On Visibility and Being Seen

This past Tuesday, March 31, was Trans Day of Visibility. I posted this on my Facebook Tuesday evening:

I have mixed feelings about Trans Day of Visibility: mostly, I think safety should come first and no one should feel pressure to be more out than they want to/can safely be. I am a white trans man; this means that it is safer for me to be visibly trans than it is for my trans sisters, and particularly for my trans sisters of color.

I also believe that it is important for those of us who can make the choice to safely be visible to do so, though: to show the world that we exist, but more specifically to show the ones who are still hiding that they’re not alone. I feel particularly driven to be visibly trans as a trans adult: trans kids need to know there’s a future out there for them. So often our stories end in tragedy. We need more examples of trans folks who are not only surviving (which is super important on its own), but also thriving.

Besides this, as a white trans man, I have found myself landing in a world of privilege. The way the world works, white male voices are heard when many others aren’t. It is my responsibility to speak up and clear the stage for those whose voices are too often shouted down, and to use my voice for good when it’s the only one someone will listen to.

I didn’t fit it into the Facebook post, but something I’ve been thinking a lot about since then is the importance, not necessarily of visibility, but of being seen.

I remember the first time a stranger read me as male. I was picking up lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings with my then-roommate. She finished relaying her order to the man behind the counter, and he turned to me and said, “And for you, sir?” I felt my chest swell involuntarily; I squared my shoulders and widened my stance.

I did not identify as a man then, or even as genderqueer. I identified as queer and as “a gentleman, just maybe not so much the man part,” but that was as far as I’d gotten in exploring my gender identity. And I’m certain that the man behind the counter was simply responding to the contrast between my femme roommate and me, in my baggy sweatshirt with the hood up. But that “sir” called out to a part of me that hadn’t yet been recognized elsewhere.

About a year later, two months into my relationship with my partner and a few months away from coming out as genderqueer, I was in Costa Rica visiting my aunt and uncle. My aunt took me along on one of her regular visits to a local nursing home. When she introduced me to one of the residents, the conversation went something like this:

Es su nieto? (Is this your grandson?)

No, es mi sobrina. (No, this is my niece.)

Ah, su sobrino! (Oh, your nephew!)

I just smiled and nodded.

Now, nearly sixteen months into testosterone therapy, I am read as male quite consistently (the sideburns are likely a major contributing factor to this). It’s not a given, though I sometimes forget this – just this week someone called me “she” out of the blue (and somehow, the less frequently it happens, the more it stings when it does) – and I still find that being called “sir” causes that unconscious squaring of shoulders. Because being seen for what we really are is empowering, particularly in a world where people (sometimes even people who are supposed to be on our side) insist that we do not exist.

As a dude who knits and wears a lot of purple, I would likely be read as queer by the world at large even if I wasn’t. And I’m out and proud in many areas of my life – I was so visibly “other” for a while that I reached a point where I could either live in constant shame or be loud and proud, and I went with the latter. But being visible so often amounts to being seen as “other,” as some sort of departure from the “acceptable” norms of society. And while it’s true that I do live outside those boundaries, and that I like it better out here anyway, being regarded by the world at large as a freak is tiring.

Being seen, on the other hand…validation is so important. It’s not that I need the validation of others to know who I am – I get to define that for myself and ultimately my validation of myself is what matters most. But where the pressure of visibility is exhausting, being seen is a relief from that pressure. It’s energizing and empowering and encouraging. And that’s something that we could all use more of, particularly those of us who belong to marginalized groups – and if this is true for me, who experiences oppression on a very small scale that is counterbalanced by a whole lot of privilege, it is even more true for those who don’t have those oft-unrecognized free passes that privilege offers.

Being told you don’t exist is an incredibly painful experience. Having your existence recognized and validated doesn’t make the pain go away, but the more frequently it happens, the easier it becomes to let go of those painful moments. If we started treating each person as the expert on their own identity, this world would be a much gentler place.

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