Sometimes the safest gender is hidden

A few months ago, a friend of mine shaved off her moustache. The level of transphobic harassment had become dangerous, and threatening, and exhausting, and she needed to strip an obvious marker of her identity away to protect herself, even though doing so meant that she was also suppressing a little piece of herself. It was a difficult and unpleasant thing and the reactions to it were sometimes troubling — from those who didn’t get why it was important to those that judged her for doing it.

Her actions made me think of conversations I’ve been having with members of the trans community a lot in recent months, especially after the election, when it became very apparent that America hates people who don’t fit in very specific molds of identity and expression. One consequence of the Obama years was a growing sense that it was safe to come out — now it is not, and many of us are in danger because we stepped forward when we thought that society was moving forward. That’s especially true for trans women, who sit at the centre of a very nasty knot.

In the last few months, the subject not just of politics but personal safety and what to do next has come up with almost every trans person I talk to. Some are moving up scheduled surgeries and other plans in the hopes of getting them done and dusted as quickly as possible, especially in light of potential health care discrimination. Others are pushing forward on identification to get things updated before it’s too late.

And many of the people I talk to have changed things about their outward presentation to conform with binarist, cissexist gender norms. I know trans women who have shaved facial hair and changed the way they dress and carry themselves, who have started wearing makeup and making other changes in their lives with the goal of meeting arbitrary and brutal passing standards. I’ve met men who have started growing out their facial hair, have put skirts away, have stopped painting their nails. And I’ve met a number of nonbinary people who had started presenting in a way that mimics masculine or feminine ends of the spectrum — better to be an ‘ugly woman’ or a ‘femme guy’ than to stand out with clear markers of gender defiance.

For all of them, these decisions have been made carefully but also painfully. It hurts to finally feel free to express your gender as it is, only to be told that you need to put it back in the box now. It’s frustrating and infuriating to have to put parts of yourself away, to strip pieces of your identity to conform with norms you thought you left behind. It can be heartbreaking for people who feel that they must kill a part of themselves in order to be safe.

Some trans people I know — not many — have decided to detransition or put the brakes on transition for the time being, fearing that they could be in danger if they continue to exist as they are. And while many might rush to assume that this is happening in conservative regions of the country, that’s not the case. Some are in bastions of liberal politics, like San Francisco. They just don’t feel safe. All of them also operate in awareness of the fact that the people around them could endanger them unwittingly or purposefully simply by revealing who they are, and that is a frightening and unsettling thing to grapple with.

I see some people suggesting that trans people who make modifications to their existence in order to be more stealthy aren’t brave enough. That is bullshit. Trans people are more brave than you will ever know and going into stealth requires a tremendous amount of courage. More to the point, trans people don’t need to perform to your satisfaction, particularly when their personal safety is at stake. Maybe you think transness should look or be or feel a certain way, cis person. That’s nice. I don’t care. People who are fearing for their lives and futures don’t need to hear that they aren’t ‘brave.’

I also see some people who don’t seem to really understand what this means. It’s just a haircut/dress/facial hair style/makeup palette/whatever. What’s the big deal? So maybe you have to change the way you look a little, well, cis people do that all the time, do you think I like wearing suits to work? This is also wrong, because this isn’t about changing how you dress up for an event or a setting — this isn’t a question of disliking formal wear and not wanting to go to someone’s wedding. For trans people, physical presentation and expression can be a huge part of who they are (can be, not always), and stripping it away is dehumanising. Maybe these things seem like boring, regular things to you, but for some trans people, they are huge, potent symbols. It hurts to be told you cannot wear a skirt, to be forced to grow a beard to counter transphobia.

I see others saying that ‘you don’t have to do this’ because they’ll always be around to protect you. This, too, is not a reasonable response. Trans people shouldn’t need to be protected. We should live in a society where people are allowed to be who they are without running the risk of harassment or assault or discrimination. The solution to this problem isn’t for trans people to be trailed by a little pack of cis enforcers to keep them safe. And eventually, those cis enforcers have to sleep. And that leaves their ‘protectee’ alone. It’s incredibly patronising to say that you’ll always be there to protect someone when what people want isn’t protection or someone to ride to their defense, but the ability to be themselves without needing permission or protection.

If you see trans people around you who are making changes to their presentation, don’t comment on them unless you are invited to. There are a lot of reasons for it and they’re not really your business unless someone feels it’s important for you to participate in that process. And when people do discuss it, try to think through your response with care. Imagine that you were stripping a core part of your identity away because you needed to conceal it for safety, and how you would want people to respond to that. Sometimes the best response is simply: I see you. I witness you. I am here if you need me.

Image: Gender Abolition, Kristofher Muñoz, Flickr