According to a 2015 Pew research poll, 88% of Americans say they personally know someone who is gay or lesbian. That’s really good news for the gay community and likely a major cause for the social gains made in the past several years. In contrast, only 16% know a transgender person (according to a report from GLAAD in 2015) – only 9% of Americans over 45 say the same. For transgender folks, although the number has doubled in the last eight years, the challenge is clear. We have a long way to go in making ourselves more familiar, especially on a personal level. It is up to us to change things – to allow people around us to know us and to better understand us. That can be a difficult task.
As we transition, many of us feel compelled to go stealth. Our hope is to blend into society, living our true gender while leaving behind no clues of who we may once have been. We strive to live our daily lives at work and at school, in restaurants and in grocery stores, at church and in our communities with no one suspecting our past. We feel pressured to live secretive lives – not wanting to be identified, desperately seeking to “pass” … and with good cause. It can be really important to conceal one’s past.
The consequences of being read or outed can be terrible – in most states we can be fired from our jobs without cause or even denied housing. In some places we are restricted from using restrooms. We are met with ridicule and suspicion. I have been laughed at and called names – disparaged as if I were back in middle school. The world can be a dangerous place, especially for trans women – especially for trans women of color.
I hesitate to come out to certain groups to which I belong because I fear dispelling the “myth” of their perception. At church, I feel comfortable using the ladies room. If I outed myself there and everyone knew that I had previously lived as male, I would be perceived differently. Not wanting to inflict an awkward situation on those around me, I would no longer feel comfortable using the restroom. In addition, I have no desire for people to identify me differently – to examine me closely, looking for the “maleness” I have so desperately sought to eliminate – seeing it in all that I say and do.
Several studies have shown that expectations have a powerful influence on perception. In one study reported in Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach (Kessler & McKenna, 1985) participants were shown drawn figures with a blend of different secondary sex characteristics and all with gender ambiguous faces. When participants believed a particular figure had a vagina, its face was identified as feminine. When they were led to believe that the same figure had a penis, that same face became masculine. For the figures shown, regardless of what the secondary sex characteristics may have been, participants perceived the same faces as male or female based upon the expectations of certain genitalia. Just knowing that I may have (or had) a penis changes everything. I go from being an “us,” to suddenly becoming a “them.”
This is our dilemma, especially on a personal level. We know that people need to see and become familiar with transgender people in every walk of life. We know that by doing so, we enhance our cause for equality and acceptance. We know that by becoming more visible we make the world a safer place for transgender children facing a lifetime of struggle. Yet, many of us waver.
So, think about this. What would you do? If you were compelled to live another gender with the capability of blending into a society that greets you with full acceptance, would you do it quietly? If you could avoid being overly scrutinized by others looking for evidence of your past, would you remain silent? Would you stay quiet to keep your job, to keep your friends, to maintain the perception that you are like everyone else? Or, would you begin to introduce yourself to that 84% that claims they do not know a transgender person?
For many transgender people, especially those who have transitioned, this ongoing inner struggle is one we confront daily.
Laura Anderson is an educator, author, researcher, parent, and granddad. Her years teaching in public school as male provided the foundation for her more recent role educating future teachers. Living female for the past decade, she has come to appreciate the privileges she once held– both male and cisgender– privileges now replaced with the fulfillment of living as her true self.
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