But as trans issues have grown to occupy a greater spotlight in our society, so too has the fraught political discussion about who benefits from our visibility, who is forced into it, and who is ultimately harmed.
“I don't really understand why we need a Day of Visibility, since for most of us, especially Black girls, we are as visible as we need to be. Our visibility is getting us killed,” opined legendary activist Miss Major in a video posted to Twitter Wednesday. “[T]he people who care about us...they're the people who need to become more visible.”
Many trans people face a grim decision regarding visibility in an era where modest gains for trans rights coexist with rising far-right reactionary backlash. This can be particularly difficult for newly-out trans people or those just beginning to fully embrace the complexity of their identities, as they attempt to navigate the murky, uncertain waters of being visibly trans.
If you're approaching TDoV this year with trepidation or uncertainty, here are a few pieces of advice that I hope can bring clarity.
1. How do I handle cis people asking me to explain my gender to them?
One of the least fun things about being visibly trans (not least on TDoV) is when cis people take it as an invitation to interrogate you. Not all of these interactions are hostile, but enough are, and even if it's just an overly inquisitive friend, cis folks don't understand how invasive those questions can feel. Whether it happens face-to-face or online, it can be difficult to know how to navigate those situations, especially if you (like me) feel an obligation to try and educate people who just happen to be a little clueless.
You don't owe your story to cis people, though. It's good to increase awareness, but unless they're planning to pay your invoice, you don't need to feel any obligation to do labor for them. Judge each interaction on its own, and if you feel comfortable and safe enough in that moment to share how you relate to yourself, go for it — bringing more empathy into the world is always a noble goal. If not, well...we'll get to that in a minute.
2. What if I don't want to “pass”?
“Passing” in the context of being trans is to be read and treated as a cis member of your gender, and it's something that's very important for a lot of people's safety and mental health. But slotting yourself into all kinds of binary gender norms can also be stifling. As I'm sure my fellow theater queers will affirm, mixing up a fresh cocktail of gender performance can bring with it some of the most intense euphoria ever observed by science, and “blending in” in contrast can seem like a real drag (honestly, no pun intended). But you don't have to revel in the blurriness of gender to be simply uninterested in cisnormative standards of presentation. This can be especially poignant if you don't experience certain types of dysphoria, or do so only lightly; if you're transfeminine and think your beard shadow is actually kinda cute, why spend time and money on shaving or electrolysis?
“If we eliminate the pressure to pass,” writes Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in the introduction to her anthology Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender, “what delicious and devastating opportunities for transformation might we create?” To oppose that pressure is to knock another brick out of the gendered walls which close us in. Your only responsibility with your gender presentation is to seek beauty and happiness within yourself. If that leads you away from “passing,” it's nobody's business but your own.
3. What if I try to pass and I fail?
Early in my transition, I was getting ready to go into a client's office and film a video for work. I spent a long time getting myself dolled up as femme as I could, slipped on a cheetah-print dress (I love big cats, don't @ me), and headed out the door — and within thirty seconds, I was misgendered by a couple of workers in my apartment building. Getting on the train, I felt so demoralized, I wished I could just turn around and go back home.
Not being seen when you're trying your best to be visible as yourself can be a special kind of pain, one that lingers and leaves little maggots of doubt as to whether you really deserve this whole transitioning thing, anyway. Try to be gentle with yourself in the aftermath, and remind yourself that other people's impressions don't change your reality.
4. How do I handle getting aggressively misgendered or clocked as trans in the moment, though?
Passing's primary utility is in keeping us safe from various forms of violence, whether physical, economic, or emotional. Often, when a cis person “clocks” us (realizing that we're trans), it's followed with an expression of disgust or a threat. Unfortunately, existing as trans in the world forces us to prepare for these contingencies both mentally and materially.
Try to gauge the level of danger you're in. If you feel threatened, remove yourself from the confrontation as quickly as you can, and if possible get to an area where there are witnesses. I've carried a canister of self-defense spray since the first time someone followed me, and I recommend something similar that can act as a deterrent. This can get hairy if you're in a work environment, but if a customer or client is being combative, end the interaction and get backup from coworkers or a manager if you can. Try to resist the urge to escalate, even if someone is being a real piece of shit.
5. What should I do if I see another, visibly trans person in danger or distress?
Passing can confer on us the ability to escape danger, but what do we do when someone else doesn't have that option? This can be a difficult quandary to grapple with; about the only consistent answer is “don't call the police.” Involving law enforcement can lead to a much different kind of violence, especially when a trans person of color is involved. (That being said, if there's no way to avoid the authorities getting involved, stay with the person you're trying to help — they'll be needing your backup.)
If you don't know how to safely deescalate a conflict, it's important to keep your own safety in mind — getting yourself hurt doesn't help anyone. But to be frank, I err on the side of action in cases like these. It's important for the health of our community to know that our trans siblings are also our comrades, that we can and will stand up for one another when we need support. Every situation is different, though, and you'll have to use your own judgment as to how & when you apply this ethos.
6. How can I claim visibility for myself when I have to stay closeted or in stealth mode?
Whether we're keeping ourselves a secret due to unsupportive family or passing for cis after transition to avoid retaliation at work, there are all sorts of ways we're discouraged from making our transness visible. Figuring out how to celebrate yourself through the silencing stigma can feel like a contradiction in terms. But in those phases of our lives, the most important form of visibility is our ability to “see” ourselves. Look for small ways to reaffirm your journey—for transfeminine folks, one classic form of this is painting our toenails (trans pride toes, anyone?), giving us a physical anchor to our truest selves that is almost always invisible to the outside world.
7. I like celebrating myself and my community, but people in my life are saying I need to tone it down. Should I listen to them?
Being trans isn't new; being flagrantly trans, on the other hand, is. We've only had cultural visibility for a handful of decades, and only in the last few years have there been glimmers that it might not entirely be a bad thing. It's so rare and surprising for many cis people to see a happy, visibly trans person that they can sometimes wonder why we have to be so loud and performative about it. Can't we just be people like anyone else?
Well, yes, of course we can — but that's not the point. TDoV was created precisely because supporting and rejoicing in transness is so rare. Our identities have been so stigmatized for so long that to be honest, cis people are lucky we aren't being louder. Seeing gender euphoria and joy in the ways we experience it can be strange and off-putting to cis people, but they'll get used to it. Anyone who tells you not to be like “one of those trans people” is telling you to look down on someone because of their pride in who they are, and that's a toxic mindset you don't want to encourage.
8. What if I just want to be left the fuck alone?
As a white transfem who basically makes her living being Professionally Queer, the idea that some of us just want to keep our transness private is one that I admit I sometimes forget. I feel very strongly that we have a duty to one another, that we deserve to see people like ourselves making radical change and fighting power hierarchies that threaten and belittle us. But that kind of life isn't for everyone.
When I said you don't owe cis people your story, that was only half of the truth: you don't owe visibility to other trans people, either. The parts of yourself you decide to give to the world are precious, and nobody should think less of you for being guarded. I hope that one day, those of us who are visible can create a world where that doesn't mean giving up our privacy. Until then, just know that we still see you.
BY SAMANTHA RIEDEL