There is a difference between being visible and being out.
Transpeople, especially transwomen, are almost always visible in the world, even if we don’t want to be.
Read and clocked used to have different meanings in the queer world.
Getting clocked, having someone see that you are queer and acknowledge it was a good thing, a kind of insider visibility in the world.
Getting read out, having someone call you faggot or give you a dirty look, or worse, was a terrifying thing, a kind of reminder of how unsafe the world can be.
For transpeople, the first thing we had to learn was how to survive getting read out in the world. It was that fear of being read out that taught us how to hide in the closet, that fear that fed the bear in the closet who keeps reminding us how terrifying it is to be exposed in the world.
By their armour you shall know them. That fear of being read out means that the first thing that defined our trans in the world is not how we expressed it, but how we hid it.
To emerge as transgender, to surface it in the world, we had to find strategies to protect our scared and tender heart from the social pressure and abuse that comes when we are read out. We had to defend our nascent inner self from pain, have rationalizations and deflections that kept us from being even more shattered.
We had to build a suit of armour to defend our heart.
The process of coming out is the process of removing that armour and showing ourselves in the world. The ultimate trans surgery is pulling the stick out of your own ass, letting yourself be exposed and tender in the world.
This process of coming out isn’t something that is unique to queer people.
Every human carries their own armour, their own defences, their own shell. The process of dropping that carapace is the process of opening your heart, expressing your own vulnerability in the world, of moving beyond the shame that binds you is hard for everyone, as people like Brené Brown remind us.
This process of coming out and claiming the jewels of your own inner nature, of slaying the dragon with “Thou Shalt” on every scale, is the Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell reminded us.
I made a decision when I first emerged as queer in the mid-1980s that my goal was to heal and come out, to be integrated, actualized, balanced, more righteous, healed, centred, and all those other terms that mean you move beyond barriers and towards connection.
My early struggle was about finding ways to express truth in a world that didn’t want to hear it.
I chose not to use the armour that other transpeople around me were choosing, be it the compartmentalization of a crossdresser, a transsexual, a drag, or a genderqueer identity.
I knew why people were grabbing onto those identities. I knew how much pain they had, how much being shamed and abused into the closet hurt you, because I also had that pain. I had so much awe and admiration for transpeople who struggled out of the closet to show their own fabulous selves that I collected their stories, their triumphs and their tragedies. I had so much compassion and empathy for their journeys through hell that I needed to give those stories voice and context.
For transpeople, visibility comes with the territory. What that usually means, though, is that we have created ourselves a portable closet, a lucite egg, that we use when we walk through the world. Inside that shell, our hearts are still torn and tender, raw and ragged, slashed and shattered, as we listen to the bear in the closet who wants to keep them from being exposed even as we are visible.
One of the cardinal rules of trans etiquette is never to out a transperson even if you have clocked them. They may need the protection of not knowing their trans nature is so visible. For many transpeople, their pride is in how effectively their “femulate,” emulating a female and hiding their own trans nature. To be read out is failure to them, a reason to be ashamed. We work so hard to perfect the package that what is inside goes neglected.
When our “success” is measured by how well we conceal the “contradictions” of our nature, is there any surprise that we have an incentive to play small and hide our heart, and that we feel shame when we seem to fail to make our nature invisible?
As transpeople, we see how easily other transpeople can be clocked, see how visible they are. Rather than recognizing that reflects how visible we are, we often look on them as failures and attempt to shame those people into adapting a more stealthy attitude or just staying away from being seen with them altogether.
This is the fundamental block to creating trans community, knowing that we cannot imagine we are invisible when we are out in numbers, rejecting the reflections of our own struggles, history and limits we see in other transpeople, feeling they don’t honour the shame that drives us into the work of maintaining our own portable closet. We have become defined and bound by our armour, trapped by our own defences.
I know the challenge of living in a world where it feels unsafe to be out, exposed and open and vulnerable. I have felt that challenge on my skin for lo these many decades. The pain of all the delicate feminine and bold masculine hearts scarred into the closet saddens me every single day.
Coming out, though, is a very, very difficult process. Nobody seals themselves into a closet, training a big bear to keep them defended, on a whim or a caprice. It takes a lifetime of real pain and abuse to build those callouses, to thicken those walls.
Is it possible to offer transpeople the safety to come out from the thick barriers they have built up to protect them from what they have learned is the awful cost of visibility in a world where others don’t understand or value them, a world where others often feel it is not just permitted to reject, shame and abuse transpeople, but that it is even a holy, just and moral duty to enforce good and valuable heterosexist norms?
It is easy to offer tools that provide more ways of compartmentalization, more ways to submerge and deny feelings, but offering the tools to integrate a life, that is a much more difficult sell. We are legitimately skittish, ready to fly into stored pain at the drop of a challenge. We each heal in our own time and our own way, carrying both our healing and our hurt along with us.
Coming out in a world that doesn’t get the joke, a world where others believe that their pain and discomfort is your fault, where comfort is valued over the obligation to growth and healing, well, that is a massive challenge indeed.
The joys and rewards of being out are rich and deep, but the costs of being exposed and vulnerable in the world are sharp and everywhere. There is a reason we don’t walk around naked and undefended all the time.
There is a difference between being visible and being out.
For transpeople, it is our omnipresent and fearsome visibility that forms the biggest barrier to us coming out from behind our armour, leaving us terrified to tell our story or show our hearts just to have our hard won gender and tender heart torn up and stomped on. We build our amour to protect ourselves and then, like a crustacean who cannot moult in an unsafe sea, we become entombed in our closet, trapped by our own defences. Our heart becomes isolated, even to us, and the loneliness becomes crushing unless satiated by action.
I have awesome admiration for every person who has claimed life after emerging to claim their own trans heart in the world. I also have utter sadness for every transperson who suffered and continues to suffer the kind of fear that drives their heart into a compartment, untouched and starved of love & connection. I know why their caged heart sings.
How do we help hold the hearts of transpeople so they can keep up the never ending process of moving beyond pain to emergence, pulling the stick out of their own ass, coming out, and blossoming beautifully in the world?