’ve given to grow up near a thriving drag scene or–fuck–even a good local theatre.)
But as the mother cat of feminist theory picked this kitten up by the scruff of its neck and carried it to safer thinking, I started to see that there was more to myself than a gender-bending kink. My solo sex life started to be less validating as I realized the femininity these activities affirmed for me was not a femininity I was proud of; rather, it was a compromise I made to feel any femininity at all. As I started to play out my fantasies in bedrooms with partners, I learned I never wanted to be a porn star; I just wanted to be a girl. Opening up my closets–again, the proverbial and the real–changed my perspective on just what it was I was hiding.
Around the time I started to be honest in my romantic relationships, things picked up on the cultural level, too. Laverne was on the cover of Time, Caitlyn was on Vanity Fair, and Laura Jane Grace was on WTF w/ Marc Maron. Seeing real trans women represented in the media changed everything for me. They weren’t XXX sex objects or Monty Python jokes or campy serial killers; they were people like me, who disagreed with what society told them about who they were based on a chromosomal coin flip.
I finally saw something that I could call (even though I think it sounds dopey) my destiny. And it didn’t involve running away to Brazil or Thailand for a sex change operation and a life of prostitution like I had always thought it would. For years, I had thought I was a sexual deviant with no right to call myself a trans woman. But, in seeing and hearing trans stories, I saw that I could be both.
So I got on Tumblr and tried my best to plug into its trans community. I was following five new blogs a day, gorging myself on vocabulary, issues, terms, and what this community really was and what they valued, despised, and hoped for. After bringing me death threats from classmates and pornographic delusions of myself, the Internet had finally brought me a community I could be a part of.
And as much I was learning from reading on Tumblr, I was learning from writing there, too. I knew I needed to undo the 20+ years of social skills that the world had handed me and that I’d self-imposed in order to pass as a cis boy. My Tumblr was the first place I started to experiment with self-expression in a way that wasn’t restricted by the norms of masculinity that had gnawed at my every waking moment for as long as I could remember. (Here’s a fun one I still remember: If you’re ever worried about whether a not a seated position is too femme, place at least one foot firmly on the ground. Repeat with the second if the desired effect is not immediately achieved.)
On Tumblr, I learned not just what words like misgender, deadname, and non-binary meant, but I also learned how to take selfies I actually wanted to see and write things without checking myself for–pardon the term–the “fagginess” I’d sought to eradicate from every aspect of my being from age 13 on. Like a war boy on the Fury Road, I called to my sisters to witness me. (Small caveat: I’m more partial to silver around the eyes than on the lips.)
My early experiments on Tumblr led me to recognize this really common trope in a lot of movies and TV shows with trans characters, where the trans character is staring into a mirror. It’s not unlike when a cis character does the same thing, but the meaning is so much clearer with trans characters: The person they’re seeing isn’t who they are. I’ve come to resent that every trans character seems doomed to battle with a mirror in their journey, but the anguish that was telegraphed in these scenes reached me when I would log in to the Facebook that bore my deadname. That boy’s profile, his likes, his profile pictures with the smile and the bottle rocket–they were wrapped in lies I’d told myself and hoped no one else would see through.
Social media has become a reflection of our selves in ways we couldn’t anticipate when it first started, and having a blog where I was Lucy meant that, for the first time in my life, I actually saw myself reflected in a virtual space.
That visibility rocked me again, the same way opening up to girlfriends and seeing trans women in the media had. My toes left the edge of the cliff–maybe only because I needed to focus on applying my eyeliner, but that was enough for me.
Like many trans people, I fled home, eager to distance myself from the fabrication I’d woven. I moved to Chicago and, after a few months here, started to actually leave the house as Lucy, to meet people as Lucy, and to date as Lucy. It was so natural and freeing even as I quaked with the nerves of this newest experiment. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s shaky hands stitching his monster together, I vibrated in anticipation and uncertainty of what I was creating.
But the results were a success. My roommates and my therapist noticed a shift in my energy when I got to be Lucy. My relationships with booze, pot, and cigarettes have all shifted, especially in the last month as I’ve been living practically full time; I rely on all of them less than ever before. Being seen brings a strong cocktail of relief, empowerment, and possibility to my lips, one that’s sweetened with the fruits and love and acceptance from friends and, more recently, family.
What I’ve realized is that it took more work to conceal my identity than it does to conceal my 5 o’clock shadow. (And, honey, it ain’t easy.)
But being out and proud is not the simple blessing it may seem; there are still curses I must ward against. While I might be “passable” (a highly problematic term) when I get a good selfie up on Instagram, even a 1,000-word picture is easier to frame, crop, and edit than the endless stream of noise that flows through our daily world. I still have to contend with how my reality intersects and interacts with the realities of those around me.
I have to know and be prepared to react to the fact that my voice is too low even for a lot of Winehouse songs, my feet are too big to shop for heels (or even cute flats) anywhere but drag stores, and my fat is all still in the middle of what would be my hourglass. Aside from the crop of darks hairs that sprout there, my jawline is a giveaway to a keen eye. And the true experts might even notice when I feign grace to adjust my tuck.
I don’t always have a choice on whether or not I’m visibly trans, and it’s one of the scariest parts of the whole process for me. It’s the same kind of fear that makes me nervous about having my name on lists in trans-focused social work offices; like those lists, I worry about what might happen if the truth of my identity falls into the wrong hands.
With visibility comes vulnerability, and I’m still getting used to getting clocked as trans, to being misgendered willfully by strangers, and to the constant anxiety that comes with simply walking down the street in even the nicest, gayest neighborhoods as a visible trans person.
Every time I go out to eat, my visibility means a waiter or waitress is going to have to make a decision on a pronoun that they never seem to want to ask about. (I really have to work for it if I want even a tentative and uncertain she.) When I buy a six-pack of beer in make-up and a dress, I have to hand over an ID that has a very telling “M” in a specific spot. (Imagine the fun of watching every bouncer’s first reaction to your forced outing just for trying to get into a bar.) And unless a bathroom is explicitly gender neutral or a restaurant/coffee shop/whatever is explicitly trans friendly, I wait until I get home to pee. (That’s right–I’m afraid to use your bathrooms.)
Even the women who bore torches for me early on have disappointed me. Caitlyn is a hot mess of bad representation. [Read more of my thoughts on her.] Laverne is slated to be the new Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a character with some seriously problematic traits. [Read more of my thoughts on Frank-N-Furter and the Dr. Frankenstein who created that character.] And Laura Jane’s new memoir has maybe the most unfortunate title in the history of memoirs. [Trigger warning: T slur.]
But I can’t be invisible anymore. Coming out has been to empowering for me to ever consider letting it go or trying to undo the progress I’ve made. Even as I feel the vulnerability of being trans and of being a woman (some guy stalked me for three and a half blocks this week just to ask for my number), I’m not willing to hide anymore.
I just hope that on this Day of Visibility, all my trans siblings understand why. Plenty of us are still hiding, and that’s okay. It’s not wrong to protect yourself from the stigmatization, harassment, and violence of transphobia. But I’ve learned that I couldn’t wait for society to accept me. I couldn’t hide forever in the hope that someday I could be visible and unafraid.
If I had waited, my toes would still be on that cliff, and I would’ve never learned that the ability to fly makes every fall a lot less scary.