Today March 31st, in case you missed it, is Transgender Day of Visibility. I’ll be honest, while I have known about this day for a few years, it started in 2009 in Michigan, and I have had some issues with the idea. However given the surge in anti trans campaigning over the past few years, I am increasingly seeing that this is a really important and thought I’d post a few of my thoughts on the subject today.
Most trans people want to be invisible.
This is my main concern about having a Transgender Day of Visibility. I have been out and visible myself for almost 20 years, however I spent over 40 years being as invisible as possible. Having worked as a trans educator for most off the past 15 years I feel pretty safe in saying that today, most trans people still want their transness to be invisible. They want to walk down the street and just blend in as the man or woman they wish they had been born. And even though I am very much out and proud – I don’t want to walk down the street attracting attention because I look trans.
The reason for this is FEAR
Our greatest fear as humans is the fear of shame or humiliation. It is probably the primary underlying motive for suicide attempts. As a society we seem to despise difference and often the reaction to difference is to humiliate or harass. Some take it further and inflict physical violence on people who they see as different. So there is a very real case for being invisible.
I first realised that I was trans when I was about 7 or 8. I felt very uncomfortable about the fact that I wanted to wear girls clothes, and most boys by a very early age know that if they wear girls clothes or act in a feminine manner, they will get laughed at.
In the village where I grew up there was one family with about 11 kids. They didn’t have much money so the younger kids wore clothes handed down from their older siblings. One boy, about my age, came to school one day wearing a pair of his sisters knickers. Unfortunately it was a day for PE and when he got changed into his shorts, someone noticed the knickers and started making fun of him.
The other boys quickly joined in like a pack of baying hyena’s and I watched as he stood there, terrified and humiliated. I didn’t dare jump in to defend or help him because I was scared that I would get picked on as well. Instead I just stood and watched, feeling sick. From that day I knew that my secret had to remain just that – a secret.
But things are changing in a unexpected way.
More and more trans people are now identifying, not as men and women, but as “neither men nor women” They are using labels such as non binary or androgynous, or gender queer – or any of 50 or more different labels, with more being added daily – I know – really confusing – even for trans people
This is what is going to change things. It is very hard to celebrate transgender day of visibility when I want to be invisible or not noticed or just blend in. But that is only a problem when everyone else conforms to a gender stereotype of either male or female. If a high proportion of people do not conform to those stereotypes then it’s much easier and safer to be visible.
Is everyone who does not conform to gender stereotypes Transgender?
Not at all. In fact most people who do not conform are probably not trans. They may be lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or just gender non conforming. The problem here is that people are often frightened to be visibly non conforming because they fear that they will be perceived to be lesbian, gay, bi or trans.
But this also highlights the huge problem trans people have faced for years – Passing. This is a term that means being invisible – being seen and accepted by everyone as the other gender. And this is really hard to achieve for a 6 ft overweight bald man dressing as a woman, or a petite woman with large breasts dressing as a man. Passing means that everyone sees us as our preferred gender and achieving this is a huge challenge.
Most of the time people see me as a woman – until I speak. I made a decision that I would not even try to create a female sounding voice – I am a speaker – but that means that I have to be visible as a trans woman. Actually I would find it much easier to identify as neither male nor female – to identify as non binary and it looks as if that it likely to be a legal option in the not too distant future
A growing trend towards Non-Binary
However, whilst the growth in the number of people identifying as non binary is making the idea of transgender day of visibility easier, it is not without problems. Most people assume that transgender people are people who want to undergoing surgical and hormone treatment to physically change their bodies. The reality is that most trans people do not have surgery. Most don’t even permanently change gender because they are too afraid to come out and become visible.
Those trans people who do undergo gender reassignment surgery are very happy with the gender binary. In fact they often conform to the extremes of gender stereotypes. When I was at university the debate about offering people an alternative on forms to “Male or Female” raged on and on, with no resolution. There have been countless attempts to introduce third gender pronouns with no success. Some countries have now introduced a X marker for passports – not everyone likes this and it’s not clear what will happen in the UK and the EU.
So for me the importance of Transgender Day of Visibility is not just for trans people to be visible, but for as many people as possible to challenge gender stereotypes. The more people there are who do not conform to the gender binary of male or female, the easier it will be for all LGBT+ people blend in and become “visibly invisible”.