Yesterday (Monday, February 13, 2012), while taking my daily three-and-three-quarter mile walk, I was at a corner waiting for the walk light to turn green. Three young men in their early twenties were at the same corner, and one of them asked me a question in that way that was clearly meant to make me uncomfortable: “Are you a dude or a woman?”
Obviously, at that moment in time their were enough visual clues for him to cause him wonder about which sex I am, and he was rude enough to ask me what he thought would be for me a humiliating question.
I could’ve ignored him, but I didn’t.
I could’ve answered “I’m a woman,” and perhaps added a invective epithet to the end of that line, but I didn’t.
I could’ve answered “I’m a woman, but I’m also a male-to-female transsexual,” but I didn’t.
Instead, I looked him straight in the eye and said without weakness or animosity, “Well, I’m transgender.” I chose to fully embrace my sociopolitical trans identity in my answer to that young man.
It’s clear what he expected from me to feel was humiliated at the asking of his question. It’s clear that he expected me to embrace internalized transphobia. He didn’t expect me to be matter of fact regarding my trans identity; the young man looked somewhat taken aback at my answer.
[More below the fold.]
A week ago yesterday (Monday, February 6, 2012), I had my ninth anniversary of living out of the closet. I was a work study working at the Patient Health Library at the VA Heathcare Center in San Diego — the photo included with this post is of me on that first day as Autumn. After coming out of the closet, I never went back into it; I never went “stealth.” Living as a woman, embracing the sex of my gender identity, for me didn’t mean I wanted to erase my history of presenting the first 43-years of my life as male. I came out in an exercise of honesty with myself, and giving up my history to be stealth would have meant I would be publicly embracing less than the full truth about myself.
But besides not wanting to give up my history, there’s more to my public embrace of my sociopolitical trans identity. “The Mayor of Castro Street,” gay civil rights activist Harvey Milk, said this in his 1978 speech That’s What America Is:
Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.
And in an interview with Joseph Beam in 1987, Rustin stated this:
[I]f people do not organize in the name of their interest, the world will not take them as being serious. And that is the chief reason that every person who is gay should join some gay organization. Because he most prove to the world that he cares about his own freedom. People will never fight for your freedom if you have not given evidence that you are prepared to fight for it yourself. Incidentally, that’s the reason that every gay who is in the closet is ultimately a threat to the freedom of gays. I don’t want to seem intolerant to them and I think we have to say that to them with a great deal of affection, but remaining in the closet is the other side of the prejudice against gays. Because until you challenge it, you are not playing an active role in fighting it.
Trans people can learn from gay icons.
I belong to the one subcommunity of the LGBT community that people graduate from. What I mean in saying that is that trans people tend to come out of the closet at the beginning of their transitions, receive the assistance they need from the trans and medical communities, and sometimes join the struggle for trans people’s civil rights. However, usually before four years have passed many of these folks “disappear” from trans community. Whether it be because they “pass” in their target sexes and then are no longer discriminated against — so they no longer feel the need to fight against discrimination; whether they believe that they came out to be embraced as a member of their target sex and not be embraced as trans, not wanting to be seen as a “third-sexed” individual; whether they wish to leave a community that’s filled with constant infighting and a tendency to eat our own — whatever the reason of individual trans people, these folk “graduate” out of trans community.
It’s easy to say to my trans siblings “Come out, come out, wherever you are.” But coming out of, and staying out of, the closet means subjecting themselves to discrimination they wouldn’t otherwise face — especially for those who “pass” in their target sexes — and could impact employability. Staying out of the closet often means not being seen as being members of our target sexes. Staying out of the closet, when public to other trans people, often also means being eaten alive with personal criticism by other trans people, as well as lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the LGBT community.
And yet with that said, we are at that place now in a growing trans civil rights movement where what Bayard Rustin said about how staying in the closet is the other side of prejudice is true for trans people — it can be an embracing of internalized transphobia.
Trans people can’t afford community invisibility if we want antidiscrimination protections based on gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodation; if we want equal access to education and access to appropriate healthcare; if we want to have appropriate identification documents for us in our gender identities. Trans people can’t expect our allies (and potential allies) to join the struggle for our civil rights issues if we won’t publicly join the struggle for those issues ourselves.
Even knowing what a hard ask it is to ask trans people to stay out of the closet — to reject “stealth” — I’ll ask anyway.
Come out, come out, wherever you are my trans siblings. Trans people need to be out of the closet not just for our own sakes, but paraphrasing how Harvey Milk described why we need to be out, we should stay out of the closet in part for the sake of those trans people who come out after us — especially for those next generations of trans youth.