Without representation

August 7, 2012 § 25 Comments

I’ve been reading Andrew Hodges’ masterful biography of Alan Turing and, amongst all the beautiful detail, one passage in particular caught my eye. It described so eloquently the feeling of trying to understand myself, as an adolescent, without any accurate outer model of transness to help, that it brought tears to my eyes.



Whenever someone says that coming out doesn’t matter, or that choosing to be stealth is an entirely private act, this is what I think of – and think that it has to change.



” The deprivation was not one of laws but of the spirit – a denial of identity. Heterosexual love, desire and marriage were hardly free from problems and anguish, but had all the novels and songs ever written to express them. The homosexual equivalents were relegated – if mentioned at all – to the comic, the criminal, the pathological, or the disgusting. To protect the self from these descriptions was hard enough, when they were embedded in the very words, the only words, that language offered. To keep the self a complete and consistent whole, rather than split into a facade of conformity, and a secret inner truth, was a miracle. To be able to develop the self, to increase its inner connections and to communicate with others – that was next to impossible.”

§ 25 Responses to Without representation

  • it's the cissexism says:

    Please don’t blame cissexism on stealth trans people.

    • cnlester says:

      I’m not. I’m saying that when/if an individual decides to go stealth that one of their considerations should be the political and social ramifications of having one less out trans person in the world.

      • it's the cissexism says:

        That’s still blaming cissexism on trans people.
        And why do you automatically assume someone is an “out trans person” who decided to “go stealth”? The majority of trans people are not “out” or “stealth” and I doubt the majority of us have much control over who knows what about us in each social interaction we have.
        I have been following your blog for a while because I like the way you write, but I really can’t abide stealth shaming.
        I think there’s a lot of visibility of binary trans people, and much less for nonbinary trans people. But this visibility problem is not trans people’s making.

        • cnlester says:

          I’m afraid that I disagree with you here, and don’t believe that asking individuals to consider the impact of their actions is shaming. Someone can be stealth and do more for trans rights that someone out – but coming out is a vital tactic in solving the problem of a lack of visibility. The problem is not of trans people’s making, I agree – but being proudly out can be one of the things we can do to dismantle the problem. It’s not for everyone – but it’s a powerful tool.

          • it's the cissexism says:

            “You do you.”

          • x says:

            It absolutely is shaming. Being stealth IS an entirely private act and it’s none of anyone else’s business.

          • cnlester says:

            “Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.” – Harvey Milk

  • cnlester says:

    The only useful thing I have to say on this is that I believe very little we do in this world is a private act. We live in society, we shape society through our actions, our existence, our attitudes. Even supposedly insignificant choices we would consider private can make huge differences in other people’s lives: where we shop, how we travel, how we consume, if we choose to smoke etc. Coming out is a powerful tool of activism, and whether or not we choose to use that tool is far more than a private decision – it has very real ramifications for the world around us. Again, that means that it’s not for everyone. I believe that one of the vital components for any social justice movement is to ask people to consider the impact of their actions, for good or ill – you believe that to be shaming.

  • Lisa Harney says:

    The decision to be out or stealth is a private decision. Considering that cissexism demands that trans people out ourselves to every cis person at all times so that they can be forewarned that they are dealing with a trans person, the pressure to be out is itself influenced heavily by cissexism.

    Every trans person has to consider the risks and benefits of being out or stealth personally. It’s not anyone else’s business – and this includes other trans people – and trans people being stealth isn’t sabotaging our civil rights.

    As a trans person who is most often gendered as female, I already have to deal with my life and body being treated like public property. I do not need to have my personal decisions regarding my private life to be politicized against my will by other trans people.

    One of the problems with social justice movements is when members within those movements think it’s time to critique others’ choices, to demand an examination of those choices, to consider the impact of their actions. With many second wave feminists, it was hostility toward women who embraced femininity, adopted gender roles that were considered traditionally for women. For many second wave feminists, it was also directed at trans women, characterizing trans women as raping women’s bodies just for being alive.

    It is too easy to take this kind of theory into the realm of determining whose personal lives fit the “movement” well enough, and whose personal lives supposedly harm the “movement.” I’d rather leave the critiquing of trans people’s personal lives in the second wave with hatemongers such as Janice Raymond and Mary Daly. We can do much better than to tell each other that we should consider the impact of our actions when we’re also trying to live with the oppression that impacts the majority of trans people. I’d rather be ideologically impure and stealth rather than deal with social pressure to be “out” for the good of trans people’s visibility.

    And for the record, I am out to just about everyone I interact with on more than a superficial basis. I have nothing against being out, but I do have something against the idea that there’s something wrong with being stealth.

  • sharkcameo says:

    I don’t… See the issue with what CN is saying? Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t feel that CN is saying going stealth is inherently bad or wrong and that every trans person has to be out to everyone or tell everyone they meet “hello, I am x and also I am trans,” but rather to acknowledge that the decisions you make on this front affect more than just yourself. Yes, it is ultimately your own safety and what makes you feel most able to continue your life in the vein you’d like is paramount – not everyone is lucky enough to have families and/or friends who will support them and a large number of people live in areas where their safety would be at risk, a lot of people would be put at risk of losing their jobs regardless of legislation etc. etc.

    HOWEVER. Visibility is the most powerful tool any marginalised group has. One’s visibility as a member of X group affects more than just themselves because that’s one more/less person who is able to challenge stereotypes and prejudices and force people to accept that all types of people are still people worthy of love and respect and basic human rights. Again, not everyone is in a position to do this and it’s not like I need to tell you there’s nothing wrong with people choosing not to because everyone knows that, but it is worth keeping in mind that the less people there are who are out, the less people there are who will be able to come out in future.

    • it's the cissexism says:

      It’s amazing how judgmental people continue to be in this conversation. It’s ridiculous that instead of fighting the system (I really just typed cistem) of cissexism which we should never ever blame on other trans people, we still are blaming other trans people FOR cissexism. Fuck that noise. Stealth shaming is part of cissexism. Cis people do it all the fucking time, and they are master stealth shamers. Stop doing that work as an agent of cissexism.

      And to combine two comments in one, to CN:
      And honestly, quoting Harvey Milk is a bit much. First off, being gay is not the same as being trans. The comparison is simplistic. Secondly, Harvey Milk while of course a rousing political activist and at this point sainted queer martyr, had a hell of a lot of privilege and frankly nerve. He was closeted for most of his life.

      The stridency here is a bit ridiculous. It’s ignoring the realities of most trans people’s lives.

  • CN is not shaming stealth trans people, merely suggesting that, at this point in our history, there is much to be said for being open. Historically stealth trans people have been considerably more prone to shaming those of us who make other choices, or have them forced on us by circumstance, than the other way around. And have been grateful for the advances won – for the most part – by openly trans people.

    The argument that we should not quote a gay man who outed himself and eventually died for it – the cheap sneer of ‘sainted gay martyr’ – are daft as well as offensive. We are not the only community that has had this debate or ones quite like it – ‘passing privilege’ is not our discourse alone.

    I have endless respect for Lisa and her work, but comparing a polite discussion of these issues to virulent cis-sexism is simply trying to silence debate in the community and I expect better of you.

    • it's the cissexism says:

      I think hatred for the “stealth” bogeyperson is making the rhetoric here a bit ridiculous.
      Being gay is not the same thing as being trans. The comparison is facile and flawed.
      And honestly, when I was young and thought I was gay and hung around gay people, there seemed to be much more understanding for how homophobia impacted people’s choices around public discussion of their sexuality. We erred on the side of not blaming other queer people for homophobia.

      If trans activism cannot make room for a nuanced understanding of how people live their lives (like the fact that for some trans people it’s not an identity, and not something they would thus “come out as”) we will remain a polarized group with mostly internet participation shaming each other for more social justice cookies.

      I’m not stealth, actually, and this argumentation kind of makes me think I should be. There’s no room for letting people decide what’s right for themselves.

  • Kai Weston says:

    I’ve come to conclude that the idea of a trans person either being “stealth” or out is a false dichotomy. I prefer to look at things in terms of people who are able to be stealth Vs, those who have no choice in being out as trans. Those who are able to be stealth can then be subdivided into those who live as stealth, and those who choose not to. I don’t say “choose to be stealth” because it isn’t necessarily a choice, there are many people who aren’t open about being trans for the simple matter of safety. To be able to choose to be, or not to be out or not assumes that it is safe to make any decision other than to be stealth.

    It is more accurate to say that we have three, rather than two groups of people in the trans community (even this is probably a gross over simplification). The fact is that this to be stealth, or not to be stealth debate hinges on the assumption that we are able to choose, and effectively silences those who do not have such a choice. If viewed in terms of relative privilege, those who have no choice in being visibly trans (without presenting as a gender they don’t identify with) are in the least privileged position, BUT, those of us who could be stealth, and forgo doing so are in a higher position of privilege than those who are stealth out of necessity. Fundamentally, this is a debate between two relatively privileged groups within the trans community as to who is utilising their privileges and how.

    You could argue that being open about being trans means that you loose your “stealth privilege” but, speaking as someone who chooses to live openly as a trans person, it is my opinion that you do not loose that privilege. I choose to be openly trans as I believe that this places me in a position to be able to do something positive for the trans community; much along the lines of CN’s argument. But the fact is that I stop doing so as soon as I’m placed in a position where there is too much personal risk to myself. Does that make me a selfish hypocrite, or is it simply a matter of knowing when to place personal safety first? Am I trying to have my pie and eat it by taking advantage of my ability to be read as cis, but then speaking out as a “voice of the trans community” when I’m placed somewhere in which I am safe? Furthermore, how can someone such as myself be “representative” of the trans community? There is a danger of those of us who are given the privilege of choice inadvertently placing our voices into the void of those who are not in a position to be able to speak up/ do not have access to a platform. If we’re not careful, we can end up with the mentality of being a “vanguard” of the trans community, and twisting the direction of trans political resistance into a limited framework which works only in the favour of those who are least marginalised amongst the trans community.

    The fact is that no one person can speak for the trans community as a whole, as we are a community composed of communities. Perhaps the question should be: “how do we make the world a safer place for all trans people?” Yes, trans visibility has its place but it isn’t the only vector upon which we can fight cissexism. Yes, I do believe that there is such a thing as “the tyranny of passing” but we’re not going to get rid of that simply by flinging open the closet doors. I carry with me the privilege of being able to appear cis regardless of if I choose to forgo my full use of that privilege or not.

  • Shay says:

    Everyone makes choices every day that have an effect on the world around us. Being stealth in certain situations is essential for the health and safety of many trans people, and I don’t think anyone is blaming them for that. Safety comes first, whether you’re a gay kid with intolerant parents waiting until you move out to come out to them, a lone woman deciding not to say anything to the group of men making misogynistic jokes on the subway, or a trans person who decides not to come out at work for fear of losing their job, or being harassed. That is one of the unfortunate realities of living in a cissexist society, and I think we can all agree that it sucks.

    I think the real problem here is the lack of trans narratives where we are not the punchline of a joke or the object of pity, and I think that the only people who are going to provide those narratives are going to be trans people or cis people with trans friends, relatives, or coworkers, who know someone who is out as trans and has been somewhat open about their life. That is not to say that it is every (or any) trans person’s obligation to be the person who provides that narrative, but just that it is one of the many factors to be considered when deciding whether to go stealth.

  • it's the cissexism says:

    I know you are probably tired of me commenting, but this is a very important piece I just came across today.
    Also, if it’s true that you out other trans people without their permission, you really need to take a look at your life and choices.

    • cnlester says:

      Excuse me! I’ve never outed another trans people without their permission!

    • cnlester says:

      If you know anything about my activism, and the history of my activism and just a basic knowledge of who I am as a person you’d know that that’s an utterly ridiculous, not to say insulting, proposition.

    • sixagilefingers says:

      That link is a post by a wholly different person! An F3 of the page shows no occurrence of ‘CN’ or ‘Lester’. You have no basis to make such an allegation against an activist of good character. Bring something legit to the table or retract your comment, because you’re bordering on the libellous here.

    • Goblin says:

      I’m sure I speak for many of CN’s readers when I ask you to please either substantiate such a painful accusation or have the decency to withdraw it. As someone who knows CN pretty well, the thought of their outing ANYONE without permission is frankly absurd, and pretty damn hurtful to boot. Cheap shots and spreading lies don’t exactly help your argument, such as it is.

    • S says:

      Speaking as a mostly-stealth trans person of CN’s acquaintance, whilst I think the original post does put an unreasonable amount of the responsibility for dealing with cissexism on trans people, I am absolutely confident that they would never out me, or anyone else, without permission.

    • Morgan says:

      What on earth makes you think it might be true that CN outs other trans people without their permission?

  • misswonderly says:

    I’m old enough to have grown up in an era when, unless they worked in the theatre or the arts, few people consciously knew a gay or lesbian person. The reason was simple … being gay was illegal so hardly any gay people were willingly out. Now everybody knows a gay person. Most people know of a gay person in their own family. The attitude of UK society has changed from a large majority believing gay to be other, unnatural and undesirable to the majority accepting gay people as equal members of society. The fact that this was entirely due to many individual gay people making a conscious decision to be out is not debatable.

    Whether exactly the same process is true or not for trans people cannot be the subject of a moral debate. It has been and continues to be the situation. Whether people make a political decision to be out as trans if such a decision is an option for them is entirely their own affair … but that is the situation. One thing is certain … if future generations of trans kids are going to be accepted and supported by their families and live in a society where the therapy they need is available depends entirely on enough visible trans adults showing that transitioning … to whatever degree … is not just an acceptable pathway, it is by far the most desirable pathway for those who need to follow it.

    Kudos to CN for pointing this out.

  • Chaz says:

    I chose to be out as a trans/Pan Youth worker because I came to the decision that by being out I gave other youth workers a point of reference. It gave me the ability to educate not just young people but the other workers too. During my NVQ we were asked to deliver a session on a subject of our choice and I chose a timeline of LGBTQ history because during the NVQ we were given no information beyond E&D responsibilities because ‘it’s too complicated’ and ‘well all the LGBT kids go to the LGBT youth group’ it took me outing myself to point out that none of the sessions we ran said they were for Straight Cis kids only and that as youth workers we were in a powerful position to educate the straight cis kids so they could help make the lives of their LGBT+ peers a bit easier for them to realise that there was a point in educating on those issues.

    Once I was out and did that timeline session several other youth workers (including the trainers on the course) took my training materials and started delivering the session themselves to young people and other new workers. I was asked by the senior youth worker in my area to deliver trans awareness training to all the other senior youth workers in the city after I was nearly disciplined for walking away from a young person who kept questioning my gender (even with other workers backing me up when I said I was male).

    That’s the social power of being out. If you can be out be out. I wasn’t making youth work my career, I knew they couldn’t fire me for being trans or pan once I had the job, I wasn’t running sessions anywhere near the area I lived and I trusted my fellow workers to back me up if there was a problem (and 99% of the time they did). By my being out I’ve hopefully made a better, more aware environment for trans people who do want to make youth work their career and for the LGBT+ young people they do engage with.

    To be out or not is always ultimately the decision of the individual and no one has a right to criticise them whatever decision they make but there is no denying there is an incredible social and political benefit to as many of us being out as possible.

  • Natacha says:

    I think “Its the cissexism” has acted shamefully in trying to portray CN as someone who outs trans people.

    This is a lie.

    If your argument is so weak that you have to resort to lies and slurs, then your argument is particularly weak.

    I also think that you are wilfully misinterpreting and misrepresenting what CN has said.

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