Back in the day (not too long ago, and still today) transgender people were advised to move far far away where nobody knew who they were and there’d be no trace of their previous life. The fact that one used to be a different sex was shameful, worth hiding at all costs. The intent of transition was to “pass” as the desired gender – male or female, only – integrating oneself into a society where a different-gendered past does not exist. Never revealing one’s transsexual history was a marker of success. It was and is perceived as secretive, deceptive, safe.
In a general sense, stealth signified post-transition invisibility. But how can we as a community make strides for our rights if we’re not visible? If nobody comes out, loud and proud, we’re perpetuating the stigma of the transsexual.
Yet some people face real or potential danger should they reveal their trans status. Others regard their identity as a birth defect which, once corrected, calls for no further attention. Some people are just tired of coming out, over and over and over again. They’ve become wary of telling friends, co-workers, or even family, that they’re trans. Isn’t that the goal anyway – to be seen as, treated as, to wholly embody your target gender?
It’s not a secret, it’s not a lie; it’s a personal choice.
The Right to Privacy
There are some things in your life which you keep more private than others. People can be choose to tell someone about their trans identity/status/history, or about their heart condition, or about their obsession with rom-com chick-flicks. They can choose to tell their partner, perhaps even joke about it with friends, while never letting on with co-workers.
“Stealth” is not all-or-nothing: it’s a gradual gray of intersecting layers. You are in control; you choose who you tell, how much, and when. Like everything else, it’s a spectrum.
What about Non-Binary Stealth?
But what does stealth look like when your gender is not male or female?
This question lingered over me for several years. I saw it as yet another unsolvable piece of the non-binary transition puzzle, trying to fit into a world where my gender does not exist.
So I went back to Lesson 1: Stealth = Disclosure.
It’s not about “passing” (whatever that means), it’s not about a “successful” transition (whatever that looks like) or a “complete” transition (life is never complete). It’s simply a spectrum of who you tell about your trans status. And as a non-binary person, I still wield the power of disclosure. It just took me a while to realize this.
A Private Transition
For over 2 years, I transitioned in silence. Other than my signifiant other, I “came out” to my immediate family as trans, and informed them that I was having top surgery a few weeks before. They never understood – and never asked – much beyond that.
Nobody else around me knew about the transformations in my life. I’m generally loud and outspoken, and while not an extrovert, I will make my thoughts heard. However, I’m also private, carefully guarding my true feelings and innermost desires.
Like breadcrumbs, I’d slowly and deliberately drop hints. I wanted others to know, but I was not ready to tell them; this inner conflict pulled me in opposite directions for far too long. Even the way I came out was very public, but very passive: I published it in my personal website, in fine print and at the very bottom, letting people discover it on their own.
In a way, I was stealth.
Coming Out vs Being Stealth
To remain stealth in my situation, however, would’ve required me to remain in the closet, which is not exactly the same thing. To continue my transition, I had to come out. There is a difference between coming out for the first time, and remaining stealth post-transition; to get to one you have to cross the other first.
I was afraid. I was afraid of being vulnerable, of being awkward, of being too honest too soon, and afraid of what I’d lose after coming out: my privacy, my right to disclose, my right to choose who, what, and when to tell.
In truth there has never been a real coming out moment for me, rather a series of moments where I reveal to someone a piece of information regarding my identity, my name, my pronouns, or simply how I preferred to be seen as and referred to. Sometimes – rarely – I manage to explain my gender in some fashion.
I also erroneously believed that I would forever remain “visibly” trans. I was under the impression that everybody could easily notice I was trans just by looking at me, a label I’d never be able to shake off. But a trip out of my daily bubble never fails to challenge that notion.
People perceive me as either a boy or a girl, and sometimes they are genuinely confused, torn between the two. But none of these cases imply that people think I’m transgender. If people see me as male, then I’m simply male – a boy, perhaps a dashingly handsome young man, but nevertheless male. If they see me as female, then that’s what I am – someone with itty bitty titties (wherever they see those), probably a lesbian (because of the short hair of course). If they see me as potentially both, it means they’re trying to figure out which one I am; it does not mean they’ve concluded I’m trans.
I should read my own advice, as I’ve written about this before: people see only what they want to see, someone whose gender expression might be ambiguous, but a person’s gender – or actually, sex – is usually not considered to be ambiguous. They think the problem lies with them and their inability to put the puzzle together, not with me and my ability to blur gender lines. “Transgender” is simply not something that crosses people’s minds very often.
In some ways you can be non-binary and stealth; it all depends on your personal definition of stealth – or the spectrum of disclosure – as well as the unique combination of your personal physical, social, legal, and emotional gender goals.
Today, I am still low-disclosure, although certain events have propelled me to loosen up. By nature of the advocacy work I do in the trans community, I’m forced to be “out” more and more, often just by virtue of being introduced to someone in a certain context. Eventually I know I’ll consolidate my two identities, but for now I choose to keep some stuff private.
27 thoughts on “Disclosure is a Spectrum”
Another lovely piece. Tired of coming out touches a chord. It is similar with illness, especially psychiatric or terminal. Even in situations where there is understanding, one becomes fatigued explaining. Hearing the stories of others. “Over-caring”. Not being left to just get on with things.
There are many aspects of our lives we choose to disclose or not at various times, and nobody sees that as wrong or deceitful. People often forget that being trans is similarly just one of these.
The difference, I think, is that sex/gender is seen as one of the most basic, unalterable tenets of human being. Since people are not going to assume you’ve altered it, therefore the burden of disclosure is assumed (wrongly) to be upon you. Also gender is treated as “public information” – everybody’s gender is immediately discernible – as opposed to say an illness, which can be invisible most of the time.
Beautifully put. Do you mind if I share this (on my blog)? I feel this could help other trans* people and parents of trans* people.
Yes, please reblog! I’m glad you found it helpful.
Well-said, and you touched on some things I’ve been thinking about for months. Your “trickle-down” method of coming out mirrors what I’m going through right now– I have it in a few visible places (away from family if they don’t dig) that I’m queer/”not cis”, but I’m not ready to explain what exactly that means just yet. I’ll be able to someday… and like you, it’ll probably be in the weeks leading up to a surgery.
Reblogged this on images on concrete words on paper.
You hit on a great point about “disclosure” vs “passing.” Its still very ingrained to “pass” within rigidly defined gender roles, even if those gender roles are being relaxed for cis-folks. It makes it somewhat easier for me to get away with being perceived as a tomboy, as opposed to the (I’m assuming) nightmare of coming out publicly as non-binary non-transitioning. This article helps me feel a little more comfortable in my decisions to NOT fully disclose, and yet still feel my identity is valid.
That’s why my biggest gripe with understanding Stealth as it relates to non-binary was the underlying assumption that stealth necessitates passing. But what does passing really mean as a person that is not seen or meant to be seen as male or female?
Reblogged this on This Mongrel Land and commented:
I really like what Micah has to say here about non-binary visibility and how that relates to coming out/disclosure.
Thanks for writing. I linked on my blog ( http://funcrunch.livejournal.com/366143.html ). I’ve always been public about the ways I deviate from the mainstream, so I’ve been pretty public about my gender transition as well, but as a nonbinary I feel like I almost have to be outspoken if I want my trans* status to be visible.
It’s ironic how as non-binary we have to be outspoken for our gender to be seen, yet I felt like my transgression of gender would always be visible.
Being in the Bay Area makes it both easier and harder to be gender-transgressive. As we were both discussing over on Matt Kailey’s blog the other month (http://tranifesto.com/2013/08/19/ask-matt-trying-out-a-new-name/), in San Francisco a FAAB person wearing short hair and androgynous clothing just gets read as a butch lesbian, not nonbinary or transmasculine.
Reblogged this on thinkadoptlove and commented:
Please take a moment to learn about post-transition issues for trans* people. Very good information. 🙂
Even though I am “out/proud”, there is a lot I identify with in the “tired of ‘splaining’ stuff” or just wanting to be. I think this was an excellent article (as always) my friend. I dislike the word “passing”, even though I am probably more binary (non-binary as spectrum?) than you are, I feel it implies lying and so on. But I keep using the damn term. It’s useful but still….
Passing is another term that has similar murky connotations as Stealth. It’s still useful, but we have to unpack it first.
This is my bag, too. Interesting to apply the word stealth to it: it’s similar to stealth for binary people, in that few people read me as trans, but it’s different too, because almost no one is reading me as my gender either. It’s better than the alternatives (being solely read as male or as female), but I still find it frustrating to pass under the radar instead of being seen as intentionally both/something different altogether. Instead, people assume the failure to figure out my gender lies with them—which can be pretty funny, but still. I might have to come out in a more active way if I ever want to break out of this “stealth” state… but I don’t have the first idea how to do that, and I’m too scared anyway.
yes to all of this. even after “coming out” i face this dilemma often.
“Eventually I know I’ll consolidate my two identities, but for now I choose to keep some stuff private.” This is where I am right now, again. I am considering how to integrate male/female and how to integrate Kyle with the name and identity most people in my life know me as. Am having lots of conversations with my wife about this, gaining a lot from her perspective. And yes! – what is passing for a non-binary person? I don’t pass as bi-gender because like you and others who’ve commented here, I get read as whatever people are comfortable reading me as – butch lesbian, trans guy, cis guy. If I want to be seen and understood as bi-gender, I have to disclose.. and not just once, but in repeated conversations, usually. *shrug* It doesn’t always bother me, I figure people will see what they expect to see and I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to correct everyone’s perceptions.
Much to ponder.
Such an interesting read! As a non-binary person I’ve thought about this too.
I’m out on the internet but not at work. I’m out to immediate family but not extended. I’m out to friends but not to acquaintances.
But am I just being stealth or not fully out of the closet? I’m not sure.
People definitely see whatever they want to see. People see me as female, occasionally as lesbian (if they subscribe to stereotypes), and very rarely as male. They never see me as trans or non-binary, as if those identities are not possibilities unless spoken aloud.
I often wonder what my non-binary transition means to me and to the world. I’m glad I’m not alone. 🙂
I sort of feel like people with ambiguous gender presentation kind of get ‘Schroedinger gendered’. Does that make sense? Everyone assumes you’re a guy or a girl, they just don’t agree on which one you are.
(Reminds me of a minor character in the movie Mars Attacks, who asks about the Martians’ gender. My Mom and I see them as male, my Dad sees them as ambiguous but probably female.)