How big is your closet? Post-transtion stealth vs. openness

| Jul 13, 2009
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Wow!  It finally stopped raining here in Philly and we are having a spectacular run of excellent weather.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  So, on to the final column in the series on disclosure.  In my monthly transgender therapy group, one of the most controversial topics we’ve discussed involves the issue of being “out” versus “stealth” after a gender transition.  People express pretty strong feelings on each side. Those who favor the stealth approach feel that they were women to begin with, and their bodies now conform to their brain gender.  They had to endure a great deal to achieve this, and should not have to suffer more discrimination from those who would condemn them for being trans.  On the other hand, there are many who feel that they are who they are, and that their transgender experience is part of their unique story.  They had to lead a closeted life for too long, and they don’t want to trade one closet for another.

Of course, for those who are not fortunate enough to be 100% “passable”, one might think that there is not the luxury of choice.  Or is there?  From what I’ve seen, so much depends on one’s attitude.  I am acquainted with more than a few transwomen who are saddled with pretty masculine physical attributes, yet lead a life in which nobody seems to question their female presentation, at least not openly.  I admire these women very much for their bold expectation that they will be accepted in the gender they present, and they really do seem to wear it well.  Self-acceptance is a huge part of being well-received by others, and a smile and friendly attitude also makes a big difference.

At the deep stealth end of the continuum, there are those folks who believe that, after going through all the hardships involved in a gender change, they have earned their right to live in their corrected gender, and don’t owe a soul any details of their “medical history.”  After all, their gender identity was always in the brain — it was the body’s development that went haywire, so they cannot rightfully be accused of deception.  They don’t want to be forever seen as a transsexual, they just want to be a normal man or woman.   I cannot argue with an individual’s entitlement to privacy at this level.

Unfortunately, most cultures have wrapped so much of life experience around the person’s assigned gender that one would have to essentially wipe out or rewrite the past in order to live completely stealth, like entering the Witness Protection Program.  There was a time in the history of transgender medicine when it was required that a candidate for surgery divorce and try to start a whole new life, supposedly in his/her own best interest.  I am acquainted with one woman who transitioned decades ago whose own children (post-transition) did not know about her earlier life as a male. In a recent example, a transman client, now engaged to a genetic woman, faced much anxiety over the holidays when his future in-laws, who don’t know of his past, were invited to dinner at his own family’s home.  He had to comb the house looking for leftover evidence of his female life, and coach his relatives on a revised version of his past, should questions be asked.  It saddens me to think that society could be so intolerant as to force people to wipe out their pasts in order to live without discrimination.

At the “out and proud” end of the continuum are folks who manage to transform the pain of their past gender history by living and working openly as transgender individuals, often for the benefit of the TG community.  A senior citizen client who transitioned after retirement from a long and distinguished academic career applied her formidable skills to helping homeless transgender kids.  Another former client agreed to out herself publicly by appearing in one of the early documentaries about gender change, and later went on to complete her surgical residency and open a gender wellness center.  I am acquainted with numerous writers, artists, physicians, lawyers, and activists who have allowed their personal stories to become part of the larger work of ending discrimination and promoting acceptance of trangender folks in the cisgender world.  I salute their courage and applaud their work, which is so timely and important.

However, most folks choose to take a middle path when it comes to post-transition disclosure.  They have neither the drive or the ambition to stand on the proverbial soapbox, nor do they want to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders.  One of my group members gave me permission to quote the following,

“I think of myself as Judy that’s it, not Judy the TS.  I’ve figured out that that’s who I am, nothing more, nothing less. It takes time to accept yourself but when you finally do there’s no need to add extra labels onto who you are.  Sure, in a sense we do trade one closet for another, it’s maybe a cramped little tightly-closed one, exchanged for a walk-in with french doors that we can choose to let others in or not.  Some may choose to leave the door open, or even never enter one. I don’t worry about it — some know, some do not.”

Judy’s upbeat attitude following her transition always makes me smile, and I was particularly charmed by her closet metaphor, since we ladies can all be seduced by the image of a huge closet.  You would never guess that she spent the last year battling (and winning) a life-threatening health crisis that would bring any other person to her knees.

Well, that’s it for this month — the sun is shining after a big thunderstorm last night, and my beloved Phillies salvaged a win in the 9th inning with a three run blast by Ryan Howard (my apologies to you Pittsburgh fans).  We had some burgers on the grill, and watched a rerun of “Annie Hall” between innings — is there anything better than a long summer evening with good friends?  Hope you are enjoying yours, both summer and friends.

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Category: All TGForum Posts, Transgender Body & Soul


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