For me, choosing to be visible means speaking freely about my identity and about my experiences if or when I feel inclined to do so. Sometimes this looks like marching in a Pride parade or wearing a rainbow t-shirt to work. Sometimes it looks like writing a blog post like this one. Other times it just looks like a guy living his life, not necessarily talking about my sexuality or gender, but not hiding these parts of me either.
I say “choosing to be visible” rather than “coming out” on purpose. I came out a decade ago, when I drove back home to Casselton, North Dakota on a cold winter day to tell my conservative Christian parents that I was attracted to women. I came out to my ex, a lesbian, when I told her that I was not a woman, and that I wanted to transition. I came out to my current partner, when I told her that my transition clarified some things about my sexuality, and that it turns out I’m bisexual, or attracted to multiple genders. “Coming out” implies disclosing something about yourself or your identity that is “different” than what is expected of you. Since lots of trans men simply see themselves as men, and lots of trans women simply see themselves as women, it is more accurate and more inclusive to talk about trans people as “choosing to be visible” rather than “coming out.”
There are countless factors that play into how visible a person chooses to be. A gay highschooler who shares a roof with a homophobic father may stay in the closet in order to avoid physical or emotional abuse and/or homelessness. Similarly, a black trans woman may choose to “go stealth” (i.e., erase all traces of her life pre-transition) out of concern for her safety, or to increase her chances of survival in a world where the average lifespan for trans women of color is 35 years. (In 2018 alone, the Human Rights Campaign tracked 26 murders of trans people, the majority of whom were black trans women.) A nonbinary person who works a service industry job in St. Matthews (a very white, very straight, very cis part of Louisville) might choose to “keep their head down” when they get misgendered, because it’s less exhausting and less anxiety-provoking then correcting people and bracing themselves against hostile responses. A lot of trans and queer people have experienced trauma, and struggle with mental illness as a result: factors that also weigh into their decision to be more or less visible.
After nine months of “living stealth” in Louisville, I was being eaten alive by the paranoia and fear of being “found out.” I constantly felt anxious, depressed, alienated. I catastrophized over what would happen if or when the people in my life learned I was trans: how it would change their perception of me, what this would mean for my material security and mental health. On one level, I resented my “passability” (my ability to read as a cis man or blend in with cis men) for putting me in the position of having to either 1) announce that I was trans or 2) let people assume that I’m cis. Why did I have to choose between 1 or 2? Why couldn’t I just be me? Why was my gender such a factor in everything, whereas cis people just get to skate through life not thinking about it? It didn’t feel fair. And in truth, it isn’t.
On the other hand, my ability to “pass” also gave me an advantage. Because I pass, the vast majority of people who learned I was trans would continue to gender me correctly and validate my identity (with the exception of the occasional transphobe who’d misgender me on principle.) This willingness, in cis people, to validate trans people so long as they pass as cis is cissexism, whereas a true ally validates your gender regardless of how well you “pass.” It sucks knowing that a lot of the people who are affirming of me now would not have been so affirming earlier in my transition. This artificial sense of validity is one of the defining features of my experience as a white masc trans man. My whiteness, along with my maleness, translates as power and privilege in this society. It’s like social currency. But unlike that of white cis men, half of my currency—my maleness—is considered counterfeit.
The choice to be visible is never simply a choice in favor of, or against, social progress. It’s far more complex than that. In many cases, it’s literally a matter of life or death. I choose to be visible because for me, at this time and place, the benefits far outweigh the costs. I choose to be visible because, in addition to helping others feel seen, it’s better for my mental health, my sobriety, and my relationships. If my employer wasn’t cool, or my neighborhood wasn’t safe, or my social networks weren’t as stable as they are, visibility might not be the right choice for me. There might come a time when going stealth again is the right choice. I hope not. I much prefer to live in the open air and sunlight.