Passing privilege and the opinion of whether it’s safe and helps the transgender cause
By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—
Last month I wrote a pretty personal column about honesty and how I relate to that concept as a trans person. After reading it, a friend of mine, another trans person, asked me what I thought was an interesting and quite relevant follow-up question. It referred to an issue I have strong feelings about as an activist and an out trans woman. And I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to return, at least briefly, to the original question and answer format I used when I began writing this column.
“I appreciate your relationship to honesty. I wondered what you think of trans people who employ their passing privilege to be “stealth”… is it a morally acceptable choice, and under what circumstances?”
For those readers who might not be familiar with what we’re talking about here, the idea of “stealth” could be most simply defined as the act of choosing to hide one’s trans status, “post-transition.” To, for all intents, cultivate the appearance of being cisgender, of having always been identified as the gender one is living as.
“Going stealth” is an old concept in the trans community. It’s one that used to be considered a basic goal of most gender transitions. And in fact, the ability to do so or not was often used as gatekeeping criteria for whether or not a trans person was even provided treatment. If you couldn’t “pass” you didn’t get help.
I have, as you might expect, fairly complex feelings about the whole idea of “stealth.” In short though, I do understand the desire to transition and simply “course correct” one’s life, if you will, and then get on with it in the gender one feels is most appropriate. I have a lot of sympathy for that choice. At least now that it’s usually allowed as a choice and not a requirement.
Being out as a trans person can be pretty tough. And it can add a not insignificant additional hurdle to overcoming the gender dysphoria that drives many of us to transition in the first place.
However, I also believe that the visibility that comes with being out as trans is incredibly important for our community overall. I think most of the strides we’ve made in the last couple of decades can mostly be boiled down to an achievement of visibility. We have come out into the sunshine in droves and people are being forced to acknowledge that we exist and we are basically everywhere. Trans people aren’t something the rest of society can avoid anymore.
As I’ve said before, it’s not that there are more of us now than there ever was previously. It’s just that now you can see us. We aren’t hiding anymore.
So yes, I think it’s really important to be visible, to not be stealth, especially for those who could be stealth. Because, for better or worse, the trans people who are most “passable” are also the most unconsciously persuasive to the cis masses, by their very “pass-ability.”
I must admit however that it is still a very dangerous world out there for trans people. And everyone has to make their own assessment of how “safe” it will be to be out as trans. For some, the danger is too great. And I don’t harbor any negative feelings towards those who decide they cannot afford the risks of being out.
Nonetheless, I don’t personally think that all risk should be avoided either. Some measure of danger is inevitably going to be part of the process if we want to change the world! But each person has to make that call for themselves.
All of that said, I have no idea how being “stealth” is even realistically possible anymore. I know some folks do pull it off. But with the internet and social media and the massively recorded and publicly documented lives we all are increasingly leading, it becomes more and more difficult every day. It’s a lot harder to reinvent a life nowadays without all the baggage of a life already lived.
I think that soon, going “stealth” will hardly even be an option for all but the most disconnected people.
Now, the caveat I have to make to all of this is that I know I am necessarily influenced in my own opinions by the fact that I am a very visible person. It’s doubtful that going “stealth” was ever going to be an option for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I have decent self-esteem, I usually think I’m pretty attractive. And on the days I don’t think that (which I have like any woman or human generally), I remind myself about the crowns and the sashes I was awarded as a genuine pageant queen!
But I’m still taller than, not just most women, but most people, which makes folks notice me, even before I transitioned, and it invariably invites closer scrutiny, which is the enemy of stealth.
So, yeah, I’m not sure I had a lot of choice. And I do try to remember that when I am encouraging others to choose visibility over stealth. I made my own choice, for my own reasons, which I think are quite important! Nonetheless, they must make theirs, for themselves.
Personally, I think it’s worth it. If not for ourselves, then for the generations of trans people who will come after us. Who because of our choice to be visible now, may never have to suffer the difficulties and prejudices we have faced. They might never have to even make that choice, because being trans will simply be thought of as one of the many delightful ways that people simply are.
Isn’t that what being a good human is all about? Making a better world than the one we inherited?
*Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: email@example.com.