Right now, I live somewhere between people knowing me and obscurity. This means that while thousands of people online know I am a mostly out trans man, in my everyday life where I am living in a greater metro NYC area full of millions of people when combined with the city, I still manage to remain in obscurity.
If you look at me physically, rarely do people question my gender identity. Part of this is because I’m in a wheelchair. People see my chair, and some barely distinguish details beyond said wheelchair. I could be a purple unicorn and they would not notice. When people do notice me, they see my facial hair, which without a doubt gives them the idea I am a male. If they talk to me, my somewhat ambiguous voice, almost always renders me a “Ma’am” or a female identification, especially if they are missing the context of seeing my beard. I cannot count the number of times someone will be looking away from me, hear my voice, start to call me female pronouns, then look up very startled to apologize. The beard, unquestionably makes me male identified regardless of whether I speak, or not, and frankly that is a major part of why I keep facial hair.
It is safer to be identified as male or female and not trans male or trans female. This is why there is virtually no presence in the media for trans men. We can often blend in easier, and the fear of being outed, the fear of being harmed is too real.
Trans people are dying. In the largest numbers, trans women are dying, and we cannot excuse the fact that in many cases, these women do not fit the standard of what society deems as “looking female enough”. I hate passing politics and the entire idea of passing, but we cannot ignore the fact that the idea of passing is safer, and many trans identified people feel it is safer to gender conform to the binary system. It leaves those who fall somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum exposed and vulnerable to a violence that has claimed the lives of so many trans individuals, both trans men and trans women, simply for existing in this world.
We can also not ignore the racism involved in many trans deaths. It is true many trans women who are murdered are POC. There is a privilege those of us who are Caucasian and trans face over other trans people, simply because of the color of our skin. While this doesn’t remove trans individuals from the dangers of abuse, assault, and even murder, it does add another layer to this already complicated process of protection and safety on the basis of gender identification.
Keeping all this in mind, most trans individuals realize that none of us are truly safe. We will never know when or if we are around others who would be willing to kill us simply by knowing our trans status, and if we can hide it, in many circumstances, we will. It is a matter of life and death to protect ourselves, and so many trans people live as I do…out to some, but unable to completely live out and openly, for fear of the wrong person knowing.
Being a trans activist who speaks out about trans violence, and works towards attaining understanding and equality for everyone in the trans community can sometimes be at odds with protecting oneself. I think a lot of people believe if you are out to them, then you are out to everyone. That is not always the case.
There is something terrifying about being outed in a room full of people you do not know, especially without your consent. This happened to me recently at the New York DMV. After moving from the Midwest, I had trouble getting an ID marked male. I had an Ohio ID marked male, but Ohio downright refuses to change gender on birth certificates, so my birth certificate was listed as female. I did not have the original letter my doctor wrote the DMV in Ohio, as they kept that letter, which got me my male ID.
Not only was I denied a new ID, as a male, my Ohio ID card and other identification which labeled me male, was considered not sufficient. The birth certificate listed female, and by jove, they were going to let everyone in the DMV know this. As I looked around the room, I felt the air suck out of me, as loudly, the worker shouted at me, ” Your doctor needs to get us a letter that says you aren’t a female anymore!” How many people heard her, and how many people cared? I did see a few sympathetic faces, as I wheeled out, unable to get a new ID, but this kind of outing is common, and who is around could be anyone. I didn’t know a soul in the DMV and I felt both scared and humiliated by the experience.
Likewise, by being out to friends and acquaintances, some of those people feel entitled to out me, at their whim, not realizing the danger in which it can place me. I have had more than one friend who has told me about how they told all their friends about me, especially what a great advocate I am and how proud they are to have such an outspoken trans friend. They don’t realize every time they speak out about me, they put me at risk.
There is a privilege in being cisgender. Many people do not realize how dangerous it is to out a trans person, and they take that for granted, when that trans person is their friend. If you have a trans friend, you should always be aware of whether they are comfortable with you talking about their trans status. Just like it is never okay to out someone for being gay or lesbian, even if you believe they are out, you should always ask before sharing something so personal with others. I know, in most cases this is not done in malice, but the repercussions could mean life or death, for many of us.