by Carter Hemion, Peak Associate
With International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31, it is vital to recognize that trans visibility is a privilege and occurs on a broad spectrum. Celebrating trans people’s accomplishments and fighting oppression requires recognizing trans people in all of our experiences, not just those who are most represented. Trans visibility is never as simple as whether we are openly trans, in the closet, or living in stealth; it is a matter of privilege and deeply personal choices.
Despite the pressure placed on trans people to be visible and involved in queer communities, there is no right way to be trans or come out. We do not have to come out to everybody we know, or all at once, nor do we have to choose a high level of visibility in order to be valid. Choosing our safety over our visibility is not shameful, and can be more practical. For many trans people, visibility can be dangerous. We are at a higher risk than our cisgender peers for being victims of hate crimes, partner violence, losing jobs, poverty, healthcare discrimination, and other forms of targeted discrimination. These kinds of barriers are why some trans people choose to delay coming out, come out only in certain spaces, and/or live in stealth after transitioning.
However, for many people, embracing visibility as a trans person is validating. Being openly trans can be empowering; it is a way to hold space to redefine gender. Trans people can find joy in living openly and authentically, which is in itself is resistance to oppression. Coming out and remaining visible is a demonstration of trans resilience.
Despite this, coming out as anything is still a process, and not all spaces to do so are created equally. For people who experience multiple forms of marginalization, there can be extra layers of complexity and greater risks in coming out. Those who already experience oppression due to other factors like race or class, or who come from a background less accepting of queerness may face greater barriers. Even spaces meant for queer people can often be created solely by and for cisgender queer people and especially cater to thin, white, neurotypical, non-disabled queer people. Trans visibility has never been equally accessible to all trans people who want it.
In addition to the barriers of coming out, factors such as socio-economic status and specific gender identification can affect visibility. Gender non-conforming, Two-Spirit, and non-binary trans people especially may not have the option to live in stealth and may spend their lives coming out repeatedly in order to be recognized as themselves. Transfeminine people are also at greater risk of facing violent transmisogyny that can invalidate and endanger them. Despite these barriers, trans people find ways to support each other, through groups like the local Coalition Against Trans Antagonism.
Additionally, gender dysphoria and transitioning look different for different people, and not every trans person wants to, or has the privilege to access resources allowing them to “pass” as their gender. The concept of “passing” as either a binary man or woman is dangerous, unrealistic, and inaccessible; it incorrectly implies that we become trans because we transition, not that we may choose to transition because we are trans. It also adds pressure on non-binary people to present as gender non-conforming, setting rigid ideals for what a trans person is expected to look like.
This type of normative thinking also places value on Western ideas of gender, excluding Two-Spirit identities and reinforcing colonial gender roles. For non-binary trans people — especially those who use pronouns other than he/him or she/her or use un-gendered terms — visibility and coming out may be a lifelong process because of the prevalence of the colonial gender binary forcefully placed on people living in Canada. This framework implies there are only two sexes, two genders, and one sexuality and has long been contradicted by countless cultures worldwide. However, white, Western gender roles are commonly considered standard, further limiting visible trans representation.
Being trans is more than transition and level of visibility: we can be empowered in finding ourselves, connecting with our community, and learning from each other. Rather than only placing value on trans visibility, it is most important to recognize the reasons visibility looks the way it does, and represent the limitless range of trans experiences. We should instead celebrate trans people in our diversity this International Transgender Day of Visibility and raise awareness of the barriers in trans joy to accomplish that.