Stealth Is Not Safe

CN suicide

There are many places where I won’t go. I hate moving, in general, and would gladly donate a kidney to whatever demiurge could reconfigure the universe to render this unwholesome task unnecessary for achieving any of my goals ever again, but that’s not what this is about. There are many locales where it is plainly unsafe for me to be, on any of various axes, and I intend to particularly avoid relocating to those places. Right now, that includes the United States, despite overwhelmingly better career prospects there than I seem to have where I am. This unsafeness is not something I’ve had an easy time getting a number of sympathetic people in my life to recognize, and it comes down to one crucial error: they think stealth is safe.

“Stealth,” for the uninitiated, refers to pretending one’s gender doesn’t bear the adjective “trans.” It means pretending to be a cis representative of one’s gender, to have been recognized as a member thereof for one’s entire life, and to have never borne a different name. “Going stealth” means hiding a large chunk of one’s past and papering over the resulting gaps with denial and occasional lies. This was once medically mandated for transgender women, who were expected to leave their hometowns and live somewhere where no one knew their history. And it doesn’t work.

I have been amazingly fortunate in my transition. I began with features on the soft side of masculine and my transition has thereby made me beautiful. I was never tall, so my height is not now unusual for women in my area. I was already curvier than most men my size, thanks to my Hispanic heritage, and my hips are now the envy of many. I have achieved results from hormone replacement therapy comparable to what people much younger than me often achieve. The signs that betray my journey are subtle and easily missed, more real to me than they are to passers-by. When I dress to accentuate my best features and spend time outdoors in summer, I can see men taking in the sight without showing any disgust or surprise.

A side-by-side comparison of the author pre-transition and eight months after starting estrogen. On the left, she has a beard and looks male. On the right, she is a beautiful woman in a crop top, with a well-sized bust.

So what’s to stop me from pretending it has always been so?

At a practical level, I have a few more steps before it’s even hypothetically possible. I need to get my legal documents sorted, and interspersed with that, I have a small number of additional medical procedures in mind. Until then, things as simple as my debit card or the additional layer it takes to make my bathing suit fit inform onlookers of my history.

The thing is, though, no matter how easily I can be mistaken for a cis woman, I’m not a cis woman, and I can thereby be detected and targeted. I will always need exogenous estrogen, and making this drug unavailable to transgender women, or harder to acquire in general, hits me even if the ideologues who make those laws never recognize me as a target. The medical care I require and receive will always reflect the fact that I am missing organs that most cis women have. My medical history will always contain a series of medications that are improbably combined for any other reason. An enterprising search through my legal documents, perhaps aided by a court order or determined hacker, will show that I once answered to a different name. This blog exists and will appear in Internet archives even if I delete it in its home, providing several detailed discussions on my gender. People like me are fundamentally detectable, and in a hostile environment, our enemies are looking for us. I cannot legally evaporate every trace of what I was assigned, and in medical cases, risk bodily peril for so obscuring my own history.

Even this picture is overly rosy. Many of us get found out, not because of our path through time, but because of our path through space. Especially in a world where I felt I had to deny this piece of myself in order to survive, I would require the support of the local queer community, but being seen in association with such a community is itself dangerous. I would be spending time among other transgender women and be flagged by association. Deadly raids are the incident that sparked the Gay Pride movement, and still occur in some of these places. Even if I keep my honesty confined to online conversations, these generate records that can be accessed to identify me and my associates. The level of denial and concealment I would have to maintain to make sure that my actual public presence holds no trace of my transness would undo many of the gains I have achieved by transitioning in the first place, and make all of my surviving friendships dishonest and distant.

A related issue is that I am not just trans. Most of the places where transgender women are persecuted are also violently homophobic, and I would continue to face this hazard as a perceived cis lesbian. I would not only have to deny a key formative experience and hope no one follows any of the trails leading to it, but I would have to avoid being around and especially being affectionate with the people I care about most, or mark not just myself, but these treasured partners, for violence. Or I could leave even my current cohabitating spouse behind, and live alone in hostile territory, severed from any friend who could possibly understand my situation to protect myself from immediate violence, with no protection from the ongoing psychic violence of that isolation.

In the end, “going stealth” isn’t much safer, and is about as impossible, as socially detransitioning and pretending at the maleness I was originally assigned. The main difference is, stealth would not necessarily lead to a swift and total psychological breakdown culminating in my untimely self-induced demise. My stealth decline would be slower, harder, and far more disturbing, combining intense loneliness, paranoia, and the perverse horror of all of that happening while I’m perceived as a woman throughout.

I am a transgender woman, and I need to exist in places where that is a safe thing to be. There are no other options.

Stealth Is Not Safe

4 thoughts on “Stealth Is Not Safe

  1. 1

    I have always struggled with what is the safe option for myself. I have always chose to disclose my trans status in any group with which I will be involved for any long period of time. Why? Even beyond physical safety people get very angry when they feel you have deceived them even if I really am what I say I am – a women. It all comes at a cost though. By disclosing I am trans I am othered by groups from the beginning of my relationship. My actions are taken less charitably, I am never one of the crowd, and it is harder for me to get acceptance. On the occasions where I have not disclosed and it has been discovered that I am trans I get outright hostility and often emotionally/physically dangerous situations.

    I think I will always struggle with which way is best. I have never found a space where I feel safe to be trans and I have been out in way or another since 1988. For now I choose to be out but I am not sure there is any such thing as safe no matter how one does things.

  2. AMM

    Stealth isn’t an option for me.

    It’s partly because as a late transitioner (HRT starting at age 62), I’m always going to bear the stigmata of so many years of testosterone.

    But it’s also because I’m no good at secrets. When I was transitioning but not out at work, it was painful each day I had to talk to people there and _not_ tell them who I felt I really was. And that was only for, what, 9 months? I lived as a man for what will probably end up being 3/4 of my lifespan. There’s no way I could keep it secret and tell convincing lies to cover that timespan. I’m just not cut out for stealth.

    The people in my town and in my social circles have seen my 15-year progression from schlumpy aging man to happy (so they tell me) if not exactly sexy trans woman. I’m still at the same job. So far (knock on wood!) I haven’t encountered any hostility. I don’t plan to move out of the area when I retire — I’d only move if (a) I develop a relationship with someone who can’t move here or (b) the USA gets so transphobic on a national level that even the NYC area becomes unsafe.

  3. AMM

    I’m tempted to use the old phrase “from your mouth to God’s ear,” except that that might not go over so well here.

    Anyway, I’m aware that I am _extremely_ fortunate, more so than 90%, maybe even 99% of trans people.

    Some part of me also hopes that by not going stealth, I may humanize many people’s picture of trans people. I was “gender non-conforming” for years before I thought of myself as trans, and did my best to be open and friendly to people, so they’d get the idea that just because I _look_ weird doesn’t mean I _am_ weird.

    Of course, being in the NYC area helps. If I were in Texas or Mississippi, I might have gotten a rather chillier reception.

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