Thoughts on Visibility

It’s Trans Day of Visibility today! I have to admit that I’m not sure what the origin of this day is. Was I aware of it before last year? I couldn’t say for certain. The concept of “visibility” in the trans community is honestly SO complicated that it’s hard to even know how I feel about it.

Of course it can be extremely valuable for folks who might not otherwise know many trans people to just see us and know we exist. I’m thinking here mostly about those people who are or might be trans themselves and would be helped by knowing more about the extent and diversity of the trans community. I literally had no idea that trans men were a thing at all until the summer before I entered college, and after that it was still a few years until I was aware of trans men who were queer, or not particularly masculine. The first trans and genderqueer folks I met who were anything like me were fascinating and amazing and I was just so thankful to know they existed.

I had a few people ask if I was copying or being influenced by some of these people, since to an outside observer I guess it looked like a) I got to know a bunch of trans people and b) came out as trans without much of an established history of genderfeelings, but there was something about seeing other people shaping their own identities and saying “what I was given doesn’t work for me, I need to craft something else” that made me realize I was allowed to do that too. I didn’t need anyone’s permission. I wasn’t trans because I was trying to copy anyone’s choices or identity. But I didn’t really understand that I had the option to do whatever the hell I wanted with my gender until I saw that others had made that choice for themselves.

Even now I have to say that seeing trans/gq/nb people who are anywhere in the “male-presenting with femme attributes” neighborhood (especially if they are also fat) is incredibly validating to me. I’m still navigating changes in my identity, I’m still playing with makeup and femmeness more, and it feels more new and tenuous than anything gender-related has in a long time. Sometimes it’s scary! Sometimes I feel really self-conscious leaving the house! I do find that this particular flavor of visibility really counts for me and helps me feel a connection to the greater trans community that I honestly struggle to feel a lot of the time. I’ve had a few friends say that seeing me be open about femme stuff is helpful for them and while part of me wants to say “nope, don’t pay attention to me, I am not inspiring” I am trying to chill out. If I can be helpful to someone else, then that’s great. My endless selfies can serve a purpose other than making me feel good about myself.

So yeah, visibility can be fantastic, but I feel like its usefulness is maybe more of an in-community thing. In the US at least, “trans visibility” is indeed on the rise, but it doesn’t always (or maybe even often) feel like a great thing. When visibility = more transphobic jokes, murders, cis dudes playing trans women roles, and disgusting legislation proposed and passed in states all over the country I just can’t feel that excited about it. There’s a difference between visibility on a cultural level and a personal level, but my own experiences with this were mixed. I’ve talked about this a bit before, but when I first started medical and social transition, I was six months into a customer-facing job I would hold for the next five years. I transitioned in public at a job where people saw me weekly for years – it was impossible to hide that any changes were happening, but I couldn’t exactly have meaningful conversations about gender with most of my customers.

What I did do was decide to be as open as possible whenever I could, with the wildly over-optimistic thought “I might be the only trans person someone knows, so I can educate them!” I discovered that “educating” clueless cis folks who don’t stop and think about how rude their questions are becomes a demoralizing and dehumanizing task that hollows out your soul over time. I wanted to be open with my co-workers, so I made sure to explain things and leave room for questions when I started taking testosterone, and that wound up translating to “mo’s entire personal life and history are appropriate to ask about at any time and disclose to new employees.” I still look back fondly on many aspects of that job, but I didn’t understand how demoralizing that aspect of the work environment was until I was away from it. I had this open-book policy for a lot of the rest of my social life, too, and some friends and acquaintances also took advantage of it. At the time I just didn’t have the assertiveness or confidence to set boundaries and shut down the worst conversations.

The sort of visibility I presented in cis spaces didn’t put me in physical danger but it had a large, and largely hidden, impact on my mental health. There really wasn’t a way for me not to be visible as weirdly-gendered in some way, as I struggled with presentation for years, so my strategy was to try and deflect negative attention by answering intrusive questions and being a Good Trans Ambassador. There are a lot of times I’d love to go back to in a time machine to suggest that past-mo handle things differently, and while this is one of them I understand why I made that choice.

So I don’t know. I think that within trans spaces it can be incredibly affirming and invigorating just to see people, whether they look like us or not. Being visible to other trans folks is a way to say “I am here, I exist, I have survived this far.” It can be inspiration, or encouragement, or a way to feel less alone. I want to celebrate that, and I think we can celebrate it without diminishing the abuses and the sorrows that also make up the trans experience for so many of us. But there’s something about a universal Day of Visibility that makes me think back to the idea of visibility-as-spectacle, where I felt more on display as a novelty than respected as an individual. When you can’t choose whether to be visible or not, and can’t control how you’ll be perceived or treated by others when you are, it doesn’t feel like a celebration. Maybe the moral here is: Shit Is Complicated, which sums up pretty much all of my current genderfeelings quite nicely.

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