Every day, I have to make the decision about whether or not to come out as transgender. There’s a good reason why so much of my friend group is composed of trans people. I don’t have to explain myself to them, I don’t have to worry whether they are seeing me as I truly am, and I don’t have to worry about any unintended microaggressions they might say relating to my gender. Being with old cis friends from my childhood, meeting new people, or even just moving through the world and have the many small interactions that make up being in public, all contain the possibility of difficulty or danger.
I might be having the best gender day in the world, feel secure and confident in myself, and have it not matter at all because I have an interaction where I am misgendered by a completely well-meaning person. Moments like that have become easier to move through without it affecting my mood or my confidence. But the fact of my life is that I will have to come out over and over and over again. And knowing when and how to do that is a struggle I will always deal with.
In some circumstances, all it takes is a simple correction – “Oh, I actually use they/them pronouns,” – and the issue is fixed. The person apologizes, changes their language, and I can move on. In many other situations, I have to weigh the chances of a person’s knowledge and attitude towards my gender. If I bring this up, will they be receptive? How much will I have to explain? Do I have the energy to give a 101 talk right now, knowing that by the end of the conversation they’ll probably still be confused and still misgender me for the foreseeable future? What if they think my identity is stupid? What if they tell me so? Who else is around them? Do I have support? Do I have a crowd of people who won’t understand what I’m talking about? If I bring this up and it’s awkward and confusing, will it ruin the rest of my time around this person?
These are the thoughts that run through my head while I weigh the pros and cons of disclosing my identity. And I am incredibly lucky and privileged. As a white assigned-female-at-birth person, I have not yet had to deal with anything beyond well-meaning confusion or resistant disbelief. Many other trans people, especially women and people of color, have to deal with everything from emotionally taxing scenarios like the one above, to facing physical violence.
As Janet Mock put it in a recent essay, “Trans women are targeted because we exist at vulnerable intersections of race, gender and class. My sisters are vulnerable because no one movement has ever centered the bodies, lives and experiences of these women” (A Note on Visibility in the Wake of 6 Trans Women’s Murders in 2015). Often, the women living at these intersections do not get to choose whether or not to disclose their transness. Cece McDonald, for example, was walking down the street when a group of people began harassing her and her friends for being transgender, then escalating into attacking her and her friends (Mother Jones). This altercation ended in Cece’s incarceration for defending herself. Whether voluntary or forced, disclosing one’s transness or being perceived as transgender can have deadly consequences for trans women, especially trans women of color.
What can we do about this difficulty and danger that so often accompanies disclosing one’s trans identity?
- Work to Educate Ourselves About Trans Identities and Trans Lives.
The more people who are knowledgeable about transgender identities, the less educating trans people will have to do when they come out. Center trans women and trans women of color’s experiences. As a white AFAB person, I have to be sure I don’t place my experiences of disclosure on par with theirs. It’s important to listen to the many trans women of color who speak up about these issues, recognize their unique struggles, and amplify their voices.
- Believe and Respect Trans People’s Identities.
Be sure to respect those identities both when you are around trans people and when you are among cis people. This respect, which includes using the right pronouns and gendered terms and sticking up for our identities to ignorant or bigoted people, can help make the world a safer place for trans people and take some of the burden of educating and standing up for ourselves off trans people’s shoulders.
- Be Prepared to Speak Up When Trans People Come Out to Others.
Having someone there to help explain concepts, step in and correct pronouns, or generally provide a show of support and respect for our identities can help reduce some of the burden from the trans person and resistance to change on the part of the person they are coming out to.
- Be An Educator.
Educating other cis people about trans identities helps reduce some of the weight of disclosure. Making sure you don’t speak over trans people in the process can be a difficult line to walk, as when speaking about anyone’s experience that isn’t your own. It’s good to direct people to resources written by trans people, but also it is good to gauge the space and speak up if you are the only one there who can. You might make mistakes, but it’s better than not speaking up at all. Explaining transgender concepts now means that a trans person may not have to give the heavier emotional toll or face the same danger to explain the same concept later. Explaining trans identity as a trans person can be exhausting. Treating an integral part of my identity as a casual topic of conversation – or even debate – can make coming out feel like an obstacle course that never ends.
- Step In When You See Someone in Danger.
It’s important to always take care of yourself, but sometimes stepping in to diffuse a situation or provide a show of physical support can help prevent violence. Violence against trans people is a global issue (Trans Murder Monitoring Project). Only by working together can we create a world in which it is safe to be openly transgender. In that world, I hope I won’t have to fear or think about coming out at all.
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