It looks like I’ve made up a term. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It’s not like it’s in common usage, but I think it’s a good term. That is to say, I made it up to do a particular job and I think it does its job well. To get this out of the way: I am a trans man who discloses. I haven’t always disclosed, i.e. I’ve had jobs and brief periods of residence in rural periods when I’ve blended as cis full time, but for a variety of reasons blending as cis hasn’t been an option for most of my life. At the place in my life I’m in now, I don’t want to blend as cis full time, I am able to disclose my trans status safely, and pretty much everyone I meet learns quickly that I’m trans.
The term is stealth shaming, and here’s a definition:
stealth shaming: The practice or act of stating, implying, or acting as though binary-identified trans people who do not disclose their trans status are somehow not being trans properly.
First of all, let’s unpack the term “stealth.” Obviously problematic, right? It carries all these icky connotations of hiding and lying and general cissexist bullshit. It’s a term from the Dark Ages of trans discourse, when every doctor told us we had to learn to “construct a plausible history” and that we had to live “stealth” if we ever wanted to be considered “real” men and women. People have inaugurated new terms, like “blending as cis full time,” which is my favorite, or just “nondisclosing.” I recommend we use these new terms instead of “stealth.” I’d say I insist, but if you follow this blog you know I’m kind of incurably fluttery.
I use “stealth” in the context of stealth shaming in a similar way feminists use “slut” in the context of slut shaming—it’s a problematic word being used to describe a problematic action.
There’s a second really important thing we have to do here before we attack just what stealth shaming is and how to prevent doing it—we need to countenance the fact that disclosing and blending as cis aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s ambiguity everywhere. To say that the two things are utterly different and have no overlap is to create a false dichotomy. Feel free to skip this part and go straight to the numbered list below if you want; it’s kind of abstract and gets a bit long.
Obviously almost everyone who blends as cis full time have a few people in their lives who know about their trans status. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. But consider this: If you’re a trans person who gets read correctly in a consistent way, and you don’t walk down the street yelling “I’m trans!” or have one of those OP T-shirts that say “Nobody knows I’m a transsexual”—you’re blending as cis! If you ever go to a dinner party with people you don’t know well and you don’t disclose to them, or you have a beer with some guys you’re meeting for the first time and you don’t disclose to them—you’re blending as cis! I know this seems obvious, but it often seems like people need it articulated,especially binary-identified trans activists who have the privilege to be read correctly but trumpet themselves as paragons of complete openness w/r/t their trans status. I’m just about as close as someone who runs down the street yelling “NOBODY KNOWS I’M A TRANSSEXUAL” as a guy can get without actually doing so, and most of the interactions I have with people daily, they assume I’m a cis man.
Now for the meat of the post. Important points to remember.
1) Saying that people who blend as cis full time are not “out” is stealth shaming.
The term “out” is of massive importance to queers. It is a term that describes how brave we are, how open, and most important how good we are at being us when everyone else insists that we shouldn’t be us. Denying blending trans people access to this term is identity policing in the worst way, and of course, it’s cissexist.
In a specifically trans context, to be out means to be honest and open about one’s gender identity. When a trans man tells someone he’s male, or walks into a men’s bathroom, or says, “From a guy’s perspective…” or does anything that indicates that he identifies as male, he’s out as a man. And he’s out. Full stop. He’s put his gender identity out there. The idea that he needs to add being trans to that as some sort of qualifier is a huge double standard. We don’t demand that all cis people come out as cis in order to be honest about their gender identities, even though it’s entirely possible that some of people in our lives whom we assume are cis are actually trans.
A trans person comes out when they say “Hey world, I know I was assigned one gender at birth, but as it turns out, I’m not that gender.” The process occurs at different times with different people and it can take a long time. But that trans person has been out ever since—they know who they are, and they’re open about who they are with others. To say otherwise is stealth shaming.
2) Saying that blending people are “not being honest” is both stealth shaming and vilely cissexist.
It is nothing more and nothing less than a regurgitated version of the internalized cissupremacist idea that trans genders are lies, fabrications, or figments of our imaginations. The idea that trans people must disclose their trans status exists so that cissexist assholes—pardon me! I seem to be getting ruffled!—can be sure they can tell the “real” men and women from the monsters.
Why do you think so much violent hate crimes occur after a blending trans person is outed or discloses? It is because they do not want us to have privacy. They want to treat us like animals whose bodies are open, including the genitals, for perusal and examination at all times. They are willing to kill and maim us to reinforce this condition. It’s depressing beyond words to see trans people vomiting this kind of cissexist idea back.
“I just wish they could be honest!” If this person is a man and is telling you he is a man, he is honest. If this person is a woman and is telling you she is a woman, she is honest. To say that binary trans people must always state that they are trans is to say that they must qualify their maleness or femaleness, so that we all know they are not REAL men or women.
3) One hears often that trans people who blend are “traitors to the trans community” or “harming the trans community” or “not really part of the trans community.” The most false and holier than thou version goes “I’m so sad that those poor people can’t be open and disclosing!” All these are stealth shaming and full of unchecked privilege.
These attitudes are always laden with one and usually several but not necessarily all of the following: class privilege, white privilege, and abled privilege.
It may be safe and comfortable for you to be out where you are, but what about a blue collar trans person in a small town in the Southern US, in a state with no protections for transgender employees and no hate crime legislation, in a place were there’s very little institutionalized support for queer people, who is currently working an absolutely necessary job they’d risk losing if they disclosed? What about a trans person with a social anxiety disorder, or clinical depression, or another disability that doesn’t allow them to go through the daily grind of disclosure and explanation?
It’s great that people want everyone to come play on the big fun happy safe queer jungle gym, but this poorly overextended metaphor is like playgrounds in real life, there are big strong kids who like to smack little weak kids in the head, and there are kids who are too tired or sick to get on the jungle gym, and just not everybody has access to the fucking jungle gym, ok? Go get a juice box and mull it over until recess ends.
The assumption that all trans people are upper or middle class people in liberal areas who read lots of Judith Butler just enrages me. There are, astonishingly, trans people who do not attend and will not be attending liberal arts colleges in the Northeast with LGBT Studies programs where they get to participate in symposiums on gender diversity. (Disclaimer: Stephen, the author of this article, is a student at a liberal arts college in the Northeast with an LGBT studies program; he will be organizing a symposium on gender diversity during the coming year.)
Lastly, I think any discussion about disclosure versus blending brings up some really interesting questions about what these terms and ideas mean for non-binary people, for whom blending in their gender isn’t really an option because most people don’t know their gender exists. I tried initially to make this post inclusive of that kind of experience, but I just don’t have the knowledge, and I don’t want to speak to others’ experiences. I’d love to hear from any of my non-binary identified readers on the subject.