Being trans is to constantly live a life in terror. But, being trans also means to live a life in one’s own true selfhood. This is the duality of being trans, to live a life of suffering and agony, and to also live a life of self-determination and authenticity. Living a life of terror is to experience various forms of violence on a continuum. From one’s family and friends disowning you when you come-out or kicking you out of your home; to struggling to find a job or being fired from a job; to being harassed in public or harassed while using the restroom; to being sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped; or being a victim of a hate crime and being murdered. Being trans means living in terror in regards to one’s physical and psychological safety. Withstanding this, it is as a result of living this life in terror that trans folks have developed creative, complex, and nuanced strategies and tactics to survive in world not meant for them.
The Human Rights Campaign has reported that 27 trans people have been murdered in 2017 (1), a majority of whom were trans women, trans women of color, and specifically Black/African American transwomen. Trans people of color live at the intersections of race, gender, and class. In 48 states throughout the U.S., it is still legal to employ what is called the “trans panic defense” (2). The “trans panic defense” is when a person, mostly cis men, assert “psychological duress” upon learning someone is trans which serves as “legitimate reason” to murder them, and subsequently acquit them of their murder. This pervasive violence against trans folks is endemic of what I would like to name as cis-supremacy and cis-domination. We often hear the word “cis-normativity” or “cis-hetero-normativity” to denote a world where being cis is the norm, but I think this word fails in naming the severity of issue. Normativity just implies that something is normalized. Cis-supremacy and cis-domination speaks to the toxicity and absurdly grandiose idea that cis people think they can harass, discriminate, and murder someone who they see as different and less than.
Similar to a large demographic of trans folks, I’ve experienced multiple forms of marginalization. Four years ago, I experienced a drug-induced mental health crisis during which the police were contacted by a close family friend of mine. I was subsequently beaten up by the police, tasered three times, and psychiatrically hospitalized against my will for six days. I identify as a survivor of police brutality and the mental health industrial complex. It was after my hospitalization that I disclosed to my parents what had been contributing to my addiction to drugs: 1) that I was a childhood incest survivor, 2) that I was bi-sexual, and 3) that I was gender non-binary and trans. I coordinated a family session with my drug counselor where I “came-out” to my mother. I told her I wanted to wear women’s clothes and wear make up. The response from my parents was that I had already put them through enough with my addiction. So they asked me to move out of our family home. But in my mind, all I heard was, “We don’t care you are a incest survivor, or that less than 6 months ago you were waking us up in the middle of the night because you were having images of cutting your wrists.” So, I moved out. Since then, I’ve come-out to my parents in different ways over the past four years, and they are still in denial about my gender identity. My mother does not even acknowledge the conversation we were having as related to gender identity, instead she refers to the topic as “it” or “that”.
I want to discuss here how I as a non-binary trans-femme have created ways to stay safe in my life. However, I would like to note a disclaimer. Although I am a non-binary trans-femme of color, I am a light-skinned person of color with class privilege. I cannot personally attest to being a dark-skinned trans person of color or a working-class trans person of color. I walk in the world with the many privileges into which I was born, and do not have to suffer the same marginalizations as other trans people of color, such as being racially profiled by white people or the police, or being economically disenfranchised struggling to pay for housing or everyday expenses. The experiences I can speak to are coming-out to a family that is unaccepting of my gender identity, maneuvering the multiple layers of personally and socially transitioning, and building a community that affirms of my gender identity.
1) Strategic Visibility: Coming-Out Processes and Protocols
I mostly live as an “out” non-binary trans-femme in my personal life, such as with my partner, my immediate friends, and my community. However, I am stilled closeted with my family, again because they are in denial, and I am afraid they may cut me out of their life. I am also closeted at work. At work and with my family, I dress in masculine clothing, still use my legal name, and I use masculine pronouns. When I applied for my current job a year ago, I did think about showing up to the job interview in feminine attire and using my chosen name. But I was afraid they would not hire me. This is a fear all trans people face with employment.
One way I build safety in my life is what I call scaffolding strategic visibility. I think there exists this false narrative that trans people have to announce to the world that they are trans. This is not the case because we live in fear for our safety. We also don’t have to announce to the world that we are trans because it is no one’s business. Trans people have to live with people accepting or rejecting them in multiple layers, within their family, with friends, and their broader community. Navigating these layers shifts coming-out processes and protocols, and varies from space to space, community to community, and person-to-person. Coming-out to some people may be very direct and quick, others it may be very gradual. Navigating who to come-out and who not to come-out to can be exhausting. But I have learned some strategies to get by.
In the beginning of my personal and social transition, I came-out to close friends and told them not to disclose to anybody else about my gender identity. I would actually suggest that if you are going to come-out to someone, then you should explicitly state you want them to keep your identity safe. However, one time, I forgot to specify this to a close friend of mine. The next time I saw him, he said he had told a few other friends and people in my community. I was frustrated with him, at first, because I felt he should have known not to discuss something so personal. However, I realized I had no problem with him telling other friends whom I had not seen in a while and who I knew would accept me, or would not care. We all know how much coming-out can be emotionally taxing. It’s hard to come out to every person you know over and over again. What I then found out, in hindsight, is that if I intentionally come-out to a person with whom I share mutual relationships, and I do not direct them to tell anybody, then I am strategically giving them permission to tell other people. So instead of coming-out to my community on a person-to-person basis, I am tactically allowing someone else to do it for me.
Another way I build strategic visibility relates to my parents. To make a long story short, my parents are well-known in my hometown and the community in which I live. Growing up, and still now, I frequently run into people who know me by way of my parents. I soon realized as I was social transitioning and coming-out, that this was a problem. My parents refuse to discuss my gender identity, so how would they feel if someone in their circle told them they saw me in the community wearing women’s clothes. It is for this reason I do not dress in feminine attire in the community in which I live. I know that some of you reading this may think that I shouldn’t care what my parents think and that I should be who I want to be. But this is harder said than done.
When introducing myself to people in the broader community of my hometown, I always use my legal name, and I am mostly always wearing masculine attire. However, once I begin to know people on a more personal basis, such as a one-one-one coffee date or meal, then I disclose my gender journey. For example, I went to a city council meeting a few months back and there was a local group of community members expressing their concerns during public comment. After they finished, I introduced myself to them as my legal name and invited them to a meeting of the organization I am apart. It was at this smaller meeting that I told them my chosen name and that I use she/hers pronouns. I did not explain to them my gender identity because I did not feel appropriate to do so. I felt that using my chosen name and using she/her pronouns explained enough.
2) Allyship: Assessing the Personal is Political
As a person of color and activist in general, I am very attentive to how people express their social, cultural, and political identities and beliefs. But I am not just concerned with another person’s “political analysis”, or how well a person articulates their political “opinions”. What I am looking for in a person is how they evaluate power and privilege operates in their daily lives within themselves and with those around them. This assessment helps me to choose to whom I do or do not come-out, and who is a potential ally.
When trans folks speak of allyship, we mean on both a personal and collective basis. What I expect from an ally on a personal basis, is for them to use my appropriate gender pronouns, respect my gender journey and identity, and be willing to learn from and listen to me. I also expect them to safeguard my identity from those to whom I do not want it to be shared. Trans folks need allies to advocate when we are not around and to educate other cis people about our experiences. Cis allies also need to provide resources to trans folks to facilitate spaces where trans folks can be our own leaders.
3) Gender Expression
I am still closeted at work and with my family so I have no choice but to wear very formal masculine clothing. As I was socially transitioning, I came to realize that wearing men’s clothes felt like I was in drag. Feminine clothing, for me, is my appropriate and preferable gender expression, not masculine clothing. I also came to realize that I felt socially dysphoric when wearing masculine clothing. So, one day, I made a decision to wear feminine underwear, which included panties and a sports bra. Once I made this change, I felt better about myself. Although the world can’t see what I am wearing underneath, I know for myself that I am wearing feminine clothing. Although I still feel as if I am some-what in drag, at least I don’t feel completely socially dysphoric. One way I build safety in my life is wearing clothing or personal items that allow me to express my appropriate gender. I would recommend this to other trans folks. This does not have to mean wearing panties or a sports bra, it could mean wearing socks, a bracelet, doing your hair a certain way, or something small that you know aligns with your appropriate gender.
4) Supportive Community and Chosen Family
When I seriously began exploring my gender identity, I did some research. Luckily, I found a support group for gender non-binary people and a trans group at a local LGBTIQ center here in the Bay Area. I chose to go to the non-binary support/community group. It was the first time I was around other non-cis people with multiple gender identities. We talked about our experiences living in a world designed for cis-normative people. We talked about the fluidity of gender identity and gender expression. We discussed coming-out and transitioning, socially, personally, and medically. We talked about binary gender assumptions and gender expectations imposed on us by society. We talked about people misgendering us and using the wrong pronouns, and the intense struggle to get people to use the appropriate pronouns. We also talked about policies and laws affecting trans, genderqueer, and non-binary people.
This support group introduced me to a space meant for people like me. I was totally isolated as a person exploring my gender identity until I found this support group. I could relate with the identities and experiences of people there. I felt relieved that I no longer felt alone. I was around people who accepted me. This group afforded me the opportunity to create community with other trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary folks. I attended that group for a whole year, and I still attend that group from time to time. I always know that support group will be there when I need it. A way to build safety for trans folks is to find spaces and build community led by and for trans people.
For some trans folks who have been rejected by their biological family, building relationships outside or parallel to that family has been a strategy of survival, emotionally and socially. Trans folks are taken under the wing of elder trans folks, or trans folks who have been out for longer, with whom they build lifelong relationships to help them navigate a world designed for cis people. Their chosen family also provides them with opportunities for housing, employment, to build broader community, and other resources. It is this chosen family with whom some trans folks spend holidays and birthdays, and celebrate life’s transitions and milestones.
While connecting with a supportive community is necessary to build safety outside oneself, I find that being a trans person comes with a lot of duality, again with agony and authenticity. This can be intense at times and a lot to hold for one person. So it is necessary to find ways to cope with this duality in solitude.
5) Spirituality: Connecting with One’s Trans Ancestors
Many of the trans people with whom I have been honored to know, I find, are very spiritually grounded. They have a regular spiritual practice, such as connecting with one’s higher power, or connecting with one’s ancestors, prayer, meditation and mindfulness, some form of energy work, yoga, honoring physical spiritual spatial arrangements, such as an altar, and using crystals or herbs. Spirituality not only has individual benefits, but also collective benefits.
The world is becoming increasingly aware of what I would reference as trans traditions in indigenous communities and communities of color. We now know that in precolonial societies before Western colonization, trans, non-binary, and genderqueer folks were not only accepted as regular members of their communities, but also held as more connected with their respective deities. They were also healers, bridge builders between genders, warriors, and keepers of sacred knowledge and traditions. They were also strategically killed by the colonizers to establish cis-hetero-patriarchy. When I pray and honor my ancestors, I am honoring the trans, non-binary, and genderqueer ancestors who came before me. When I pray, my higher power tells me that I have a purpose, gives me permission to be my authentic self, and affirms my being in the world as a trans person with other trans folks. My higher power gives me the strength to be a warrior, a bridge builder, and embody the sacred transformation of turning pain into power and tragedy into triumph.
6) Empowering Education
Building a trans and non-binary community and being individually grounded is one thing. It is another thing to interact with cis people who have no knowledge of what it means to being trans. It is then necessary to educate people on what it means to be trans.
I have found that I educate a lot of people about my gender identity. Educating others can be tricky. It can be tricky because it’s not my job to educate cis people about their cis-ness. And I do not sacrifice my own internal process about being trans by disclosing really personal aspects of my identification process to someone who does not yet understand. On the other hand, trans, non-binary, and genderqueer folks have always been bridge builders in general and between multiple genders. I think educating cis folks about gender aligns with that sacred task.
I am not going to go into much length here, but every trans and non-binary person knows what educating cis people is like: first you inform cis people about the difference between “biological sex” and gender, then the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, then between gender identity and gender expression, and then about pronouns, and it continues. But when I attempt to educate cis people I try to go beyond this. What I found is that educating cis people reaches a transformative threshold when my conversation with them prompts them to think about their own gender journey as a cis person. Was their gender identity imposed on them, and by whom? How were they taught to be a “man” or “woman”, and what do those concepts or realities even mean? How do they express their own femininity or masculinity, and, again, who defines what those are? How do they even know they are cis? These are questions I hope to elucidate when I am educating cis people. Educating cis folks also means helping them to see their own cis privilege. For example, that they can easily use a restroom or be in public and not face harassment, discrimination, or murder.
What I will say is that educating cis folks only works for those who are willing to learn. And, I am not advocating or every trans person to educate cis folks. Similar to other intersections, trans people have no obligation to educate cis people. It is up to cis folks to educate themselves on the experiences of trans people. Knowing if a person is willing to learn goes back to assessing the personal is political, and if they are a potential ally. Sometimes cis people may ask me a question, and I know the answer is too deep for them to handle, and it’s too much for me to explain. Or, it’s too personal for me to answer. So I’ll tell them to do their own research on the internet or give them an article to read.
7) Policy Change and Structural Transformation
Withstanding the significance of taking steps to create safety internally within oneself and in one’s immediate social environment, this is not enough. Trans people need to feel safe in the broader world. And, as much as we hear being gender affirmative is about transforming the social and cultural attitudes of cis people towards trans folks, individual change is not enough. There needs to be structural and systemic change which affirms the rights of trans people to equitable accessibility and safety.
The most visible issue regarding laws and policies related to trans folks have been the controversy surrounding bathroom accessibility. If we take a look at gender neutral bathroom access, it is not enough to convince cis people that trans people can use men and women’s bathrooms. It becomes necessary to implement policies which affirm that trans and non-binary people can use whichever bathroom they choose as well as for companies, organizations, and buildings to designate gender neutral bathrooms.
We saw in the recent elections throughout the country that eight transgender people were elected to city councils, school boards, and representative offices (3). We need more trans people to become elected to political office. We also need laws safeguarding people’s right and liberty to transition in the workplace and everything that comes with it, such as, again, bathroom accessibility, and colleagues using the appropriate gender pronouns. We need to include in health care reform the necessity for companies to cover the expense of medical transition. We also need to repeal the “trans panic defense”.
I hope what I have discussed here resonates with some trans folks about how to create safety in our lives. What may have worked for me may not work for others. It is important to strategize what coming-out and transitioning looks like for different trans individuals. Creating safety in my life is a very complex and creative process, where I’ve learned what works and what didn’t, and I’m still learning. Spirituality and a supportive community has provided me with a safety net to figure out what more I need to learn. I have still yet to figure out a way for my parents to accept, or at least acknowledge, my gender journey and identity. I have also yet to come-out at work. I will continue to utilize the tools I have outlined here in my life and hope for the best.
- “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017”. The Human Rights Campaign. https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2017
- “Being Freaked Out by Gay and Trans People is Still Legal Murder in 48 States”. Vice. June 7th, 2017. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xw8w54/being-freaked-out-by-gay-and-trans-people-is-still-a-legal-murder-defense-in-48-states
- Meet The Transgender Americans Who Won on Election Day. Human Rights Campaign. November 8th, 2017. http://www.hrc.org/blog/meet-the-transgender-americans-who-won-on-election-day/
[Feature Image: An individual with short hair stands against a sunlight background facing away from the camera. Flickr.com]