March 31 each year is TDOV: Transgender Day of Visibility. It presents a paradox to many: If I am visible, then am I noticeably trans, and is that what I want? If I am not visible, then is this not something I have attained, and why would I want to undo that? If I am visible, is that a bad thing (and for many it certainly can be), and if I am not visible, then do I owe it to trans people everywhere to show that being trans can be a strong thing, something ordinary and acceptable, even normal?
Transgender people of every kind have always existed. It is a function of human biology that we have: variation has always existed, as in every other human trait from height to hair colour. We have always been known about in ancient societies, and I suspect that it is only in later patriarchal cultures, especially those with patriarchal-theocratic religions, that we have been erased. Biology never did make male and female that clear. It made genitalia largely clear, but even there, it has always allowed a percentage of intersex ‘conditions’ at chromosomal, gene, and physiological levels, and of course at the level of gender identity too.
I consider that it has primarily been a function of fear, distaste and loathing of same-sex attraction that created the moralistic climate that became fixed in the same patriarchal monotheistic religions. I have written at length elsewhere how convoluted sexuality and gender can be for trans people. If your biggest fear is anything other than active heterosexuality, then every trans person stand accused of alternative sexuality at some stage of their lives. If you weren’t gay then you are lesbian, or you were always bisexual, and so on. What this has meant for LGBTQI people, is that what they are, has been considered to be behavioural. Hence the strongest driver in our western culture has been that trans people are morally wrong: sinful by claiming to be what they are so they can do what they do (whatever that is supposed to entail).
In 74 countries today, homosexuality is illegal. In 13 is carries a death penalty. In 17 countries, being visible is criminalised as propaganda. In many more, LGBTQ people are vulnerable to violence. Hundreds of trans people are murdered every year for being visibly trans.
In the USA today, we are seeing many battles over the so-called bathroom bills. This is legislation requiring trans people not to use toilet and changing facilities that are assigned contrary to the gender written on their birth certificates. Trans people have always existed, just as intersex people have. This presents stupidly obvious bad outcomes. Women who don’t look feminine enough are in danger. They have already been compromised. Men who look too feminine less so. Trans women who look truly feminine in proportion may remain invisible, but feel a terrible responsibility towards those who do not, and who, as a consequence will be in danger going into male facilities. After all, most sexual violence is perpetrated by males. Trans men, I believe, should make a very deliberate point of entering female facilities, with their testosterone, muscle and beards. And what of people who are naturally androgynous? The current Trump administration is already erasing LGBTQI identities by omitting gender and sexuality questions from census forms, and is endangering the welfare of LGBTQI people everywhere by removing protections from the very religious moralistic scruples that gave us this problem in the first place. As I write, a big orange bus is touring US states, after originating in Spain, plastered with it’s self-appointed right to free speech and declaring that boys are boys and girls are girls and that it’s plain biology. Its motivation is the same religious moralistic hubris, its message the same that disadvantages, erases, beats, imprisons, murders and executes trans people all over the world.
So who wants to be visible? I guess you can be discreetly LGBQ by keeping your relationship mainly indoors – but why on earth should you have to protect the screwed-up morals of a screwed-up patriarchy with a screwed-up religion? Sexuality is not a choice or simply a behaviour, so why should it be repressed? You hold religious beliefs, or inherit a culture that gave you the outcomes of that religion, and prefer to believe that sexuality is purely an ethical issue, and inherently wrong? This is the same rights issue as blowing carcinogenic tobacco smoke into the face of non-smokers.
So who wants to be visible? For very many trans people, we cannot hide what we are. Few of us have nothing to give ourselves away, whether a prominent larynx, a deep voice, hair loss, broad shoulders or big hands. We try hard to distract, to lift and train our voices just enough, dress to our shape. Many of us do, after a number of years, simply blend into our workplaces, our towns and perhaps our families, but without some interventions such as hormones and electrolysis for facial hair, and without documentation, this can be difficult. Visibility and appearance are not the same thing: being visible can simply mean ‘being known as’. And visibility has very serious downsides, from attitudes at work, employability, finding somewhere to live and someone to love. Some trans people are very out and proud, and I am glad they want to be. They, with their high visibility, prevent our erasure, but experience a lot more hassle than I do, keeping my head down. What we are is always a secret to gossip about; our bodies are never the private property that those of cis people enjoy. I would bet more people have hazarded a guess about my genitals, or what my vagina looks like, than about any of the cis people with whom I share this world. And that makes what I am, linked to sexual behaviour and preference, which links it to ‘what is right and proper’. It makes me dangerous to some, and in some circumstances.
I remember my ex-wife saying to me that we could continue together, if I could just ‘be a man’ at weekends. Visibility matters in how people treat you, and those who are associated with you.
Maybe you even feel a better employer, if you have increased your diversity quotient by having a visibly trans person on board who is not treated badly. I feel a whole lot better to have moved to a new job where the first premise is not ‘we have a new person joining who is trans; treat them with due respect’. I feel better for losing that initial baggage. I don’t mind people knowing, I just don’t want to be a protected species about whom people talk.
Social erasure is unequivocally bad for trans people. We have always existed, it is not a behaviour, and it cannot be suppressed or repressed. It exists as a state of being alive, at whatever age we finally take courage to face it. And we should not have to face this as a decision, as something that carries threat, danger, disapproval and rejection. Being invisible does not change society or help us. Being visible is still a risky, even dangerous, thing to do. Our lives do change, not just in the relief of being ourselves, but in the loss it almost inevitably brings.
Plenty of cultures and societies do not want trans people to exist, because we inconveniently raise issues of sexuality, of male dominance and privilege, of strength and danger. ‘Strong male’ is still default, the leading formula. A man apparently turning into a woman is intrusive, a potential predator. A woman apparently turning into a man is a betrayal, and never quite as good as the real thing.
Media stories that promote celebrity trans people, or the unusual by age, are not really the stories about ordinary trans lives. They are not our representatives, and can give the wrong kind of attention from unqualified and opinionated people who feel strongly or entitled, about their inherited and uninformed cultural norms.
And so this year, as TDOV came round, I asked myself whether putting a TDOV ‘frame’ around my Facebook picture was a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a matter-of-fact thing whereby I could simply say: it’s OK to be trans.
Not invisible, just here
Maybe the strongest feeling I ever have is against religious and derivative cultural motivations that debate our existence and validity in our absence, paint us as predatory, and seek the freedom to erase, ignore and ultimately harm us all. Too many cultures without (especially) Abrahamic roots have accommodated, even celebrated, non-binary gender identities, for it not to be obvious that trans visibility is a casualty of those roots. It still threatens trans people everywhere. I am lucky to be where I am. I choose not to be invisible.
And yet by not being very visible, I also show that it is perfectly normal to be who I am, ordinary, honest, safe, loving, straightforward, loyal, kind …