Tag Archives: stealth

Some Quick Thoughts on “Passing”

In a recent interview Janet Mock talks about the concept of “passing”:

I have such a difficult time with the concept of “passing” because I feel it gives this idea that there’s some kind of deception or trickery involved in our identities. I am a woman, people perceive me as a woman, and when I walk on the street, I am not “passing” as anything. I am merely being myself. Often, my trans-ness does not lead the way when I walk into spaces and that allows me safety and anonymity. And because trans people are marked as illegitimate, our bodies and identities are often open to public dissection – and this is a major burden for many trans people, a burden that I often do not have to carry in every space I enter because of the way that I look. Our safety should not be based on the way that we look.

What I find interesting in this passage is the idea that the very notion or phrase of “passing” is problematic.

If it’s so problematic, why are so, so many trans people seemingly obsessed with the idea of passing? Why is /r/transpassing one of the most popular trans-related subreddits on reddit? If a trans woman cares about passing, does that mean they believe they are interested in being deceptive? I think the problematic nature of passing is more complicated than Mock suggests because trans people seem to have a love/hate relationship with the whole idea of passing. In my limited experience. trans people seem to recognize the problems built into the concept but nevertheless the concept has a central place in many trans’ people’s heads. This is an interesting tension.

On the one hand, I have seen plenty of pre-transition trans people say they will only transition if they believe they will fully pass. This suggests that for some trans people passing is not just some accidental side-effect of transition but rather their whole reason of transition, the telos or purpose of transition, to pass as a cis person, to not be noticeably trans. If they cant pass 100% then they would consider their transition a “failure”.

On the other hand, Mock is right to point out the cisnormative assumptions built into the concept of passing. I think she is right that the concept of passing implicitly assumes that being cis is “good” and being noticeably trans is “bad” when in a perfect world it would not matter if someone could tell you were trans just by looking at you. But as it is we don’t live in a perfect world – we live in a world where being read as trans can expose you to violence, harassment, and discrimination. It’s not pretty. So passing is not just a side-effect – it’s a defense mechanism against our transphobic society. If society was less transphobic then I would bet that trans people would be less obsessed with passing.

Mock points out that our safety should not be based on how we look. Correct. But unfortunately our safety often does depend on passing. Until it doesn’t, trans people will have a complex relationship with the idea of passing.

Some days I feel very bad about myself because I have my doubts about if I will ever pass due to my face and my voice. Other days I develop a more “fuck passing” kind of mentality where I try to refuse to accept the cisnormative imposition telling me I need to look a certain way or sound a certain way to be accepted by society. It’s hard to know the deep rootedness of my dysphoria because of this tension. Do I care about passing so much because my own body dysphoria is telling me I am intrinsically unhappy with my body/voice? Or do I only care about passing so much because I want to fit into society without having to deal with the anxiety of being read as trans everywhere I go? Honestly, Im not sure. I think it’s probably a mixture of both.

It’s the same way with genital confirmation surgery (GCS) for trans women. I’ve heard some trans women say that they do not have real genital dysphoria (meaning their genitals do not cause them distress) but that they nevertheless want GCS because of fears of dealing with the medical establishment or the TSA and the problems associated with having breasts and a penis simultaneously. So it is the transphobia of our culture that can directly impinge on our bodies and affect our dysphoria. This is what makes passing so complicated. It’s the intersection of the individual and society.

All I really hope is that as more people are being made aware of the existence of trans people we will start to see more media representation of “non-passing” trans people so that we can start to undermine people’s expectations of what it means to be trans and eventually trans people will feel less pressure to pass as they decide whether they want to transition – we need to change the “conditions of satisfaction” of what it means for a transition to be “successful”. How many super tall trans women are discouraged from transition because they think they will never pass? How many people are going to have to live with their dysphoria for the rest of their lives untreated because of the worry that they will never pass? While I am skeptical trans people are somehow going to simply move away from the concept of passing being central to everyday trans-narratives anytime soon – I am glad to see more and more discussion of the problems of the concept of passing – which hopefully will translate into more trans people accepting themselves as they are.

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Thoughts on Stealth

In this post I am going to try and articulate some of my thoughts about the concept of “going stealth” in transgender communities. To go 100% stealth effectively means not having anyone know you are trans. Deep stealth is actively taking steps to erase evidence of your pre-transition self and construct a new history for yourself (“When I was a little girl/boy…”). If stealth is your goal, then you will transition differently than if you decide to not go stealth. You will not announce on Facebook that you are trans. You will likely move to a new city where you know nobody. You will cut off your past life entirely. Any reference to yourself as your former you must be destroyed or hidden, including family photos. If people ask if you are trans, you will say no. You will construct a new medical history. At doctor’s appointments you will answer questions about your medical history in a carefully constructed fashion so as to not reveal yourself as trans unless absolutely necessary. You might actively avoid telling the truth to your friends. You might tell outright lies to avoid outing yourself as trans. The deepest of deep stealth might not even tell their lovers or significant others. They might actively lie to their partners to maintain stealth.

That’s deep stealth in a nutshell as I understand it. In reality people might go stealth to different degrees in different contexts but for the sake of argument I want to work with the idea of “deep stealth” even if that’s not necessarily reflective of people who actually do consider themselves stealth or wanting to be stealth.

Before I begin a philosophical analysis of stealth I want to preface by saying these thoughts reflect my own experience and opinions and are not meant to be judgmental about people who decide to go stealth (though I realize it is going to inevitably come off as judgmental). I want to be able to morally evaluate stealth without calling into question the moral character of people who decide to go stealth. I want to evaluate stealth as an action type and not judge individual people, who have their own reasons to go stealth and the right to exercise their autonomy in that respect.

However, I am interested in whether the decision to go stealth is a decision that a virtuous person would decide to make. Is stealth virtuous or not? Is it morally praiseworthy or blameworthy? Or is it neither? Or does it boil down to the qualifier “it depends”? I think it’s inevitable that the decision to go stealth will involve some form of overt lying – I’m just going to assume that for the sake of argument. The question is whether this lying is justified. Many philosophers think that white lies are permissible because of the underlying good intentions as well as the good consequences for everyone involved. So there are probably scenarios in which lying is permissible. The question is whether stealth is one of these scenarios.

We can ask – does it hurt the person who is stealth and does it hurt the person who is being lied to? I think it’s clear that for the most part the people who are deciding to go stealth seem to gain psychological well-being from going stealth. So it’s not hurting them to be stealth although I do wonder if whether people are are deep stealth undergo anxiety about being outed or whether they are so stealth they never have to worry about being outed. But let’s just assume that stealth people know what’s in their own best interest when they decide to go stealth.

So the remaining question is whether being stealth harms other people in some way. Does being lied to about whether someone is trans or cis count as a harm? On the one hand, I can see the argument going “Well it’s none of their business;. It’s a private medical issue and no one has the right to know the private medical information of someone else if that someone else doesn’t want to disclose that information, especially if they wouldn’t feel safe disclosing that information or if disclosing that information would trigger dysphoria or discomfort or whatever. So if someone doesn’t disclose private medical information that’s not ‘lying’.People who are stealth just want to live their lives as normal people without everyone thinking they are unusual or weird because they had an endocrinological disorder when they were younger. Trans people have the right to shed the label of trans if they so wish and there is nothing secretive or dishonest about exercising that desire.”

So I do think that being stealth is compatible with being virtuous.

But stealth is not something I personally aim for. For me it was helpful to know that there were openly trans people out there living amazing lives and doing amazing things. If I hadn’t known about these trans people I perhaps never would have decided that transition was something that I could actually accomplish. That openness and honesty was something that helped push me towards greater self-actualization and self-acceptance – a huge net positive in my life. And if I am happier then I think I have a greater chance of making others happier as well – to live my life in an openly authentic manner is surely likely to have a greater net effect on other people. If I am not stealth then perhaps my openness and my honesty would help bring greater awareness to a highly marginalized group. I could use my privilege as a white person with a middle-class background and academic education with a social platform to stand on as an aspiring university professor to possibly make marginalized people’s lives better. If that happens to even one person then my decision to not go stealth would be justified.

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