On March 31, throughout the world and across the Internet, people observed the Transgender Day of Visibility (TDoV). I found myself, as I have in previous years, feeling ambivalent about this event. Because honestly? For many trans women, visibility is exactly the problem: It is involuntary, and it leaves us vulnerable to both physical and social violence. We get mocked, harassed, talked down to — and trans women of color get murdered on a regular basis.
So asking us to be “visible” on a particular day sounds, from a certain angle, like asking us to be more vulnerable, to open ourselves up to more degradation and violence, for the sake of producing inspiration porn for privileged liberals. And for those who don’t dare expose themselves this way — due to concern for their safety and well-being — there’s an implicit mantle of shame for remaining closeted.
I did make a choice to be visible — in that I made a choice to come out as transgender and navigate the world as a woman. From that moment, visibility became not an action or an option, but a pervasive fact of my life. I do not “pass” as a cisgender woman. I have physical features, traces of a testosterone-dominant puberty, that even after a year on hormone replacement therapy mark me as trans.
And “marked as trans” isn’t as simple as signaling what kind of woman I am to the world. If that were all it meant — if “I can see that you’re a trans woman” meant something akin to “I can see that you’re a middle-aged woman” or “I can see that you’re a brunette woman” — I would be comfortable with that. But reading me as trans means that people read me with all the weight of their transmisogynist preconceptions. This means being read and spoken to as male (by men, especially), or it means being read and spoken to as some kind of “you-go-girl” honorary junior charity-case female (by women, especially). Or it means being merely some freak and curiosity to be gawked at, glared at, smirked at, leered at. Navigating daily interactions as a trans woman is alienating at best and violating at worst.
None of that is anything that I chose. I did not invite it on myself. That is an involuntary aspect of my personhood and how it intersects with our horrible culture, and it did not once occur to me that I, with my features, would be able to hide from it. So I didn’t. I’ve been out and proud and loud from day one.
It’s worth remembering that I’m relatively sheltered in this regard, too. I’m white. I’m middle aged. I teeter on the poverty line, but I have a pretty robust social safety net that’s kept me relatively stable and safe even when facing houselessness. And I live in a city where my risk of actual, physical transmisogynistic violence is relatively low. There are other trans women who are far more at risk than I am.
There are, of course, trans women who remain closeted, whether by passing as men and keeping their womanhood secret, or by living as women but not disclosing their trans status. The former is a route usually chosen due to a profound lack of safety in a trans woman’s life circumstances — for instance, due to being surrounded by, and even materially dependent upon, unsupportive family and friends. The latter, called “going stealth,” is a matter of some controversy in the trans community, to say the least. There is a school of thought that says stealth is the endpoint of transition: when you have had “all the surgeries” and hair removal treatments, and trained your voice and walk, and learned to dress right, you can leave your old life entirely behind and live indistinguishable from any other woman.
I believe this way of thinking is harmful for trans women and invalidates our womanhood by insisting that we earn it or prove it. It is a relic of a time when trans women’s vital healthcare was based on conforming to these sexist standards. But, at the same time, a trans woman might choose to go stealth, or remain closeted, for any number of reasons. I’m not here to judge those reasons, and I support each of those choices, on the individual level, as valid. When we celebrate visibility, we run the risk of implicitly shaming and shunning those who have decided that their needs are best met by keeping a low profile. This approach is, at the very least, alienating, and even worse, could spur some to take unsafe actions in the name of trans pride and visibility.
Whatever Transgender Day of Visibility is about, it should never, ever be used to hurt trans people.
All that said, I know full well the unearthly power we take from living publicly as our full, visible selves. This power, especially in the selfie generation, demolishes ciscentric, misogynist beauty standards, conquers dysphoria, and most crucially lets us know we’re not alone and that our sisterhood is defiant and beautiful. Visibility on those terms is a radical act. To everyone who shared their radiant images on that day, and throughout the year, my heart goes out.
When trans activist Rachel Crandall created TDoV in 2009, I’m sure she did it with positive outcomes in mind. And truly, when trans suicides and trans women of color’s murders are so epidemic, when it seems we can’t go even a week without learning of another dead sister, is it any wonder that we have a desire to celebrate trans women’s lives as well as honor our deaths? The Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20 shouldn’t be the only time people think about trans people. It shouldn’t take our deaths to get activist communities and the general public to rally to our side. In that way, we do need a day to say, “We are here, we are human, we are beautiful, and we are not going to buckle under your attempts to erase and kill us.”
It’s not as simple as “visibility bad” or “visibility good.” It’s important to celebrate our presence and our courage, and equally important to acknowledge the cautions we take to survive. An out trans woman is a beautiful, powerful force, but she is not any more valuable than her sister in the closet.
Ultimately, everyone has to make their own decisions about visibility, safety and health, and resistance. If anything, this day should focus on making space for the voices of those who truly need it, such as trans women of color who are especially exposed and vulnerable — and also especially silenced — or nonbinary AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) folks who are often overshadowed by the more socially prized presence of AFAB nonbinary people, or intersex people, whose trans status is often invalidated. These demographics are often edged out of trans communities in favor of convenient narratives.
Visibility can be resistance, or it can be violence. Don’t shame the closet. These things are complicated, but that won’t stop me from posting my selfies on TDoV, or any day.
[Headline image: The photograph features a person with long dark hair behind a rain-speckled window, holding their hand to the glass and resting their face against their hand with their eyes closed.]