The Problem of Pseudo-visibility
March 31, tomorrow as I write this, is the annual Transgender Day of Visibility. This observance is, in some ways, the most important designated day that we observe each year but not just or even mainly for what we do on the day but for what it reminds us to do every year.
We suffer, as trans people, from what in the past might have been called the Jerry Springer problem – which is to say that for the overwhelming majority of Americans the sum of what they knew about trans people was absorbed from the tabloid-style shock value presentation in pop culture that focused in on the most outrageous and counter-culture examples (similar to the problems gay and lesbian people had with the barely-dressed leather-fetish guys in the Pride parade being elevated as a representation of all gay men, nevermind the very suburban white-bread couple not 10 feet away). Even outlets with a more “respectable” reputation than Springer are given to this tendency.
Now, as trans people more and more advocate for equality and respect in higher profile ways, another counter-narrative is gaining prominence: in internet parlance we’re seeing the rise of the concern trolls. While the tabloid sensationalism is still around to be sure, there’s also the (always religiously motivated) “we don’t mean to be mean but y’all need to get some help” routine. Every few months there’s another “Christian” author publishing a rankly ill-informed “guide” for moralist religious types who want to be skilled at “lovingly” telling you they know better than you about your identity and what’s best for you. While at the same time discussing amongst themselves what they can do to stop your dangerous ideology and protect themselves from your perversions. They do this, don’t you know, out of “compassion” for us “deluded” individuals who fail to conform to their expectations.
On the one hand it’s easy enough to call this behavior what it is and upbraid those who spread that sort of nonsense but on the other this “poor deluded souls” narrative is just as dangerous, possibly more so, than the “outrageous drag queens” trope. Which is why I’m bringing them up now. The single most effective antidote for those mythologies is reality – the more we let them see trans live authentically lived, the harder it is for those myths to survive. That’s not to say that among the folks under the trans umbrella that there aren’t some occasional outrageous drag queens but it’s one thing to be defined by them and another for them to be recognized as one exotic flavor on a much broader spectrum. Without casting any aspersions, the “vanilla” trans woman and trans man just going about their life as an accountant, a fireman, a solider, a truck driver, a nurse is much much more common than an aspiring contestant on RuPaul’s show.
That’s where we come in. I’ve preached before in this space about escaping the closet and eschewing the comfort of stealth as safe as the former might feel, and as appealing as the latter surely is, but for the passing reader it bears repeating. The paradox of our lives is that the world will never be safe for coming out until we come out. Our Pharisee oppressors draw their power from our fear like some sort of science fiction villain. The more we hide the more their lies and legends occupy the vacuum of the space we surrender to them. Yes, if you come out, there’s risk. Only 10 short years ago when I was contemplating the choice the universal advice was “be prepared to lose everything” and it’s still best to count the potential cost but the world is changing rapidly. More than ever before in history we have the high moral ground and the sound argument to say to those who would reject us “How dare you?” Frankly, what kind of life can a trans person ever live in the closet save one resigned to the misery of knowing that one has to hide the most basic truth about themselves for fear of rejection? I’m aware, painfully so, that each person has an individual set of circumstances and that for some it simply cannot be done – but I argue that there are far more who THINK it can’t be done than there are for whom it is literally impossible. The world will not get better for us unless we are SEEN. And not just seen on Halloween or in a drag show or on an exclusionary web site with our faces blured out.
The same applies to being stealth. I relate, honestly I do. The ideal life (short of having been born with an identity and appearance that matched) for me would be to integrate smoothly into the cis-female population so successfully that no one would believe you if you told them I was trans. But that’s a luxury this generation cannot afford. Not with so many hostile actors trying to claw back even those marginally gains that have ben made towards acceptance and equality. Indeed, it is a powerful argument that their oppression is unwarranted when the person they would never have guessed was trans turns out to be one of their neighbors or co-workers. It also serves to counter the idea that a trans person is easily recognized and therefore a source of fear upon sight. And the idea that a trans person is the rare exception that doesn’t matter because they are (whether the actual word is employed) “freaks” unworthy of your respect.
It’s really very simple: On Transgender Day of Visibility, for all our sakes, BE visible. And then do it again the next day, and the day after that, every day until it’s no longer needed to have such a day.
Photo by: Ted Eytan