Visibility: whose job is it?

For many trans folks, myself included, visibility is a hard-won privilege. For some it is a moral imperative. For others it’s a gesture of defiance. But whatever it means for each trans person on an individual level, visibility is crucial for our community. Without some of us stepping out and being loud and proud advocates, our community would have no rights, no protections, no hope. 

In the days leading up to this year’s International Transgender Day of Visibility, a holiday which typically brings up a swath of different emotions for me, I have not been feeling much of anything. This has caused me to wonder: is this new lack of feeling—peace, the result of healing? Or numbness, the result of trauma around the subject of trans visibility? Or maybe it’s just my testosterone levels? Is the experience of numbness universal—a part of the transmasculine transition experience?—or is it just me? What is the best way to make this internal/invisible experience visible? To whom do I owe this visibility? 

Every trans person is different, both in terms of their trauma history and trauma threshold, but also in terms of the amount of power they possess by virtue of their skin color, class, gender, and how well they can “pass” or blend in with cis folks. Paradoxically, while the decision to be visible is both deeply personal (every trans person calculates the risks, weighs them against the rewards, and decides for themselves if visibility is worth it) it also has massive implications for the community. By being open about being trans, I am making the world a little bit more aware and inclusive, and therefore safer for the next trans person to come out to. Or by choosing not to be, I might be choosing my safety and survival, which is an act of resistance in and of itself.

Journaling, I free write about:

how I came out and transitioned in a hostile environment […………………] and how my girlfriend cried as she removed my bandages and saw my bare chest for the first time, how I fled Lexington for Louisville where I could “go stealth” and how I relieved I felt […………………] and then how fearful and paranoid, and how my coworkers treated me differently when they found out, and how the next several months a blur […………………] but I somehow stayed sober and landed a job where I felt safer [………………….] and how like an abused animal I learned to trust my rescuers slowly, slowly […………………] but surely and the paranoia lessened and then the fear, and how my memory came back in fits and starts […………………] I stopped caring if customers knew or wondered […………………] if I was trans or an alcoholic or a fag […………………] stopped packing, painted my nails […………………] got over the guy, finally […………………] learning to love myself, just start writing, trust the process […………………] unfolding in the tiniest most imperceptible changes

Trans people choose to be visible because we want to, because we need to, and because other trans people need us to. Strictly speaking, it is not our duty to be visible: nor is it our duty to educate cis people or even to raise awareness for the sake of other trans people. Making the world safer for trans people is the work of cis people, for the same reason that dismantling systemic racism is the work of white people, and smashing the patriarchy is the work of men: because they (we) benefit from our (your) oppression.

So on this Trangender Day of Visibility, I invite all of us to consider our privilege, and to think about how we can make the world a better and safer place for oppressed groups whose lack of privilege or whose invisibility we benefit from. For cis people, this might look like listing your pronouns in your bios, zoom titles, and email signatures, correcting other cis people when they misgender a trans person, or asking your employer to hire QueerKentucky to do a trans-inclusive training at your place of work. For white people, this might look like donating your money or time to Black organizers/organizations, choosing to buy from Black-owned businesses, or re-committing to calling out racism in everyday interactions.

Visibility is crucial. It is also very dangerous. What actionable steps can we take today to make the world a safer place for those whose visibility we applaud and celebrate?

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