The Many Shades of Stealth

I love Lynn Conway’s piece Many Shades of Out and this piece is meant to add to what she is saying rather than criticize what she said.

Yes indeed there are many shades to out and conversely there are just as many shades to stealth.

Lynn’s transition preceded mine by several years, but we were both part of that first wave of transsexual people transitioning within the US Medical system.

While we differ greatly in our background we do share many things in common.

We had to be trail blazers because we were among the first.  There were no real maps or guidelines.

The people offering advice were as clueless as we were in creating strategies that worked.

Most often our peers were the most rigid advice givers and the harshest critics of those who deviated from the group think of the time.

Many of us went our own way back then.  I learned from the memoirs of many.  Those memoirs are worth hunting for and preserving because they show what a diverse bunch we were.

Very few of us were actually deep stealth to the point of not telling our partners.  Most of us had friends we could let our hair down with even if only to reminisce on a long distant phone call.

Which is why there are many shades of both stealth and out.

Even today the ability to earn a living, while out is a challenge.  Thanks to education, corporate policies and a low level of expectation of the peons working the concrete floors in big box store or the fast food industry life is little easier.

What isn’t easier is being out.

So many of us were raised with shame and guilt about our being trans.  So many of us have had lives filled with abuse and violence because of our being trans.

Stealth was always our friend.  Hiding our being trans when we were young eliminated some childhood bullying and abuse from both parents and peers.  We brought that experience to our adult lives having learned the wisdom of not letting others see our being trans.

When we transitioned many of us experienced loss.  We were rejected by family and friends.

We armored ourselves from that hurt, short circuited it by being proactive and cutting off friendships and contact with people we knew before.  Sometimes we went so far as to cut off contact with our sisters and brothers we went through transition with.

We walled ourselves off from people who provide support networks of friends.

I often had two separate circles of friends.

When I was involved with the Women’s Movement a few feminists knew, a number acted as though they didn’t.  I never really hid parts of my photo portfolio and at a time when there was a great deal of hostility towards transsexual women within the lesbian feminist community, my photographs show us to be ordinary women.  I showed drag performers and gender queers as being human.  I showed gay men the same way because I saw myself as documenting the LGBT world along with the music scene.

I was a photographer for and a production artist for the Lesbian Tide during the same period when Sandy Stone was being trashed.  I lived with the understanding I would be disavowed if my history were to come out.

I thought I was improving the level of acceptance of TS women within the movement by being an exemplary token.

Maybe I was, but maybe I would have improved things more if I were out.

The Transgender Movement that started in the 1990s has had aspects I detest.  The extreme level of mandatory political correctness has rankled, especially given the awareness of how wonderfully politically incorrect so many of my sisters and brothers are.  The dogmatism has bothered me greatly, the cultish aspects embraced by some drive me up the wall.

But then in the late 1990s, when I was living in Hollywood and involved with the LA Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center I started attending events where the LGBT communities’ history was discussed and celebrated.

I started speaking up about how I had been a part of that movement and how other transsexual women and men were too, but how we had been invisible out of fear of the trashing and purges.

I used to agonize before coming out to a friend.  My outing myself required a great deal of trust and a desire to have a life-long friend.

For me the last twenty years have been marvelous beyond word.  All the silliness of the ideological arguments aside.

We’ve torn down so many walls.

Some of the Facebook groups I am on are made up of veteran 1960s Movement people. I’m out about transitioning amid the tumult of the 1960s activist movement.

I have this blog.

I’m still stealth when it comes to strangers and consider my history TMI for the work environment.

Old habits die hard, yet I’ve reconnected with a friend from High School and my cousin.

I enjoyed a conference I went to and I’d go see Namoli Brennet in a heart beat if she were to play the Kessler or Uncle Calvins.

There are so many sisters and brothers out there performing music I can see those who play in a genre I like and ignore others knowing full well that they too had an audience.

I buy the memoirs of a lot of my sisters and brothers because I like reading their stories.

But marching in a Trans-Pride Parade is a toughie for me.  I did it a couple of times in the 1990s and I don’t think it is something I feel comfortable with.

But then I was always more comfortable behind the camera than in front of one and if we had such an event in a city where I lived I wouldn’t hesitate to be the one doing the documenting.

I suspect my feelings are shared by many sisters and brothers who sit on the sideline and say, “Go team!”

Some of us are from a time when stealth equaled survival, others of us still carry the scars, as a result we still manage our information.

We still have the internal debates, the conflict.  Many of us don’t want to have Transsexual or Transgender as an honorific.

Yet we are getting old, our friends are dying one by one as time takes its toll and we do not want to return to the isolation of our childhoods.  We are often conflicted, wanting people to know what we did but also not wanting that label to obliterate the reality of lives lived as ordinary women and men.

So we negotiate in a world of gray tones neither deep stealth nor fully out to the point of wearing t-shirts and publicly embracing TS/TG as a label or identity.

6 Responses to “The Many Shades of Stealth”

  1. tinagrrl Says:

    I have problems dealing with both the “out at any cost, all the time”, and the “stealth at all times, at any cost” folks. I can’t stand those folks who have the nerve to tell others what they MUST do, how they MUST live.

    I’m of the opinion that all those folks think their specific living conditions apply to ALL folks of any sort of trans history. In addition, they seem to think their specific political positions must be held by all folks of any sort of trans history.

    They then make value judgements — rating other folks “value” based on what those other folks believe, and how close it is to their belief “system”.

    It has been my experience that an awful lot of the various “T-folks” who have what they see as a successful life become VERY dogmatic. I have no problem with that, heck, if it works for them — fine. I do have a problem with their telling other folks how they MUST live. I have a problem with their ad hom attacks on folks who do not agree 100% with their take on life.

    You can make suggestions. You can say, “this worked for me”. BUT, you cannot say, “YOU MUST do this, this, or this”. That’s just a way to harm others, to take agency away from folks who might just be experiencing it for the first time. Setting up barriers, dogmatic “rules”, and ways to THINK helps no one. Most folks will find their way. Most will discover what works for THEM.

    YOU have no right to think for THEM.

    In other words, do not attack others on your blog — whatever side you profess to support. Do not shout down others for voicing their opinion on their venue. Do not complain if someone will not allow you to attack them on their venue. Pretend to be a semi-civilized human being. Promote your ideas while not saying everyone who believes differently is a &^$(*@#$%^.

  2. Benny Says:

    Charles Morris is a communication scholar working to craft a queer archive of sorts. While his work is largely focused on gay men (he himself is an out gay man) he has broadened how we might consider passing as a part of normative systems as an act of resistance. I have always enjoyed this quotation of his: “Passing could be a transitory disguise, or a more enduring form of public improvisation vital to the maintenance of a cherished but endangered private life.” I have always found solace in such empowering views of passing and/or of living stealth in some ways but not in others. A really great read on your part! Thank you.

    • Suzan Says:

      Passing has a different meaning for gay men and lesbians than it has for transsexual/transgender women and men. For us it is more like being a mixed race person with one distant ancestor of a different race. Are we compelled to wear our history printed on a t-shirt or contradict every person’s presumptions?

      Sometimes the very idea of being expected to reveal our life history to strangers seems terribly oppressive, given how we transition to be ourselves and who we become is a refection of our interior being rather than some set of repressive expectations. Passing as a term might be appropriate for some one such as a drag queen or king, or a cross dresser who has another identity that is the one they present to the world most of the time.

      I somehow find the idea of TS/TG people, who have transitioned completely (often via hormones and surgery including but not limited to genital SRS), are passing to be highly offensive in that it privileges rather right wing conservative ideas regarding both sex and gender (including culturally defined appropriate sex/gender roles).

      Being stealth or out isn’t about “passing” so much as it is about choosing how much or how little of one’s life history, including medical history to reveal. In that sense Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (author of “Nobody Passes” is both right and wrong. Everybody passes when ever they fail to disclose every single detail of not only their life but of their lineage. On the other hand nobody passes because most people consider that level of total disclosure to be Too Much Information.

      I no longer see being transsexual as some thing to be ashamed of, but once it gets past a certain point in time it becomes ancient history and sort of takes on the same level of relevance as other events that were occurring at the same point in history.

  3. Karen Says:

    Tina wrote:
    “I have problems dealing with both the “out at any cost, all the time”, and the “stealth at all times, at any cost” folks.”

    So do I… very much so… but unlike years ago, don’t have much much interaction with “the community” these days… It’s calmer that way! 😉

    In terms of the psychological damage the need for acceptance or stealth can cause, one of the best examples I ever came across was “Emma” (if you recall who I mean) … I actually felt sorry for her.

    I did not lose much with transition, except for maybe future career possibilities (which may come to haunt us before too long).

    I would rather people not know, but i know it’s easy to find out and I know those with some knowledge will read me… So I don’t talk about it but assume most know and these days mostly don’t think about it.

    One thing I don’t feel is shame… I don’t see any reason to be ashamed because of changing sex.

  4. Elenor Says:

    I transitioned in my late teens to early twenties. Originally very out and proud, doing activism and education, I eventually went stealth. No gatekeepers bullied me into this. I simply got tired of having to deal with the transsexual stuff. I was done, needed a break, graduated, got on with life, etc. Being stealth allowed me calm and space to just live as myself for once, without the thick layers of misinterpretation that most slather on to you when they know you’re tg/ts.

    I feel like there has been an effort in the more “cultish” sectors of the trans ecosystem to cast those of us who take the step of stealth as “reactionary” to their ideology. Now they want to erase the word “stealth”, and keep us from living that way, too? I don’t think so…

    I certainly don’t mourn the progress that’s been made lately. I’m no TS separtist. And I cry to see little kids get to transition now, and to a degree they feel best. We do need an umbrella “community” and to work for a world where no one will have to be stealth if they don’t need. But, yes, after a while, it’s just another thing in the past. For some of us, much to the chagrin of some, that is as trans should be. A bit of history.

    • Suzan Says:

      I actually found more pressure to behave in a certain prescribe manner from other sisters than I ever did from the doctors. Maybe because once I was over and done with SRS I so rarely saw them.

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