So far, I have avoided writing about trans subjects. Though that’s what I’m best known for here in Internet Land, it’s far from my only (or even dominant) interest in politics. I have layers, you know, like an onion or a parfait. Still, I have something that probably needs to be said. It’s basic, but so many cis people don’t even realise its necessity.
This one’s for those cis readers who have progressed past Trans 101, who might know and love the trans people in their lives. Sometimes cis people quite innocently out the trans people they know, or sometimes they mention them so as to demonstrate their allyness or even to make themselves more interesting (cos you know, all trans people simply must be fascinating by sheer virtue of existing).
When I out myself, or am outed, I never know what the reaction will be. Before hormones, and early transition, my transness was noticed quite frequently. Now, I have to be outed—by my documents most often, or by my friends, family and acquaintances. Which is where y’all come in. So here’s the deal: if you out us, you can do more damage than you can possibly imagine.
You can expose trans people to violence. You could get them fired. You could make it impossible for them to find work–word of mouth travels quickly in small towns or closeknit industries. They could be harassed so much they need to quit their job, or to need to move, or all kinds of things. You don’t know, because you’ve never had to live with the consequences. Just because you know and trust someone, doesn’t mean that I can. It doesn’t mean that they won’t be hateful to me, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they will be respectful of my confidentiality.
For most people, “trans” erases the bit that comes after. This is why you never ever see a headline that says “transsexual woman” [blah blah blah]. No, it just says “transsexual” and is used as a noun rather than the adjective it is. It conjures the ever present “really a man” transphobic trope (quick mental test: see if you can describe a trans person without using it). For women like me, living our lives as a woman is constituted as untruthful. When most cis people become aware that I’m trans, they start treating me different. I can see the change immediately – when pronoun “slips” start “accidentally” happening, when I stop being counted with the right group. Because it’s ingrained, isn’t it? In a cissexist culture, only cissexuality (or a trans person’s ability to appear cissexual) is truly real, and any hint of anything else invalidates the whole.
One time, I inadvertently outed myself to a group of students. I’d been teaching a tremendously interesting media studies class to first years; that is, mostly 17 and 18 year olds. The first three weeks went pretty well. We talked video games and violence, Hollywood, what they actually did with media. The discussions were engaged, it was all going fine. Then, a month in, I came down with a cold. My voice suddenly dropped an octave, because I couldn’t vocalise at my usual pitch. And like that, you could see the lights go on in their eyes. They’d realised I was trans.
Now, as these things go, it wasn’t truly awful (how low my expectations have become on that score). The next week, we did adbuster style cut-ups to jam dominant media messages and several groups turned in transphobic assignments, giggling their arses off. They were laughing at me. Another student spent the lesson interrupting me, telling the class how everything I was saying was stupid. And of course, a number of students stopped attending my classes altogether, trying to get into classes in the same unit run by other teachers. I was losing control of my classes.. and I was still bloody sick.
The point is, the mere fact of their knowing that I am trans meant that they, 17 and 18 year olds with scant knowledge of the subject they were taking, suddenly felt entitled to talk over me, to mock me openly when previously they had been respectful. Of itself, being subjected to ungendering takes its toll, especially if it’s something you experience frequently.
But that’s not the worst case scenario by a long shot. In April this year, a trans man teaching at CSU Long Beach was attacked in the toilet on campus, and had “it” carved on his chest. The victim didn’t recognise his assailant, and yet his attacker knew him by name, asking his name, and then attacking him. In other words, the attacker knew the name of a trans person, and then sought him out to attack him with a knife. Luckily, he survived.
So you see, what might seem like incidental detail to a cis person can be a matter of safety to a trans person. So, I ask you, dear cis readers of Feministe, please respect the confidentiality of the trans people you know. They might want to be out, and they might not. But either way, the risks are not yours to assume. Only a trans person can make that call.
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