Stealth is Not Safe

· Updated on October 22, 2018

A few days ago in Ottawa, an assailant attacked a trans teenager on a train while onlookers cheered. As someone who came to the city in part to escape anti-trans climates elsewhere, this is chilling, but what’s more so is the sense from so many people around me that even after this attack I have nothing to fear.

For too many people, the dangers of being trans seem overblown or self-inflicted, even. In their minds, we could simply vanish, and be safely invisible even in violently hostile locales, with a good enough imitation of cisgender norms. Some of them even think that my relocation to Canada from the United States was a wildly excessive step and that I could have been safe and happy in my previous home as long as I didn’t “announce” my transness with every step. Trans people have a word for this idea: “stealth.” And it’s anything but safe.

“Stealth,” for the uninitiated, refers to pretending one’s gender doesn’t bear the adjective “trans.” It means pretending to be a cis representative of one’s gender, to have been recognized as a member thereof for one’s entire life, and to have never borne a different name. “Going stealth” means hiding a large chunk of one’s past, from childhood photos to prom dates, and papering over the resulting gaps with denial and occasional lies. This was once medically mandated for transgender women, who were expected to leave their hometowns and live somewhere where no one knew their history. Many of us have painful memories of how much obligatory stealth cost us on our way to making our bodies truly ours, and the rest of us know those people. And it doesn’t work.

I have been amazingly fortunate in my transition. I began with features on the soft side of masculine and my transition has thereby made me beautiful. I was never tall, so my height is not now unusual for women in my area. I was already curvier than most men my size, thanks to my Hispanic heritage, and my hips are now the envy of many. I have achieved results from hormone replacement therapy comparable to what people much younger than me often achieve. The signs that betray my journey are subtle and easily missed, more real to me than they are to passers-by. I delight in feminine clothing and have no particular desire to take on the more visible signifiers of queerness that many of my fellow trans women enthusiastically embody, so dressing in the way that makes me feel most me doesn’t out me. When I dress to accentuate my best features and spend time outdoors in summer, I can see cisgender men taking in the sight without showing any disgust or surprise.

So what’s to stop me from pretending it has always been so?

On a practical level, I have a few more steps before it’s even hypothetically possible. I need to get my legal documents sorted, an increasingly difficult task as my native USA gets more and more hostile to people like me. Interspersed with that, I have a small number of additional medical procedures in mind. Until then, things as simple as plane tickets or the additional layer it takes to make my bathing suit fit inform onlookers of my history.

Even past such bare necessities, though, no matter how easily I can be mistaken for a cis woman, I’m not a cis woman, and I can thereby be detected and targeted. I will always need exogenous estrogen, and making this drug unavailable to transgender women, or harder to acquire in general, hits me even if the ideologues who make those laws never recognize me as a target. The medical care I require and receive will always reflect the fact that I am missing organs that most cis women have. My medical history will always contain a series of medications that are improbably combined for any other reason, even if I eventually stop needing some of them. An enterprising search through my legal documents, perhaps aided by a court order or determined hacker, will show that I once answered to a different name. This essay exists and will appear in Internet archives out to the end of human civilization, alongside other detailed discussions on my gender. People like me are fundamentally detectable, and in a hostile environment, our enemies are looking for us. I cannot legally evaporate every trace of what I was assigned, and in medical cases, risk bodily peril for so obscuring my own history.

Even this picture is overly rosy. Many of us get found out, not because of our path through time, but because of our path through space. Especially in a world where I felt I had to deny this piece of myself in order to survive, I would require the support of the local queer community, but being seen in association with such a community is itself dangerous. I would be spending time among other transgender women and be flagged by association. Deadly raids on trans spaces are the incident that sparked the Gay Pride movement and still occur in some of these places. Even if I keep my honesty confined to online conversations, these generate records that can be accessed to identify me and my associates. Any cue that helps my people recognize me would be seen as a provocation by the enemies we’re all hiding from, and a sign that this violence is self-inflicted by those who think that we shouldn’t be allowed to be seen. The level of denial and concealment I would have to maintain to make sure that my actual public presence holds no trace of my transness would undo many of the gains I have achieved by transitioning in the first place and make all of my surviving friendships dishonest and distant.

Those cues are subtler than people think and include the very person I’ve grown into over all these years. Any piece of my personality, demeanor, or behavior that seems off becomes a thing of suspicion, even if it’s not the kind of thing that anti-trans ideologues call “male socialization.” The dense array of psychological triggers and lines I won’t cross become signposts about what I’ve endured. My determination to not play along with cis women’s too-frequent anti-trans jokes lines up with everything else that doesn’t fit into a conspiracy that people feel determined to unravel. A life spent protecting myself from an abusive family with careful lies prepared me for this level of deception, but stealth is more than strategic half-truths. To actually hide, I would have to bury all of that under an all-encompassing persona, and slowly cease to know myself at all.

A related issue is that I am not just trans. Most of the places where transgender women are persecuted are also violently homophobic. I would continue to face this hazard as a perceived cis lesbian. I would not only have to deny a key formative experience and hope no one follows any of the trails leading to it, but I would have to avoid being around and especially being affectionate with the people I care about most or mark not just myself, but these treasured partners, for violence. Or I could leave all of my relationships behind and live alone in hostile territory, severed from any friend who could possibly understand my situation to protect myself from immediate danger, with no protection from the ongoing psychic violence of that isolation.

In the end, “going stealth” isn’t much safer, and is about as impossible, as socially detransitioning and pretending at the maleness I was originally assigned. The main difference is, stealth would not necessarily lead to a swift and total psychological breakdown culminating in my untimely self-induced demise. My stealth decline would be slower, harder, and far more disturbing, combining intense loneliness, paranoia, and the perverse horror of enduring all of that while I’m perceived as a woman throughout.

I am a transgender woman, and I need to exist in places where that is a safe thing to be. There are no other options.

Image via Getty

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