Back in the day (not too long ago, and still today) transgender people were advised to move far far away where nobody knew who they were and there’d be no trace of their previous life. The fact that one used to be a different sex was shameful, worth hiding at all costs. The intent of transition was to “pass” as the desired gender – male or female, only – integrating oneself into a society where a different-gendered past does not exist. Never revealing one’s transsexual history was a marker of success. It was and is perceived as secretive, deceptive, safe.
In a general sense, stealth signified post-transition invisibility. But how can we as a community make strides for our rights if we’re not visible? If nobody comes out, loud and proud, we’re perpetuating the stigma of the transsexual.
Yet some people face real or potential danger should they reveal their trans status. Others regard their identity as a birth defect which, once corrected, calls for no further attention. Some people are just tired of coming out, over and over and over again. They’ve become wary of telling friends, co-workers, or even family, that they’re trans. Isn’t that the goal anyway – to be seen as, treated as, to wholly embody your target gender?
It’s not a secret, it’s not a lie; it’s a personal choice.
The Right to Privacy
There are some things in your life which you keep more private than others. People can be choose to tell someone about their trans identity/status/history, or about their heart condition, or about their obsession with rom-com chick-flicks. They can choose to tell their partner, perhaps even joke about it with friends, while never letting on with co-workers.
“Stealth” is not all-or-nothing: it’s a gradual gray of intersecting layers. You are in control; you choose who you tell, how much, and when. Like everything else, it’s a spectrum.
What about Non-Binary Stealth?
But what does stealth look like when your gender is not male or female?
This question lingered over me for several years. I saw it as yet another unsolvable piece of the non-binary transition puzzle, trying to fit into a world where my gender does not exist.
So I went back to Lesson 1: Stealth = Disclosure.
It’s not about “passing” (whatever that means), it’s not about a “successful” transition (whatever that looks like) or a “complete” transition (life is never complete). It’s simply a spectrum of who you tell about your trans status. And as a non-binary person, I still wield the power of disclosure. It just took me a while to realize this.
A Private Transition
For over 2 years, I transitioned in silence. Other than my signifiant other, I “came out” to my immediate family as trans, and informed them that I was having top surgery a few weeks before. They never understood – and never asked – much beyond that.
Nobody else around me knew about the transformations in my life. I’m generally loud and outspoken, and while not an extrovert, I will make my thoughts heard. However, I’m also private, carefully guarding my true feelings and innermost desires.
Like breadcrumbs, I’d slowly and deliberately drop hints. I wanted others to know, but I was not ready to tell them; this inner conflict pulled me in opposite directions for far too long. Even the way I came out was very public, but very passive: I published it in my personal website, in fine print and at the very bottom, letting people discover it on their own.
In a way, I was stealth.
Coming Out vs Being Stealth
To remain stealth in my situation, however, would’ve required me to remain in the closet, which is not exactly the same thing. To continue my transition, I had to come out. There is a difference between coming out for the first time, and remaining stealth post-transition; to get to one you have to cross the other first.
I was afraid. I was afraid of being vulnerable, of being awkward, of being too honest too soon, and afraid of what I’d lose after coming out: my privacy, my right to disclose, my right to choose who, what, and when to tell.
In truth there has never been a real coming out moment for me, rather a series of moments where I reveal to someone a piece of information regarding my identity, my name, my pronouns, or simply how I preferred to be seen as and referred to. Sometimes – rarely – I manage to explain my gender in some fashion.
I also erroneously believed that I would forever remain “visibly” trans. I was under the impression that everybody could easily notice I was trans just by looking at me, a label I’d never be able to shake off. But a trip out of my daily bubble never fails to challenge that notion.
People perceive me as either a boy or a girl, and sometimes they are genuinely confused, torn between the two. But none of these cases imply that people think I’m transgender. If people see me as male, then I’m simply male – a boy, perhaps a dashingly handsome young man, but nevertheless male. If they see me as female, then that’s what I am – someone with itty bitty titties (wherever they see those), probably a lesbian (because of the short hair of course). If they see me as potentially both, it means they’re trying to figure out which one I am; it does not mean they’ve concluded I’m trans.
I should read my own advice, as I’ve written about this before: people see only what they want to see, someone whose gender expression might be ambiguous, but a person’s gender – or actually, sex – is usually not considered to be ambiguous. They think the problem lies with them and their inability to put the puzzle together, not with me and my ability to blur gender lines. “Transgender” is simply not something that crosses people’s minds very often.
In some ways you can be non-binary and stealth; it all depends on your personal definition of stealth – or the spectrum of disclosure – as well as the unique combination of your personal physical, social, legal, and emotional gender goals.
Today, I am still low-disclosure, although certain events have propelled me to loosen up. By nature of the advocacy work I do in the trans community, I’m forced to be “out” more and more, often just by virtue of being introduced to someone in a certain context. Eventually I know I’ll consolidate my two identities, but for now I choose to keep some stuff private.