The concept of stealth is oft-debated and fairly controversial topic within the trans community. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, the general connotation is the idea of living one’s life without disclosing or acknowledging their pre-transition life. In the most classic sense of the term, it generally refers to a transwoman who- after GCS- does everything possible to erase evidence that she had ever been male-assigned and never discloses it again, often asking family to lie/conceal their pre-transition life, and/or otherwise completely cutting off from those who had known them before transition. As the trans community has evolved, the notions of just what exactly is and is not “stealth” have become far grayer. Can a non-op transwoman go stealth? Is it stealth if you deny your trans status to everyone but your romantic partner? What about simply blending in and not explicitly mentioning one’s trans status to casual acquaintances? Perhaps most importantly, given how trans people are treated in society, is going stealth really such a bad thing? I previously discussed the problem of disclosure to one’s sexual partners, but this issue is far thornier, and my views have definitely evolved as I’ve moved through my own transition.
Defining what exactly “IS stealth” is complicated, and the breadth of opinion within the community appears to be fairly wide. For me, I tend to put the dividing line at “active deception”…that is, you venture into “living stealth” when you’re starting to actively lie. Again, I know there’s some gray area here, after all, most would argue that an lie of omission is still a lie. But, to me, I don’t feel that we have any requirement to disclose pretty much anything about ourselves (and I mean ANY of us, cis or trans) to complete strangers or casual acquaintances. Quite simply, everyone is entitled to keep private what they feel is personal, private information. The wonderful folks over at TransAdvocate did quite a fantastic series on stealth over the summer that hit on a lot of my general feelings on the matter, and this piece from Cristan Williams hits the nail right on the head. She writes:
Not telling the grocery sacker that you’re trans is not stealth. Trying to get your parents to lie to your new boyfriend is being stealth. Not telling every co-worker in the building that you’re trans is not being stealth. Not telling your best friend is being stealth.
There are tend to be generally two major camps of opinion regarding the acceptability of going stealth: those who believe it’s a completely reasonable thing to do given the current climate of transphobia, and those who hold that stealth is a betrayal of the queer (particularly trans) community. For those who hold to the acceptability of stealth, one of the primary arguments is often that being trans is mostly a medical problem, and once that problem (one’s incongruent assigned-at-birth sex) is corrected, there’s no longer any need to identify or come out as trans. Other simply argue that if you have the ability to do so (owing to one’s attractiveness, ability obtain GCS, etc), then why should you? One the other side, there are many who believe that slipping into a stealth life deprives the trans community of much needed visibility. After all, many of the large gains in LGB acceptance are due to the visibility and personal relationships that LGB folks have developed, and this has been born out in numerous polls. Additionally, some argue that the trans community is often the only support available for trans people- especially early on their transition, and that the voices of those who have successfully transitioned are sorely needed as examples and role-models for those just starting out, and therefore to “turn your back” on the community that supported you is unacceptable. Of course, the arguments on both sides of this issue go considerably further, but that’s pretty much the gist of it.
For me, I spent much of the early part of my transition firmly in the “stealth is not okay” camp. I’m definitely not at all ashamed of being a trans woman, and I feel that being visible and vocal IS the best way for us to make progress for our teeny-tiny majority. Of course, it’s also an easy thing to say when almost everyone around you has known you before and through your transition. I was lucky enough to have very supportive friends who stuck with me, so I didn’t really encounter the choice to not disclose my trans status. Even new people in the early days who only knew me in a female presentation were always aware that I’m trans right off the bat. I’m not going to say that I ran around in public wearing a giant “HEY EVERYBODY, I’M TRANSGENDER” sign, but as I’ve mentioned before…I don’t think not telling every single stranger has anything to do with stealth (after all, no one tells every stranger in the street about what their genitals look like!).
As it turns out, the chance to get a fresh start can give you quite a shift in perspective. When I left my full-time career job to return to University for my PhD, I suddenly found myself in an environment where nobody knew anything about me. A few of the faculty were aware, as I hadn’t yet finished changing my name, but other than that I was just some random, shy new girl to everyone else. For the first few weeks, I was DEAD sure everyone knew I was trans and that I was totally delusional about this “fresh start” business. But, as I slowly drew up the courage to converse with classmates (particularly the other girls in my program), I realized that I had quietly slid into cis-assumption. And, I have to admit…it was really, really nice. No Trans 101, no awkward stairs while people try to pick out the incongruencies that would give aware my birth sex, no avoidant or hesitant conversations. At times, I’d begin to wonder if someone had finally picked up on something that would get me clocked, but then I’d be feeling unwell and someone would ask if it was my ‘time of the month”, or something along those lines. I even once made a major slip and mentioned my complete avoidance of Catholic hospitals because of my fear of being left to die, to which my wonderful classmate said “Well, it’s not like you HAVE to tell them that you’re gay!”. So as the weeks stretched into months, the idea that I HAD to tell everyone that I’m a trans woman slowly drifted to background…it became easier to just skip around the potential issues and make the small revisions to my personal history to make it congruent with what they perceive of me. Initially, I chalked it up to “oh, well, I don’t know these people! It’s none of their business!”. Once I got to know a few people better, I told myself that I was just protecting myself…life was already stressful enough in grad school, why should I risk making it worse by coming out? About two-thirds of the way into the semester, it really hit me- I had edged into the gray outer reaches of stealth. While I’m not asking anyone to lie for me, I am being revisionist about my personal history for the sake of “passing”, and that’s definitely active deception.
Again, I just kinda put it to the back of my mind for a long while, as I had numerous other personal stresses to deal with at the time. For the a good portion of the semester, I had actually put pretty much ALL thoughts about trans/queer/feminist issues and most of my activist tendencies on hold so I could focus completely on brutally difficult core classes in my PhD program. However, as I reached the last few weeks of Fall semester and my brain gradually unfogged from the extreme studying, I realized how much I missed all of that…which in turn led me to serious examine my being semi-stealth when it comes school. I have to admit now, that I’m bothered by my behavior. Sure, I’m being visible for queer women (which is, of course, important!) as a whole, but my stealthy-ness isn’t do a damn thing for the trans community, and that’s not at all like me. I feel like I’m bending to will of cis-society, being a “good” trans girl by not making a fuss and quietly going about my business. Furthermore, it really started to erode my personal identity…I wasn’t being ME; I was being the person that society wanted to be. And it happened EASILY…it’s the path of least resistance in many sense. And as I said, I even enjoyed to an extent. It’s forced a major shift in my perceptions of stealth and those who choose it.
I still definitely want people to not be stealth…I do think it’s harmful on a personal level, and I’ve now personally experienced how easily it can start to erode your own identity. But even more, I want to live in a world where no one ever feels like they HAVE to go stealth, where trans people are just as loved and accepted as anyone else. I’ve previously harbored some pretty negative feelings about stealth trans people, and certainly made some fairly negative statements about them. And for that, I’m sorry. Being trans is among the most difficult situations that can be thrust upon a person, and anyone who manages to survive it and live a life that makes them happy should be celebrated…even if they choose to distance themselves from our community. If stealth is way that makes your life happy and livable, I support you. If being out and proud is what makes you happy, I support you and stand with you. To that end, I’m ready to start being more visible. I’m ready to shake people’s perceptions of what a trans woman is, and to be a success story in the sciences that we really need. I’m scared to death to do it, but I know it’s only way to really do what I set to do when made the decision to transition: to live my life genuinely as the real me.