Stealth Stories: Sliding into Stealth
When I transitioned, about fifteen years ago, I imagined I would be “quietly out” (i.e., out but not “in your face”), but that turns out to be harder to do than I naïvely thought back then.
From the moment I transitioned, the mantle of stealth began to descend. I was lucky enough that new people I met just assumed I was a cis woman. The only plausible way for them to find out otherwise would be if somebody told them; and for the most part, that somebody could only be me. What I quickly discovered is that my gender/sex history isn’t something I really want to tell anyone, I’m not even entirely comfortable telling it to me.
Transsexualism isn’t unique in this regard. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a wide variety of things that might be crucial to who someone is today, but that they don’t feel like wearing on their sleeve:
- Someone with an invisible disability (e.g., infertility, chronic pain, depression, learning disorders, eating disorders, mild autism, IBS, STDs, etc.) may not feel like telling other people about it, because they often bring stereotypes, trite advice, or misguided sympathy that doesn’t help.
- Someone who has been through a traumatic experience (e.g., miscarriage, abortion, sexual assault, losing a loved one) may not feel like talking about it because other people will see them as a victim, or will want to talk to them about it when they would rather let it lie.
- Anyone who has grown personally such that they remember their past actions with regret (e.g., being unreliable, being a poor friend, hurting someone, criminal acts) may not want others to think about the person they were, rather than the person they are now.
- Anyone who takes a medication may not want others to know about why they take what they take. (This extends to recreational drug use too.)
- Anyone who has resolved a body issue may not want others to know (e.g., what their teeth looked like before braces, what their hair looked like when they were balding, what their chest looked like before dealing with gynecomastia, etc.) because seeing or thinking about how they used to look is painful, and they don’t want others to have that image of them.
In all cases, these things may have helped to define them, and coping made them stronger better people in various ways. And yet they’re not things that everyone feels comfortable being open about, because being open about them can change the way that other people see them and dredges up the past.
Transsexualism steps into all of these things; my infertility is an invisible disability, (not) dealing with my gender dysphoria was traumatic in various ways, and it leaves a past I don’t enjoy to dwelling on.
So it’s very easy to fall into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality where if it doesn’t come up, you don’t tell. And of course, if you blend in, it’s never really going to come up. You can even speak out in favor of transsexual people without having anyone make a connection—there are plenty of cissexual trans allies out there. (Actually, back when I transitioned I used to go to meetings of transsexual people and have some people assume I was an ally; although, in that venue, I would correct them.)
I promised myself I would never lie about my past, and I’m proud of how I held to that promise, but a commitment not to lie doesn’t mean you have to correct others when they make incorrect assumptions, and doesn’t mean that you can’t be evasive. I have occasionally said things like “my time in high school was painful enough that I don’t really want to go into detail”, and my friends accept that and move on. It’s true, but it is far from the whole truth.
Even if you mean to tell people eventually, once you realize that you’re probably never going to have to tell people (but if you ever did have to, you could ride it out okay), it’s hard to push yourself into telling them now because you can always procrastinate and decide to put it off a little longer.
In fact, now that I think of it, even early on under extreme circumstances I managed to somehow avoid outing myself in situations where it might have been reasonable to do so. When I first changed my name, I went into my bank with my name change document and said to the clerk, “I need to change the name on my account”, and the clerk replied “Oh, did you get married?”, and I said no, and handed over my name change documents (which made no reference to gender), saying “Now, umm, my old name might be a bit of a surprise for you”, and she looked at it, and said “Oh… I suppose your parents must have really wanted a boy?” (i.e. to have given a girl a boy’s name). Clearly, no other possibility occurred to her, which I thought was really sweet and quite flattering. I don’t think I could have made myself say, “No, you see actually I’m a transsexual woman”, since that would have dramatically changed the dynamics. She didn’t know. She didn’t need to know. It was easier on me to leave it that way.
I have thought about outing myself to people close to me (my partner does know), but I feel that it’s a bit like a married partner talking about an affair—briefly cathartic and theoretically more “honest”, but in reality something you may regret doing because of the way it can change the dynamics (i.e., they’ll never see you the way they did before) and burdens others with information they would have been happier never knowing, especially if they don’t feel free to talk about it with other people.
Yet I also promised myself that I’d never live in fear of being outed, and I think that despite all I’ve said above, I’ve done okay on that promise too. I slid into stealth by inaction and because it was comfortable, but I have enough self confidence to know that people who know me, know me, and who I was twenty years ago is unlikely to change how they see me now by all that much. Probably. If things keep going as they have gone so far, I’ll never need to find out. And I’m fine with that.
Viewed negatively (to paraphrase Star Wars), “Blending leads to stealth, and stealth leads to the trans-invisibility side”, but I also don’t think it’s necessarily fair to expect everyone to be out about everything all the time. Some people want to let go of the past as much as they can, and move on. [Edit: Originally, I wrote trans-erasure rather than trans-invisibility, but on reflection, the latter is better.]
As far as I know, everyone I knew who transitioned at the same time as me has pretty much blended away. It happens, and I don’t think anyone should be surprised that it does, or be annoyed at the people who don’t want to be “out and proud” about complicated, traumatic, deeply personal things.